Benjamin Smith was born into a wealthy family. His father, Thomas, was a wealthy planter and descendant of Thomas Landgrave Smith, a wealthy South Carolina planter. His mother’s father was Roger Moore of Orton Plantation, a plantation on the Cape Fear River at the northernmost area of rice-growing country in the United States.
Always interested in education, Smith was appointed to the first board of trustees of the University of North Carolina, and he served in this position until 1824. As a trustee, Smith donated 20,000 acres as an endowment to UNC. He served when North Carolinians complained that the University of North Carolina turned young, Republican men into Federalists. A controversy existed whether the board of trustees, comprised of men with Federalist sympathies, hired only professors with Federalist sympathies.
Smith held many government offices and performed many public services before becoming governor of North Carolina. He was member of the General Assembly in 1784 and, in that year, a member to the Continental Congress. Afterward he served from 1789 to 1792 in the North Carolina House. During these terms, he hosted George Washington during the first president’s inaugural tour of the United States. From 1792 to 1800 and from 1804 to 1810, he served in the state Senate. As a state legislator, he gained respect among his colleagues and became Speaker of the Senate (1795-1799). During these times, Smith was known for his support of Federalist ideas.
His Federalist leanings, more than likely, influenced his private dealings with the national government. For instance, according to The Governors of North Carolina, “he was under contract with the federal government to rebuild and expand Fort Johnston at Smithville (now Southport).” In 1794, he sold a tract of land on Smith Island to the national government so that a lighthouse might be built. The island later became known as Bald Head Island.
The legislature elected Smith governor in 1810, and he served in this position for one year (he never sought reelection). Before he became governor, Smith changed allegiance to the Democratic-Republican Party, but his administration revealed his Federalist inclination. He encouraged industrial growth, for instance. He also wanted a stronger militia. More telling, however, was his dislike for his accommodations in Raleigh; they “were not ‘fit for the family of a decent tradesman’.” (In 1813, the executive mansion was completed.) Also, much like what Thomas Jefferson had advocated in Virginia, Smith encouraged in North Carolina the formation of a public school system that reached every child; an educated citizenry was deemed necessary for the survival of a republic.
After his term as governor, Smith served one more term as state Senator (1816), but he spent the remainder of his years in his Brunswick County home. Born into wealth, Smith through the years spent too much money and assumed too much debt. In January 1826, he died in poverty.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007) and William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).