William Smith

William Smith (1727-1803) was a Scottish-born American educator and churchman whose innovative educational ideas and leadership of the Philadelphia Academy during its formative years significantly influenced American education.

William Smith was born in Aberdeen on Sept. 7, 1727. He was educated in the local parish schools and attended the University of Aberdeen (1743-1747). In 1751 he sailed to New York to be a tutor to the sons of a rich Long Island family. In 1753 Smith published a pamphlet entitled A General Idea of the College of Mirania …, which outlined his utopian ideas for an educational institution appropriate to the new country. There were to be two branches: a Latin school for the "learned professions"; and an English school for the "mechanic professions" with a "useful" curriculum containing no ancient languages. The curriculum for both was essentially secular and included such practical studies as writing, bookkeeping, and French. Such educational ideas were not new in America; they reflected Benjamin Franklin's academy proposals, as well as innovations current in Scotland, but they were broad in conception compared to existing colonial institutions. Smith sent a copy to Franklin and in 1754 went to head the newly formed Philadelphia Academy and College. Over the next 25 years he guided the institution generally along the lines stated in Mirania.

Smith became an Anglican priest in 1753 and throughout his life was a strong influence in Church affairs. In 1758 he married Rebecca Moore. He became active in conservative politics during these years, and with the onset of the Revolution he held a loyalist position in fierce opposition to Franklin and the liberals. When the General Assembly revoked the charter of the academy in 1779 on grounds of subversion and issued another charter for a new university of the state of Pennsylvania, Smith left Philadelphia. For 10 years he lived in Maryland, where he organized a new institution, Washington College, and became its first president. During this time Smith, along with other Church leaders, managed to reinstitute the Anglican Church in America as the Protestant Episcopal Church, a name he is supposed to have suggested.

In 1789, when the political winds changed and the original charter of the academy was restored, Smith returned to Philadelphia. Two years later the General Assembly chartered the present University of Pennsylvania, uniting it with the existing university. Smith, however, was not named head. He retired to his country estate near Philadelphia, where he died on May 14, 1803.

Further Reading on William Smith

Albert Frank Gegenheimer, William Smith: Educator and Churchman (1943), is a full biography of Smith; though somewhat uncritical in viewing Smith's inspirational influence on his students, it thoroughly explores his literary and clerical associations. Studies of the educational ideas of the day are Benjamin Franklin on Education, edited by John Hardin Best (1962), and Frederick Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (1965). Smith's leadership in educational organizing is examined in Edward Potts Cheyney, History of the University of Pennsylvania (1940).

Additional Biography Sources

Jones, Thomas Firth, A pair of lawn sleeves; a biography of William Smith (1727-1803), Philadelphia, Chilton Book Co. 1972.

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