Founding Fathers Friday: George Taylor and James Smith
by Derrick G. Jeter
He is the most enigmatic of all the founders—a mystery to history. But it seems America loves a good mystery for America was good to George Taylor—the signer who started out as an indentured servant.
Born in Ireland, Taylor studied medicine. But, either through lack of interest or ability, he gave up the medical profession and decided to seek his fortune in the colonies of America. Boarding a ship, he arrived in Philadelphia at the tender age of twenty. Friendless and poor—he didn’t have a penny to his name—he was, however, not unemployed. Apparently, Taylor’s passage was paid for by a Mr. Savage, who owned an ironworks. Indentured to Mr. Savage until the debt was paid off, Taylor set to work, first as a coal shoveler and then as a clerk. Eventually, Taylor paid his debt to Savage, but he was still penny poor. Until . . .
One day Mr. Savage up and died, leaving Mrs. Savage with an iron business but no husband. Whether Anne was attractive or not, the opportunity to improve his lot certainly was, so Taylor asked for Anne’s hand in marriage and just like that the servant became the master.
Taylor proved a wily businessman and his ironworks became very successful. So successful that Taylor could dabble in politics. He was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764, but retired after a few years. Returning to the assembly in 1775, Taylor served on the committee that drafted instructions for the Pennsylvania delegates attending the Second Continental Congress—the same Congress he joined after the July 2 vote for independence. Though he didn’t get to vote, he did get to sign, which he did on August 2, 1776.
He served less than a year in Congress, and that was an undistinguished one. His fellow Pennsylvanian and signer, Benjamin Rush observed that Taylor was “a respectable country gentleman. Not active in Congress.” But that didn’t mean he was inactive in helping the American cause in other ways. In 1777, Taylor and George Walton (a signer from Georgia) negotiated a treaty with the Iroquois Indians. Taylor served as a colonel in the militia and provided cannon balls, grapeshot, and cannons for Washington’s army. Unfortunately for Taylor, he received little to no compensation for these munitions. And to add injury to insult, Taylor’s furnace was under lease to a Loyalist, John Galloway, who didn’t fancy his forge spitting out cannonballs to be used against the king’s soldiers. But the new patriot state of Pennsylvania struck first. In 1778, Pennsylvania laid claim loyalist’s property, including Galloway’s furnace, effectively putting Taylor out of business. He moved to Greenwich, New Jersey, where he leased another forge—a patriot forge—and operated an ironworks there until the day of this death.
About a year before he died, Taylor moved back to Pennsylvania. He had a son and daughter by Anne, outliving both son and wife. But he had, according to rumors, five additional children from his longstanding affair with his housekeeper, Naomi Smith. According to published records, Taylor left all he had to Smith and his grandchildren.
Only in America.
James Smith was from the wrong side of the tracks. Or in his case, the wrong side of the river. Smith, an Irishman who immigrated to America when he was about ten (though no one knows for sure), lived on Pennsylvania’s western frontier, across the Susquehanna River. Culture, education, and prosperity lay to the east. So, when he was old enough, east he went.
At New London, about fifty miles from the capital city of Philadelphia (and the largest city in America at the time), Smith studied the science of surveying and the art of classical languages. After graduating, he apprenticed in his brother’s law firm in Lancaster. When Smith passed the bar exam he didn’t stay east, however, but moved back across the Susquehanna and set up shop in the small village of Shippensburg. He tried to make a go of it with a duel career, but neither his law practice nor his surveying made him much money. Perhaps, he thought to himself, the grass is greener in York. But it was just as dry there, despite being the only attorney in town.
So, Smith scrapped together what meager monies he could and bought a forge and set up a smelting business. He found gold in iron. And like so many others who accumulated a tidy sum, Smith went into politics. Reading the revolutionary writing on the wall, Smith formed a volunteer militia and served as their captain. At a political convention in 1774, Smith called for a boycott of English goods, becoming the patriot voice of the backwoods of western Pennsylvania. He called for independence, drew proposals for military build-up, and the formation of a new government.
Smith’s tireless activities for the patriot cause earned him a seat in Second Continental Congress, but elected too late to cast his vote for independence. However, he gladly put his name to the document.
Smith was known as the congressional cut-up, except when it came to religion—that was no joking manner. One early biography describes him like this:
Mr. Smith was quite an eccentric man, and possessed a vein of humor, coupled with sharp wit, which made him a great favorite in the social circle in which he moved. He was always lively in his conversation and manners, except when religious subjects were the topics, when he was very grave and never suffered any in his presence to sneer at or speak with levity of Christianity. Although not a professor of religion, he was a possessor of many of its sublimer virtues, and practised its holiest precepts.
A hard working and congenial man, Smith lent his law office in York to the Board of War in 1777, when Congress had to flee Philadelphia and set up shop there. (The law office probably wasn’t seeing clients anyway.) When Smith left Congress, he milled about in state government for awhile—serving as judge, militia general, and advisor settling land disputes between Pennsylvania and her neighboring states.
In 1785, he was elected to Congress again, but declined because of age, which is one of the mysteries of the man. Exactly how old was he? He never said and any legal papers that might have shed light on his age were destroyed in a fire about a year before his death. Some say he was eighty-six or -seven when he died in 1806. His grave marker says he was ninety-three. If indeed he was ninety-three he would be one of the oldest men to sign the Declaration. The truth of his age is lost to history, but what isn’t lost is the truth that a man from the wrong side of the tracks found his way to the right side of history.