"The Book of the Signers"

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Letter to editor of the Philadelphia Weekly Press, by William R. Smith, from a copy of Sanderson's Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (rev. ed., 1865).

This letter, in which William R. Smith seeks to correct the facts of his authorship of the biography of George Wythe in Sanderson's Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1823), appears tipped-in to a copy of William Brotherhead's revised edition, edited by Robert T. Conrad (Philadelphia: William Brotherhead, 1865), between pages 631 and 632, at Wythe's portrait. Addressing the "Editor of the Press" and citing the Philadelphia Weekly Press, it presumably appeared in the pages of that newspaper sometime after the date of the letter, November 20, 1860.

W. Edwin Hemphill cites the original copy of this letter in his dissertation, "George Wythe the Colonial Briton," as being addressed to John W. Forney,[1] founder and editor of the Weekly Press from 1857 to 1877.

Article text, 1860

"The Book of the Signers."
MINERAL POINT, Wisconsin, Nov. 20, 1860.

EDITOR OF THE PRESS: In the Philadelphia Weekly Press of November 17 us found a notice of "The Book of the Signers," &c. edited by Wm. Brotherhead, with a reference to one of the footnotes in the work, in which it is said: "Mr. Brotherhead gives a list of the authors of Sanderson's Lives of the Signers, assigning to each writer his respective contribution. This has never before been published, and is very interesting." Also, in quoting from this list, it is said: "Thomas Jefferson was the biographer of Wythe."

My object in addressing you is to correct two mistakes in the foregoing notice. This list of authors, according to my recollection, was published mor ethan [sic] twenty years ago, and the error in respect to Jefferson's authorship of the biography of Wythe was contained in it. This error was then publicly corrected, and the authorship truly given to the real writer, William R. Smith, formerly of Huntington, Pa. Mr. Brotherhead, it appears, has republished this list, without the correction.

John Sanderson, the editor of the "Lives of the Signers," &c. was, from his boyhood until his death, my intimate and cherished friend. He had lived in my father's family as a private tutor to my two brothers, S. Wemiss Smith and P. Penn Smith. When, in after years, he undertook the editorship of the "Biography of the Signers," he requested me to afford him some little aid. This I promised him; but my business did not allow me much of literary leisure, and the life of Chancellor Wythe was the only one which I furnished him. Mr. Sanderson supplied me with two materials, one of which was a biographical notice of Wythe, published (I think) in a Baltimore magazine of that day, and the other an autograph letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Sanderson, containing authentic family details of Wythe and a masterly delineation of his character. From these materials, the life of George Wythe, as published in Sanderson's work, was framed by me; the magazine publication afforded me very trifling aid, but the letter of Jefferson was a solid foundation to build on. This letter was returned by me to Mr. Sanderson along with my manuscript of the life, &c., and in all probability both may be extant among the papers in the possession of Mr. Sanderson's family, some of whom reside at Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

I have thus written merely to correct errors; many years since, I had the same correction in reclaiming the authorship of Chancellor Wythe. I assume no merit, but rather should be the more gratified if that any effort of my humble pen should be attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

I am, your obedient servant,

See also


  1. William R. Smith to John W. Forney, November 20, 1860, John A. McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia. Cited in Hemphill, "George Wythe the Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia," PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1937, 44n2.