Anyone who reads Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments would want to know more about the author of those classic works. The Library of Congress says there are at least 300 works in several languages about Smith, but only about a dozen biographies, including James Buchan’s The Authentic Adam Smith (2006).
There are two reasons there aren’t many Adam Smith biographies. First, Smith, like so many intellectuals of his time, was not a man who enjoyed baring his soul in print. He didn’t like letter writing, for example, and relatively few of his letters survive. But Smith’s reticence went further than that of most thinkers of his day. In 1787, three years before his death at age 67, he ordered his friends to destroy all his papers and lecture notes except for seven philosophical essays, which were published posthumously. Smith’s friend and literary executor, Dugald Stewart, observed that Smith “seemed to have wished that no materials should remain for his biographers, but what were furnished by the lasting monuments of his genius, and the exemplary worth of his private life.”
Although Smith could have his own papers destroyed, he couldn’t stop his friends (including Stewart) from writing about him. In addition, extensive lecture notes compiled by Smith’s students in the 1760s provide evidence of how his ideas emerged and changed. Using all the available archives, Phillipson, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh, has produced an elegant and forceful biography.
It should be noted that Phillipson doesn’t care much how Smith discovered the importance of free markets. He is far more concerned about how Smith saw himself, as a philosopher who was the foremost disciple of David Hume, a man whose goal was “to develop philosophical accounts of the principles of law and government which would be of use to the rulers of modern Europe.”
Consider Phillipson’s description of the legacy of The Wealth of Nations. He sees Smith’s book as “the greatest and most enduring monument to the intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment.” The book, he adds, “was a call to his contemporaries to take moral, political and intellectual control of their lives and the lives of those for whom they were responsible. It is in such context that the Wealth of Nations needs to be read by historians. The rest can be left to his disciples and critics.”
Phillipson signals to his readers that he is neither a disciple nor a critic of Smith’s work. Readers interested in Smith’s libertarian development should look to other books. What Phillipson is best at is describing Smith’s life and his ideas. In doing that, he offers many clues as to why Smith was so successful. Phillipson shows that the reason Glasgow and Edinburgh attracted so many smart people in the eighteenth century can be traced to free trade. In 1707 Scotland and England formally merged to form the United Kingdom. Scottish merchants agreed to that to have free access to English markets.
The wealth created by those traders not only generously endowed the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, but also allowed some merchants to hire professors for special projects. One of them, Henry Home, hired Smith in 1748 to deliver lectures on rhetoric and in jurisprudence. His public lectures were so popular that Smith repeated them in 1749 and 1750. Those lectures not only convinced the University of Glasgow to hire Smith to teach logic and metaphysics, they also proved to be highly profitable—Smith earned 100 pounds per year from his lectures, which was more than most professors earned.
In 1751 Smith began his career as a university lecturer. He was so popular that students flocked to Edinburgh just to hear him. One of his best-known students was James Boswell, who wrote in 1759 that Smith “has nothing of that formal stiffness and Pedantry which is too often found in Professors. So far from that, he is a polite well-bred man, is extreamly [sic] fond of having his students with him and treats them with all the easiness and affability imaginable.”
Smith spent 13 years at the University of Glasgow, then left in 1764 to become the private tutor to the Duke of Buccleuch. The Duke was so grateful for Smith’s skill as a teacher that he paid him 300 pounds a year until 1778, when Smith became a customs commissioner. Buccleuch’s investment gave Smith the time he needed to produce The Wealth of Nations.
Phillipson’s book will not tell you why Adam Smith became a great economist. But it superbly shows how Smith became important and why The Wealth of Nations remains significant.