Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

Who Is the True Adam Smith?

Professor Gavin Kennedy, author of An Authentic Account of Adam Smith, sheds light on the ‘historical Adam Smith’ to counter some of today’s more prevalent modern accounts of this seminal scholar.

Every academic economist claims some familiarity with the writings and thoughts of Adam Smith. Sadly, much of what he is known for today is misunderstood because it is based on ‘well-known’ modern presentations of his ideas which, too often, are unreliable historically and unrepresentative of the actual scholarship of Adam Smith.

This modern phenomenon is divorced from the historical Adam Smith who authored his world-famous political economy text: ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776), as well as his earlier volume on moral philosophy, ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (1759). Editions of student notes of Smith’s ‘Lectures on Jurisprudence’ (1763/1896) and his ‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters’ (17??) still remain widely unknown by modern readers who claim to know about the real Adam Smith.

My ‘Authentic Account’ was composed as a partial correction of some of the remarkable deficiencies in modern popular presentations of Adam Smith’s actual views on a range of important subjects that he chose to lecture and write about. 

Chapter 1 begins with Adam Smith’s original account in Wealth of Nations of the very human regular behaviour of engaging in ‘truck, barter and exchange’. Remarkably, Adam Smith’s account of bargaining, though published in all editions of Wealth of Nations, is still virtually ignored. Yet his description of the essence of bargaining being about the Conditional Proposition: ‘If you give me this that I want, then I shall give you that which you want’ summarises the very essence of negotiated exchanges which is still the binding principle governing all bargained exchange behaviour.

Smith, as a young undergraduate student with no status, tried to persuade arrogant Balliol College, (Oxford) faculty to accede to his requests for compassionate leave to visit his widowed mother, who was caught up in the disturbances of the 1745-6 Jacobite rebellion, then underway in Scotland. It took him several years to negotiate compassionate leave from the overly arrogant faculty at Balliol, from which experience he emerged as a mature adult, determined never to return to complete his degree. Somewhat belatedly, Oxford granted Adam Smith his degree after he achieved fame academically.

In Scotland, influential family friends of his late father arranged for him to deliver a series of weekly fee paying public lectures on Rhetoric (fine writing and perspicuity) and Jurisprudence (the evolution of law) in Edinburgh (1748 to 1751). The public lecture series was successful financially and, more importantly, academically. They helped his application for a vacant professorship at Glasgow University, a post he took up in 1752, and held until 1763, when he retired to undertake a study tour with a young aristocrat, the Duke of Buccleagh, for a generous life pension. Financially secure, Smith turned his attention to research to compile his most famous book, The Wealth of Nations, which he completed and published in 1776.

Adam Smith’s name is also associated with his famous use of the widely misunderstood metaphor of an ‘Invisible Hand’. Hence, an ‘Authentic Account’ addresses Smith’s prolific use of many rhetorical metaphors throughout his published writings in pursuit of his passion for perspicuity in everything he wrote and spoke. In fact, Smith was an accomplished literary stylist years before he turned his attentions to his original contributions to political economy. 

Yet modern authors write of Smith’s singular use of the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ in Wealth of Nations as if it had a major, or indeed any, role in his writings on economics. The facts speak for themselves. 

Readers of Wealth of Nations from 1776 to the 1870s almost unanimously ignored his singular use of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor. Worse, modern authors, obviously from ignorance, credit the metaphor with roles well beyond its use by Smith and now write as if it is was widely subject to analytical usage right across modern economics since he first mentioned it. The facts are different. All Smith’s immediate contemporaries ignored the ‘invisible hand’. Most economists, except for a half-dozen in the1870s through to the 1960s continued to ignore it. Only after Paul Samuelson’s reference to his invented misreading of the significance of ‘an invisible hand’ in his massively successful textbook for Econ 1 students, Economics, 1948 - through 19 editions to 2010 - did the metaphor acquire its current celebrity status and mislead generations of modern students, and worse, most professional policy makers.

The historical Adam Smith turned his analytical mind to political economy from his long passionate interest in Jurisprudence, upon which he had researched and taught from his early days as a public lecturer in Edinburgh (1748-51) and then throughout his professorship at Glasgow University (1752-63). His realisation that something fundamental was increasingly evident and of great significance in economic life, manifested in the rapid growth in commercial employment also had a lasting impact on his thinking about the need for a systematic study of commerce, from which, after 13 years, he produced his master-piece, The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Adam Smith also had a private life, largely centred on his mother, Margaret Douglas Smith. His father had died some months before Adam was born. His bond with his mother was very strong. Her religiosity was a major influence on his public demeanour. He certainly never publically manifested his own views on religion while she was alive and sought on all occasions never to embarrass his mother with any public doubts of his own religiosity. His close friendship with David Hume, who was publicly suspected of atheistic sympathies by religious divines, was a constant threat to Adam’s domestic tranquillity while his mother was alive. I cover this subject in the last chapter, Smith’s Alleged Religiosity with a discussion of Adam Smith’s private scepticism about religion and I examine the evidence.

Several major biographies about at Adam Smith have been published since the 19th century. I suggest that the biography which I believe is the most authoritative is The Life of Adam Smith, by Ian S. Ross, 2nd edition, 2010.

Gavin Kennedy is Emeritus Professor, Heriot-Watt University, UK, with 33 years teaching experience in economics, defence economics, public finance, and business negotiation, at Brunel, Strathclyde, and Heriot-Watt universities, and has been a visiting lecturer at universities and colleges in Britain, Canada and Australia, and for numerous government departments. He has published widely in defence, business negotiation and classical economics, most recently, An Authentic Account of Adam Smith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).