Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Walter Smith (1845-1925)
MSA SC 3520-1475

Governor of Maryland 1900-1904

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 227-230.

"JOHN WALTER SMITH, who overcame the handicaps of poverty and orphanhood to become a multi-millionaire and longtime political leader, was born in Snow Hill on February 8, 1845, the son of John Walter and Charlotte (Whittington) Smith. His ancestors had been residents of Worcester County for several generations, and many of them had distinguished themselves in public life. William Whittington, his maternal grandfather, had been an extensive Worcester County landowner who was one of the judges in the First Judicial Circuit. His great-grandfather, Samuel Handy, had been a member of the Association of the Freemen of Maryland. His father had, for a time after John Walter’s birth engaged in the wholesale business in Baltimore, but he failed and returned to Snow Hill where he died in 1850. Charlotte Smith had died at John Walter’s birth, so he had to grow up in a boarding house in Snow Hill and in extremely poor circumstances. U. S. Senator Ephraim K. Wilson was appointed his guardian, an association which resulted in Smith’s interest in politics.

"Smith attended the primary schools and Union Academy in Snow Hill. In 1863, when he was eighteen, he began his business career as a clerk in the store of George S. Richardson and Brother. He subsequently became a partner in this firm. He developed greater commercial interests by the establishment of a line of sailing vessels, and by opening a grist mill and a saw mill. By the end of the Civil War, he had started the lumber business in which he later made his fortune.

"In 1869, Smith married Mary Frances Richardson, the sister of the senior partner of the Richardson firm, and they had two daughters, of whom one, Charlotte Whittington Smith died young. Mrs. Smith died in 1910. but John Walter never remarried.

"Smith and his business associates expanded their interests in the two decades after the Civil War. He organized the First National Bank of Snow Hill in 1887. He was one of the largest landowners in Worcester County and he entered the oyster industry, and the lumbering, canning, farming, finance and insurance businesses. He was the Vice President of the Surry Lumber Company and the Surry, Sussex and Southampton Railroad Company, and was connected with many other institutions in Snow Hill, Baltimore, and other parts of Maryland.

[p. 228] "In 1889, Smith made his first attempt at securing a public office, although he had been a considerable factor in Eastern Shore politics for many years previously. In that year, he became a candidate for the State Senate from Worcester County and was elected after an exciting campaign. He was re-elected in 1893 and again in 1897. Early in his career as a State Senator, he experienced the first of his two great political disappointments in his efforts to secure a seat in the United States Senate. His guardian, Ephraim K. Wilson had been elected for the term expiring in 1897, but he had died before he had begun it. Smith announced that he would be a candidate for the vacancy, but instead, the Legislature chose Charles H. Gibson after three days of balloting.

"During the legislative session of 1894, Smith was elected to the presidency of the State Senate, serving for one year in that capacity. Democratic leaders, urged Smith to become a candidate for Congress from the First District, in the hope that their party would regain control of the seat they had lost in the Republican landslide of 1896. Although the Republicans fought bitterly to hold it, Smith decisively defeated his opponent Col. Wilbur Jackson, the brother of Governor Elihu Jackson. Before his term began, however, Smith was nominated Governor of Maryland by the Democratic State Convention which met in the summer of 1899. At the time of his nomination as Governor, Smith had the distinction of being a State Senator as well as a Congressman-elect. Lloyd Lowndes, the Republican incumbent was renominated, but Smith defeated him by an impressive 13,000 vote majority to return the Democrats to office after a four-year interim. Smith was inaugurated on January 10, 1900.

"The most outstanding event in Smith’s administration was his call for a special session of the Legislature in 1901 to correct fraudulent errors in the Federal census returns for Southern Maryland. These, if they had remained uncorrected, would have given disproportionate representation in the House of Delegates to the white Republicans and the Negroes in these counties, which was completely unacceptable to the Democratic majority. These frauds resulted in the ordering of a State census as well as “efforts . . . to curb the illiterate part of the Negro vote by the passage of legislation to abolish the custom of voting for candidates indicated by party emblems,' insisted Matthew Page Andrews. He went on to charge that 'upon the urgent representations of [Senator] Gorman, Governor Smith had called the extra session for the purpose of changing the election laws on behalf of the re-election of Gorman, rather than to correct the census frauds.'1

"Smith noted the urgent need for legislation to amend the State’s election law to correct abuses in it. He hoped that the adoption of the Australian ballot system would end bribery and corruption in elections, but discrimination and intimidation still continued. He advocated the adoption of a ballot which would not contain party emblems or pictorial representation, but one which would conform to the practices of each Board of Supervisors of Elections to maintain the secrecy of the ballot. [p. 229] 'With the destruction of its secrecy goes also the destruction of the freedom of the ballot,' he told the Legislature.2 That body subsequently adopted his proposal.

"Smith’s third reason for the special session was his desire to confer power upon Baltimore’s Mayor and City Council to adopt a proper sewerage system. The Legislature, in accordance with his suggestion created the Sewerage Commission and authorized the issuance of stock to maintain the system.

"During his term as Governor, Smith supported measures which affected the public health of Maryland by initiating a public campaign against tuberculosis. In 1902, he recommended that the Legislature create a commission to investigate the disease and devise some measures for preventing its spread. He also served upon a commission which was created in response to his request.

"He supported the program for the improvement of the county schools. Early in his legislative career, he had introduced the free school book bill, which did not become law until 1896. During his administration, the Legislature revised the public school law governing the appointment of bipartisan county school boards, doing much “to eliminate partisan influence and make the schools more efficient.'3

"In 1904, just as his term as Governor was about to end, Smith became a candidate for a seat in the United States Senate for the second time. After a prolonged fight, which nearly resulted in an unbreakable deadlock, Isidor Rayner was elected, and Smith thereby suffered the second of his great political defeats. 'The result was one of the biggest political sensations of the State.'4

"Although he had been defeated, Smith still remained the Democratic leader of the State and marshalled his forces for the next senatorial campaign. In 1908, he secured his party’s nomination in the first senatorial primary and was overwhelmingly elected to the term expiring in 1909. In the meantime, however, Senator William Pinkney Whyte had died, so the Legislature selected Smith to fill the unexpired term.

"When Smith’s term expired in 1915, he successfully sought re-election. In the meantime, the system of electing Senators had been changed by the adoption of the sixteenth amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913, since that time each senator had been elected by direct vote of the people. He was re-elected in 1914 defeating Isaac Lobe Straus in the primary and overcoming Edward C. Carrington, Jr., his Republican opponent in the general election by approximately 15,000 votes out of the nearly 205,000 cast. He was renominated again in 1920, but Ovington E. Weller defeated him by approximately 16,000 votes in the great Republican landslide of that year.

[p. 230] "After his retirement from office in March 1921, Smith spent his last years in Baltimore. His friends persuaded him to become a candidate for the United States Senate again in 1922, but he declined. He remained the Democratic National Committeeman for Maryland until his death.

"John Walter Smith died in Baltimore on April 19, 1925 at the age of eighty. After funeral services at his daughter’s home, Smith was taken to Snow Hill where he was buried in the Makemie Memorial Presbyterian Church cemetery. 'He was the kind of man who could be depended upon to make good in any undertaking,' was the Baltimore American’s appraisal of his life."5

Notes on sources

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