U.S. senator. Born near the North Carolina border, Smith spent most of his life in York District. After studying with the Reverend Joseph Alexander and attending Mount Zion College in Winnsboro, Smith opened his own legal practice in the late 1780s. He was also a successful planter, with landholdings across the state and at least seventy-one slaves by 1810. By 1820 he began acquiring land in Alabama and Louisiana for sugar and cotton cultivation. Around 1781 Smith married Margaret Duff. They had one daughter.
Smith was one of the most prominent political leaders in early nineteenth-century South Carolina. A Jeffersonian of the purest stripe, Smith espoused strict-constructionist and states’ rights principles well before such views came to dominate southern politics. He represented York District in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1796 to 1797 and then from 1803 to 1808 in the state Senate, where he served as president from 1806 until 1808. In June 1808 he was elected to a judgeship on the Court of General Sessions and Common Pleas. On December 4, 1816, Smith was selected by the General Assembly to fill the unexpired term of John Taylor in the United States Senate. That same day he was elected to a full term, defeating the Charlestonian James Pringle.
In the U.S. Senate, Smith gained notoriety in both state and national politics. His style was boisterous, and his speeches were laden with sarcasm and invective against anyone who happened to be his unfortunate opponent. Smith’s defense of his section during the controversy over Missouri’s admission to the Union also placed him in the vanguard of proslavery ideology. During a Senate speech in January 1820, Smith became one of the first to defend slavery as a positive good, arguing that slaves “are so domesticated, or so kindly treated by their masters, and their situations so improved” that few would express discontent with their condition. Appealing to both states’ rights principles and biblical texts in framing this argument, Smith anticipated the path that the South’s defense of slavery would later take in the antebellum period.
Smith’s rigorous adherence to states’ rights principles and a strict interpretation of the Constitution made him the implacable enemy of the nationalist John C. Calhoun, twenty years his junior. The Smith-Calhoun rivalry dominated South Carolina political culture for much of the 1820s, as the two men and their factions jockeyed for supremacy. Calhoun seemed to gain the upper hand in 1822, when Smith was defeated in his reelection bid by the Calhounite Robert Y. Hayne. But returned to the state House of Representative in 1824, Smith took advantage of South Carolina’s fear of federal power—inspired by the Missouri crisis, the Denmark Vesey rebellion, and the protective Tariff of 1824. In partnership with his colleague Stephen Miller, in 1825 Smith pushed through the General Assembly a set of resolutions declaring the protective tariff unconstitutional and stating that all powers not expressly delegated to Congress by the Constitution were the domain of the states. The principles embodied in the Smith-Miller Resolutions signaled South Carolina’s decisive retreat from Calhoun-style nationalism and toward the doctrine of states’ rights.
Smith returned to the U.S. Senate in 1826 and reemerged as a leading spokesman for Jeffersonian principles and the nascent Jacksonian movement. But these same principles also led to a bitter controversy back home with the emergence of the nullification movement. Although he agreed that the Tariff of 1828 was unconstitutional, Smith’s strict-constructionist beliefs prevented him from accepting nullification as a legitimate constitutional recourse since he believed that the doctrine threatened states’ rights with its broad interpretation of the Constitution. But South Carolina politics had little room for two competing states’ rights factions. Calhoun and the nullifiers, aided by many former Smithites, achieved political ascendancy in the state. In his bid for reelection to the Senate in 1830, Smith lost to his former ally Stephen Miller. He was elected to the state Senate the next year but had grown tired of South Carolina politics. To Smith, the dominance that Calhoun and his followers now enjoyed presented a humiliating spectacle and the subversion of the states’ rights principles for which he had fought his entire career.
In late 1831 Smith left South Carolina and moved to his lands in Madison County, Alabama. Unable to remain outside of politics for long, he became the county’s representative in the Alabama legislature in 1836, professing his “Old Republican” principles as loudly as ever. On June 26, 1840, Smith died of congestive fever in Huntsville. He was buried at his plantation in Madison County.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Hardin, Richard L. “William Smith and the Rise of Sectionalism in South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1971.
Smith, Caroline P. “Jacksonian Conservative: The Later Years of William Smith, 1826–1840.” Ph.D. diss., Auburn University, 1977.
———. “South Carolina Radical: The Political Career of William Smith to 1826.” Master’s thesis, Auburn University, 1971.