William S. Smith and Samuel G. Ogden Trials: 1806

views updated

William S. Smith and Samuel G. Ogden
Trials: 1806

Defendants: William S. Smith, Samuel G. Ogden
Crime Charged: Violating the Neutrality Act of 1794
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas A. Emmet, Cadwallader D. Colden, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, Washington Morton, and Richard Harison (Note: the transcript of the trial, as reproduced by Thomas Lloyd who was the stenographer at the trial, states that the last attorney's surname was Harison, with one "R")
Chief Prosecutors: Nathan Sanford, Pierpont Edwards
Judges: William Paterson, Matthias B. Talmadge
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: July 14-26, 1806
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The 1806 prosecution of William Smith and Samuel Ogden for their role in helping Francisco de Miranda fight Spanish rule in Latin America was a nearly forgotten trial that involved mercenaries, a potential war, allegations of government persecution, and a president's decision not to allow federal officials to testify in court.

Between 1783 and 1805, Francisco de Miranda traveled across Europe and the United States to win support for independence for his native Venezuela and the other Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. During this time, he met virtually every major American leader. Most politely ignored Miranda, but many supported his cause; some because they wanted to help free the colonists from Spanish tyranny, others because of the profit they could gain from such an adventure.

Miranda Dines at the White House

In November 1805, Miranda arrived in New York City from England carrying a letter addressed to Rufus King. (King had been America's top diplomat in London from 1796 to 1803.) The correspondence, written by a member of Parliament, indicated that the British government was dropping its support for Miranda despite its war with Spain. King forwarded the letter to Secretary of State James Madison. After reviewing its contents, Madison and PresidentThomas Jefferson decided to meet with Miranda to get a better understanding of Britain's new policy concerning Spain's colonies. (At this time, Spanish-American relations were poor. The United States had designs on Spain's possessions in Texas and Florida, and Madrid was angered when France sold Louisiana to the Americans. For a short time in late 1805, it appeared that a war might start.)

The president and Madison met Miranda over dinner. What was said is still a matter of debate. Madison claimed that Miranda discussed his plans for revolution in "very general terms" and said that it would help if the United States declared war on Spain, but was rebuffed when told that America intended to remain at peace with that country. In contrast, Miranda said that Madison hinted "whatever might be done should be discreetly done" and that "although the [American] Government would not sanction, it would wink" at a military expedition launched from the United States. Publicly, the president said nothing, but privately he denied sanctioning any action by Miranda.

Rebel Vessel Sails from New York

Whatever was said at that dinner, by the end of the month a prominent federal official in New York, Colonel William Stephens Smith, was using his influence to obtain men, money, and war material for Miranda. A Revolutionary War hero, former diplomat, and, since 1800, surveyor of customs for the Port of New York, Smith had known Miranda for over 20 years and had once toured with him across Europe. In addition, Smith had impeccable connections: his father-in-law was former President John Adams and his brother-in-law was U.S. Senator (and future president) John Quincy Adams.

On February 2, 1806, Miranda sailed from New York City for Venezuela on an American-owned vessel, the Leander, with 180 men (mostly Americans) and weapons. Among the adventurers was Colonel Smith's 19-year-old son, William Steuben Smith. However, the Leander was soon captured by the Spanish. Miranda escaped, but the young Smith and the others did not. (William Steuben Smith later eluded his captors and made his way home.)

After the Leander's seizure became public, Colonel Smith and the ship's owner, Samuel Ogden, were arrested for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794. That law made it illegal to "set on foot directly or indirectly within the United States any military expedition or enterprise to be carried on against the territory of a foreign state with whom the United States is at peace."

On March 1, Judge Matthias Talmadge of the U.S. District Court in New York, questioned Smith and Ogden and they signed incriminating statements outlining their roles in the affair. (These statements were later introduced into evidence at Smith's and Ogden's trials.)

Smith and Ogden were formally indicted on April 7. If convicted, they each faced up to three years in prison. In the meantime, the president dismissed Smith from his post.

President's Role at Issue

While Smith and Ogden were awaiting trial, Jefferson's political adversaries did everything they could to exploit the situation. Opposition newspapers had a field day charging the government with persecuting Smith and Ogden while attempting to hide its own misdeeds. Petitions were even submitted to Congress on behalf of the defendants to seek whatever relief that body might give, but after a bitter debate, the requests were denied.

Smith and Ogden were tried separately. Smith's trial began on July 14, 1806. Since his arrest, Smith and his wife had lived in a small cottage within the prison in New York City. His defense team consisted of five eminent lawyers including the city's former prosecuting attorney, Cadwallader D. Colden, and the famous Irish patriot turned American lawyer, Thomas A. Emmet.

Presiding at Smith's trial were two judges. Besides Talmadge, who had taken Smith's and Ogden's depositions, the other jurist was William Paterson, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. (At this time, between court sessions, associate justices presided over major federal trials.) It is possible that Paterson may have felt some animosity towards Smith. Although the judge was, like Smith's father-in-law, a member of the Federalist Party and a political opponent of President Jefferson's, he was also a member of the Federalist faction that opposed President Adams' reelection in 1800. Also in 1800, Paterson was passed over by Adams for promotion when Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth resigned.

