Smith, Col. James (c.1713–1806), lawyer, soldier in America, and signatory of the American declaration of independence, was born in the north of Ireland, second son of John Smith, a farmer with a large family. There are few details extant about his background or date of birth; he himself carefully concealed his true age. Around 1729 his father decided to emigrate with the family to America, where he joined his brothers in Pennsylvania. He settled in York county, and bought a large farm west of the Susquehanna river. Educated at Philadelphia, James studied under the Rev. Francis Alison (qv) before joining the law firm where his elder brother, George Smith, worked. He was called to the bar in 1745 and practised on the frontier in Cumberland county for five years before returning to York. His law firm was not a success, even though he had no competition, and in 1771 he engaged in an iron manufacturing speculation. It was not a success, and he bought himself out in 1778.
The impending conflict between Britain and the American colonies brought Smith to national prominence. In July 1774 he attended a provincial conference and read an ‘Essay on the constitutional power of Great Britain over the colonies in America’ that attracted much interest. In December he raised a volunteer company at York, and became its captain. When the company later grew to a battalion, Smith accepted the honorary title of colonel, but he never saw active service. Attending and speaking at provincial conventions and conferences during 1775–6, he made recommendations urging independence and drafted resolutions on this subject at the constitutional convention of 1776. In July 1776 he was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the first continental congress and became a signatory of the declaration of independence, although he had nothing to do with its writing. He was not selected for congress the following year, but returned in 1778; he declined to sit thereafter.
Resuming his legal career as the war of independence drew to a close, he served as a judge of the Pennsylvania high court of errors and appeals (1780–81), and as brigadier-general of militia in Pennsylvania (1782). In 1785 he was returned to congress by the local assembly, but declined the honour because of his advanced age. Dedicating his final years to his legal career, he built up a large and successful practice. Smith was renowned not just for his impressive legal knowledge, but also for his wit and humour. He was an excellent anecdotalist; his awkward gestures and drawling mannerisms only added to the overall effect of his stories. He died 11 July 1806 at his home at York.
He married (1760) Eleanor Armor of Delaware; they had three sons and two daughters.