After two centuries, Adam Smith remains a towering figure in the history of economic thought. Known primarily for a single work, An Inquiry into the nature an causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the first comprehensive system of political economy, Smith is more properly regarded as a social philosopher whose economic writings constitute only the capstone to an overarching view of political and social evolution. If his masterwork is viewed in relation to his earlier lectures on moral philosophy and government, as well as to allusions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to a work he hoped to write on "the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society", then The Wealth of Nations may be seen not merely as a treatise on economics but as a partial exposition of a much larger scheme of historical evolution.
Unfortunately, much is known about Smith's thought than about his life. Though the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was baptised on June 5, 1723, in Kikcaldy, a small (population 1,500) but thriving fishing village near Edinburgh, the son by second marriage of Adam Smith, comptroller of customs at Kikcaldy, and Margaret Douglas, daughter of a substantial landowner. Of Smith's childhood nothing is known other than that he received his elementary schooling in Kirkcaldy and that at the age of four years he was said to have been carried off by gypsies. Pursuits was mounted, and young Adam was abandoned by his captors. "He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy", commented his principal biographer.
At the age of 14, in 1737, Smith entered the university of Glasgow, already remarkable as a centre of what was to become known as the...