Smith, Sir William Cusack (1766–1836), 2nd baronet, politician, judge, was born 23 January 1766 in Dublin, eldest son of Sir Michael Smith and his first wife, Mary (d. 1798), daughter and heiress of James Cusack of Ballyronan, Co. Wicklow, and Coolmines, Co. Dublin. His father Sir Michael Smith (1740–1808), lawyer and politician, was the only son and heir of William Smith of Newtown, King's Co. (Offaly), and his wife Hester (née Lynch). He was educated at TCD (BA 1759) and was called to the Irish bar in 1769, after attendance at Middle Temple. An eminent lawyer, he was a member of the constitutional reform society, the Monks of the Screw, in the late 1770s, and became MP for Randalstown, Co. Antrim (1783–90, 1791–3). He voted with Henry Grattan (qv) to reduce the influence of the crown in 1790 and for catholic emancipation in 1793 (his first wife was catholic). In debate his arguments were reasoned, informed, and honest, but his delivery was monotonous and his manner stiff. He was third baron of the exchequer (1794–1801), and master of the rolls (1801–6), and in August 1799 was created baronet, apparently more in recognition of his son's usefulness to Lord Castlereagh (qv) than through his own capacities. After his first wife's death, he married his cousin Eleanor Smith (d. 1825). He died at his seat in Newtown on 17 December 1808.
William – who took his mother's surname and arms by royal licence (30 March 1800) – was educated at Eton and entered TCD 22 November 1781 before proceeding two years later to Christ Church, Oxford (BA 1786). Called to the Irish bar in 1788, after attendance at Lincoln's Inn, he acquired a substantial practice and was made KC in 1795. Though eccentric, excitable, over-sensitive, and depressive, he had considerable legal ability and an impressive intellect. He addressed letters and two pamphlets – The rights of artisans (1792) and The patriot (1792) – to his friend and mentor, Edmund Burke (qv), whose mother, like his own, was catholic. Employing the empirical method then fashionable, Smith reasoned that the minority (rich property owners and protestants) needed legal protection against the potentially tyrannous majority (the poor and catholics), and was influenced in his argument by the events of the French revolution, which he argued had led to mob rule. His writing was forceful and unassailably logical, but was marred by vanity and turgidity. Jonah Barrington (qv) termed it laboured and noted that his ‘ideas and reasoning are so metaphysically plaited and interwoven that facts are lost sight of in the multiplicity and minuteness of theories and distinctions’ (Barrington, 404). In addition to his philosophical writings, Smith was a poet of no great merit, and issued a number of volumes of verse between 1830 and 1836 under the pseudonyms ‘Paul Puck Peeradeal’, ‘Warner Christian Search’, and ‘A Yeoman’.
Smith became MP for Lanesborough, Co. Longford (1794–7) as a liberal supporting catholic emancipation, and subsequently sat for Donegal borough (1797–1800). He was one of seventy-three signatories (17 May 1797) to a proclamation by liberal barristers urging the government to yield to the moderate wishes of the people to avoid an uprising. Six months later he made a powerful plea in parliament for catholic emancipation and for practical reforms such as the abolition of cabal, jobbery, and military oppression. The 1798 rebellion turned him into one of the foremost advocates of the union, on the grounds that a subject parliament was a political and logical inconsistency and that the exclusion of catholics from power could best be remedied by ending it. His speech in the union debate in 1799 brought him instant fame, was published, ran to six editions, and resulted in a request from Pitt to meet the author. Smith remained an advocate of emancipation, and within five years of the union he was complaining bitterly to another Irish Burkean intellectual, J. W. Croker (qv), that the government had not delivered on its side of the bargain.
He was appointed solicitor general 6 December 1800, and deputy judge of assize a few months later, in which capacity he worked the north-east circuit and was the colleague of his father. On 27 December 1801 he followed his father in being appointed baron of the exchequer, a position he held until his death, and the following year he became a bencher of the King's Inns. He proved an able, impartial, and liberal-minded judge and was popular, though he held court at irregular hours, preferring to work by night and rest by day. His strong opposition to the tithe agitation of the 1830s cost him popularity in some quarters and seemed at odds with his generally liberal attitude. He was influenced by his attachment to the established church, and his fear that it was endangered, and was sufficiently roused to charge grand juries at the assizes to condemn the tithe agitators. An incensed Daniel O'Connell (qv) (whom Smith much admired) prevailed on the house of commons to pass a resolution (13 February 1834) to appoint a committee of inquiry into Baron Smith's conduct in court. Chiefly through the exertions of the tory MP Frederick Shaw (qv), O'Connell's resolution was overturned the following week, to the great satisfaction of the grand juries. With only two exceptions, they passed resolutions extolling Smith, who had them published.
In August 1836 Smith fell ill while on circuit and was confined to his country seat in Newtown, King's Co. He seemed to recover, and his death there on 26 August 1836 was apparently suicide. His wife (m. 13 August 1787), Hester, daughter of Thomas Berry of Eglish Castle, King's Co., predeceased him. They had five children – the elder son, Sir Michael Cusack Smith (1793–1859) became 3rd baronet, while the younger, Thomas Berry Cusack Smith (qv) followed his father into the law and became attorney general of Ireland.