John Blair Smith

H-SC President, 1779-1789

John Blair Smith Upon his elder brother's abrupt departure in October 1779, John Blair Smith stepped into the breach. Also a Princeton valedictorian (1773), he had been one of the original faculty recruited in 1775; in 1778-78 he had been captain of the student company that was formed in partial fulfillment of Prince Edward County's militia levy and was now the senior member of the faculty. The day S.S. Smith resigned his presidency and the pastorates of his churches, John Blair Smith, who had been studying theology under him, was ordained and, a few hours later, elected President. The outlook was bleak: with the Revolution in full swing, some students left to join the forces and others had followed the elder Smith to Princeton; the boarding arrangements were unsettled; faculty were difficult to secure and of brief tenure; the College buildings narrowly escaped being a target of British Colonel Tarleton's raiders in 1781 - but the operation continued, and showed such viability that on 28 May 1783 the General Assembly of Virginia granted a charter, with the authority to grant degrees. But just as things were really looking up, Mr. Smith, who had none of his brother's suave and winning ways, began to draw criticism for his religious zealotry; his freely expressed Federalist politics, though agreeable to some, were particularly irritating to Patrick Henry, who had been a Trustee since November 1775 but did not attend a Board meeting until 1789, when he helped seal the deal of Smith's resignation. Smith went to a pastorate in Philadelphia and then in 1795 became the founding president of Union College in Schenectady, New York; he left that post in 1799 to return to his Philadelphia church, where he died eight months later of yellow fever.