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John Smith Resigns Under Fire

April 25, 1808

He was the first senator to be indicted and he came close to becoming the second senator—after William Blount in 1797—to be expelled on charges of treason. With his political and business careers in shambles, John Smith reluctantly resigned from the Senate on April 25, 1808.

One of Ohio's first two senators, Smith took his oath of office on October 25, 1803. Almost nothing is known of his earliest years, including his parents' names or his place of birth. A large and gregarious man with a talent for impassioned oratory, he established himself as a preacher in the 1790s and then moved on to the greater financial rewards of life as a trader, supplying military posts near Cincinnati. He entered political life and won election to the Ohio territorial legislature where he led a successful campaign for statehood.

While in the Senate, Smith continued his profitable trading ventures in Louisiana and West Florida and pursued numerous land investment schemes. In 1805 former vice president Aaron Burr sought his support in organizing a military expedition against Spanish Florida. Although Smith claimed he had no interest in Burr's plot to force secession of Spanish territories, he agreed to provide supplies for the proposed expedition. When President Thomas Jefferson later issued an alert, charging that Burr's actual purpose was an invasion of Mexico, Smith responded patriotically by financing weapons to defend against the Burr expedition and delivering those weapons to New Orleans. These travels caused him to miss weeks of Senate sessions and led the Ohio legislature to charge him with dereliction of duty and to demand his resignation.

Although Smith ignored that demand, he found his troubles increasing as a court in Richmond, Virginia, indicted him in mid-1807 for participating in Burr's conspiracy. As he traveled to Richmond, he learned that the court had acquitted Burr on a technicality and had dropped his own case.

Soon after the Senate convened in late 1807, members opened an investigation into Smith's conduct. A defense team that included prominent Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key argued that Smith might have been naive but that he was no traitor. By a vote of 19 to 10—one short of the two-thirds required for expulsion—Smith retained his seat. Concluding that his political career was over, he then resigned. Forced into bankruptcy, he moved to the Louisiana Territory where he lived his remaining years in poverty.