A President’s Son-in-Law, Nepotism and Treason

When the son-in-law of POTUS 2 John Adams used the valuable government position he had gained through nepotism to help a Venezuelan friend start a revolution against Spain, he threatened a precarious peace between America and Spain, and endangered the lives of unsuspecting American citizens. Two centuries later, it’s a salient reminder of how nepotism and politics can be a disastrous combination.

By Victoria Martínez

What had begun in 1800 as an attempt by President John Adams to give his son-in-law a good income that would keep his beloved only daughter and grandchildren out of genteel poverty, became – in 1806 – both a personal and national scandal. It was so bad that, years later, Adams wrote to a correspondent that he had wished at the time that his grandson had gone down with the ship that literally carried the family’s shame.[1]

Colonel William Stephens Smith, ca. 1794, by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium.

Not that Adams hadn’t been aware of William Stephen Smith’s (1755-1816) faults when he nominated him to the position of surveyor and revenue inspector of the Port of New York in December 1800. Only a year earlier, Adams had written of Smith: “All the Actions of my Life and all the Conduct of my Children have not disgraced me so much as this Man.”[2] Adams’ wife, Abigail, had called him, “…a Man wholly devoid of judgement.”[3]

Even George Washington, on whose staff Smith had served during the American Revolution, had written a recommendation in 1798 against Smith’s appointment to an important military position due to allegations of “very serious instances of private misconduct; instances which affect directly his integrity as a man.”[4]

These allegations were still very much a factor when Adams nominated Smith to the position in New York. They stemmed from what both Smith’s contemporaries and modern historians have called his speculative and shady business and financial dealings. Contemporary letters show that Smith was the defendant in at least two lawsuits during the late 1790s amounting to debts of $230,815 to parties in Britain[5] and $194,000 in America[6] (a total equivalent to more than $6,000,000 in today’s terms). Furthermore, “In addition to accusations of personal dishonesty, Smith was accused of having interfered in the New York gubernatorial election”[7] (he was exonerated of the latter accusation).

Regardless, Adams lobbied on his son-in-law’s behalf and did his best to smooth over objections made to his various nominations to military and government positions. In letters written outside his family circle, he always referred to Smith in respectful, if not glowing, terms. He was also careful to minimize or ward off any potential claims of nepotism, such as when he wrote in June 1800 to Alexander Hamilton: “I see no reason or justice in excluding him from all service, while his comrades are all ambassadors or generals, merely because he is married to my daughter.”[8]

Abigail Adams Smith, 1785, by Mather Brown. Courtesy Adams National Historical Park.

This was done more for the benefit of his “unfortunate” daughter, Abigail “Nabby” Adams Smith (1765-1813), and grandchildren[9], than for the man whom he wrote of disparagingly after nominating him for a previous position: “His Pay will not feed his Dogs; and his Dogs must be fed if his Children starve. What a Folly!”[10]

So, the appointment of Smith to one of the most coveted positions of the federal civil service, which would bring him the equivalent annual salary of around $375,000 today,[11] was almost certainly one that Adams hoped would alleviate Smith’s severe financial difficulties. In doing so, he was making liberal use of the spoils system that awarded civil service positions based on political loyalty and personal connections.[12]  As one of his famous “midnight” appointments, made in the final months of his term as second President of the United States, he likely considered it the last opportunity he would have to use his influence on behalf of his daughter.

Francisco de Miranda, by Martín Tovar y Tovar, 1874. Collection of the Federal Capitol of Venezuela. Courtesy Fundación Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

After reviewing the nomination, the Senate confirmed Smith’s appointment on February 23, 1801, just 10 days before Adams left office.[13] In less than a year, Smith had gone from facing jail[14] to holding an important federal position that could help him recover his finances and reputation – all thanks to his status as President Adams’ son-in-law. But instead of using the opportunity wisely, Smith continued to further his financial schemes, up to and including using his position to contribute to and cover for a scheme by South American revolutionary General Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule.

Taking full advantage of his position as a high-ranking U.S. Customs official, Smith began conspiring with his old friend in late 1805 by making essential introductions and providing both personal assistance and protective cover. Smith introduced Miranda to American businessman Samuel Ogden, who provided financial backing and helped secure a ship – which Miranda christened Leander – that was armed and supplied under Smith’s domain in New York Harbor.

Smith also personally recruited American citizens to man the ship, including his 19-year-old son, William Steuben Smith (1787-1850), who was taken out of university by his father to serve as Miranda’s aide-de-camp. All the recruits were deceived about the purpose of the expedition to some extent. The elder Smith later admitted that he had not even told his son the truth. Enticed by extremely generous pay and the promise that “nothing less than a fortune would be the reward of their labours”[15], the men on the Leander were unaware they were being sent to participate in a revolution against a foreign power.

