William M. Smith was the preeminent Radical Republican leader in Memphis during Reconstruction. As a judge, Smith confronted some of the most controversial legal issues of the period and led the Shelby County Republican Party through decades of Democratic dominance.
Smith was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and reared in Brownsville, Tennessee. He graduated from LaGrange College in Alabama in 1848 and from Cumberland Law School in 1851. After establishing a successful law practice in Brownsville, Smith was elected to the Tennessee House as a Whig in 1853; he was the youngest member of the general assembly and became a vehement critic of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration, “Know-Nothing” movement.
In June 1860 Smith was elected chancellor of the vast Sixth Chancery Division, which included the West Tennessee counties of Henry, Weakley, Obion, Gibson, Dyer, Haywood, Lauderdale, Tipton, and Fayette. With the coming of the Civil War, he aligned himself with the Union and was forced to flee in 1862 to occupied Memphis, where he organized Haywood County refugees to pressure Union authorities to bring their county under Federal control.
At the urging of Alvin Hawkins, Smith reluctantly accepted appointment by Military Governor Andrew Johnson to the post of chancellor of the Common Law and Chancery Court of Memphis in 1864. After boldly establishing the Unionist judiciary’s independence from the Union army, he upheld the constitutionality of legislation disfranchising ex-Confederates in 1865. In 1869 he enjoined Governor DeWitt Senter from removing Brownlow-appointed voter registrars who excluded ex-Confederates from the polls. His action was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, resulting in the registration of ex-Confederates en masse and the demise of the state’s Radical regime. Despite these controversial rulings, Smith earned a reputation as an honest jurist, in sharp contrast to many corrupt Unionist officials in Memphis.
Upon retirement from the bench in 1869, Smith declined appointment to the Supreme Court and devoted himself to a thriving Memphis law practice, Methodist Church affairs, and the Republican Party. In 1880, due to division in the Democratic ranks over the state debt question, he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate, where he served as Speaker and became Governor Alvin Hawkins’s chief advisor. In 1882 he failed in efforts to win election to both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. In 1890 he was defeated as the Republican nominee for the Tennessee State Supreme Court but regularly served as a special judge of the court.
He practiced law until 1906 and was considered the elder statesman of the Shelby County Republican Party until he died in 1921 at the age of ninety-one, the oldest member of the Memphis bar.