William Stephens Smith

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William Stephens Smith
William Stephens Smith.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 17th district
In office
March 4, 1813 – March 3, 1815
Preceded byNone; district established
Succeeded byWestel Willoughby Jr.
Personal details
BornNovember 8, 1755
Suffolk County, Long Island, Province of New York, British America
DiedJune 10, 1816(1816-06-10) (aged 60)
Lebanon, New York, United States
Political partyFederalist
Abigail "Nabby" Adams
(m. 1786; died 1813)
ResidenceLebanon, New York
Alma materCollege of New Jersey
ProfessionMilitary officer, government official

William Stephens Smith (November 8, 1755 – June 10, 1816) was a United States Representative from New York. He married Abigail "Nabby" Adams, the daughter of President John Adams, and so was a brother-in-law of President John Quincy Adams and an uncle of Charles Francis Adams Sr.

Early life[edit]

Born in Suffolk County, on Long Island, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1774 and studied law for a short time.

American Revolutionary War[edit]

He served in the Revolutionary Army as aide-de-camp to general John Sullivan in 1776. Smith fought in the Battle of Long Island, was wounded at Harlem Heights, fought at the Battle of White Plains, was promoted to lieutenant colonel at the Battle of Trenton and fought at the Battle of Monmouth and Newport. He was on the staff of General Lafayette in 1780 and 1781, became an adjutant in the Corps of Light Infantry then transferred to the staff of George Washington.[1]

Years after the war[edit]

He was secretary of the Legation at London in 1784. While there, he met and courted John Adams's daughter Abigail ("Nabby"), whom he married in 1786.[2] He returned to America in 1788.

Smith was appointed by President Washington to be the first United States Marshal for the District of New York in 1789, and later supervisor of revenue. He was one of the originators of the Society of the Cincinnati, and served as its president from 1795 to 1797. He was appointed Surveyor of the Port of New York by President John Adams in 1800. During this period, the Smiths bought land in what was then the countryside outside of New York City, and planned to build an estate, which they called Mount Vernon, in honor of George Washington. They never lived there, but a carriage house on the property was later converted to a hotel and is now operated as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum.

Along with the General Francisco de Miranda, the Colonel Smith raised private funds, procured weapons, and recruited soldiers of fortune to liberate Venezuela of Spanish colonial rule. This action was inspired by Smith's renewal of acquaintance with Miranda, whom Smith had first met when he was John Adams's secretary in London. On 2 February 1806, a force of 200 filibusters, including Smith's son William Steuben, set sail to Venezuela on a chartered merchant vessel, the Leander armored by Samuel G. Ogden. In Jacmel, Haiti, Miranda acquired two other ships, the Bacchus and the Bee. On April 28 after a botched landing attempt in Ocumare de la Costa resulted in two Spanish garda costas capturing the Bacchus and Bee. Sixty men were prisoners, including Smith's son, and put on trial in Puerto Cabello for piracy,[3] and ten were sentenced to death by hanging. Their bodies were beheaded and quartered, with pieces sent to nearby towns as a warning. William Steuben Smith had survived; he later escaped his captors and made his way home. Miranda aboard the Leander escaped escorted by the packet ship HMS Lilly to the British islands of Grenada, Barbados and Trinidad where the governor Sir Thomas Hislop, 1st Baronet agreed to provide some support for a second attempt to invade Venezuela. The Leander left Port of Spain on 24 July, together with HMS Express, HMS Attentive, HMS Prevost, and HMS Lilly, carrying some 220 officers and men. General Miranda decided to land in La Vela de Coro and the squadron anchored there on 1 August carrying a flag that Miranda had designed, which later became the flag of modern Venezuela. Nevertheless, the local support that he had hoped for failed to materialize when the fighting started. Much of the local population joined the Spanish against the mercenaries and August 13, Miranda hastily retreated to Aruba and Trinidad, where he left the Leander in order to avoid the prosecution of Spanish fleet.

In the aftermath of the failed expedition, Colonel Smith and Ogden were indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 and put on trial. Colonel Smith claimed his orders came from President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, who refused to appear in court. Judge William Paterson of Supreme Court, ruled that the President "cannot authorize a person to do what the law forbids". Both Colonel Smith and Ogden stood trial and were found not guilty.[4] His son William Steuben later escaped from the jail in Puerto Cabello.

In 1807 Smith moved to Lebanon, New York. He was elected as a Federalist to the 13th United States Congress, holding office from March 4, 1813, to March 3, 1815. He ran for a second term in 1814, and appeared to defeat Westel Willoughby Jr. The Secretary of State of New York initially issued his credentials of election to the 14th United States Congress, but Smith did not claim the seat. Some of the ballots had been returned for "Westel Willoughby" (omitting the "Jr."), which was why initially Smith appeared to have a majority. Smith declined to challenge the results, and on December 15, 1815, at the start of the first session of the 14th Congress, the House voted that Willoughby was entitled to the seat.

Smith died in Smith Valley in the town of Lebanon in 1816. He is interred in the West Hill Cemetery in the Town of Sherburne, on New York State Route 80.


William Stephens Smith was the son of John Smith, a wealthy New York City merchant, and Margaret Stephens. He had many brothers and sisters, and his sister Sally was married to Charles Adams, the son of John Adams and brother of John Quincy Adams. Sally's daughter Abigail Louisa Smith Adams married the banker and philosopher Alexander Bryan Johnson; their son, William's grandnephew, Alexander Smith Johnson, became a judge.

He and his wife, Abigail Adams, had four children:

  • William Steuben Smith
  • John Adams Smith
  • Thomas Hollis Smith
  • Caroline Amelia Smith – married John Peter DeWint of Fishkill-on-Hudson

In popular culture[edit]

  • Smith was portrayed by Andrew Scott in the 2008 miniseries, John Adams.
  • Incidents in the Life of John Edsall is an autobiographical memoir published in Catskill, New York, in 1831. John Edsall (1788 – after 1850) was an illiterate American sailor who participated in several historically significant voyages and events. Edsall's seafaring adventures began at age 18 when he was inveigled into joining the filibustering expedition of General Francisco de Miranda to liberate Venezuela in 1806.


  1. ^ (USMS), U.S. Marshals Service. "U.S. Marshals Service". www.usmarshals.gov. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  2. ^ Nagel, Paul C. 1987. The Adams women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, their sisters and daughters. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503874-6
  3. ^ Edsall, John; P., J. D. (27 April 2018). "Incidents in the life of John Edsall". Catskill [N.Y.] Pub. for the author. Retrieved 27 April 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  4. ^ Ross, Shelley Washington Babylon Allison & Busby 1989

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
District restored
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 17th congressional district

Succeeded by
Westel Willoughby, Jr.