Although Smith and Miranda both later claimed that the operation was conducted with the tacit approval of President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, their actions belied that claim. An account of the incident, published in 1808, described how the preparations were made:

“As the undertaking was contrary to the laws of the United States, which prohibited individuals from commencing hostilities, or committing violence upon the sovereignty of a foreign nation… Miranda and his associates, conducted everything in the most profound secrecy; and under the most artful disguise. The greatest precaution was observed, lest they should awake suspicion, and incur detention. The name Miranda was kept concealed, and during the whole transaction, he passed under the cover of a fictitious name. Many of his officers, were ignorant of his name or person, until after the departure of the expedition. The warlike stores were privately conveyed on board the ship; and designedly left out of the Captain’s manifest, to elude the detection of the Customs-house officers.”[16]

The subterfuge was all in vain, however, as the Spanish Ambassador to the United States was monitoring Miranda’s activities through his spy network and was well-aware of what was happening.[17]

A replica of the Leander in the Parque Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo by Luigino Bracci, used according to Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

On February 2, 1806, the Leander departed New York Harbor, manned by a crew of 180 and protected by eighteen cannons.[18] On its way to Venezuela, Leander was joined by two more American ships, the Bacchus and the Bee. When the three ships attempted to land in Venezuela on April 27, Spanish ships were awaiting them. The Bacchus and the Bee were captured, and 57 men were arrested by the Spanish, while Miranda escaped on the Leander. Among those arrested was William Steuben Smith, President Adams’ grandson.

Back in America, even before the ships were captured, the expedition was well-known. President Jefferson stripped William Stephens Smith of his position and had him, along with Ogden, charged with treason for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794, which made it illegal for an American to wage war against a country at peace with the United States. Adams raged against his “mad” son-in-law and refused to allow for the release of his grandson through diplomatic channels. Whereas once he had readily, if not grudgingly, used nepotism on behalf of his son-in-law, he was completely unwilling to do so now for his grandson. In 1815, he recalled:

“…news came that my grandson was in prison at Caraccas, with many of his companions, waiting for trial and execution. Yrujo [the Spanish ambassador to the U.S.]… came forward with an offer to interpose for a pardon for my grandson. No! He should share the fate of his colleagues, comrades and fellow prisoners.”[19]

Fortunately for the younger Smith, he managed to escape and return to the U.S., though 10 others were not so lucky. As Miranda continued to seek allies in his fight for Venezuelan independence, these young men were executed by hanging and their severed heads were strategically situated to serve as a warning.[20]

By contrast, William Stephens Smith – the man directly responsible for recruiting them – was let off the hook. Despite involving the United States in an act of war against a foreign power and endangering a delicate peace between America and Spain, Smith and Ogden’s trials both ended in acquittals. Although he had abused the position of authority and power that he had gained through nepotism, Smith went on to run for and win a seat in Congress, serving from 1813 to 1815. When he died on June 10, 1816, he left debts of more than $200,000 (equivalent to almost $3 million today).[21]

John Adams, c. 1800/1815, by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Before the Miranda debacle, John Adams had called his son-in-law a disgrace and a folly. Against his own better judgement, he had nonetheless granted him what he probably hoped was a “safe” position that would keep him out of trouble. He had good reason and ample time to repent of his own folly in thinking and acting in this way.

One wonders what a modern president of inferior judgement to Adams might wreak through nepotism, even in the so-called “greatest democracy in the world.”


[1] “Adams to James Lloyd, April 5, 1815.” Works of John Adams, Volume X. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856, 157.

[2] “John Adams to Abigail Adams, Jan. 5, 1799.” My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Harvard University Press, 2007, 458.

[3] Gelles, Edith Belle. Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage. New York: William Morrow, 2009, 236.

[4] “George Washington to James McHenry, 13 December 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975, pp. 353–354.]

[5] “To Alexander Hamilton from Benjamin Walker, 4 October 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 20, January 1796 – March 1797, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974, p. 345.]

[6] “From Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, Junior, [22 April 1797],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 21, April 1797 – July 1798, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974, pp. 54–55.]

[7] “George Washington to James McHenry, 13 December 1798,” Note 3.

[8] Adams to Alexander Hamilton, June 20, 18oo. Works of John Adams, 9:63. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854.

[9] “The ne’er do well son-in-law, William Smith, received the bounty of several offices from his father-in-law, who clearly disliked his daughter’s husband but indulged him for the sake of his daughter.” (Gelles, 252)

[10] John Adams to Abigail Adams, Jan. 5, 1799. My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Harvard University Press, 2007, 458.

[11] This figure is estimated based on the stated income of the position in 1829, which was $16,000 or, adjusted for inflation, around $375,000 today. Source for the 1829 figure: Mackenzie, William L. The Lives and Opinions of Benj’n Franklin Butler. Boston: Cook & Co., 1845, 76.

[12] Although the spoils system in American politics is often identified as originating with the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, it was utilized by earlier presidents as well, and was an ingrained part of the federal civil service in the Early Republic. The position of surveyor and revenue inspector of the Port of New York was a relatively easy and very lucrative position within the US Customs Service .See National U.S. Customs Museum Foundation for more on this subject.

[13] “From Alexander Hamilton to James Ross, 18 December 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 25, July 1800 – April 1802, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, pp. 264–265.]

[14] “From Alexander Hamilton to William Ward Burrows, 10 March 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 24, November 1799 – June 1800, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, pp. 314–315.]

[15] Sherman, John H. A General Account of Miranda’s Expedition. New York: McFarlane and Long, 1808, 18.

[16] ibid 15

[17] Racine, Karen. Francisco de Miranda: A Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revolution. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003, 158.

[18] Sherman 17

[19] “Adams to James Lloyd, April 5, 1815.” Works of John Adams, Volume X, 157

[20] Sherman 76-78

[21] Nagel, Paul C. The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters. Harvard University Press, 1999, 146.


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