Guide to the William Smith Papers, 1785-1860

Collection Overview

Among the 100 letters in this collection there are many of considerable interest and importance. Outstanding are the 24 letters of William Wilberforce (1759-1833); these discuss such topics as: religion, sickness in the family, his sickness which forced him to leave the House of Commons, his family and his desire for more private life with them, his relatives, political disappointments, trips and engagements, publishers, criminals in Great Britain and their punishment, resolutions and plans for the abolition of slavery, the antl-slavery society, the Jamaica Law, Spanish slave trade, Spanish abolition, William Pitt, Lord Grenville and his estate Dropmore, Dr. Channing, Robert Hall, and Thomas Buxton. There is a 10-page typescript which gives excerpts and summaries of the Wilberforce letters included with the collection. Three of the letters are fragmentary.

A number of the letters from Smith's many correspondents stand out. There are a number of letters around 1790 from various societies and committees discussing the abolition of slavery and approving Smith's actions; some of them mention Wilberforce, also. A letter from J. Yule in Edinburgh of August 13, 1792, tells of the poor Scottish peasants who are being driven from their lands to make room for sheep which are more profitable. Three letters from James Muir between 1793 and 1797 discuss the case of his son who has been banished for fourteen years for Joining the Society for Parliamentary Reform. A letter from John Longley on January 31, 1796, tells of a book which he has just published on parliamentary reform and discusses various aspects of the English government from the viewpoint of a reformer. Thomas Coke on March 16, 1809, writes of the different slavery laws in Jamaica. A lengthy letter from Andrew Wedderburn, a large Jamaica Plantation owner, on November 12, 1813, discusses the condition of the Negroes after a storm, their food supplies, sickness and death, his attitude toward their care, the various uses of the land, the crops raised, the market for produce, the purchase and hiring of slaves. and shipments to England. A number of letters from Bermuda, Nevis, St. Vincent, Barbados, and Berbice contain similar discussions. An unusually good letter comes from a planter in St. Vincent, April 4, 1816. Some of these planters' letters give in rather emphatic terms the case of the planters against the abolition of slavery. There is copy of a sermon preached at Port Royal, Jamaica, June 7, 1822, on the anniversary of the great earthquake (1692) which contains a very frank and oven criticism of the moral life of Port Royal.

One of the most interesting Items in the collection is letter from John Horseman, July 15, 1817, which includes the text of Robert Southey's poem entitled To the Exiled Patriots. The only known publication of the poem is in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Essays on His Own Times, (1850) I, 19-20. Horseman's edition of the poem contains sixteen stanzas as compared to Coleridge's ten. In addition eight of the lines are different in the two editions.

Several letters from Thomas Clarkson in 1825-1827 discuss the methods to be used in the drive for complete abolition of slavery. A letter from T. Gisborne in 1829 accuses Smith of being a Papist. A lengthy petition in 1829 signed by 95 principal native inhabitants of Bombay, India, protests to the House of Commons against certain grievances and asks redress. A letter of Gilbert Shelton in Bermuda in 1832 comments with keen insight on the recent Reform Act, on Irish independence, and on the types of Christian missionaries in the West Indies; later letters from him give considerable details regarding the purchase of a life insurance Policy in England. Different letters in 1833 tell of the methods and problems involved in the abolition of slavery. A letter from James Stephen announces Wilberforce's death, July 29, 1833; also a letter from Wilberforce's son, Robert, tells of the death. There is a copy of a petition to Rev. H. W. Wilberforce signed by 127 members of both houses of Parliament requesting that William Wilberforce be buried in Westminster Abbey and that they be granted permission to attend the funeral. Several letters between the Clarksons and William Smith shortly offer Wilberforce's death concern Robert Wilberforce's proposed life of his father and his ideas of attacking some of Thomas Clarkson's claims for himself in the abolition movement.

