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James Smith


James Smith, the subject of the following memoir, was a native of Ireland; but in what year he was born is unknown. This was a secret which, even to his relations and friends, he would never communicate, and the knowledge of it was buried with him in the grave. It is conjectured, however, that he was born between the years 1715 and 1720.
   His father was a respectable farmer, who removed to America with a numerous family, and settled on the west side of the Susquehanna. He died in the year 1761. James, who was his second son, received his education from the distinguished Dr. Allison, provost of the college of Philadelphia. His attainments in classical literature were respectable. In the art of surveying, which at that early period of the country was of great importance, he is said to have excelled. After finishing his education, he applied himself to the study of law, in the office of Thomas Cookson, of Lancaster. On being qualified for his profession, he took up his residence as a lawyer and surveyor, near the present town of Shippensburg; but some time after, he removed to the flourishing village of York, where he established himself, and continued the practice of his profession during the remainder of his life.
   On the occurrence of the great contest between Great Britain and her American colonies, Mr. Smith entered with zeal into the patriotic cause, and on a meeting of delegates from all the counties of Pennsylvania in 1774, convened to express the public sentiment, on the expediency of abstaining from importing any goods from England, and assembling a general congress, Mr. Smith was a delegate from the county of York, and was appointed one of the committee to report a draft of instruction to the general assembly, which was then about to meet. At this time, a desire prevailed throughout the country, that the existing difficulties between the mother country. and the colonies should be settled, without a resort to arms. Mr. Smith, however, it appears, was disposed to adopt vigorous and decided measures, since, on his return to York, he was the means of raising a volunteer company, which was the first volunteer corps raised in Pennsylvania, in opposition to the armies of Great Britain. Of this company he was elected captain, and when, at length, it increased to a regiment, he was appointed colonel of that regiment; a title, however, which in respect to him was honorary, since he never assumed the actual command.
   In January, 1775, the convention for the province of Pennsylvania was assembled. Of this convention, Mr. Smith was a member, and concurred in the spirited declaration made by that convention, that "if the British administration should determine by force to effect a submission to the late arbitrary acts of the British parliament, in such a situation, we hold it our indispensable duty to resist such force, and at every hazard to defend the rights and liberties of America."
   Notwithstanding this declaration by the convention, a great proportion of the Pennsylvanians, particularly the numerous body of Quakers, were strongly opposed, not only to war, but even to a declaration of independence. This may be inferred from the instructions given by the general assembly to their delegates, who were appointed in 1775 to the general congress, of the following tenor: -- that "though the oppressive measures of the British parliament and administration, have compelled us to resist their violence by force of arms; yet we strictly enjoin you, that you, in behalf of this colony, dissent from and utterly reject any proposition, should such be made, that may cause or lead to a separation from our mother country, or a change in this form of government."
   This decided stand against a declaration of independence, roused the friends of that measure to the most active exertions, throughout the province. On the 15th of May, congress adopted a resolution, which was in spirit a declaration of independence. This resolution was laid before a large meeting of the citizens of Philadelphia, assembled five days after the passage of it, and in front of the very building in which congress was assembled, digesting plans of resistance. The resolution was received by this assembly of citizens, who were decided Whigs, with great enthusiasm, the instructions of the provincial assembly to the Pennsylvania delegation in congress was loudly and pointedly condemned, and a plan adopted to assemble a provincial conference to establish a new government in Pennsylvania.
   Accordingly, such a conference was assembled, on the 18th of June. Of this conference, Mr. Smith was an active and distinguished member. The proceedings of the conference were entirely harmonious. Before it had assembled, the provincial assembly had rescinded their obnoxious instructions to their delegates in congress. Still, however, it was thought advisable for the conference to express in form their sentiments on the subject of a declaration of independence. The mover of a resolution to this effect, was Dr. Benjamin Rush, at that time a young man. Colonel Smith seconded the resolution, and these two gentlemen, with Thomas M'Kean, were appointed a committee to draft it. On the following morning, the resolution being reported, was unanimously adopted, was signed by the members, and on the 25th of June, a few days only before the declaration of independence by congress, was presented to that body.
   This declaration, though prepared in great haste, contained the substance of that declaration, which was adopted by congress. It declared, that the king had paid no attention to the numerous petitions which had been addressed to him, for the removal of the most grievous oppressions, but (to use the language of the preamble to the resolution) he "hath lately purchased foreign troops to assist in enslaving us; and hath excited the savages of this country to carry on a war against us, as also the Negro's to imbrue their hands in the blood of their masters, in a manner unpracticed by civilized nations; and hath lately insulted our calamities, by declaring that he will show us no mercy, till he has reduced ,us. And whereas the obligations of allegiance (being reciprocal between a king and his subjects) are now dissolved, on the side of the colonists, by the despotism of the said king, insomuch that it now appears that loyalty to him is treason against the good people of this country; and whereas not only the parliament, but there is reason to believe, too many of the people of Great Britain, have concurred in the arbitrary and unjust proceedings against us; and whereas the, public virtue of this colony (so essential to its liberty and happiness) must be endangered by a future political union with, or dependence on, a crown and nation, so lost to justice, patriotism, and magnanimity:" Therefore, the resolution proceeded to assert that "the deputies of Pennsylvania assembled in the conference, unanimously declare their willingness to concur in a vote of the congress, declaring the united colonies free and independent states: and that they call upon the nations of Europe, and appeal to the great Arbiter and Governor of the empires of the world, to witness, that this declaration did not originate in ambition, or in an impatience of lawful authority; but that they are driven to it in obedience to the first principles of nature, by the oppressions and cruelties of the aforesaid king and parliament of Great Britain, as the only possible measure left to preserve and establish our liberties, and to transmit them inviolate to posterity."
   In the month of July, a convention was assembled in Philadelphia, for the purpose of forming a new constitution for Pennsylvania. Of this body, Colonel Smith was elected a member, and he appeared to take his seat on the 15th day of the month. On the 20th be was elected by the convention a member of congress, in which body he took his seat, after the adjournment of the convention. Colonel Smith continued a member of congress for several years, in which capacity he was active and efficient. He always entertained strong anticipation of success during the revolutionary struggle, and by his cheerfulness powerfully contributed to dispel the despondency which he often saw around him. On withdrawing from congress, in November, 1778, he resumed his professional pursuits, which he continued until the year, 1800, when he withdrew from the bar, having been in the practice of his profession for about sixty years. In the year 1806, he was removed to another world. He had three sons and two daughters, of whom only one of each survived him.
   In his disposition and habits, Colonel Smith was very peculiar. He was distinguished for his love of anecdote and conviviality. His memory was uncommonly retentive, and remarkably scored with stories of a humorous and diverting character, which, on particular occasions, he related with great effect.
   He was for many years a professor of religion, and very regular in his attendance on public worship. Notwithstanding his fondness for jest, he was more than most men ready to frown upon every expression which seemed to reflect on sacred subjects. It was a singular trait in the character of Mr. Smith, that he should so obstinately refuse to inform his friends of his age. The monument erected over his grave informs us, that his death occurred in the ninety-third year of his age. It is probable, however, that he was not so old by several years.

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 291-296. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)


See also:

  • The biography of Eleanor Armor Smith, James Smith's wife

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    Last modified January 1, 2004