William Smith (the elder)


Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1763-1769

William Smith was born at Newport Pagnell, England, on October 8, 1697. His family moved to New York, arriving on August 17, 1715. Shortly afterward, he entered Yale College and graduated in 1719. He continued his studies in classics and religion, received a further degree from Yale in 1722, and became a tutor there from 1722 until 1724. During this time, he commenced his legal studies and was admitted to the Bar on May 20, 1724. He started a law practice in the city of New York and rapidly rose to eminence. In 1733, James Alexander, William Smith, and Lewis Morris established the New-York Weekly Journal with John Peter Zenger as printer. It was the Province’s first independent newspaper and regularly published articles critical of Governor William Cosby’s administration.

In 1735, Cosby had Zenger arrested on a charge of seditious libel. William Smith and James Alexander represented Zenger in the legal proceedings that followed. Both were struck off the roll of attorneys of the Supreme Court of Judicature when, in the course of Zenger’s defense, they challenged the validity of Chief Juistice James De Lancey’s appointment as chief judge and the validity of the commissions of the other judges of the court. Following the death of Governor Cosby, Smith and Alexander were reinstated.

In August 1752, Governor Clinton appointed Smith Attorney General and Advocate General. Also in 1752, Smith was appointed to the Governor’s Council. In 1754, Smith was a delegate to the General Congress that met at Albany during the French and Indian War and was a drafter of a plan for a unified government for “defense and other general important purposes.” William Smith was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1763, an office that he retained until his death. He was a member of the court that tried the 1764 landmark jury trial case of Forsey v. Cunningham and was also a member of the court that tried Anti-Rent Movement leader William Prendergast on a charge of treason in the 1766 case of Crown v. Prendergast.

Judge William Smith was an excellent linguist, theologian, mathematician and scientist. As a lawyer and judge, he was conscientious and painstaking. He died in the city of New York on November 22, 1769.



Delafield, Maturin L. “William Smith, Judge of the Supreme Court of the Province of New York.” The Magazine of American History Apr.- Jun. 1881.


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