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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 447

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This is the grave of Robert Smith.

Born in 1757 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Smith joined the Revolutionary Army soon after the war started and fought in the Battle of Brandywine. He went to college for the second half of the war and graduated from Princeton in 1781. He moved to Maryland to practice law. He became a Jeffersonian as the first party system developed. He started rising in Maryland politics, serving in the state senate from 1793-95 and then in the House of Delegates from 1796-1800.

Although still a fairly obscure figure, Thomas Jefferson thought highly of him because Smith had become an expert on maritime law. When he became president in 1801, he initially offered the Secretary of the Navy to the Charleston merchant William Jones (who would later serve in that position under James Madison) but when Jones turned it down, he offered to Smith, who accepted. It didn’t hurt that Smith’s oldest brother, Samuel Smith, was a senator. In 1805, Jefferson wanted to promote Smith to Attorney General. But Smith’s replacement, Jacob Crowninshield, then reneged on the agreement. So for a brief time, Smith was both Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General. This problem was solved by kicking Smith back to the Navy and naming John Breckinridge AG.

In 1809, Madison named Smith as Secretary of State. But he was pretty ineffective in this role. First, Madison wanted to be his own Secretary of State, which given his long experience with foreign policy did make some sense. Second, Smith and Albert Gallatin despised each other and Smith tried to undermine Gallatin constantly. In doing so, Smith openly allied himself with Madison’s rivals in the Senate. Some of this also was xenophobia, attacking Gallatin because of his Swiss birth. Madison actually turned on Smith so strongly that he publicly humiliated him in 1811 by issuing a laundry list of everything wrong with him, accusing him of undermining the administration’s policies toward the British and French, saying he was terrible at basic diplomatic correspondence, and questioning his loyalty to the administration and possibly even the country. Smith responded publicly as well, denying all of this but then attacking Madison’s foreign policy, which to be fair was pretty bad as it was about to create a completely avoidable war with the British that very well could have ended the nation. This all happened after Gallatin told Madison to either dump Smith or he would resign. Gallatin was much more important than Smith. Of course the situation was completely untenable and he resigned. Because of his prestige, Madison offered him the ambassadorship to Russia, but Smith declined. Instead, now a very wealthy man, he retired. He became the president of the American Bible Society in 1813 and the Maryland Agriculture Society in 1818. He lived all the way until 1842, mostly on his farm and largely staying out of the political spotlight. Ultimately, Smith is one of the worst Secretaries of State in U.S. history.

Robert Smith is buried in Westminister Burial Ground, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always, many thanks to all of you who keep this series alive. If you would like this series to visit other early holders of the State Department, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Timothy Pickering is in Salem, Massachusetts and Edward Livingston is in Tivoli, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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