Biography

Meet A.D. Smith, Forgotten Libertarian Abolitionist Hero and Would-Be President of Canada

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The Lost President: A.D. Smith and the Hidden History of Radical Democracy in Civil War America, by Ruth Dunley, University of Georgia Press, 214 pages, $54.95

Ruth Dunley first encountered Abram D. Smith as a barely mentioned bit of trivia in Glyndon Van Deusen's 1959 book The Jacksonian Era. "In September, 1838," Van Deusen wrote, "some 160 Hunters from both sides of the [Canadian] border attended a convention in Cleveland, where they elected one Smith, a resident of that city, President of the Republic of Canada."

Who was this Smith person, and how did he get elected by a bunch of carousing yahoos as president of a neighboring country? Why had she never heard of him before? Surely such a colorful figure should have made it into some textbook somewhere; surely his whole legacy was recorded in an obscure dissertation, some old journal article, or at least a beefy footnote. Something out there must explain this guy and his role in what became a major international affair.

But no—not even close. No one had ever bothered to write this man into history. Now Dunley had a dissertation to write.

The Lost President: A.D. Smith and the Hidden History of Radical Democracy in Civil War America is the result of that work. Besides his Canadian adventure, Dunley found, Smith was the Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who struck down the national Fugitive Slave Act in his state in 1854. His name was also briefly floated for the vice presidency on Abraham Lincoln's 1860 ticket. Smith's life would be lost to time but for the efforts of a single historian.

Salvaging the record was no easy task. First off, the phrase "one Smith" from Van Deusen was not much to go on. After checking a variety of Ohio archives, Dunley concluded the man's initials were "A.D." But that made for a bit too much to go on. With 6,294 different necrology files linked to the name, she experienced both ends of the research historian's constant dilemmas: the hopeless dearth of useful evidence and the crushing mountain of clutter. Dunley took hours to comb through baby-naming books for possible combinations, entering them fruitlessly into Google; she checked just about every type of archive; she found suggestions that he may have been a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, but nothing terribly specific; she called on waves of archivists and librarians.

To make matters worse, the election that attracted her attention in the first place was a highly secretive affair, conducted by an underground militia of rowdy radical republicans intent on invading Canada to stir up revolution. These "Brother Hunters" or "Patriots" communicated in secret or by cypher, using their true names as infrequently as possible. Dunley went so far as to enlist an anonymous "hacker" to decode the Hunters' documents. Still no leads.

She learned A.D. Smith's address in Cleveland, but that went nowhere. She learned that he'd served as a justice of the peace there for some time, and she hoped to find a complete name amid the documents he signed. Maddeningly, however, "he had signed nearly every one of the fifteen hundred or so pages of his docket books—some pages twice—but always with just his initials." Her hands were black with Jacksonian-era ink, but still she had no full name: "Not only did the world know nothing about A.D. Smith, but now, as his would-be biographer, neither did I."

And then Dunley did what any enterprising young graduate student might: "I went back to the Internet." After several more hours of digging, she uncovered a brief biography of one Abram D. Smith of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court. A few sources later, she found in an 1897 publication called The Green Bag another explosive scrap of evidence in the evolving mystery of his life. It read: "Before coming to Milwaukee [Abram D. Smith] was a justice of the peace in Cleveland, Ohio." Our author-hero's project finally started to come together.

Once Dunley discovered the essential components necessary to identify "one Smith," she slowly but steadily reconstructed his biography, the ambling and quixotic story of a 19th century "knight errant for republicanism." He was constantly in motion, moving from one place to another, staying just long enough to make a mark yet still disappear without much of a trace. He celebrated America and Americanism in some of the most libertarian ways imaginable: As a young law student, he kept the Fourth one year by firing salutes to revolutionary heroes, drinking in their honor, and napping the day away in a rowboat, isolated on a lake island in New York's mountain country. He dreamed and spoke of universal progress borne across the globe on electrified telegraph lines, railroads, and steamships everywhere. He devoted his professional life to upholding the constitutional system as he understood it—a series of fail-safes between would-be tyrants and the people's liberties—and he seized critical moments to shape events as they came to him.

He was a crusader for those weaker than himself, an advocate for the voiceless, a radical reformer. In the Canadian rebellions, he and others hoped to liberate a downtrodden and exploited people from the world's most powerful empire. Nearly 30 years later, in the South Carolina Sea Islands, he oversaw the redistribution of planter land to the freed people who had worked it.

