William Smith (abolitionist)

William Smith (abolitionist)

William Smith (1756 – 1835) was a British politician and dissenter and Member of Parliament (MP) for Norwich.

Early life

William Smith was born on September 22, 1756 at Clapham (then a village to the south of London), the son of Samuel Smith. Brought up by parents who were Independents, he was educated at the dissenting academy at Daventry until 1772, where he began to come under the influence of Unitarians at an early age. He went into the family grocery business and by 1777 was a partner.

On September 12, 1781 he married Frances Coape (1758 – 1840), daughter of John and Hannah Coape, both dissenters. Their daughter, Frances Smith, became the mother of Florence Nightingale. Smith and his wife lived in the fashionable village of Clapham, just south of London, moving into the large and elegant Eagle House, Clapham Common. He was already known as a reformer joining the "Society for Constitutional Information" in 1782. He was elected in 1784 as Member of Parliament for Sudbury in Suffolk.

Dissenter and revolutionary

One of the leading independent politicians of his day, William Smith held strong dissenting Christian convictions - he was a Unitarian, and was thus prevented from attaining the high offices of state. He nevertheless played a leading role in most of the great contemporary parliamentary issues, including the dissenters' demands for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (for the first time since the 1730s). Although the campaigners were unsuccessful in 1787, they tried again in 1789.

In June 1787, Smith was one of the first to support the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, becoming a vocal advocate for the cause. In 1790 William Smith lost his seat at Sudbury, and in the following January he was elected as M.P. for Camelford, supporting William Wilberforce in the slave trade debate in April.

In the beginning, at least, William Smith was sympathetic to the revolutionary movement in France and visited Paris in 1790, where he attended the July 14 celebrations, and later recorded his reactions to the momentous events he witnessed. In April 1791 he publicly supported the aims and principles of the newly-formed Unitarian Society, including support for the recently won liberty of the French.

When Charles Fox introduced a bill for the relief of non-trinitarians in May 1792 Smith supported the "Unitarian Society", publicly declaring his commitment to the unitarian cause. The same year he became one of the founding members of the "Society of Friends of the People".

Smith was swiftly gaining a reputation as a radical, even a Jacobin and supporter of the French revolution. Because he had business contacts and friends in Paris, he was more than once asked to act as a go-between for the government. In 1792 he arranged several meetings between William Pitt and Maret, Napoleon's foreign minister, in a desperate attempt to avoid war.

Whig politician

William Smith was active in his support for the Whig opposition party in parliament. In 1796 he was once again returned for Sudbury, but in 1802 accepted the invitation of radicals to stand for Norwich, although he was defeated in the election of 1806, which was fought on a local issue. The Whig party were, however, elected and formed the next government under Lord Grenville. However, Smith was returned again in 1807 and 1812, and became a popular and outspoken radical Member of Parliament for Norwich, which was known for being a gathering place for dissenters and radicals of all kinds.

In 1813 Smith challenged the established Church, and was responsible for championing the Bill which, for the first time, made it legal to practice Unitarianism. The doctrine of Unitarians was to deny the truth of the Trinity, a central tenet of Church of England doctrine.


He became a friend and close associate of William Wilberforce and a member of the Clapham Sect of social reformers, and was in the forefront of many of their campaigns for social justice, prison reform and philanthropic endeavour. While he had been out of parliament he had given his support to the abolition of the slave trade by writing a pamphlet entitled "A Letter to William Wilberforce" (1807), in which he cogently and convincingly summarised the abolitionists' arguments for abolition.

In 1823 with Zachary Macaulay he helped found the "London Society for the Abolition of Slavery in our Colonies", thereby launching the next phase of the campaign to eradicate slavery. Smith's final major contribution to British politics was to finally successfully see through parliament the repeal of the Test Acts in 1828.

He died on May 31, 1835 in London.

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