There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith.
Sure, he’s the famous father of economics. His philosophies on free trade, and higher wages for dangerous and undesirable jobs were ahead of their time. His second book, The Wealth of Nations, was a game changer in modern economics.
So what else is there to know about the Scottish philosopher?
Here are 10 facts to get you thinking about how Adam Smith has impacted the modern world.
Adam Smith: 10 Facts About the Father of Economics
1. He didn’t know his birthday.
Adam Smith was born in Kircaldy, Scotland, and baptized in June 1723. There was no record of his birth. His father passed away shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his mother. When he was 14 years old, Smith enrolled at the University of Glasgow, and studied philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. He went on to post-graduate study at Oxford University. This is an interesting fact about Adam Smith.
2. He was the first Scotsman to appear on English money.
It would make sense that someone crucial to the overturning of the Corn Laws would be fairly credited by the English, despite not actually being, well, English. This portrait features on the £50 note issued by the Clydesdale Bank in Scotland. It also features on £20 notes issued by the Bank of England, and has done since 2007.
3. He was quirky.
Biographers have described Smith as interesting, with some of the economist’s colleagues referring to his peculiar habits. There are reports that Smith talked to himself, and in his younger days he had imaginary friends. But who didn’t?
Some biographers suggest that he may have also been a hypochondriac—diagnosing himself with illnesses he didn’t have, and creating new illnesses that fit his fleeting symptoms, an amusing fact about Adam Smith.
4. He was easily distracted by his own mind.
Politician Charles Townshend—who established the Townshend Acts credited as one of the triggers for the American Revolution—once told a story of a tour he took with Smith. The tour of a tanning factory was Smith’s idea, but as they were walking the grounds, the economist wandered into a tanning pit and had to be rescued. He’s also known to have put bread and butter in a teapot. He continued to drink his ‘tea’ nonetheless, and declared it the worst cup of tea he ever had.
He is also said to have wandered 15 miles from home in his nightgown, too lost in thought to turn back.
5. He was shy in front of a painter.
Smith wasn’t a handsome man, and once claimed, “I am a beau in nothing but my books”. Others have callously described him as having “a large nose, bulging eyes, a protruding lower lip, (and) a nervous twitch.” Is it really any wonder that he didn’t want to sit for hours at a time to have his portrait made. So he didn’t sit for hours at a time. Most depictions that we see of Adam Smith today are painted from the memory of the artist, rather than from a man seated right in front of them, an interesting fact about Adam Smith.
6. The father of economics read. A lot.
It comes as no surprise that someone of his intelligence level would read a lot. His contemporaries–David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Francois Quesnay—were all well-read. But Adam Smith went the extra mile. His private library alone held 1,500 books. He was known to have perfect grammar and spelling, and an excellent command of English, Greek, and Philology.
7. He never went public with his religious beliefs.
Historians have probed this part of Smith’s life for decades. Smith’s father was a Christian, but some believe that the younger Smith didn’t subscribe to Christianity. He may have been a deist—meaning he believed that God created the world, but has remained largely indifferent to it since then.
Others have argued against this, stating that his social and economic philosophy has some theological basis. Others have been known to exaggerate his religious position. If we set aside the various interpretations of Smith’s work, one thing is clear: he never publically discussed his religion.
8. He had critics.
Adam Smith is recognized as the father of modern economics and the driving force behind many of the economic structures in use today. But still, he had critics. One of the most well-known was Alfred Marshall, who was vocal in his criticism of Smith’s definition of economy.
He was also criticized by Joseph E. Stiglitz for his work in The Invisible Hand, with the latter stating at a public assembly, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is because it is not there.”
9. He had two more books in the works.
Adam Smith is arguably most famous for two written works: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. The latter would eventually become a touchstone in the development of modern economics. The book explored concepts still in use today—concepts around a free market economy. His views around allowing an economy to self-regulate without interference by the government were ground-breaking.
In his later life, Smith had two more books in the pipeline. One explored the theory and history of law, and the other was focused on sciences and arts. When Smith died, many of his works were published as essays or individual articles.
10. There is an asteroid named after him.
An interesting fact about Adam Smith is that he has an asteroid named after him, the 12838 Adamsmith. The Koronis asteroid, discovered March 9th 1997, was discovered by Eric Walter Elst. Elst is a Belgian astronomer, who at the time was working from La Silla Observatory in Chile. He submitted an application to name the asteroid, and was approved in July 2007.
Some areas of Adam Smith’s life remain a mystery. When exactly was he born? Was he a religious man?
But by exploring the facts we do know, we gain an insight into the life of one of the most influential economists to have ever lived. Adam Smith was the first to advance theories about the division of labor, and introduce ‘gross domestic product’—the GDP formula we use to assess a country’s wealth even now.