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Jackson Kelly History 101: The Founding Members and Framers

Benjamin Harrison Smith

August 5, 2022

By: Emmanuel Backus

Benjamin Harrison Smith was the original founding member of the firm that would one day come to be known as Jackson Kelly. Born in October of 1797 in Rockingham County, Virginia, Smith’s family chose to relocate to Lancaster, Ohio during the early 1800s. According to many sources, one of the driving factors for the Smith family’s relocation was to free their slaves safely. While in Ohio, Smith attended the Ohio Seminary (now known as Ohio University), where he graduated from in 1819. Upon graduation, Smith returned to Lancaster and practiced law for about three years before moving to Charleston, Virginia in May of 1822. Once there, Smith opened his law office that would one day become Jackson Kelly.

Smith’s Charleston practice focused primarily on property law, land acquisition, and title work. Smith’s work in reforming early frontier property law during the 1820s to 1840s, an era of western expansion, led many to claim that Smith, “practically wrote the land law of Virginia so far as it applied to western Virginia.” Prior to the Civil War, Smith continued his work on reforming property law west of the Appalachians by serving in the Virginia State Senate from 1833-1838. As a legal trailblazer, Smith also served as the District Attorney of the United States for the Western District of Virginia for Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Filmore.

Following Virginia’s secession in early 1861, pro-Union western Virginians met in Wheeling to declare the acts of the Virginian government null and void and established a reorganized Virginian government. To ensure legitimacy, the Wheeling Convention chose to fill all governmental offices, and elected Francis H. Pierpont to serve as the governor of the Restored Government of Virginia. Shortly after, conventions were held in Wheeling to create a new constitution for the state that would become West Virginia. Delegates were chosen from western counties to attend. Among these delegates was Benjamin Smith. Fighting in the Civil War, Smith was admitted to the Convention by the deliberative body through the reading of a letter requesting acceptance. This letter was sponsored and read by James H. Brown, another founding member of Jackson Kelly. During his motion for admittance to the Convention, Brown spoke in favor of Smith’s admittance, claiming that “no man [was] better acquainted with the people of Logan (the county Smith was chosen to represent).” Smith was admitted to the Convention overwhelmingly by acclamation.

Benjamin Smith arrived in Wheeling to participate in the Constitutional Convention on January 15, 1862 and was immediately placed on the Legislative Committee by unanimous consent of the deliberative body. While serving as a delegate, Smith played an important role in setting the foundation for West Virginia property law and participated in extensive debates about the geographical carveouts of the new state. While at the Convention, Smith pushed West Virginia to be far more expansive territorially than it is today. During debate, Benjamin Smith argued for the new state of West Virginia to contain all land west of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain and have the capitol placed at White Sulphur Springs. While Smith failed to convince his fellow delegates on this matter, he continued to play an important role in the Convention by contributing to spirited debates about other topics, including that of the West Virginia judiciary.

Also in 1862, President Lincoln reappointed Smith to serve as the District Attorney of the United States for the Western District of Virginia once again. Smith continued to hold the position of District Attorney after West Virginia statehood but now held the office in the thirty-fifth state instead. Benjamin Smith continued to serve as District Attorney until 1865. Following his second stint as District Attorney, Smith chose to run for Governor of West Virginia in 1866 but fell short of receiving the votes needed.

After a short stint in the Legislature, Benjamin Smith returned to the private practice of law until his retirement in the early 1880s. West Virginia legal pioneer Benjamin Smith died at the age of 90 on December 10, 1887, in Charleston, West Virginia.


Sources:

Joshua Claybourn’s Jackson Kelly History Manuscript

Manuscripts of the Debates and Proceedings of the First Constitutional Convention of WestVirginia, Courtesy of the West Virginia Archives.

West Virginia Historical Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 1, 52.

 

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