SMITH, WILLIAM, office holder, politician, and historian; b. 7 Feb. 1769 in New York, son of William Smith* and Janet Livingston; d. 17 Dec. 1847 at Quebec.
William Smith’s father was a leading political figure in New York and in 1780, during the American revolution, he was appointed chief justice of the colony. When the British evacuated New York in late 1783 young William took ship for London, where he was joined by his father. The elder Smith had grave doubts about the boy’s abilities but, as the only son, William received the best introduction to life that Smith could give him. He briefly attended a prestigious grammar school and, after abandoning it, was educated by a Swiss tutor. He became fluent in foreign languages, especially French, and developed a taste for Latin and the classics. Introduced by his father to the cultural life of the great city as well as to the labyrinthian politics of the British government and of the loyalist émigrés, William appears to have learned best that connections were the way to success, not a totally illegitimate conclusion in the closed world Smith Sr inhabited.
In 1786 William went to Quebec with his father, who had been appointed chief justice of the colony under the administration of Lord Dorchester [Carleton*]. Smith’s efforts to found a university having failed, William’s continuing preparation for life centred on practical training. He was given increasing responsibility for the vast family landholdings in New York and Vermont. In 1792 he petitioned for a land grant of 108 square miles on the Rivière Saint-François in Lower Canada. Through the influence of Smith, who was chairman of the colony’s land committee, the petition was recommended, but ultimately the grant was never completed as a result first of bureaucratic complexities and then of political opposition [see Samuel Gale*]. In 1791 William had been commissioned an ensign in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia, and the following year, during the first elections held in Lower Canada, he ran for a seat in the House of Assembly but was soundly defeated. His father’s friendship with Dorchester obtained his appointment on 15 Dec. 1792 as clerk of the Legislative Council, a post to which the assembly fixed a salary of £450 sterling in 1793.
On the death of his father late in 1793, William inherited three-elevenths of the Smith estate. The only male heir, he was nominally chief custodian of the family inheritance, but after 1796 the administration would be performed increasingly by his brother-in-law Jonathan Sewell, who was more adept at such matters. On 6 April 1803 Smith was appointed master in Chancery for the province, mainly to run messages between the assembly and the Legislative Council; his chief recommendation for this unpaid position had been his innocuousness. But Smith had ambitions, and in 1803 he journeyed to England to try to obtain a salary for the post, to solicit further appointments – and to find a wife. Feeling himself “not sufficiently informed as to the advantages” of matrimony, he had long hesitated to marry. Necessity drove him to it, however. “Money is everything . . . ,” he wrote to Sewell, “unless I marry a woman of fortune I shall be ruined.” He found a suitable mate in Susanna Webber, a niece of the wealthy and influential merchant Sir Brook Watson*. Susanna had considerable “attractions,” Smith informed Sewell in a letter which might have been written by Jane Austen. “She is pretty, not handsome, of a very good Family, with £200 a year now & one hundred more, at her mother’s death – of a very amiable disposition, good Temper and good Sense – and what is better than all, will go to Canada, a country in the estimation of the women of this Country, the most barbarous and the most uncomfortable of the world.” Smith also found a patron in the Duke of Kent [Edward* Augustus], who had much admired his mother during a stay in Lower Canada from 1791 to 1794; the duke assisted him in obtaining £81 sterling per annum as master in Chancery. Like his father in the early 1780s, Smith kept a diary of his sojourn in London.
Smith returned to Lower Canada with his bride in 1804. He worked on a history of the colony that he had apparently begun in 1800, perhaps in emulation of his father, who had published The history of the province of New-York . . . in 1757. John Neilson furnished printing estimates in 1805 and 1809, but fearing the effect on his career of adverse public reaction, Smith dithered about publication. In 1810 he was given a commission of the peace, and two years later he began seeking appointment to the Executive Council; however, he received little encouragement from either friends or the government. Shortly before the War of 1812 he was promoted major in Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion, but he did not see action. Realizing that his history might sell in the wake of the war, Smith had it printed by Neilson in 1815. That year a friend and an active supporter of his candidacy for executive councillor, Herman Witsius Ryland, assured an English contact that the forthcoming work would force the crown to assert its rights vis-à-vis the assembly or to abandon them. He added that if the book had appeared under the “energetic” administration of Sir James Henry Craig* it might have facilitated acceptance by imperial authorities of that governor’s draconian measures for extending the influence of the crown and reducing the power of the assembly. Since Craig’s departure in 1811, however, the political tendency had been to conciliation rather than confrontation. Having second thoughts, Smith delayed publication of the history, ostensibly to correct errors and add material, and then left for England in the summer of 1815, possibly to promote claims to office. The decision to delay publication was perhaps wise; on his return from England he found a conciliatory governor, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke*, at the head of the administration. During Sherbrooke’s tenure Smith was named a commissioner for the Jesuit estates in November 1816, appointed an honorary member of the Executive Council on 3 Feb. 1817, and promoted lieutenant-colonel commanding Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion in May 1817. He was made a full member of the Executive Council, with voting rights, on 3 April 1823.
Smith did not lose interest in his “History,” however, and in early 1823 he mentioned to Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] his preoccupation with the deterioration and disappearance of historical sources in the colony. In April Dalhousie invited him along with Sewell and Joseph-Rémi Vallières de Saint-Réal to help form “a Society, not entirely ‘Antiquarian’ but Historical rather and Canadian,” the principal objects of which would be “the early history of Canada, and particularly that which relates to the Indians,” as well as the collection of “all books, papers, deeds or documents which are supposed to be still existing but neglected.” The Literary and Historical Society of Quebec was founded the following year; Smith, however, seems to have played only a discreet role in its subsequent development. The time now seemed propitious for bringing out his history and, after protracted negotiations with Neilson over payment of printing costs since 1815, Smith released the History of Canada in two volumes in 1826.
