Adam Smith: Early Life

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Early life

Adam Smith was born to Margaret Douglas at Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father, also named Adam Smith, was a lawyer, civil servant, and widower who married Margaret Douglas in 1720. His father died six months before Smith's birth. The exact date of Smith's birth is unknown; however, his baptism was recorded on 16 June 1723 at Kirkcaldy. Though few events in Smith's early childhood are known, Scottish journalist and biographer of Smith John Rae recorded that Smith was abducted by gypsies at the age of four and eventually released when others went to rescue him.

Smith was particularly close to his mother, and it was likely she who encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions. Smith attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy from 1729 to 1737, and there studied Latin, mathematics, history, and writing. Rae characterized the Burgh School as "one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period".

Formal education

A commemorative plaque for Adam Smith is located at Smith's home town of Kirkcaldy.

Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson.[7] Here he developed his passion for liberty, reason, and free speech. In 1740, Smith was awarded the Snell exhibition and left the University of Glasgow to attend Balliol College, Oxford.[8]

Smith considered the teaching at Glasgow to be far superior to that at Oxford, and found his Oxford experience intellectually stifling.[9] In Book V, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: "In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching." Smith is also reported to have complained to friends that Oxford officials once detected him reading a copy of David Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, and they subsequently confiscated his book and punished him severely for reading it.[6][10][11] According to William Robert Scott, "The Oxford of [Smith's] time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework."[12] Nevertheless, Smith took the opportunity while at Oxford to teach himself several subjects by reading many books from the shelves of the large Oxford library.[13] When Smith was not studying on his own, his time at Oxford was not a happy one, according to his letters.[14] Near the end of his time at Oxford, Smith began suffering from shaking fits, probably the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.[15] He left Oxford University in 1746, before his scholarship ended.[15][16]

In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments on the low quality of instruction and the meager intellectual activity at English universities, when compared to their Scottish counterparts. He attributes this both to the rich endowments of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, which made the income of professors independent of their ability to attract students, and to the fact that distinguished men of letters could make an even more comfortable living as ministers of the Church of England. Smith had originally intended to study theology and enter the clergy, but his subsequent learning, especially from the skeptical writings of David Hume, persuaded him to take a different route.[11]

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Teaching and early writings

Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 at Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames.[17] His lecture topics included rhetoric and belles-lettres, and later the subject of "the progress of opulence". On this latter topic he first expounded his economic philosophy of "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty". While Smith was not adept at public speaking, his lectures met with success.[18]

David Hume was a friend and contemporary of Adam Smith.

In 1750, he met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. The alignments of opinion that can be found within their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics, and religion indicate that...
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