The Wealth of Nations is therefore far from the ideological tract it is often supposed to be. Although Smith preached laissez-faire (with important exceptions), his argument was directed as much against monopoly as government; and although he extolled the social results of the acquisitive process, he almost invariably treated the manners and manoeuvres of businessmen with contempt. Nor did he see the commercial system itself as wholly admirable. He wrote with decrement about the intellectual degradation of the worker in a society in which the division of labour has proceeded very far; for by comparison with the alert intelligence of the husbandman, the specialised worker “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become”.
In all of this, it is notable that Smith was writing in an age of preindustrial capitalism. He seems to have had no real presentiment of the gathering Industrial Revolution, harbingers of which were visible in the great ironworks only a few miles from Edinburgh. He had nothing to say about large-scale industrial enterprise, and the few remarks in The Wealth of Nations concerning the future of joint-stock companies (corporations) are disparaging. Finally, one should bear in mind, that, if growth is the great theme of The Wealth of Nations, it is not unending growth. Here and there in the treatise are glimpsed at a secularly declining rate of profit; and Smith mentions as well the prospects that when the system eventually accumulates its “full complement of riches” - all the pin factories, so to speak, whose output could be absorbed - economic decline would begin, ending in an impoverished stagnation.
The Wealth of Nations was received with admiration by Smiths wide circle of friends and admires, although it was by no means an immediate popular success. The work finished, Smith went into semiretirement. The year following its publication he was appointed commissioner both of customs and of salt duties for Scotland, posts that brought him £600 a year. He thereupon informed his former charge that he no longer required his pension, to which Buccleuch replied that his sense of honour would never allow him to stop paying it. Smith was therefore quite well off in the final years of his life, which were spent mainly in Edinburgh with occasional trips to London or Glasgow (which appointed him a rector of the university). The years passed quietly, with several revisions of both major books but with no further publications. On July 17, 1790, at the age of 67, full of honours and recognition, Smith died; he was buried in the churchyard at Canongate with a simple monument stating that Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, was buried there.
Beyond the few facts of his life, which can be embroidered only in detail, exasperatingly little is known about the man. Smith never married, and almost nothing is known of his personal side. Moreover, it was the custom of his time to destroy rather than to preserve the private files if illustrious men, with the unhappy result that much of Smiths unfinished work, as well as his personal papers, was destroyed (some as late as 1942). Only one portrait of Smith survives, a profile medallion by Tassie; it gives a glimpse of the older man with his somewhat heavy-lidded eyes, aquiline nose, and a hint of protrusive lower lip. “I am a beau in nothing but my books, ”Smith once told a friend to whom he was showing his library of some 3,000 volumes.
From various accounts, he was also a man of many peculiarities, which included a stumbling manner of speech ( until he had warmed to his subject), a gait described as “vermicular”/ and above all an extraordinary and even comic absence of mind. On the other hand, contemporaries wrote of a smile of “inexpressive benignity,” and of his political tact and dispatch in managing the sometimes acerbic business of the Glasgow faculty.
Certainly he enjoyed a high measure of contemporary fame; even in his early days at Glasgow his reputation attracted students from nations as distant as Russia, and his later years were crowned not only with expression of admiration from many European thinkers but by a growing recognition among British governing circles that his work provided a rationale of inestimable importance for practical economic policy.
Over the years, Smiths lustre as a social philosopher has escaped much of the weathering that has affected the reputations of other first-rate political economists. Although he was writing for his generation, the breadth of his knowledge/ the cutting edge of his generalization, the boldness of his vision, have never ceased to attract the admiration of all social scientists, and in particular economists. Couched in the spacious, cadenced prose of his period, rich in imagery and crowded with life, The Wealth of Nations projects a sanguine but never sentimental image of society. Never so finely analytic as David Ricardo nor so stern and profound as Karl Marx, Smith is the very epitome of the Enlightenment: hopeful but realistic, speculative but practical, always respectful of the classical past but ultimately dedicated to the great discovery of his age - progress.
John Rae. “Life of Adam Smith” 1985
William Scott. “Adam Smith as Student and Professor” 1987
Andrew S. Skinner. “Essays on Adam Smith” 1988