"THE CENTRAL ROLE of William Smith in colonial Pennsylvania politics has not been a fully explored aspect of the University's official history," says Mark Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center and the man responsible for buying the papers. "When that role of Smith is placed in its context, the University's own history is significantly different."
The papers consist of more than 350 documents, mostly letters from and to Smith, but also a miscellany of court orders (Smith was once imprisoned by the Pennsylvania Assembly on libel charges), honorary degrees, poems, and the like, many pertaining to the fledgling College. "Pray do not mix private and Academy business in one Letter," Peters tells Smith in December 1762, after the provost has committed yet another epistolary indiscretion. Fortunately for us, Smith ignored his advice.
"Smith was such a brilliant writer," says Lloyd, "and so candid in his communications with his patron, Thomas Penn, that the papers reveal a clarity of his motivations and intentions which we would today think of as very confidential. The content of these papers -- not only from Smith to Penn but from Penn to Smith, is rarely captured in writing in our era of multiple, immediate communication. The kinds of things that are in these letters we now say in person or over the telephone -- or some of us, nowadays, in e-mail."
It would take a couple of centuries for the papers to make their way back to the University. In 1779, the American Revolutionaries -- one of whom was Franklin -- forced Smith out of the provostship of the College, changing its name to the University of the State of Pennsylvania and reorganizing its charter to something closer to Franklin's original non-sectarian vision. Though Smith regained control of the College in 1789, he would lose it once and for all in 1791, at which point the institution finally shortened its name to the University of Pennsylvania. And when he left, he took his personal and professional papers with him.
After Smith died in 1803, the papers passed on to his descendents, one of whom -- his great-grandson, Horace Wemyss Smith -- drew on them in the process of writing a very sympathetic biography that Lloyd describes as an "apologia." Though they were available to scholars at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the papers remained in private hands until 1992, and none of the University's authorized histories made use of them. In his recent Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man, Dr. Francis Jennings, Gr'65, noted that when he first examined the Smith papers at the Historical Society back in the sixties, they were not even catalogued "because of fear that the owning family might retrieve them."
"I confess that I don't feel very fond of William Smith after reading those letters," says Dr. Robert Middlekauff, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, who read them in the course of writing his recent book Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies. "He was not a popular man among a lot of people. But this doesn't mean he wasn't important; he was. It doesn't mean that his papers weren't important; they certainly were, and are."
"I think it's very important for Penn to have these papers, since Smith was the most important figure in the early days of the College, and has not been very adequately written up," agrees Dr. Richard Dunn, emeritus professor of history. "There has not been a very good biography of him. These could give a much more inside picture as to what Mr. Smith was up to."
I am still in my confinement, and (what is worse) with but little Prospect of a Speedy Release.... I know I need say nothing to press you to expedite my Complaint and Appeal. Your Love of Liberty and Law will induce you to do this.
Smith wrote that letter to Thomas Penn on 12 March 1758 from the Market Street "gaol," where he had been tossed by the Pennsylvania Assembly on charges of libel. Penn was the proprietor of Pennsylvania, and while his love of liberty is open to debate, he did indeed help Smith in his fight with the Assembly. Eventually the charges were overturned by a ruling from the British Privy Council, though not before Smith had taught a number of classes from his cell, with the full approval of the trustees.
Pennsylvania had two sources of political power in those days. The first was the proprietors -- the Penn family -- whose charter gave them ownership of virtually the entire province. Not only could they distribute land through the Provincial Land Office as a means of rewarding the faithful; they also appointed the governor and the judges. While Thomas Penn may have been William Penn's son, he had been married in the Anglican Church, was living in London, and had effectively repudiated the politics and the religious ethos of his father. He and Smith, observes Middlekauff, were "tied to one another by interest, politics, and what became a passionate hatred of Benjamin Franklin."
Opposing the Proprietary Party in the popularly elected Assembly was a then-dominant faction known as the Quaker Party, led by Franklin. Franklin was not a Quaker, and he had his share of disagreements with the "stiffrumps," as he sometimes called the more unyielding members, but he did respect their principles and their religious tolerance. He did not respect Thomas Penn, or most of the men who worked for him. After a confrontation with Penn in 1757, Franklin wrote: "I was astonished to see him thus meanly give up his Father's Character and conceived at that moment a more cordial and thorough Contempt for him than I ever before felt for any Man living -- a Contempt that I cannot express in Words."
Some very heated issues were simmering in colonial Pennsylvania: the French and Indian War, religious factionalism, the problems of assimilating large numbers of German-speaking settlers -- and the tricky matter of moulding young minds, which led to the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia in 1749 and its evolution to the degree-granting College of Philadelphia in 1755. (The official founding date of the University, 1740, might be said to commemorate a gleam in the eye, not a birth.) If Franklin was its founder, Penn was its funder, and the talented, charismatic Smith -- who had impressed Franklin with his notions of education in A General Idea of the College of Mirania in 1753 -- seemed the perfect choice to head the Academy. In Jennings's view, the Academy was "founded as competition for the Quaker [Penn Charter] school," and under Smith, "it was soon to give clear signals that Quakers were unwelcome in it." Continued...
April Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/26/97