Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William Cusac

SMITH, Sir WILLIAM CUSAC, baronet (1766–1836), Irish judge, and pamphleteer, born on 23 Jan. 1766, was the eldest son of Sir Michael Smith, an Irish lawyer of eminence, who, after sitting for eleven years in the Irish parliament, was from 1794 to 1801 a baron of the court of exchequer, and from 1801 to 1806 master of the rolls in Ireland. Sir Michael was created a baronet in 1799, in recognition as well of his son's parliamentary services to the government as of his own judicial eminence, and died on 17 Dec. 1808, having retired from the bench in 1806.

William Cusac Smith was the only son of Sir Michael and of Mary, daughter and heiress of James Cusac of Coolmine. On his mother's death he assumed the additional surname of Cusac. He was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in 1788. While at the university Smith became acquainted with Edmund Burke, with whom he corresponded (Burke, Correspondence, iv. 37), at whose house he passed some of his vacations (Prior, Life of Burke, ii.), and to whom he dedicated in 1792 two pamphlets, entitled ‘The Rights of Artisans’ and ‘The Patriot’ (Burke, Correspondence, iv. 266). He was called to the Irish bar in 1788, and, rapidly acquiring a substantial practice, was made a king's counsel in 1795. In the same year he entered parliament for the borough of Donegal. Though holding liberal views on catholic emancipation, as might be expected from a disciple of Burke, he became a strong supporter of the government, and was one of the first and most strenuous advocates of the union. His speech in the union debate in 1799 was esteemed one of the ablest on that side, and was published as a pamphlet (Castlereagh Correspondence, ii. 130). He was an active member of the minority of the Irish bar which favoured the union, and the author of a protest against the action of the majority (ib. i. 344). Several letters and pamphlets which he wrote at the time were republished in ‘Tracts on the Union’ in 1831.

In December 1800 Smith was appointed solicitor-general. While holding that office he was appointed deputy judge of assize, and went the north-east circuit as the colleague of his own father. In 1801 he became a baron of the exchequer. For many years he enjoyed the highest respect and confidence in this position, his leanings towards catholic emancipation rendering him popular with the Irish public. In his latter years, however, he gave offence to O'Connell and the popular party in consequence of the strong language he employed in charging grand juries at the assizes, in condemnation of the tithe agitation, and his conduct was brought before parliament. Smith was a man of eccentric habits, and was in the habit of holding his court at inconvenient hours. O'Connell skilfully availed himself of this to support his political objections. On 13 Feb. 1834 it was resolved by the House of Commons, at the instance of O'Connell, to appoint a select committee ‘to inquire into the conduct of Baron Smith in respect of his neglect of duty as a judge, and the introduction of political topics in his charges to grand juries.’ It was soon felt, however, that such a resolution threatened the independence of the judges. Smith's friends brought forward the question afresh a week later, when the resolution was rescinded by a majority of six, chiefly through the exertions of Frederick (afterwards Sir Frederick) Shaw [q. v.] He received congratulatory addresses on this occasion from nearly every grand jury in Ireland. Smith survived this for two years, dying at his seat, Newtown, in the King's County, on 21 Aug. 1836. He married, in 1737, Hester, daughter of Thomas Berry of Eglish, Queen's County.

Smith was a cultivated and active-minded man. His political writings on the union and other questions are marked by great vigour of thought, though the style is somewhat turgid. As ‘Paul Puck Peeradeal’ he issued a small volume of verse entitled ‘The Goblins of Neapolis’ (Dublin, 1836). His ‘Verses’ (Dublin, 1830) were privately printed without an author's name; while his ‘Metaphysic Rambles’ (in three ‘strolls’ or parts, 1835–6) appeared as by ‘Warner Christian Search.’ Under these pseudonyms and that of ‘A Yeoman,’ he issued many other essays, tracts, and addresses of no distinctive merit. The sale of his valuable library took place in Dublin in 1837, and occupied four days.

Thomas Berry Cusack-Smith (1795–1866), second son of the above, became, like his father and grandfather, a distinguished lawyer and judge. He received his education at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1813. In 1819 he was called to the bar, and received a silk gown in 1830. In September 1842 he was appointed solicitor-general for Ireland in Sir Robert Peel's administration, and in November of the same year succeeded Francis Blackburne [q. v.] as attorney-general. In this office his most important duty was to conduct the prosecution of O'Connell, whom he succeeded in convicting before the Irish judges, though the conviction was subsequently reversed in the House of Lords. In the course of the trial Smith, who was a hot-tempered man, committed the indiscretion of challenging one of the opposing counsel to a duel. The matter was brought before the court, when Smith publicly apologised. It was considered that the memory of this unfortunate incident cost him the Irish chancellorship later in his career. He was christened by O'Connell, who had a talent for nicknames, ‘Alphabet’ Smith and ‘The Vinegar Cruet.’ From 1843 to 1846 Smith sat in the House of Commons as member for Ripon, having previously contested Youghal unsuccessfully against O'Connell's son. In the latter year he succeeded Blackburne in the office of master of the rolls, and retained this position till his death, which occurred suddenly at his shooting-lodge at Blairgowrie in Scotland on 13 Aug. 1866. Smith was a man of harsh manners and rough exterior, but his abilities were of a high order. Sir Robert Peel considered his speech in the House of Commons in 1844, in defence of his action as attorney-general in the O'Connell prosecution, as ranking, with Canning's Lisbon embassy speech and Plunket's on catholic emancipation in 1821, among the three speeches most effective for their immediate purpose which he ever listened to (Quarterly Review cxxx. 199). He married, in 1827, Louisa, daughter of James Hugh Smith-Barry of Fota, co. Cork. His grandson is now heir-presumptive to the baronetcy.

[For Sir William Smith: Madden's Ireland and its Rulers, ii. 98–142; Wills's Lives of Illustrious Irishmen, vi. 257; Whiteside's Early Sketches, p. 274; Webb's Compendium; Burke's Peerage and Baronetcy. For T. B. C. Smith O'Connor Morris's Memoirs of a Life; O'Connell Correspondence, ed. Fitzpatrick; Dublin daily papers, 15–16 Aug. 1866.]

C. L. F.