- The Lost President: A. D. Smith and the Hidden History of Radical Democracy in Civil War America by Ruth Dunley
The UnCivil Wars series from the University of Georgia Press presents sidelong views of the Civil War era, seeking understanding and entertainment on the margins of the biggest U.S. event of the nineteenth century. [End Page 122] Ruth Dunley's playful and open-sourced "detective story" about a secondary player in the American epic embodies both the style and substance of the series. The author finds in A. D. Smith, a politician of broad but ultimately fleeting renown, a revealing but mysterious embodiment of the turbulent times.
Dunley is a Canadian whose interest in Smith began when she learned of his participation in a New York– and Ohio-based movement to liberate the North from British imperialism and the domination of a Toronto-based oligarchy in the late 1830s. A. D. Smith's advocacy for a republican form of government in Canada and his role in organizing armed expeditions north of the border are the subject of the first of three case studies built around his life experiences. "Lost President" in the book's title refers to Smith's ascendancy to the office of would-be president of Canada, part of a formal government-in-exile including a national bank and paper currency established by the U.S.-based Hunters' Lodge association. "Lost President" also encapsulates Dunley's sense of the irony of A. D. Smith's forgotten life, its early prominence and promise unfulfilled, in her narrative, and his character finally unknowable.
Much like the failed invasions of Canada—which featured the death and imprisonment of American partisans and intense diplomatic complications—the subject of the next stage of A. D. Smith's career loomed large in the past but dropped out of standard accounts of the 1850s. In the buildup to the Civil War, the legal wrangling surrounding the fugitive slave case Ableman v. Booth captured the attention of the reading public as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. As a state supreme court justice in Wisconsin, A. D. Smith became famous in the North and notorious among advocates of slavery for his opinion declaring the federal Fugitive Slave Law and the pronouncements of the U.S. Supreme Court to be null and void in his state. In developing this tale, Dunley's practice of describing her research methods and experiences in the text helps to bring the disremembered to life, presenting the curiosity of Smith's state portrait greeting unfamiliar visitors at the entrance to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act and participation in the drama of Sherman Booth, an antislavery newspaper editor who went in and out of federal custody between 1854 and 1861 amid breakouts and habeas corpus petitions, proved to be the high point of A. D. Smith's vertiginous career, the antecedents to a reckoning concerning Smith's deposit of a $10,000 railroad bribe in his personal account. Remaining on the margins of the political scene in Wisconsin, Smith was fortunate to gain a low-level patronage position in 1862 with the newly created Direct Tax Commission of the U.S. Treasury Department. [End Page 123]
Historians without a taste for biography might have liked to see events that followed as the organizing premise of the book, a largely untold story, remembered by one participant as "a wild scheme, that out radicals all the radicalism that I ever heard of in agrarian history" (118). Smith stood right at the center of these events, consulting with the authors of the originating legislation; taking up the plenipotentiary powers of his post, which allowed him to confiscate and resell real estate in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia; and experiencing the profound emotional and physical shock of the Civil War, particularly in his engagement with the overwhelmingly African American population of what proved to be Smith's final...