June 5

This Day in History

American Revolution

Jun 5, 1723:

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, is baptized in Scotland

On this day in 1723, Adam Smith, future author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), a critique of the mercantilist model of trade in the British empire, is baptized in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Smith, the father of political economy—or the relationship between a society and its economic system--was born in the village of Kirkcaldy near Edinburgh to a customs officer and his second wife, the daughter of a substantial landholder. He survived kidnapping by Gypsies at age four; they abandoned the child when pursued by villagers. Ten years later, he matriculated at the University of Glasgow, where his intellect would flourish. He won a scholarship to Oxford University following his graduation in 1740.

Smith returned from Oxford to his native Scotland, where he befriended fellow philosopher David Hume. Both men would heavily influence early American political economy: Hume on constitutions and Smith on commerce. In 1751, Smith accepted a professorship at the University of Glasgow. The city was a commercial hub and the center of the colonial tobacco trade.

After Smith published his first major treatise in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Charles Townshend, the future chancellor of the exchequer, hired him to tour Europe while tutoring his new stepson. Ironically, it was Townshend who would create the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which embodied all the aspects of mercantilism that Adam Smith and the American revolutionaries would reject in 1776.

While traveling and tutoring, Smith began writing The Wealth of Nations. In 1767, Smith returned to London just as Lord Townshend was imposing his revenue acts, which taxed goods the American colonies were only allowed to import from Great Britain--including the famed tax on tea. These types of trade relationships were the essence of mercantilism. All goods had to pass through and be taxed by the mother country on their way to and from the colonies. It was precisely this sort of restraint on trade that Adam Smith refuted as detrimental to the wealth of nations in his treatise, completed in 1776. The colonists' objections became a rebellion on July 4 of the same year; their treatise was entitled the Declaration of Independence.

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