Smith's defense was that he was acting under direct orders from Jefferson and Madison and that he was being made a scapegoat so the White House could appease the Spanish and pretend that it disapproved of Miranda's expedition. It was also argued that while the power to declare war rests with Congress, it is up to the president to decide if an actual state of war exists when Congress has not yet acted. (Thus, if Jefferson approved or ordered Smith's actions, then that would be strong evidence that the United States was, in fact, at war with Spain and the Neutrality Act did not apply.)

A major problem for the defense, however, was that most of the witnesses who could speak about the president's role were unavailable to testify. Madison, as well as three other members of Jefferson's cabinet and various State Department officials, were named as defense witnesses and subpoenaed to appear. They all, however, refused because the president deemed it more important that they remain in Washington to do their jobs. Specifically:

the president of the United States, taking into view the state of our public affairs, has specially signified to us that our official duties cannot, consistently therewith, be at this juncture dispensed with.

Instead, it was suggested that the testimony of Madison and the others be taken by interrogatories (written answers to questions submitted by the prosecution and defense) or by other means. This suggested alternative, however, was not acceptable to Smith's lawyers, who argued that their client had the right to compel these witnesses to testify at his trial. Therefore, the defense sought a continuance as well as a court order forcing Madison and the others to appear.

The prosecution countered that, even if Jefferson knew or ordered Smith to help Miranda, the president's actions did not justify Smith's violation of the law. Only the Congress can declare war and any argument to the contrary: proceeds altogether upon the idea that the executive may dispense with the laws at pleasure; a supposition as false in theory as it would be dangerous and destructive to the constitution in practice.

Therefore, since whatever the president did was not a defense, then anything Madison or the others had to say on the matter was irrelevant to Smith's guilt or innocence.

After three days of argument, Judge Paterson ruled on July 17 that nothing Jefferson did could justify Smith's actions. "The president of the United States cannot authorize [sic] a person to do what the law forbids." The court also held that, until Congress declared war, the United States and Spain were at peace. Therefore, any testimony regarding the president's participation in the Leander affair was immaterial in determining Smith's guilt and both the motion for a continuance and the motion to compel the presence of Madison and the others were denied. (Severely ill, Paterson took no further part in either Smith's or Ogden's trial after this ruling. He died seven weeks later.)

During the next five days, several prosecution witnesses testified, but the government had difficulty proving that Smith was fully apprised of Miranda's plans. In contrast, most of the defense witnesses who were at the trial were there only to speak about Jefferson's role in the affair. Therefore, few were permitted to testify because, according to Judge Paterson, what they had to say was irrelevant. Still, although no evidence was allowed about Jefferson's role, Smith's lawyers were allowed to concentrate on that very issue during their concluding remarks to the jury. As one of his attorneys said:

No gentlemen, he [i.e., Smith] has not wilfully [sic] and knowingly infracted the statutehis mind has perpetrated no crime, for he acted under the conviction, that his proceedings were legally sanctioned by the chief magistrate of the union Did the president of the United States and the secretary of state approve of and countenance this expedition? The man who can doubt it, after hearing this trial, must be obstinate indeed in prejudice.

Plotters Acquitted

The defense lawyers were also permitted in their closing statements to discuss whether Smith was being made a fall guy by the government and whether the United States and Spain were actually at peace or war. The prosecution countered that the jury should not lightly disregard the court's rulings that peace existed between the two countries and that the government's role in the Leander affair was irrelevant to Smith's guilt or innocence. But it was to no avail; after considering their decision for two hours, the jury returned with a verdict of "not guilty."

Almost immediately, on July 25, Ogden's trial began. The entire proceeding was a virtual repeat of the Smith trial; same judge, same lawyers, same witnesses, and the same issuesonly the jury was different. The trial lasted a mere two days and Ogden, too, was acquitted of the charge facing him.

After the trials were over, Jefferson indicated that he was not dissatisfied with the juries' decisions. "I had no wish to see Smith imprisoned. He has been a man of integrity and honor, led astray by distress." Still, the president fired the U.S. marshal in New York City because he believed the marshal, who was also a friend of Smith's, had packed the jury panel with so many die-hard Federalists that an impartial jury could not be chosen at the trial.

Although Smith was acquitted, his career was now in shambles and he quietly retired to his farm in upstate New York. However, Smith briefly returned to public life in 1812 when he was elected to Congress.

Mark Thorbarn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Lloyd, Thomas. The Trials of WVilliam S. Smith and Samuel G. Ogden for. llisdemeanours, Had in the Circuit Court of the United States for the New York District, in July 1806. New York: 1. Riley and Company, 1974.

Nagel, Paul C. Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Raymond, Marcius D. "Colonel William Stephens Smith." New, York Genealogical and Historical Record 25, 4 (1894): 153-61.

Roof, Katharine Metcalf. Colonel 1Villiam Smith and Lady: The Romance of lVashington's Aide and Young Abigail Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

About this article

William S. Smith and Samuel G. Ogden Trials: 1806

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


William S. Smith and Samuel G. Ogden Trials: 1806