Copyright 1988-1994. The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
William Smith was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on 2 October 1758, the fifth child and third son of Benjamin and Anne Loughton Smith. His mother, who died less than two years after his birth, was descended from several generations of South Carolina legislators and minor colonial officials. His father's lineage was more varied, representing the union of a prestigious Carolina planter family and a clan of Boston merchants and sea captains. Smith was never close to the New England roots of his family tree, whose branches included his grandfather's first cousin, Abigail Smith Adams. The Smith family fortune was established on an astute accumulation of interests in plantations, the slave trade, commerce, and banking. Benjamin Smith's personal influence was augmented by several honorific and political offices, including provincial Masonic grand master, and colonial Assemblyman and Speaker.
Early in 1770 William Smith sailed to England to begin his formal education. His father's death a few months later left him part heir to a sizeable estate. In 1774 he began legal studies at Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn. He indulged his lifelong love of travel by touring Europe from Scotland to Italy, but with the exception of a lengthy sojourn in Switzerland between 1776 and 1779, London was his home. One of a diminishing community of colonials in exile, Smith repeatedly postponed returning to South Carolina. His failure to appear to take a mandated oath of allegiance to the state, his older brother's Loyalist ties, and his own implicit indifference to the course of the Revolution seriously imperiled his status at home. After a full year of delays that included a shipwreck off the coast of England, he arrived in Charleston in November 1783.
Smith relied on influential family connections to overcome the serious social and political liability of having remained in England throughout the war. That intricate family network constituted the bulk of South Carolina's class of planters and merchant bankers and included among others the Wraggs, Mottes, and Manigaults. His meteoric rise in Charleston society began with his admission to the state bar only months after his return. Smith soon established his reputation as a business lawyer specializing in recovering debts owed British merchants and drawing up acts of incorporation. In 1785 he began the first of four consecutive terms representing Charleston in the state House of Representatives. Not least among the achievements of his postwar "rehabilitation" was his marriage on 1 May 1786 to Charlotte Izard, second daughter of Ralph Izard of Goose Creek, the acknowledged planter-boss of the South Carolina lowcountry and a former member of Congress.
Like his Charleston constituency, Smith avidly supported the proposed Constitution. Although he played no formal role in the ratifying process, several prominent members of his family voted for ratification at the state convention in May 1788. In early November, Charleston's City Gazette announced Smith's candidacy for United States Representative of the Charleston district. Also contending for the seat were Commodore Alexander Gillon and Dr. David Ramsay, both Assemblymen and both Federalists, like Smith.
The Charleston district's election was the most bitterly contested in the state. In terms of biting ad hominem attacks, it was the most personal of any campaign for the First Federal Congress. Two days before the polls opened on 24 November, Ramsay publicly disputed Smith's eligibility under the Constitution's seven year citizenship requirement. The attack ignited a brief but acrimonious newspaper and broadside debate over Smith's patriotism and Ramsay's antislavery sympathies. Voters overwhelmingly rejected Ramsay's warning that Smith's certain eviction from the House would temporarily deprive Charleston of a political voice in the First Congress. Unofficial tallies reveal that Smith carried all but one of the district's parishes, winning six hundred votes. Ramsay came in third with 191 votes, just over half the number of votes cast for Gillon.
With Huger and Burke, Smith appeared in the House on 13 April 1789
, almost two weeks after business commenced. Two days later, Ramsay reopened the case of the disputed election by petitioning the House to rule on his allegations. Smith was allowed to fill the seat pending a decision. He testified before the standing committee on elections and spoke on his own behalf just before the House vote on 22 May
. The House declared Smith's election valid by the most lopsided vote recorded on any issue in the First Congress. Only Grout of Massachusetts voted nay, with Tucker and Jackson
Smith's attendance at the remaining sessions was consistent. He was present on the opening day of the second session, although illness prevented him from attending for the next several days and delayed the formation of a quorum until 7 January. By contrast, Smith was the only South Carolina Representative present for the scheduled opening of the third session. He never requested official leave.
The seat of government at which Smith arrived was not new to him. The Revolutionary War had temporarily halted the planter elite's custom of travelling north for the summer, but Smith was among the first to renew the ritual by visiting New York in the summer of 1786. The transition to life at the seat of government was also eased by the presence of his immediate family. His wife lived with him throughout the First Congress and travelled with him during its first recess, when he represented the laity of South Carolina at the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church held in Philadelphia. Two months into the second session their family was augmented by the birth of Thomas Loughton Smith, the first of their two children. During at least the first session, the Smiths rented quarters on Broadway, next door to the Spanish minister near the Bowling Green. Smith's father-in-law, Senator Ralph Izard, and his family lived down the street at 99 Broadway.
The collective wealth and influence of the Izard and Smith families earned them a privileged position in the capital's social circuit. Smith particularly cherished his friendship with the president and was instrumental in getting the city of Charleston to commission a portrait of Washington by John Trumbull. Washington reciprocated this high regard by several gestures of friendship, including allowing Smith's half-brother, Joseph Allen Smith, and his brother-in-law, Henry Izard, to serve as signatories to the administration's treaty with the Creek Nation on 7 August 1790.
