He was born in the year 1723; and educated at Glasgow College, from which he was sent an Exhibitioner to Balliol College Oxford. Being in his youth a hard student and of a cachectick habit, his appearance was ungracious and his address awkward. His frequent absence of mind gave him an air of vacancy and even of stupidity; and the first day he dined at Balliol College, a servitor seeing him neglect his dinner, desired him to 'fall to', for he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland
The Doctor, who in his latter days lived hospitably at Edinburgh, used always to smile when he saw that piece of beef smoke on his table, and when asked to interpret his smile always related the above-mentioned circumstance. The illiberality with which he thought himself treated at Balliol College drove him to retirement, and retirement fortified his love of study. When the time of his residence at Oxford expired, the question arose what line he was afterwards to pursue. He was destitute of patrimony and had not any turn for business. The Church seemed an improper profession, because he had early become a disciple of Voltaire in matters of religion.
His friends wished to send him abroad as a travelling tutor; but though qualified in point of learning and morals, his want of knowledge of the world, and something very particular in his appearance and address, long prevented him from meeting with an offer of any employment of that kind. The res angusta domi not brooking longer delay, he determined to turn his talents to account; and therefore, about the year 1750, opened a class for teaching rhetorick [sic] at Edinburgh; from which class he was soon called to be Professor, first of Logick [sic], and then of Moral Philosophy, in the University of Glasgow.
In this employment, Dr Smith's English education gave him great advantages. His pronunciation and his style were much superior to what could at that time be acquired Scotland only.
His stock of classical learning, though inferior to that of his predecessor, the excellent Dr Hutcheson, yet much exceeded the standard of Scotch Universities. He had besides read, meditated and digested the works of those afterwards called the French Encyclopaedists; and admired David Hume as by far the greatest Philosopher that the world had ever produced: at the same time that he spoke of Dr Johnson in his rhetorical lectures nearly in the following words: ' Of all writers antient [sic] and modern, he that keeps the greatest distance from common sense is Dr Samuel Johnson.'
Such opinions, or rather prejudices, which then prevailed very generally in Scotland, being embraced by a man, from whose English education they could not naturally have been expected, contrived with Dr Smith's merit in rendering him a very fashionable Professor.
The College was torn by parties, and Dr Smith embraced that side which was more popular among the people of condition: That is, the rich merchants of the town, among whom he was well received. and from whose conversations, particularly that of Mr Glassford, he learned many facts necessary for improving his Lectures, for being in a commercial town, he had converted the chair of Moral Philosophy into a professorship of trade and finance. Before effecting this revolution, he had published his ingenious but fanciful Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he continued to read to his pupils during a few weeks at the beginning of the term; the rest of the session, as it is called in Scotland, which lasts for eight months, being destined to the subjects above mentioned.
A man who is continually going over the same ground will naturally smooth it. Dr Smith's lectures gradually acquired greater improvement and higher celebrity; and the Right Hon. Charles Townshend, who had married the Duchess of Buccleuch [sc. Lady Dalkeith] was, on his journey to Scotland, attracted to Glasgow by the reputation of Dr Smith, whom he engaged by very liberal terms to resign his professorship and to undertake the office of travelling tutor to the young Duke. While Mr Townshend was at Glasgow, the Doctor conducted him to see the different manufactures of the place; and particularly to a very flourishing tan-work. They were standing on a plank which had been laid across the tanning pit, the Doctor, who was talking warmly on his favourite subject, the division of labour, forgetting the precarious ground on which he stood, plunged headlong into the nauseous pool. He was dragged out, stripped, and carried with blankets, and conveyed home on a sedan chair, where, having recovered of the shock of this unexpected cold bath, he complained bitterly that he must leave life with all his affairs in the greatest disorder, which was considered an affectation, as his transactions had been few and his fortune was nothing.
A circumstance which did him more credit, was that before going to travel with the Duke of Buccleuch, he requested all his students to attend on a particular day, ordered the censor of the week to call their names and, as each man's occurred, returned the several sums which he had received in fees; that, seeing as he had not completely fulfilled his engagement, he was resolved that the class should be taught this year gratis, and that the remainder of his Lectures should be read by one of the upper students. This accordingly took place; tho' the Doctor was in general extremely jealous of the property in his Lectures; and, fearful lest they should be transcribed and published, used often to repeat, when he saw anyone taking notes, ' that he hated scribblers '.
He travelled with the Duke two years [two and three quarter years] and soon after his return published the substance of his Lectures in his justly celebrated work on the Nature and Causes of National Wealth. [The Wealth Of Nations]
Being appointed by the interest of his Grace and Lord Loughborough one of the Commissioners of Customs in Scotland, he generously offered to resign the annuity of £300 per annum which had been granted him to directing the Duke's education and travels, but which resignation, as he might easily have conjectured, his Grace as graciously refused.
The book was not at first so popular as it afterwards became. One of the first things to set it afloat was an observation of Mr Fox's in the House of Commons : 'As my learned friend Dr Adam Smith says, the way for a nation, as well as an individual, to become rich is for both to live within their income.' The remark, surely is not profound but the recommendation of Mr Fox raised the sale of the book, and the circumstances of the country, our wars, debts, taxes etc. attracted attention to a work where such subjects were treated - subjects that unfortunately have become too popular in most countries of Europe.
Dr Smith's system of Political Economy is not essentially different from that of Count Verri, Dean Tucker and Mr Hume; his illustrations are chiefly collected from the valuable collection Sur les arts et metiers;~[Diderot's Encyclopedia] but his arrangement is his own; and as he has both carried his doctrines to a greater length, and fortified them with stronger proofs than any of his predecessors, he deserves the chief praise, or the chief blame, of propagating a system which tends to confound National Wealth with national Prosperity.