Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Aaron (d.1697?)

Date of death is 1701 in the ODNB.

SMITH, AARON (d. 1697?), solicitor to the treasury, of obscure origin, was mentioned as a seditious person in a proclamation of 1 June 1677. A frequenter of the Rose tavern, he associated with such dangerous men as Titus Oates and Hugh Speke. He also got to know Sir John Trenchard, and sought the acquaintance of the knot of intriguing politicians who received pay from the Prince of Orange. His success may be deduced from the fact that he was number forty-five in Dangerfield's list of the forty-eight members of the Green Ribbon Club in the summer of 1679 (Dangerfield, Discovery of the Designs of the Papists, 1681). On 30 Jan. 1682 he appeared at the king's bench bar on a charge of providing Stephen College [q. v.] with seditious papers for the purposes of his defence. He was tried for this offence in the following July, and found guilty of delivering libellous papers to College and using disloyal words. He managed to escape into hiding before sentence was pronounced, and spent the year in active plotting. He had by this time obtained the confidence of the leaders of the disaffected party, and the council, consisting of Monmouth, Russell, Essex, Sidney, and Hampden, despatched him in January 1683 to confer with their friends in the north. When the government got wind of the Rye House plot, they found means of laying hands upon Smith, who was arrested in Axe Yard on 4 July and committed to the Tower. He was thought to be deeply implicated in the plot, but so little could be proved against him that he was on 27 Oct. sentenced for his previous offence to a fine of 500l., two hours in the pillory, and to remain in prison pending security for good behaviour. He seems to have thought himself lucky in getting off so easily (Luttrell, i. 285). Though mentioned in Nathan Wade's list of the members of the ‘King's Head Club’ in October 1685 (Harl. MS. 6845), it is not improbable that Smith spent the next four years in or within the rules of the king's bench prison, from which he was released in March 1688 (Luttrell).

William was no sooner on the throne than Smith preferred his claims to substantial reward. Carefully hidden as his influence had been, he had been the ‘Mephistopheles’ of whig intrigue since 1678; and on 9 April 1689, with a cynical disregard for propriety, William made this fanatical partisan solicitor to the treasury, a post of rapidly increasing consequence, to which were added the functions of public prosecutor (cf. R. North, Autobiogr.) Large sums were entrusted to him for the purpose of prosecutions, and there is little doubt that Smith would have been content to pose as the Fouquier-Tinville of the English revolution. Happily, about ninety per cent. of his charges were thrown out by the grand juries, while he was greatly restrained in his activity by the jealousy of the attorney-general, Sir George Treby [q. v.] In November 1692 he was summoned before the House of Lords to explain the procedure which had been followed upon the arrest of Lords Marlborough and Huntingdon. With such contemptuous roughness was he cross-examined, ‘yt ye modest man takes it soe much to heart, yt an affidavit wase this day made in ye House that he wase not in a condition to appeare’ (Hatton Corresp. ii. 186).

But upon his old friend Sir John Trenchard [q. v.] becoming secretary of state (for the northern department) in 1693, Smith's activity against suspects and Jacobites was redoubled. On preliminary evidence of the slenderest kind he travelled down to Lancashire with two informers, Taafe and Lunt (for whom he had appeared as bail on a charge of bigamy), two men of execrable character. A few compromising letters and some arms behind a false fireplace were discovered, and five Lancashire gentlemen were arrested; but Ferguson and other pamphleteers alluded to the plot as a ridiculous sham; Taafe changed sides at the last moment, and at the trial at Manchester in October 1694 the prisoners were acquitted. Smith was charged by the hostile party with having ‘fashioned all the depositions’ of the witnesses for the prosecution, and by his own side with having thoroughly mismanaged the affair. Large sums of money passed through his hands, and he was widely suspected of malversation. In February 1696 he was closely questioned by the House of Commons as to his accounts. Failing to deliver his accounts to the commissioners appointed to examine them by 18 Feb., he was ordered to be taken into custody, and on 25 July 1696 he was dismissed from his employments. Four months later he attended at the bar of the house and pleaded illness. He was given an extension of date until 16 Jan. 1697. But he failed to put in an appearance, and thenceforth drops into obscurity, or more probably died, early in 1697.

[Luttrell's Brief Hist. Relation, vols. i. ii. iii. and iv. passim; Burnet's Hist. of his own Time, ii. 474; Roger North's Autobiogr. ed. Jessopp; Kingston's True Hist. of several Designs and Conspiracies, 1698; Jacobite Trials in Manchester, 1694, ed. Beamont (Chetham Soc.), pp. 50, 94 sq.; Lord Kenyon's Papers (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. App. iv. passim, 14th Rep. App. vi. 85–7); Macaulay's Hist. of England; Ranke's Hist. of England, vi. 529; Sitwell's First Whig, pp. 49, 84, 155, 197, 200. The indexes to Luttrell and to the three works last mentioned make the curious mistake of confusing the disreputable and insolvent Aaron Smith with John Smith (1655–1723) [q. v.], who became chancellor of the exchequer in 1699, and was subsequently first speaker of the British House of Commons.]

T. S.