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Adam Smith’s Anniversary

Summary:
If you had been standing on this spot in the late eighteenth century, you would have seen a plume of smoke rising up from this house here. It was Adam Smith’s executors burning his papers, just as he directed before he died on this day in 1790. Though it seems odd to us—and is a great loss to later generations—that was quite normal among prominent people at the time. They did not want to be judged on their personal letters and their sketches of half-thought-out ideas. And Adam Smith was a prominent person. He had risen to fame in his mid-thirties, having published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that tore up the ethical theories of the time and explained morality in terms of social psychology. It landed him a plum job—personal tutor to the teenage Duke of Buccleuch, with a salary of

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If you had been standing on this spot in the late eighteenth century, you would have seen a plume of smoke rising up from this house here. It was Adam Smith’s executors burning his papers, just as he directed before he died on this day in 1790. 

Though it seems odd to us—and is a great loss to later generations—that was quite normal among prominent people at the time. They did not want to be judged on their personal letters and their sketches of half-thought-out ideas. 

And Adam Smith was a prominent person. He had risen to fame in his mid-thirties, having published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that tore up the ethical theories of the time and explained morality in terms of social psychology. It landed him a plum job—personal tutor to the teenage Duke of Buccleuch, with a salary of £300 a year—for life!

That income gave him the freedom to research and write his next book, published 17 years later—Smith never did anything without a great deal of deliberation. This was The Wealth of Nations, his revolutionary work in economics, for which he is best known today. 

Smith loved discussion and debate with friends. In that July of 1790, during one of many such evenings at his home in Edinburgh, Smith felt tired, and retired to bed, saying—so we are told—that the discussion would need to continue in some other place. 

He died a few days later and was buried under a generous but restrained monument in the churchyard near his home.

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Dr. Eamonn Butler
Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute, rated one of the world’s leading policy think-tanks. He has degrees in economics, philosophy and psychology, gaining a PhD from the University of St Andrews in 1978.

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