Smith exhibited all the best (and worst) qualities of early libertarians. He was hopeful, tireless, radical, and passionate. He was also naive, prodigal, headstrong, and romantic. The Canadian rebellions were largely a homegrown affair—a reaction growing out of the place's long history as part of the British empire yet deeply connected to the United States. As Canadians imbibed Jacksonian political rhetoric, separatist leaders such as William Lyon Mackenzie found greater and greater support for dismantling British class legislation and colonial spoils. As it happened, though, far more Americans like Smith supported the cause than actual Canadians.

Smith was lucky enough to avoid battle in the Canadas, but plenty of his fellow Hunters and Patriots suffered or died for their cause at the hands of a British court-martial. James Gemmel was one such captured Patriot, convicted and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania. Gemmel survived and wrote up his experiences, urging his peers to "avoid all frontier movements—the best weapon in the hands of this great republic, with which to revolutionize the world, is surely a strict adherence to that wise, just, and honest policy, which carries in its train prosperity and peace." Smith, meanwhile, spent the next few years marveling that one country (the United States) could peacefully and voluntarily absorb another (Texas) into republican sisterhood. But that wonder of diplomacy was soon outshined by a slaveholder's war for Mexico and the Pandora's box of slavery's expansion in the territories.

A decade later, a runaway slave named Joshua Glover escaped to Smith's Wisconsin, and slave catchers apprehended one of Glover's abolitionist assistants, Sherman Booth, as retribution. In Booth's case, Smith declared the Fugitive Slave Act null and void in his state. Virginians might render human beings into property, but Wisconsin would recognize the humanity of all people.

His stance made Wisconsin the first state to outright refuse cooperation with the national fugitive slave law. It was a major moment in the immediate prehistory of the Republican Party.

Yet by 1860, the Supreme Court had overturned his decision. Smith was rocked by a local bribery scandal, dumped from the Democratic Party, rebuffed by the Republican Party, and left without any vehicle for his constant stream of causes.

He must have leapt at the chance, then, to join the Direct Tax Commission in organizing newly freed slaves in the Sea Islands. There, he spent his final years enjoying the former slaves' new liberties with them, helping them toward literacy, subsistence, security, and equal citizenship. But even then, bureaucracy won the day; Smith's fellow commissioners convinced the Lincoln administration that he was doing more harm than good.

And perhaps he was. Smith died on a steamer from South Carolina to New York, the victim of a life of alcoholism and maybe harder drug use as well. He had reportedly been drunk on the job for years.

Throughout his life, contemporaries remarked that Smith's name was likely to go down in history bolded, underlined, and italicized. They thought that posterity would surely remember a man who lived life to such great effect. But historical memory is a fickle thing, and few libertarian heroes will be remembered unless we do the labor of history. Smith died in obscurity and was almost immediately forgotten. Now, thanks to Ruth Dunley and her tireless quest to unravel the Great Smith Mystery, we once again have memories of this man.

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  1. Checking this book on worldcat, I found the subject headings included this:

    “United States. — Internal Revenue Service — Officials and employees — Biography.”

    OTOH, he was a bold “nullificationist” who declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and didn’t back down in the face of the Roger Taney and his colleagues:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvlTJrNJ5lA

    1. Meanwhile, the presumably sober Supreme Court judges were saying that people with African blood had no rights except such as the white people may choose to grant them.

      1. I wonder whether it was simply inconvenient for either side to promote his memory – certainly not the South, and certainly not the North either since shortly after the Glover case Northerners went to war and proclaimed “nullification” and states’ rights as damnable heresies. A Northern nullificationist wouldn’t fit into the narrative.

        1. Let us be as vigilant about tearing down statues and memorials to this A. D. Smith as we are about erasing the memory of John Calhoun. And Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as well, since they too supported the idea of nullification.

          Given his later work, Smith appears to have been a radical Republican. Radical Republicans were one wing of the party, the “radical” part of their name coming from their belief that blacks should not only not be enslaved but that they should equally enjoy all the rights and privileges of white people, the latter part of that belief not being universally shared.

        2. shortly after the Glover case Northerners went to war and proclaimed “nullification” and states’ rights as damnable heresies.

