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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 3


This foot note contained in document ADMS-01-03-02-0005-0001-0002
3. William Stephens Smith (1755–1816), JA 's secretary of legation and soon to be his son-in-law; he is designated in the present work as WSS . He was the son of John Smith, a merchant in New York City, was graduated from Princeton in 1774, studied law briefly, and served as an officer in the Continental Army, beginning in Aug. 1776, throughout the war, under the command or on the staff, successively, of Sullivan, Lee, Lafayette, and Washington. The best summary and appraisal of his service to June 1782 is in a certificate from Washington himself, stating that WSS in all his “several Military Stations” had “behaved with great fidelity, bravery, and good conduct” (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, 24:377). His last assignment was overseeing the British evacuation of New York City, and he left the army in Dec. 1783 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Appointed by Congress secretary to the legation in London, he arrived just ahead of the Adamses and quickly overcame their doubts about him on the score of his being “a Knight of Cincinnatus” ( JA to Gerry, 28 April 1785, and to Lafayette, 3 June 1785, letterbook copies, Adams Papers). Before long he also made a deep impression on AA2 , and on 11 June 1786 they were married; see note on entry of 1 July, below. WSS 's dispatches as secretary of legation, 1785–1787, are in PCC, No. 92; they have more autobiographical than historical value. In 1788 the Smiths returned to America and settled in New York City. WSS held a succession of civil and military appointments but in 1806 virtually wrecked his career by complicity in the scheme of his old friend Francisco de Miranda to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule. (He furnished a vessel for the expedition, and his son William Steuben Smith, to the infinite distress of JA , who profoundly disapproved of the whole enterprise, was captured by the Spanish authorities.) Having won an acquittal in a federal court on charges of violating the neutrality of the United States, but having also lost his post as surveyor of the Port of New York, WSS retired to “Smith's Valley,” Lebanon, Hamilton co., N.Y., emerging only to serve a term in Congress 1813–1815, before his death. According to JQA , he left his worldly affairs “in inextricable confusion” ( JQA , Diary, 4 May 1819). A memoir of WSS was prepared by his daughter Caroline Amelia (Smith) de Windt and published, together with some of his correspondence, in AA2's Jour. and Corr. , 1841–1842; the memoir, which is highly filial, is at 1:99–117. Katharine Metcalf Roof's Colonel William Smith and Lady, published in 1929, is based on both printed and MS sources (including some family papers which cannot currently be traced), but is excessively romantic and chatty in tone and is not documented. An earlier and briefer account is still useful, especially respecting WSS 's family: Marcius D. Raymond, “Colonel William Stephens Smith,” N.Y. Geneal. and Biog. Record, 25:153–161 (Oct. 1894). In 1795 WSS purchased an estate on the East River, built an elegant seat there which he called Mount Vernon, and planned a great stone stable which still survives at 421 East 61st Street, almost under the Queensboro Bridge in New York City. The history of the estate and the buildings on it has been related and illustrated by Joseph Warren Greene in “Mount Vernon on the East River and Colonel William Stephens { 184 } Smith,” NYHS Quart., 10:115–130 (Jan. 1927). Because he had greatly overreached himself financially, WSS was obliged to sell this property in 1796, and in 1826 the mansion was destroyed by fire. But the stone stable, after many vicissitudes, was acquired in 1924 by the Colonial Dames of America, which uses it as a national headquarters under the name of the Abigail Adams Smith House; see a pamphlet by Katharine Metcalf Roof, The Story of the Abigail Adams Smith Mansion and the Mount Vernon Estate, issued by the Colonial Dames of America in 1949.