A few days later, soon after the beginning of the Congressional recess, Washington asked Smith to accompany the presidential party on its tour to the newly admitted state of Rhode Island. Smith accepted the invitation eagerly, joining a select body of officials composed of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton, Justice John Blair, Rhode Island's Senator Foster, Representative Gilman of New Hampshire, and three of Washington's aides. Smith left the presidential party at Newport on 19 August, continuing on a prearranged tour of Connecticut, western Massachusetts, and Vermont, before meeting up with his family at Lebanon Springs, New York. En route he paid visits to his Connecticut colleagues, Huntington, Trumbull, Wadsworth, and Ellsworth, Sedgwick of Massachusetts, and Schuyler of New York. On 14 September he arrived by sloop back in New York City, where he remained for two months before proceeding to Philadelphia on 9 November.
Smith enjoyed generally good relations with his colleagues in the House. The notable exception was Thomas Tudor Tucker, Smith's longtime political and personal nemesis. Tucker's sponsorship of Ramsay's election petition was only the most recent episode in a fierce rivalry that involved Smith's extended family. In 1786 Tucker had challenged Izard to a duel and suffered a severe bullet wound to the leg.
By the end of the second session, Smith considered himself "very intimate with the leading eastern men, some of them have a high regard I believe for me."[1
] Almost certainly they esteemed Smith for his professional reputation; on 8 February 1790
he became one of the first counsellors, and one of only nine Congressmen, to be allowed to practice before the Supreme Court. Smith also distinguished himself for his highly informed political awareness, sharpened by a faithful correspondence he maintained with Edward Rutledge of Charleston and Tench Coxe of Philadelphia. Through them he kept abreast of political developments in their states and received comments on pending legislation such as the Judiciary Act [S-1].
More than anything else, Smith merited the respect of his colleagues by the amount of energy he devoted behind the scenes to the business of legislating. He served on a total of thirty-three committees, reporting for thirteen. Ten dealt with commercial and financial issues such as bankruptcy legislation and the settlement of accounts. Eight concerned internal business and procedure. Four considered petitions submitted by Robert Morris; Baron von Steuben; Catherine Greene, the widow of South Carolina's defender, General Nathanael Greene; and Benjamin Smith's old friend and former president of Congress, Henry Laurens. The remainder of his assignments covered a wide spectrum of issues, from ways and means to the establishment of the militia and the post office. Smith's less formal responsibilities included, of course, recommending nominees for federal appointments. On 4 August 1789, his brother-in-law, war hero and former member of Congress Isaac Motte, was confirmed as naval officer for Charleston.
Among Smith's most exhaustive efforts off the floor was his drafting of the first national bankruptcy legislation. The outcome was vital to many of his constituents, whom the war had reduced to near insolvency in higher proportions than in other states. As a member of the committee assigned to draft a bill, Smith consulted on the subject with Coxe, Rutledge, and Chief Justice John Jay from June through December 1789. "After having bestowed on it a conside. degree of patience attention & labor,"[2
] he produced "an endless Bill"[3
] which he intended to present soon after the second session commenced. He was prevented from submitting it only by Rutledge's last minute criticisms and by the coincidental decision in the House to have all unfinished business originate de novo. Rutledge's letter "came upon me like a Clap of thunder," wrote a frustrated Smith, who swore he would "leave the business to those who wish to amuse themselves with it; I have had my share."[4
Smith was an active and eloquent presence on the floor of the House, where he participated in all of that body's most important debates. His letters, speeches, and recorded votes all confirm his fundamental pro-federal government orientation. But his federalism was tempered by a recurring strain of strict constructionism, founded upon a practical consideration of South Carolina's precarious political influence. Low pay would not induce the Deep South's best men to serve; only those of "moderate abilities" would be available to defend her "peculiar rights," foremost among which was the right to hold slaves.[5
] Smith anticipated congressional interference in the slave trade "by a strained construction of some power."[6
] On one of the two occasions he is known to have voted with the Antifederalist minority during the debate on proposed amendments to the Constitution, Smith voted to make what became the Tenth Amendment absolute by limiting Congress's powers to those "expressly" delegated by the Constitution. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the other vote was for limiting Congress's control over elections.
Smith found the enhancement of executive prerogatives particularly alarming, insofar as Washington's virtue cloaked any threat that might be posed by dangerous precedents. Smith predicted that the presidency would soon evolve into an hereditary New England institution. Once fortified with the power of removal, among other powers, the president through his appointees would form an indestructable "Phalanx." "What chance then," he asked Rutledge, "will a Southern man have of being appointed to office?"[7
] He sought to safeguard the South's influence in the federal government by checking "these high-flyers [who] want to depreciate the Senate,"[8
] and lodge all power in the president "& his pretorian Cohort in the H. of Representatives."[9
Because his commitment to strict constructionism was conditioned less by ideology than by sectional and economic interest, Smith tended to support the administration in general and the Hamiltonian system in particular, as long as they did not pose an obvious threat to his state or to the Lower South. Two months after attacking the president's exclusive power of removal, Smith voted for the relatively high salaries proposed by the Salaries-Executive Act [HR-21]. Later he advocated leaving ambassadors' salaries to the discretion of the president under both Foreign Intercourse Bills [HR-35] and [HR-52]. His opposition to such initiatives as the cession of land for federal lighthouses seems unequivocal: "On the principle that these things were incidental to the federal powers, Congress might with equal justice take possession of the mouths of rivers. . . ."[10
] But Smith stood firmly on the side of the loose constructionists on the vastly more important question of Congress's implied power to establish a national bank, which was expected to facilitate the expansion of South Carolina's wartorn economy. To justify the constitutionality of the Bank Act [S-15], he actually quoted Madison's own loose constructionist arguments from the Congressional Register's account of the debate on the power of removal.
