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Smith's father, John Smith, a native of Strabane, Ireland, immigrated to the American colonies in the 1740s. By 1759, he was living in Baltimore and had established himself as a merchant and shipping agent. In 1766, he financed the building of Baltimore's first market house and the development of the city's first residential neighborhood. He was an advocate of independence for the American colonies and active in politics and the military.
Smith was born in November 1757 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He came of age at the height of the American Revolution and, like his father and his brother, Samuel Smith, volunteered to serve. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine, but his experience convinced him that he was not suited to a military career.
After the war, Smith attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He graduated in 1781 and went on to study law. Following his Admission to the Bar, he established a practice in Baltimore, and looked after family business interests while his father served the first of two terms in the Maryland state senate.
By 1793, Smith had followed his father into the political arena. He served in the Maryland state senate from 1793 to 1796 and in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1796 to 1800. While in the house of delegates, he served a concurrent term on Baltimore's city council.
In 1801, Smith was appointed secretary of the Navy when his brother stepped down from that post following an appropriations dispute with Congress. Up to that time, military appropriations had not been monitored or controlled as closely as other government expenditures—and President Jefferson and members of his cabinet had become increasingly concerned about moneys drawn from the Treasury by the Secretaries of War and the Navy. When the cabinet curtailed lump-sum payments and demanded an itemized accounting of how funds were spent, Smith's brother considered the demands to be a personal attack, and he resigned. Smith, who had a far better understanding of business and accounting practices, was less inclined to view the increased scrutiny as an attack on his character.
Most historians record that Smith served as secretary of the Navy from January 1802 to March 1805, but there are indications that he continued to act as secretary during his appointment as attorney general of the United States from March 1805 to the end of the year. Though his was an official appointment as attorney general, he argued no cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and wrote no opinions.
There are reasons to believe that Smith's cabinet service as secretary of the Navy and official duties as attorney general were curtailed for personal as well as political reasons. By 1805, his family had been involved in a number of incidents that caused embarrassment in Washington, D.C. One celebrated event covered by Washington papers was a party given by Smith and his wife for a niece who married Napoléon Bonaparte's brother. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte scandalized Washington with her transparent ball gown, and offended the British ambassador with her suggestive dancing.
In January 1806, Smith was asked by the president to consider an appointment as chancellor of Maryland and chief judge of the District of Baltimore. (Chancellor is the name given to the presiding judge of a court of chancery.) Smith declined the opportunity and remained in Washington.
By July 1806, Smith was once again acting as the secretary of the Navy. In United States v. Smith, 27 F. Cas. 1192 (D.N.Y. July 15, 1806), he was called to testify in this capacity as a material witness in a New York trial. And in United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 55 (D. Va. Aug. 31, 1807), Smith, as secretary of the Navy, was asked to verify the authenticity of government documents ordering Aaron Burr's capture.
Smith was named secretary of state on March 6, 1811, by President Madison. He served until November 25, when Madison called for his resignation. Madison intimates regarded Smith as an "ornamental" secretary of state because Madison, who had been secretary of state in the Jefferson administration, continued to discharge the duties of his previous office while serving as president. Before calling for Smith's resignation, Madison attempted to ease him out of office by offering him an embassy post in Russia. Smith declined the offer and decided to return to Baltimore.
In 1813, Smith was appointed provost of the University of Maryland. For the next twenty years, he devoted his time to building the university's prestige and securing its financial future.
Smith died in Baltimore on November 26, 1842.
Armstrong, Thom M. 1991. Politics, Diplomacy, and Intrigue in the Early Republic: The Cabinet Career of Robert Smith, 1801–1811. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.