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James Smith Irish Immigrant and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Updated on January 27, 2022
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A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past and interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.

Born in the North of Ireland

James Smith, one of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence born in Ireland, was born in the North of Ireland about 1719 (no exact date or year is known and his year of birth is usually given as between 1715 and 1720).

James was the second son born into a large family. The family moved to Pennsylvania when James was a child.

We don't know why they moved, but this was a period in the history of Northern Ireland when leases on farms were expiring and landlords were not renewing them thereby forcing the farmers and their families off the land.

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Family Enjoyed Moderate Financial Success

His father was apparently a successful farmer, at least after he arrived in Pennsylvania, as he was able to provide an education for at least two of his sons, James and his elder brother, George. Both became lawyers.

While the families of both father and son were respectable and enjoyed a measure of prosperity and success neither was of such heroic stature that would cause them to be remembered through the ages.

Rather they were ordinary people who left little of lasting historical significance.

An Ordinary Man Living in Extrordinary Times

However, James did leave his name on the Declaration of Independence and for generations to come lovers of liberty and freedom will see the name James Smith inscribed on that document every time they read the Declaration of Independence.

Basically, James Smith was an ordinary man – husband, father, neighbor, businessman – who willingly stepped forward when duty called. But it is individuals and families like the Smiths who are the building blocks of every society and whose collective individual actions make nations great.

Smith was given a classical education from a local church pastor (probably Presbyterian as that appears to have been the family’s religious affiliation).

He seems to have then attended college in Philadelphia where he continued his classical education as well as studying surveying before going on to study law at his brother George’s office in Lancaster.

He completed his legal training and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar at age 26. He practiced law first in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania and then moved to York, Pennsylvania where opened an office offering his services as both a lawyer and surveyor.

Smith Joins the Revolutionary Cause

Smith became an early supporter of the patriot cause becoming active in various local and state committees and meetings.

As tensions with the British increased he organized the first volunteer militia company in Pennsylvania and was elected as its Captain. He was later given the rank of Colonel and, in 1782, was made Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania Militia.

Along with Thomas McKean, Smith was among the leaders who swayed the Quaker dominated Pennsylvania Convention to change and support the move to declare independence.

In 1776, shortly before the fourth of July, he was elected by the convention as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress that was then meeting in Philadelphia.

Return to Family and Business

James Smith signed the Declaration of Independence but left Congress in 1778.
While he continued to be involved in public life at the state and local level the focus of the remainder of his life appears to have been his family and his business.

In 1800 advancing age forced him to retire. A fire in his office late in life resulted in the destruction of most of his personal and business papers thereby leaving us with little but the limited official records of his life.

James Smith was married and he and his wife had five children – three boys and two girls. At the time of his death in 1806 only one son and one daughter survived him.

He was buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in York, Pennsylvania.

The monument on his grave states that he was 93 at the time of his death but, due to the fact that there is no record as to the year of his birth, and his refusal in life to disclose his date of birth or age, this is simply an estimate and probably errors on the high side.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Chuck Nugent


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