Founding Fathers - James Smith

James Smith

Born: September 17, 1719 (Ulster, Ireland)

Died: July 11, 1806 (York, Pennsylvania)

Many of the founders of the United States have extensive biographies, but this week we examine the life of one man about whom little is known for certain.  The date of his birth appears to be an assumption, and in fact the exact year may not even be correct.  James Smith was from somewhere in the northern Ireland region of Ulster, and as such was one of just eight individuals from another nation to sign the Declaration of Independence.  As the second son of a wealthy farmer, James crossed the Atlantic with his family in 1729 and settled in Pennsylvania, likely in Chester County.  As a child he was educated by a local minister until he relocated to Philadelphia in order to study under Dr. Francis Alison at the Philadelphia Academy (now the Ivy League's prestigious University of Pennsylvania).  After graduating, James worked briefly as a surveyor before moving to Lancaster, where his brother George trained him in law.  Upon passing the bar exam in 1745, he decided to move farther west to establish a legal practice in the frontier town of Shippensburg.

The experience James Smith had gained as a surveyor turned out to be a more practical trade, as there was little need for an attorney in such a small town.  After a few years, however, he opted to return to a more populated city in order to practice law exclusively, and settled in York in approximately 1750.  Although Smith's attempts to be involved in other industries, including the founding of an iron manufacturing business, were unsuccessful due to his dependence on untrustworthy partners, he nevertheless became increasingly respected and was a recognized civic leader.  In 1760 he married Eleanor Armor of New Castle, DE, with whom he would eventually have five children. 

In 1774, James Smith was sent to represent the backwoods region of Pennsylvania where he had lived for so many years at the provincial assembly.  He wrote and presented a paper proposing a boycott of British goods so that the merchants would appeal to Parliament to change their methods of governing.  When Smith helped organize a militia in York, the volunteers quickly elected him to lead them with a rank of captain.  The unit eventually grew to a full battalion, but when they attempted to name Smith as their commander he decided his age would limit his effectiveness and he stepped aside in favor of a younger man.  The following year he was elected as a delegate to a provincial convention, where he spoke in favor of independence and increasing defenses, not only against the British to the east but also against their native allies to the west.  In 1776 Smith was elected to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention as well as the Second Continental Congress, where he voted for and signed the Declaration.  He continued to serve in both roles for an additional two years before returning home.  He held a number of short-term positions over the following years: judge of Pennsylvania's high court of appeals, brigadier general of the state militia, legislator, and counselor during a land dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut.  He turned down a second election to the Continental Congress in 1785, and by 1800, Smith was advanced in age and decided to retire from his legal practice.  Unfortunately, much else of what we may have known about Smith was lost in a fire that consumed his office, including his personal papers shortly before his death in 1805.  He was survived by his wife and two children, who buried him near their home in York.

The signature of James Smith can be found as the sixth name in the fourth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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