Home / General / Erik Visits as American Grave, Part 110

Erik Visits as American Grave, Part 110


This is the grave of John Smilie.

Born in 1741 in Ireland, Smilie immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1760. He became involved with the Patriots in Lancaster County, fighting as a volunteer in 1776 and 1777. Beginning in 1778, and served in the Pennsylvania legislature. He was a very small government guy, opposing any kind of centralizing power in the state, such as a state bank, which he believed would undermine small farmers in the state and promote the interests of Philadelphia bankers. Naturally, he opposed the Constitution as giving the federal government too much power. He became a leading anti-Federalist in Pennsylvania. His greatest fear was the use of a strong government against the press. He saw a future where anti-government opponents would be prosecuted for libel by a strong state. Of course, the Constitution was ratified and Smilie was elected to Congress from 1793-95 and again from 1797-1812. He was a strong Jeffersonian, but, demonstrating where politics would go as the 19th century went on, began to turn against the South by taking a very harsh stance against the international slave trade. He became particularly known for demanding the death penalty for those who smuggled slaves into the United States after 1807, when the Constitution disallowed the practice. Smilie died in Washington in 1812.

John Smilie is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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  • Denverite

    He became particularly known for demanding the death penalty for those who smuggled slaves into the United States after 1807, when the Constitution disallowed the practice.

    Just a nit, but the Constitution didn’t disallow the importation of slavery. It said that Congress couldn’t pass a law doing so with an effective date earlier than 1808. It was the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slavery, which was passed in 1807 but didn’t become effective until 1808, which did so.

  • dhudson2728

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with his position on the death penalty for slave traders, I do think it’s amusing juxtaposed with his position on limiting the Federal government. It’s like the mirror image of the “states rights” advocates in the South who eagerly embraced the Fugitive Slave Act.

  • kaydenpat

    Being against slavery is a plus in his cap but he must have glossed over the fact that you need a strong federal government to abolish it.

    • twbb

      Eh, you really just need enough ships, men, and nooses.

      • rm

        Eh, that’s called a navy.

        • Rum, buggery, and the noose?

        • wjts

          To be Scrupulously Fair, it could also be private citizens with letters of marque and reprisal.

          • reattmore

            To be More Scrupulously Fair, private citizens with letters of marque and reprisal can be effective commerce raiders, because there is a profit to be made. Privateering against the slave trade wouldn’t be profitable, unless the privateer got to keep the slaves.

            • wjts

              To be the Scrupulously Fairest of Them All, perhaps they’d be willing to do it out of the goodness of their hearts?

            • Mike Schilling

              Or the ships they captured.

        • twbb

          You don’t need a flag. See, e.g., the privateers.

    • Bloix

      Actually, it turned out that you needed a strong federal government to protect and extend it. Lincoln ran on a platform of “leave slavery alone” and the Southerners realized that that would be its death knell.

      • btfjd

        Lincoln did not run on a platform of leave slavery alone. He understood that the federal government had no power to interfere with slavery in slave states. His position was to forbid the expansion of slavery to the territories, believing as many did that if slavery couldn’t expand it would die “like a scorpion in a bottle.” James Oates has written a couple of pretty good books on this notion.

  • reattmore

    After Smilie died, Congress passed the Piracy Law of 1820, redefining slave trading as a form of piracy subject to the death penalty. Only one slave trader got hanged–in 1862.


  • Bloix

    Looking at that monument, I assume that the marble insert is from the original headstone and the granite was erected decades later, maybe when the original started to show signs of erosion. If that’s right, someone cared about perpetuating his memory.

    • Erik Loomis

      At the Congressional Cemetery, there are maybe 300 stones that look exactly like this. That’s because for awhile, when at least congressmen would die, they would put one up. But two things. First, most of them are just memorials, not graves. Smilie is one of the exceptions. Second, they mostly represent people who died a generation later (Preston Sturges is one of them! Although here it’s a memorial), so I wonder if Smilie was reburied at some point.

  • Mike Schilling

    Anyway, it’s like the grave of John Simile.

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