James Smith was born in northern Ireland, in the Province of Ulster as the second son of a well-to-do farmer, John Smith in or around 1716 – 1719. He emigrated to Cheshire County Pennsylvania with his family when he but a youth.The family settled on the west side of the Susquehanna. The elder Smith died in the year 1761. His father was a successful farmer, and James benefited from a good, simple, classical education, first from a local clergy. He attended the Philadelphia Academy (later to become the University of Pennsylvania) from the distinguished Dr. Allison, provost of the college of Philadelphia. His attainments in classical literature were respectable. In the art of surveying, which at that early period of the country was of great importance, he is said to have excelled. After finishing his education, he applied himself to the study of law, in the office of Thomas Cookson, of Lancaster.
He continued his study of law at the office of his older brother George, in Lancaster. Smith was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar at age twenty-six, and set up an office in Cumberland County, near Shippensburg. This was a frontier area at the time, so he spent much of his time engaged in surveying, only practicing law when such work was available. After four or five years he moved back to more populated York, where he might practice law exclusively.
James Smith, at 41 years of age married Eleanor Armor, daughter of John Armour in New Castle, Delaware in 1760. They had five children, before she died on 13 July 1818. Of these five children, only one, Mary Smith, born 20 April 1763, the second child, survived into adulthood, married, and had issue. All four of the other children died unmarried or without issue.
As James Smith’s legal business grew, his surveying activities decreased, but it was an excellent background for understanding land record descriptions, and the transfer of real property from one owner to another. About the early 1760’s Smith began an iron foundry, but the business did not prosper, not because there was no market for iron—there certainly was; but he had placed the enterprise in the hands of two partners, who were, as Smith reported, “… one of who was a knave, and the other a fool.” So, James Smith lost a good bit of money on this venture.
During the 1760s, Smith became a leader in the area. He attended a provincial assembly in 1774 where he offered a paper he had written, called “Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain over the Colonies in America.” In the essay, he offered a boycott of British goods, and a General Congress of the Colonies, as measures in defense of colonial rights. Later that year he organized a volunteer militia company in York, which elected him Captain. This was the first volunteer corps raised in Pennsylvania. His company grew to be a battalion. He was appointed colonel of that regiment; a title, however, which in respect to him was honorary, since he never assumed the actual command. Later, he deferred leadership to younger men. During the rising tension with Great Britain, Smith, in his military capacity, caused two regiments of Pennsylvania militia to repair to the Flying Camp, set up near Perth Amboy, New Jersey to deter possible British incursions in early 1776.
But this was only one side of James Smith. According to Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnest’s Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence (Quirk Books, ©2009), Smith was a Congressional cut-up. His wit, storytelling prowess, and Irish brogue always entertained the congressmen. Smith milked his own debacle [of losing his business and £5000] for a quip. There was, however two things that Smith never joked about: religion and George Washington. And for some reason, like some vain Broadway diva, he eccentrically refused to tell anyone his age.”
In January, 1775, the convention for the province of Pennsylvania was assembled. Of this convention, Mr. Smith was a member, and concurred in the spirited declaration made by that convention, that “if the British administration should determine by force to effect a submission to the late arbitrary acts of the British parliament, in such a situation, we hold it our indispensable duty to resist such force, and at every hazard to defend the rights and liberties of America.” Notwithstanding this declaration by the convention, a great proportion of the Pennsylvanians, particularly the numerous body of Quakers, were strongly opposed, not only to war, but even to a declaration of independence.
He was appointed to the provincial convention in Philadelphia in 1775, the state constitutional convention in 1776, and was elected to the Continental Congress the same year. He remained in Congress only two years, and as Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in those days, provided his office for meetings of the Board of War.
James Smith, accompanied by Captain Francis Wade and Dr. Young rode off to York on the evening of 6 July 1776 with a printed broadside copy of the Declaration to read to the public in the town square. Smith continued to serve on in Congress, and in his state assembly though 1778. He was elected a Brigadier General of the state Militia in 1781, and resumed his practice of Law York as the wasr ended and kept at it until 1800, when he retired at age 81.
James Smith retired from the Congress in 1777, and served in few public offices after: one term in the State assembly, a few months as a judge of the state High Court of Appeals, etc. He was reelected to Congress in 1785, but declined to attend due to advancing age. James Smith died in York, Pennsylvania, on 11 July 1806, and is interred in the First Presbyterian Churchyard there. Little is known about his work, because a fire destroyed his office and papers shortly before he died. Most experts believe he was 86 or 87 years of age when he passed, but his grave marker lists him as 93 years of age, making him one of the top three oldest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Goodrich, Charles A. (Reverend), Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 291-296.
Pennsylvania Center for the Book
Society for the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence
U. S. History: Signers of the Declaration of Independence