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William Smith

William Smith Jr. (1728-1793), an American Loyalist of New York and Quebec, was a prominent jurist, statesman, journalist, and historian.

Smith was a member of the royal Council of the Province of New York from 1767 to 1783, and was the Province’s last royal Chief Justice, from 1780 until his departure for England in December, 1783. He served as Chief Justice of the Province of Quebec (later Lower Canada) from 1786 until his death, in addition to holding other offices.

A prolific writer as well as a formidable lawyer, Smith contributed to the Whig periodicals the Independent Reflector (1752-1753) and the Occasional Reverberator (1753), which he co-founded with William Livingston and John Morin Scott. He also wrote the History of the Province of New-York, the first comprehensive history of the region, published in London in 1757. The diaries he kept throughout his adult life remain an important record of colonial and revolutionary-era politics in New York.

Smith was the eldest son of English emigrant William Smith (1697-1769), a wealthy New York City lawyer, and Mary Het of New Rochelle, New York. William Smith Sr. was appointed to the royal Council in 1753, resigning in favor of his son William in 1767, and was appointed a judge of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature in 1763.

After graduating from Yale College in 1745, William Smith Jr. trained for the law in his father’s office, working with John Morin Scott (1730-1784) and William Livingston (1723-1790), later Governor of the State of New Jersey. All three were Presbyterians, politically aligned with Whig principles. Smith further cemented his ties with the Livingston family by marrying William’s cousin Janet Livingston (1730-1819) in 1752.

Smith was admitted to practice before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature in 1750. He prepared two digests of the laws of New York, published in 1752 and 1762 in collaboration with William Livingston. With John Morin Scott, they were leaders in the professionalization of legal practice in New York.

New York politics in the mid-eighteenth century were shaped by the rivalry of two powerful families and their supporters: the Anglican De Lancey family, with strong ties to London and the British government, and the Livingston family, associated with dissenting Protestants of Whig principles. Both groups, however, defied easy categorization by their actions or alliances. William Smith, father and son, belonged to the Livingston group, known as the “Presbyterian Whigs.”

In the early 1750s, Smith, Livingston and Scott became known as the “New York Triumvirate,” distinguished for their use of the press to achieve political aims. Led by William Livingston, they produced weekly journals of essays called the Independent Reflector (1752-1753) and the Occasional Reverberator (1753), printed by James Parker of the New York Gazette, as well as pieces intended for the Gazette and New-York Mercury . The controversial essays commented on conditions in the Province, and argued for the separation of church and state. The Triumvirate led a movement to prevent the establishment of the College of New York (now Columbia University) as an Anglican institution, and were also founding members of the New York Society Library in 1754. William Smith Jr. continued to write for the press throughout his time in New York. Also during this period he wrote the History of the Province of New-York (1757).

William Smith Jr. was appointed to the royal Council in 1767. As a member of the upper house he was also a legislator. In 1767 and again in 1773, William Smith Jr. served as one of the Province’s commissioners to settle boundary disputes between New York and Massachusetts.

Smith’s status and deep knowledge of the law made him a useful advisor to a succession of royal governors, especially Sir Henry Moore (1765-1769), James Murray, Lord Dunmore (1770-1771), and William Tryon (1771-1780). He played a similar role with British commanders General Sir Henry Clinton (1776-1782), Governor and Major General James Robertson (1780-1783), and General Sir Guy Carleton (Clinton’s replacement), who arrived in New York in May 1782 to take command of British forces in North America. Chief Justice James De Lancey (1703-1760) and Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), both Lieutenant Governors and New Yorkers, wielded power over many years in the absence of appointed royal governors.

The provincial Assembly was prorogued in May 1775; the Governor and Council remained in tenuous power. Smith and his family left for the safety of their country seat at Haverstraw in March 1776, and later that year, with Smith under parole, they moved to Livingston Manor at the invitation of Janet Smith’s sister, Margaret Livingston (1738-1809). During that time, Smith wrote a continuation of his 1757 History of the Province of New-York, and maintained his diaries. Smith was finally banished to British lines after refusing to take an oath of loyalty to New York State in July 1778.

Smith arrived in Manhattan with his family in August 1778, and resumed his position on the Council, advising the British military government. He met with Lord Carlisle, head of the Peace Commission sent from Britain earlier that year. Smith was involved in unsuccessful efforts to bring Vermont into royal allegiance, beginning in 1779, and he was an advisor to Benedict Arnold after Arnold defected to the British in September 1780. Smith was made Chief Justice in the spring of 1780. New York remained under martial law, although Smith tried to restore some forms of civil order. During his time in New York, Smith actively worked against the Revolution, collecting intelligence and offering strategies for defeat of the patriots. Nevertheless, through his position, correspondence, publications, and personal influence, Smith tried to effect reconciliation between Great Britain and the Colonies, believing such a thing was possible until the very eve of the Evacuation. He envisioned a British vice-regal commonwealth of self-governed North American colonies, and saw the separation from Great Britain as a failure of both sides.

William Smith Jr. left New York for England in December 1783 with Sir Guy Carleton (1724-1808), assured of the position of Chief Justice in Canada. His son William left on a separate ship; his wife Janet and daughter Harriet joined them later in Quebec. After political delays, Smith was appointed Chief Justice of the Province of Quebec in the summer of 1786, arriving there later that year with Carleton, now Lord Dorchester, Captain-in-Chief and Governor of the Canadian provinces.

Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, the province of Quebec was split into the provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. John Graves Simcoe and Alured Clarke were their respective Lieutenant-Governors, and Carleton was now Governor General. At that time, Smith became Chief Justice of Lower Canada at Quebec. He was also a member of the Executive Council, and Speaker of the Legislative Council, having previously served on the Council of Affairs for the Province of Quebec. He died December 6, 1793.

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