portrait of Adam Smith by J. Tassie

Portrait Medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie (1735-1799). National Galleries of Scotland.

The Industrial Revolution radically transformed the economic structure of nineteenth-century British society. The emerging capitalist system, spurred by rapid advancements in production technology, grew at an unprecedented rate. As a result factory owners, who stood at the center of the manufacturing process, enjoyed great gains in wealth and prestige. The developing capitalist class possessed the means of economic growth and thus quickly surpassed rural landlords in terms of influence and power. In attempting to come to grips with the changes that capitalism forced many Victorian intellectuals turned to the infant science of political economy, now known simply as economics.

The work of Adam Smith heavily influenced economic thought throughout the Victorian Era. Smith, generally considered the "father of modern economics," was born in 1723. He first distinguished himself as a student of philosophy and in 1740 was awarded a scholarship to attend Oxford University. Smith's time at Oxford proved difficult, however, due in part to his extreme intellectual skepticism which manifested itself in a devotion to the unpopular teachings of Hume. After completing his course Smith struggled for almost five years to secure a position at a university. Finally an old friend secured Smith a job as the chair of Logic at Glasgow University. Smith's intellectual efforts in the field of philosophy gained him little respect in the academic community. In 1762 he resigned his position and accepted a job as a tutor in order to devote time to writing the book that would eventually make him famous, the influential The Wealth of Nations.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith. 6 Burlington Gardens, London. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Although today most remembered for this influential work in economics, for much of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Smith was even better known as the author of the two-volume Theory of the Moral Sentiments, a fusion of psychology and moral theory that had immense impact on Rousseau, the French Revolution, the Scottish school of emotionalist moral philosophy, all the English romantics, and major Victorian thinkers, like Ruskin. This work, which argued for the positive role of emotions in moral decision, lead to new conceptions of human nature, feelings, and politics. Its emphasis upon sympathy and imagination as fundamental to human nature also provided both the philosophical foundations and basic attitudes that characterize English romanticism. Perhaps a sign of Smith's perceived centrality to British culture is that fact that a lifesize statue of this pioneering moral and political philosopher, economist, and psychologist appears on the building in London that houses the Royal Academy.

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Last modified 24 April 2009