Lawyer, congressman, diplomat. Smith was born on October 2, 1758, the son of the prominent merchant Benjamin Smith and Anne Loughton. In 1804 the younger Smith added Loughton to his name. Prior to his father’s death in July 1770, Smith went to Europe for schooling. He studied under private tutors in London and in Geneva. In January 1779 he began studying law at the Middle Temple in the Inns of Court. He remained in Britain throughout the Revolutionary War and did not return to Charleston until November 21, 1783.
Admitted to the bar in 1784, Smith promptly began a successful law career and formed important ties with British merchants. On May 1, 1786, he married Charlotte Izard, daughter of the wealthy planter Ralph Izard. The couple had two children before Charlotte’s death in 1792. Smith and his father-in-law became allies in South Carolina and national politics. Despite his extended sojourn in Europe, Smith moved successfully into state politics, representing St. James Goose Creek Parish in the state House of Representatives from 1785 until 1789. He voted to ratify the federal Constitution.
Smith announced his candidacy for the United States House of Representatives in November 1788 and won election easily but not without controversy. During the campaign and later in a petition, his opponent David Ramsay charged that Smith’s long absence from South Carolina made him ineligible for national office. Smith countered by emphasizing Ramsay’s northern birth and his liberal views on slavery. The House voted overwhelmingly to seat Smith.
An outspoken representative, Smith vehemently opposed the introduction of antislavery petitions. His support for a stronger central government placed him squarely in the Federalist Party. He forcefully advocated treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton’s proposals that the central government fund the national debt, assume state debts, and form a national bank. Smith speculated in public securities, prompting opponents to charge that he used inside information for personal profit. These charges surfaced throughout Smith’s public career but did not prevent him from serving four terms in Congress. Though Smith’s strong pro-British stance ran counter to public opinion in South Carolina, his consistent support of commercial interests endeared him to Charleston’s mercantile community.
During the 1796 presidential campaign, he published a satirical series of articles under the pseudonym “Phocion” entitled The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson. In 1797 Smith was appointed minister to Portugal, where he served until 1801. Hardly a plum position, the assignment befitted his public stature. In Hamilton’s words, Smith was an able man, but “popular with no description of men, from a certain hardness of character.”
In 1803 Smith returned to Charleston, where he resumed his law practice and successfully invested in land. On December 19, 1805, he married Charlotte Wragg, and their union produced two children. Despite private success, Smith failed to win election to Congress in 1806 as the Federalists had fallen out of fashion. Two years later, in a remarkable about-face, he embraced Jefferson’s Embargo Act, arguing that the legislation provided an opportunity to develop American self-sufficiency. His shift from Federalist to Jeffersonian alienated former supporters. After a brief illness, Smith died on December 19, 1812, and was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard, Charleston.
Rogers, George C. Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758–1812). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1962.