The correspondents in this collection include:

  • M. Babington,
  • J. Barham,
  • Richard Bickell,
  • Henry Bright,
  • Richard Brodbelt,
  • Priscilla Buxton,
  • Thomas Powell Buxton,
  • Catherine Clarkson,
  • Thomas Coke,
  • Benjamin Cooper,
  • John Frederick Garling,
  • T. Gisborne,
  • Andrew Grant,
  • Robert Grosvenor,
  • George Hibbert,
  • John Horseman,
  • Robert Harry Inglis,
  • John Longley,
  • Men Leith,
  • Zachary Macaulay,
  • James Muir,
  • J. Plymley,
  • D. Power,
  • William Rathbone,
  • Gilbert Salton,
  • Philip Sansom,
  • John Scott,
  • B. Shank,
  • Granville Sharp,
  • E. Sharpe,
  • James Stephen,
  • W. Villers,
  • Andrew Wedderborn,
  • James Weeker,
  • Barbara Ann Wilberforce,
  • Robert I. Wilberforce,
  • William Wilberforce,
  • John Wright,
  • J. Yule.

In addition to the letters mentioned above, there is extensive evidence in the miscellaneous pacers and the printed material on slavery. It includes: spips in the slave trade, deaths on sieve ships, food carried on slave ships, methods of obtaining slaves in Africa, conditions of Negroes in Africa, British exports to Africa, eyewitness accounts and lists of witnesses, general information on the West Indies, estates and plantations, diseases and epidemics, population, treatment of slaves, breeding of slaves versus importation, description of a riot in Barbados in 1823 and the destruction of a Methodist chapel, printed petitions from the West Indies showing the increasingly difficult financial position of the planters due to high taxes, shipping costs, and low prices, lists of West Indian Laws concerning slavery and copies of some, a planter's plan for the emancipation of slaves over a period of 34 years, conditions of slaves in French colonies, papers comparing the raising of sugar cane in the West Indies and in the East Indies and India, letters regarding the abolition of slavery in Ceylon, speeches in Parliament or manuscripts of books, Parliamentary resolutions, printed statements for and against slavery, history of the movement for abolition, newspaper excerpts, and magazine articles.

The Smith collection is exceedingly valuable both for its mass of excellent material on slavery and for its wealth of material on British politics of this period.

5 Items added, 1-12-61. This addition consists of two leaflets from the Greek Committee in London and of three letters which are addressed to William Smith - two from Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, an official in the revolutionary Greek government, and one from John Orlando, a Greek Deputy. On June 24, 1823, Mavrocordato asks Smith's support for a mission which the Greeks are sending to England. The Greek emissaries hope to obtain a loan, as well as publicity, for their cause. Mavrocordato also expresses (July 4, 1823) to Smith the appreciation of the Greek government for his efforts in its behalf. Orlando thanks (July 15, 1826) Smith for his held, and he refers to an unspecified decision which is expected from George Canning (?). There are two leaflets from the Greek Committee of which Smith-was a member. One leaflet (4 pp.) contains an address in behalf of the Greek revolutionary cause (May 3, 1823), a list of the members of the Greek Committee, and a list of seven resolutions which were adopted at a public meeting on May 15, 1823. The second leaflet (2 pp. is a request for subscriptions, and it has a long list of subscribers and of the amounts which they donated.

82 Items added, 8-22-66. All writers of letters in this addition are entered in the Autograph File. A selective index has been compiled of the persons and topics discussed in the correspondence and it is filed with the collection. Most of the letters were addressed to Smith. Among the correspondents who are each represented by a series of letters are: Henry Richard Vassall Fox, Third Baron Holland; Charles Grey, Second Earl Grey; Henry Petty_Fitzmaurice, Third Marquis of Lansdowne; Wllliam Roscoe; and Christopher Wyvill.

1 item added, 5-3-67. Letter from John Thelwall, Nov. 6, 1803.

There is a collection of papers of William Smith at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. The collection is called the Dissenters Collection.

More Biographical / Historical Info

Collection Details

Collection Number
William Smith papers
Smith, William, 1756-1835
1 Linear Feet, 328 Items
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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[Identification of item], The William Smith Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Historical Note

William Smith, M. P. (1756-1835), was an important figure in English politics for about 50 years. He was interested in many reform measures. This collection of 240 Items is concerned primarily with his activities relative to the abolition of West Indian slavery, although there are a few Items outside of this area.

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The William Smith papers were acquired by Duke University between 1954 and 1967.

Processing Information

Processed by: Duke University. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library Staff

Completed ca. 1967

Encoded by Stephen Douglas Miller