James Smith, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born somewhere around 1720 in Ireland and came to this country with his father. The date of his birth is not recorded, and James apparently never told anyone what it was. His father took his "numerous children" and settled upon the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania where he died in 1761.
James was the second son and had a "strong intellect." His father decided that James needed a "liberal education" and arranged for him to study with Reverend Doctor Allison, provost of the college of Philadelphia. James studied Latin, Greek, and practical surveying. He later studied law at Lancaster and was admitted to the bar. He moved west into a sparsely populated wilderness area where he practiced both law and surveying. The town of Shippensburg was built later in the area.
Smith lived in the wilderness for a short period of time before moving to York where he had little business competition in York for many years. James married Miss Eleanor Armor of Newcastle, Delaware, and they made their permanent residence in York. He led the bar association there until the beginning of the Revolution.
James was alert to the coming political storm and was among the first people in Pennsylvania to stand with the patriots of Massachusetts and Virginia. He was a York County delegate to the Pennsylvania convention, which had the responsibility to determine the sentiments of the people and prepare the information in the form of instructions to the representatives in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. He was committed to the principle of positive resistance and was in favor of breaking with Britain as early as 1774.
The General Congress passed a resolution, recommending that the colonies "adopt such governments as in the opinion of the representatives of the people, might best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents." The Pennsylvania Assembly moved slowly upon the resolution and gave instructions to Pennsylvania's delegates to vote against independence. The Assembly continued in this way until the people of the state spoke their sentiments. Some of Pennsylvania's delegates "refused to vote for the Declaration of Independence, and withdrew from Congress…." Pennsylvania sent new delegates who were bold and supportive of independence: James Smith, George Clymer, and Benjamin Rush. These three men were not in attendance in Congress when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, but they signed it on August 2, 1776.
James was a member of the Pennsylvania convention to form a state constitution. He was active in the convention until October 1776 when he became a delegate to the General Congress. In the General Congress he was appointed to a committee to make sure that General George Washington had proper supplies to "oppose the progress of General Howe's army." Other members of this committee were James Wilson, Samuel Chew, George Clymer, and Richard Stockton. This committee exercised "almost unlimited discretionary powers, and the scope of their operations included the whole business of advising and superintending the military movements."
Smith declined re-election in the spring of 1777 and resumed his business in York; however, the cause of liberty demanded his attention after the American defeats at Brandywine and Germantown as well as the British capture of Philadelphia. He answered the call to duty and met with the General Congress in Lancaster after the British captured Philadelphia and afterwards when it adjourned to York.
James retired from the General Congress once again after the American victory in the battle of Monmouth in 1778 because the Americans' hope for independence began to "beam brightly." He was elected to the Legislature of Pennsylvania and served one term there before retiring permanently from public service. He enjoyed "domestic happiness" until his death on July 11, 1806, when he was nearly ninety years old.
Smith was considered to be an "eccentric man" who "possessed a vein of humor, coupled with sharp wit." He was popular in his social circle. He was usually "lively in his conversation and manners" except when topics of a religious nature came up; then he became "very grave and never suffered any in his presence to sneer at or speak with levity of Christianity." He was not a professor of religion, but he possessed religious virtues and practiced religious precepts.
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, pp, 119-122.
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