On this episode, we are talking about a figure known as the father of modern economics. Adam Smith was born in 1723, in the County Fife, Scotland. His father was in the legal profession, sometimes advocate and sometimes judge. He died when Smith was only two months old. Smith was raised as a good Scottish Presbyterian by his mother, Margaret. Her maiden name was Douglas.
Legend has it that young Smith was kidnapped by gypsies at the age of three. Who knows if that is true? What we do know is that at the age of fourteen he entered the University of Glasgow, having mastered Latin, a little bit of history, a little bit of law, and of course the Bible and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He studied there at Glasgow and took his degree. He later studied at Balliol College in Oxford. But he preferred his native Scotland, so he went back.
By 1751, Smith was appointed Chair of Logic at the University of Glasgow. And then, in 1752 he was appointed Chair of Moral Philosophy. Now, this was a very important position in Scotland. It was also a very important position, it turns out, in the history of the eighteenth century and in the history of ideas. Francis Hutcheson, the prior Chair of Moral Philosophy, published books on moral philosophy and moral sentiment and is seen as one of the founders of the Scottish Moral Philosophy tradition. Smith followed closely in his wake, and after Smith left the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, he was followed by none other than the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. He was also Chair of Moral Philosophy.
Thomas Reid is known as the founder of “Scottish Common Sense Realism.” Between Hutcheson, Smith, and Reid we have the Scottish Common Sense tradition, a Scottish moral philosophy tradition. By the way, all that was happening there at Glasgow influenced all off Scotland and had a significant influence on a University of Edinburgh professor, John Witherspoon. John Witherspoon was brought over from Edinburgh to be the sixth president of Princeton University. He was the only clergy and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was also a significant influence on James Madison, one of the framers of American government. So, from this position as Chair of Moral Philosophy there was quite a reach.
When Smith was there at Glasgow, he gave a series of four lectures. He lectured on natural theology, moral philosophy, law, and economic theory. Those lectures on moral philosophy were published in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the lectures on economic theory were published in 1776.
It was an interesting year, 1776. That year, Scottish philosopher and skeptic David Hume died. That year, the American colonies declared their independence from Britain. And in that year, Smith published The Wealth of Nations, his book that established free market principles, specialized labor, and all of these other things that are basically modern economics. All of these ideas are there. And fascinatingly enough, from Smith’s perspective, whether it’s ethics or economics, all of these ideas are on the foundation of natural theology. At one point, Smith says, “The governing principles of human nature, the rules which they prescribe, are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity.”