Smith faithfully resisted specific attacks against the Deep South's political or economic interests. He was initially disposed to support Madison's proposal for discriminatory tonnage duties against nations not in alliance with the United States. Eventually he acted to protect the South's crucial export trade with Great Britain by voting to strike the discrimination from the Tonnage Act [HR-5]. He supplemented his fiery offensive against the Quaker antislavery petitions with several proposals aimed at stimulating the growth of the South's population and influence in the Union. He advocated standardizing requirements for naturalization and citizenship under the Naturalization Bill [HR-37] and extending the time allotted for taking the census under the Enumeration Act [HR-34].
Smith also realized how the South's political leverage would be affected by the outcome of the seat of government debate. He contributed little to the first session debate beyond urging postponement. Assuming a more active role in the second session, he repeatedly voted against a Potomac location out of a conviction that this meant a temporary capital at Philadelphia from which Congress would never allow itself to escape. Smith escalated his attack against the Residence Act [S-12] by authoring an unusually pointed newspaper address to the president. Signing himself "Junius Americanus," Smith invoked arguments he himself had opposed during a similar attempt by Madison to kill the first session Seat of Government Bill [HR-25]. Simply put, Smith argued that if the president signed the bill, he would usurp Congress's constitutional power to adjourn itself and therefore violate his oath of office. For its part, New York appreciated Smith's efforts to extend Congress's stay. In an unusually strongly worded letter, a New York correspondent expressed the widespread regret at the departure of a man whose "integrity and eminent abilities . . . have gained him the universal respect and esteem of the citizens of New-York during his residence amongst us."[11
The assumption of South Carolina's enormous war debt ranked high on Smith's agenda at the First Congress. It also represented a characteristically pragmatic departure from his usual states rights stance. Throughout the second session he single handedly orchestrated his state's leadership role in the fight for assumption. This included, among other maneuvers, allying with the New England interest to defeat the first Duties on Distilled Spirits Bill [HR-62]. Passage of this revenue generating bill would have taken pressure off those anxious to fund the continental debt without simultaneously providing for the assumption of the states' debts. Smith was the only South Carolinian to carry through with his support for assumption by voting for the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110] designed to finance it.
Political enemies later tried to implicate Smith in the speculative frenzy that accompanied the funding debate. Although Smith invested heavily in securities, no proof has been found that he took advantage of his insider position in the period leading up to the passage of the Funding Act [HR-63]. A letter he wrote almost two weeks before the assumption plan was adopted suggests just the opposite. Passing on the rumors that speculators were headed south, Smith recommended inserting something in the press "to warn people from selling at 3/ or 4/ when they may get soon perhaps 10/."[12
Smith's contacts in South Carolina gave him every assurance of an easy reelection. His landslide victory in October 1790 surpassed even his expectations. He assumed the role of Federalist pamphleteer as party friction intensified in the 1790s. His "Politicks and Views of a Certain Party," published in 1792, sheds much light on politics and Madison's role during the First Federal Congress. Smith continued to represent Charleston in the House until he resigned in July 1797 to accept appointment as minister to Portugal. Removed by Jefferson in 1801, Smith returned to Charleston in 1803, resumed his law practice, adopted the middle name of "Loughton," and lost his last formal bid for his old seat in the House. His first wife had died in 1792. Smith's marriage to Charlotte Wragg in 1805 brought him the lucrative plantation known as "Ashley Barony," where he lived for the remainder of his life. His extensive business interests at the time included several canal building ventures. His last years were marked by a growing disenchantment with the Federalists, an alliance with the Jeffersonians in 1808, and virtual ostracism by his old circle of associates. Smith died on 19 December 1812.
The William Loughton Smith Papers are at the Library of Congress and the South Carolina Historical Society. From the latter collection, George C. Rogers edited "The Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge, June 6, 1789, to April 28, 1794," in The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 69(1968):1-25, 101-38, 225-42. Smith's letters to Gabriel Manigault are published in the American Historical Review 14(1909):776-90. Albert Mathews, ed., "Journal of William Loughton Smith 1790-91," MHS Proc. 51(1918):35-57 contains his impressions while touring the United States. The best biographical source is The Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston by George C. Rogers, Jr. (Columbia, S.C., 1962). Two of the most famous portraitists of the period captured Smith at the height of his political career. John Trumbull's 1792 miniature is located at Yale, and Gilbert Stuart's ca. 1795 portrait is the property of the Gibbes Art Gallery in Charleston.
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