John Cotton Smith, Governor of Connecticut, 1812-1817

Governor John Cotton Smith

Born: February 12, 1765, Sharon, Connecticut
College: Yale, 1783
Political Party: Federalist
Offices: United States House of Representatives, 1800-1806
Lieutenant Governor, 1811-1812
Governor of Connecticut, 1812-1817
Died:  December 7, 1845, Sharon, Connecticut

There were several Puritan ministers among the ancestors of John Cotton Smith, including Cotton Mather of Massachusetts. His own father was a minister who moved to Sharon, Connecticut where Smith was born in 1765. Some sources list the year of his birth as 1762 or 1763. A biographer claimed that Smith "gloried in his descent from the Puritan worthies" and that their early principles guided his actions, both in private and public life. As such, some regard him as the last in the long line of Connecticut governors, beginning with John Haynes in 1639, who allowed religion to impact their governmental duties. Regardless, he was the last Federalist governor to hold office in the state and he was the last of the Standing Order governors who had influenced Federalists policies in Connecticut.

Smith graduated from Yale in 1783 and became a lawyer three years later. He was married to Margaret Evertson of Amenia, New York and they had one son. He was elected to the General Assembly in 1793 and in 1800 was chosen to serve in the United States Congress. He ended his public duties in 1806 to return to Sharon to help his aging father and oversee his estate and farm. However, three years later he was appointed to the Superior Court and in 1811 he was elected Lieutenant Governor.

Smith's return to Connecticut's government came at a time when war raged in Europe and Connecticut was upset with the U. S. government's response to this conflict. At first Smith supported the French Revolution, but as its excesses and executions increased he became afraid that its policies might influence politics in America. By 1811 he supported Great Britain because he saw it as defending Christianity and freedom in its opposition to the new government in France. When war broke out between England and the United States in 1812 Governor Griswold and the General Assembly resisted the efforts of the Federal government to use the state's military to defend New England's coastline. Griswold interpreted the U. S. Constitution as only permitting the President to request these troops, and this had not been done. Griswold died in October of 1812 and Smith, who administered Connecticut during Griswold's illness, continued to regard Connecticut's resistance of the Federal government's demands as correct. However, when there appeared to be the threat of a British invasion at New London, Governor Smith sent the state's militia there to defend the port. Both the Republicans and the Federalists in Connecticut supported this action.

One of Smith's concerns as governor was a movement in New England to seek ways that these states might leave the Union in protest of the Federal government's policies. Smith eventually called a special session of the General Assembly and it agreed to send delegates to a convention in 1814 at Hartford where several New England states discussed leaving the United States. After this convention made its report in 1815 Smith sent two commissioners to Washington to explore the matter further. However, the war came to an end at this time and news arrived of Andrew Jackson's great victory at New Orleans. Connecticut's Federalists realized that their actions had been a mistake and they suffered during the elections of 1816 when Smith barely defeated the Republican candidate for governor, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. In 1817 Wolcott did defeat Smith and by 1818 the Republicans gained complete control of the Legislature.

Smith was not upset at leaving the position of governor. He returned to his estate in Sharon to pursue his scholarly and religious interests. Among these were leadership roles in foreign missions, the Connecticut and American Bible Societies, temperance, and historical societies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 1845 he was at Yale for an alumni meeting when he became ill. He died on December 7 some 28 years after being governor. He is buried in Sharon. His home still stands and is privately owned.

Bibliography

Andrews, William W. The Correspondence and Miscellanies of the Hon. John Cotton Smith...{1847)

Clark, George L.  A History of Connecticut: Its People and Institutions.  New York:  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1914 [CSL call number F 94 .C59].

Glashan, Roy R.  American Governors and Gubernatorial Elections, 1775-1975.  Stillwater, MN, Croixside Press, 1975 [CSL call number JK 2447 .G53 1975].

Highways & Byways of Connecticut.  Hartford: G. Fox & Co., [1947] [CSL call number F 94 .H54 1947].

Morgan, Forrest, ed..  Connecticut as a Colony and as a State, or, One of the Original Thirteen.  Hartford: The Publishing Society of Connecticut, 1904 [CSL call number F 94 .M84].

National Cyclopedia of American Biography.  New York:  James White & Company, 1898-   , s.v. “Smith, John Cotton”, vol. X, pp. 332-3 [CSL call number E 176 .N27].

Norton, Frederick Calvin.  The Governors of Connecticut.  Hartford:  The Connecticut Magazine, 1905 [CSL call number F 93 .N88 1905].

Sobel, Robert and John Raimo.  Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978.  Westport, CT:  Meckler Books, 1978 [CSL call number GIS Ref E 176 .B573].

John Cotton Smith Papers in Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, 7 vols. (1948-67).

Portrait

38” x  50” in its frame, painted by George F. Wright (1828-1881) and purchased by the state c1855.

Originally prepared by David O. White, Museum of Connecticut History, Connecticut State Library.