          That’s just Lost Cause post-post-facto revisionism. Applied to the North. ‘States rights’ was not on the list of things the South sought to defend/advance. It was not one of the things the North sought to rollback/hinder. And in fact, the Dred Scott case – very much a proximate cause of the war – put the nail in the coffin that the South (at least not the planter/oligarchy) ever really advocated that since it undermined the right of states to either a)ban slavery in their territory or b)decide the terms of citizenship for their state or c)ban their citizens from owning slaves in other states.

          And nullification ceased to be an issue in the South once Calhoun died. In fact, one of the major cited reasons for secession WAS Northern ‘nullification’. Specifically re the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and what this judge did and what Vermont also did. That didn’t mean Northerners were fighting FOR nullification but they sure didn’t throw it under the truck.

          1. “‘States rights’ was not on the list of things the South sought to defend/advance. It was not one of the things the North sought to rollback/hinder.”

            Is this retard serious?

            You’re an idiot. Everything you said there is demonstrably wrong.

          2. Specifically – you can read the actual South Carolina Declaration of Secession and see that it is simply chock-full of railing against both nullification and states not completely fulfilling their perceived OBLIGATION to protect slavery. eg

            The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

            1. Yeah, states rights was something of a one-way ratchet for the South. “Rule or ruin” – control the federal government – and subdue the free states – or take their ball and go home (secede).

              1. As for the North, a war against states-rights-proclaiming secessionists encouraged a nationalistic counter-response which paid short shrift to the nuances. Which may be understandable in wartime (when federal power is greater than peacetime, though how much greater was a bone of contention), but from then to now it’s been exploited by apologists for *peacetime* expansion of federal power. Because, you see, every peacetime “crisis” is the moral equivalent of the Civil War, or something.

                1. I don’t think the North was put into some difficult explanatory dilemma. They viewed the main cause of the Civil War (correctly imo) as the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. Whether it was the Lincoln view (that the federal govt could not expand slavery through its territories) or the Douglas view (that the people of the territory could decide themselves whether to have slavery as the terms of their statehood), Northerners were 90%+ in agreement with one or the other. To Southerners, both those views were anathema. So much so in Lincoln’s case that he wasn’t allowed on the ballot.

                  It was the Breckinridge view (all federal territories had to protect slavery and if any Southerners moved there with slaves that territory would de facto have to become a slave state and endure a ‘bloody Kansas’ before doing so) that turned ‘secession’ into ‘war’. Just looking at an 1860 map – and knowing the results of the 1860 election in both CA and OR (both with strong pro-slavery minority) – the Civil War wasn’t about the ‘states’. It was about which of those factions would take over the vast swathe of ‘federal’ territory. THAT was what was worth fighting for for both sides. Even though it was then ‘unpopulated’.

                  1. Here’s a good 1860 map showing both those ‘federal’ (can only become ‘Union’ or ‘Confederate’ since they don’t yet exist as ‘states’) territories – and the expanding ‘possibility’ of slavery existing in them because of the various pre-Civil War legal decisions by the federal govt.

                    From the Union or ‘free soil’ side, those territories have become increasingly off-limits to smallholder farmers who don’t want to compete with slave labor on big plantations. And virtually all immigration to the US was to the North cuz no immigrant had any interest in coming to the US to compete with slaves at the bottom of the labor pyramid.

                    From the Confederate side, all those favorable legal decisions about the territories are upended by the election of Lincoln – and slavery (whether in the ‘breeding’ parts of the South or the ‘cotton’ parts of the South) required expansion cuz it sucked at maintaining good soil for long.

  2. Oh. I thought the graphic said “A.O. Smith”, and I wondered what water heaters and boilers had to do with it.

  3. He was constantly in motion, moving from one place to another, staying just long enough to make a mark yet still disappear without much of a trace.

    Given how much trouble the author had tracking down exactly who A.D. Smith was, it does make me wonder how accurate the author was in tracking down a singular A.D. Smith, and not finding other Smiths who may have popped up in historical documents to create a composite character.

    Such things have been known to happen-a singular person given credit for the composite deeds of many different individuals.

    1. I’ll take it!

      Robert Goodman

  4. “He was also naive, prodigal, headstrong, and romantic.”

    Sounds like Reason and its support for coercive monopoly government on the belief that it could be limited to moral government.

    1. Moral limited coercion is an oxymoron.

  5. What an amazing person. Thanks for sharing A. D. Smith’s remarkable story. Where are the A. D. Smith’s of today?

    1. At the Blinking Own distillery.

  6. What a delightful book review. Thanks.

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