The appearance of the History coincided with an increasingly determined effort on the part of the assembly, dominated by the nationalist Canadian party under Louis-Joseph Papineau*, to subject to its control the governor and the Executive and Legislative councils, led by Sewell and John Richardson* of the English party. In the mould of the English party, Smith had conceived the theme of his work to be “a Colony daily augmenting in Wealth, Prosperity and Happiness: now fortunately placed under the dominion of Great Britain and with a Constitution . . . which, . . . in assigning to its various branches, rights, peculiar to each, but necessary to the preservation of all, has been found in the harmony and co-operation of its powers . . . best adapted to the spirit and happiness of a Free People.” Although Smith himself considered his book a “narrative” rather than a history, it did constitute an effort at analysis and synthesis; it was in any case a much more substantial work than its only predecessor in English, George Heriot’s The history of Canada, from its first discovery . . . , published in London in 1804. For the French régime, the subject of the first volume, Smith used a certain number of official and private manuscript sources, but his coverage and opinions were largely those of the Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France . . . (3v. and 6v., Paris, 1744) by Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix* and of the “Histoire du Canada depuis l’année 1749 jusqu’à celle 176 . . .” by Louis-Léonard Aumasson* de Courville. He wrote of the earliest period of French settlement with relative impartiality, but as he brought his account down to the conquest he increasingly reflected views current in the English party; his treatment of church-state relations, for example, was heavily influenced by Sewell, who had long dealt with the subject. Perhaps in an effort to camouflage his parti pris, Smith made the second volume, which covers the period 1763 to 1791, little more than a compilation of documents; most of them were official in nature, but all were chosen to express his view that progress in the colony could be achieved only through the adoption of English law, land tenure, and education among other things.
Produced in an edition of 300 copies, the History sold only 68 in 1826 and 8 more in the three years following. Its sales reflected a certain disinterest in history which can also be seen in the disappointing reception given by the educated public to the Literary and Historical Society. The work did provoke a vigorous response by the priest Thomas Maguire* over its treatment of the Roman Catholic Church, but the leaders of the Canadian party opted to ignore it. It formed the basis for Joseph-François Perrault’s treatment of the British régime in the Abrégé de l’histoire du Canada . . . (4v., Québec, 1832–36), a school textbook, and of the Histoire du Canada, et des Canadiens, sous la domination anglaise published in 1844 by the office holder Michel Bibaud*; neither work was influential. In 1826 as well Smith had edited for publication a continuation to 1762 of his father’s history of New York.
The mild sensation in Smith’s life produced by the publication of his History was followed by a return to tranquillity. In 1835, however, Governor Lord Gosford [Acheson], who had been sent to the colony to quiet ever-intensifying discontent, one cause of which was plural and incompatible office holding, forced Smith to decide between the prestige of the executive councillor and the salary of the clerk of the Legislative Council. Smith chose the salary, but he was kept on as an executive councillor for political reasons until after the rebellion of 1837. Attempts to gain a knighthood were unsuccessful, and when the Canadas were unified in 1841 Smith was forced to retire from the clerkship on half salary as a pension; he was unable to persuade authorities to let a son replace him as clerk. He lived out his remaining years quietly in a summer house he had built at Cap-Rouge and in his substantial residence at Quebec, where he died on 17 Dec. 1847. He and his wife had had at least five children.
William Smith was a man of ordinary intellectual abilities who largely failed in his efforts to emulate a brilliant father. Indeed his father’s domination of him had left him indecisive and lacking character; Dalhousie referred to him disdainfully as “Billy Smith.” Without his father’s breadth of vision, but trained to seek prestige and wealth, Smith became in Dalhousie’s (albeit exaggerated) view “a mean self-interested adviser . . . [who] would do or say anything to please the reigning power.” None the less, in his career Smith to some extent typified the influential anglophone oligarchy of office holders, and through his pioneering research and the publication of his History he promoted the preservation of historical documents and struggled to awaken in Lower Canada an interest in the study of the past.
William Smith is the author of History of Canada . . . (2v., Quebec, 1815). The diary of his trip to London was published as “The London diary of William Smith, 1803–1804,” ed. L F. S. Upton, CHR, 47 (1966): 146–55. Smith edited a work by his father entitled Continuation of “The history of the province of New-York”, to the appointment of Governor Colden, in 1762 (New York, 1826).
ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 23 janv. 1815, 20 déc. 1847. New York Public Library, Rare Book and mss Division (New York), William Smith papers. PAC, MG 23, GII, 10: 1658–61, 1673–76, 2412–15; MG 24, B1; RG 1, E1, 37: 124–25; 38: 429; L3L: 142; RG 4, A1: 40690; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. PRO, CO 47/122. Univ. de Montréal, Service des bibliothèques, coll. spéciales, coll. Melzack, procuration, 5 juill. 1815; Ryland à Thomas Amyot, 20 août 1815; Ryland à sir John Coape Sherbrooke, 28 sept. 1816. Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw). William Smith, The diary and selected papers of Chief Justice William Smith, 1784–1793, ed. L. F. S. Upton (2v., Toronto, 1963–65). Quebec Gazette, 26 Oct. 1786; 24 May, 20 Nov. 1792; 25 April 1793; 1 Aug. 1816; 22 May 1817; 21 Nov. 1822; 11 Jan. 1827. Ginette Bernatchez, “La Société littéraire et historique de Québec (the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec), 1824–1890” (thèse de
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Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted, “SMITH, WILLIAM (1769-1847),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_1769_1847_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||J. M. Bumsted|
|Title of Article:||SMITH, WILLIAM (1769-1847)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 30, 2023|