Born in northern Ireland around 1719, James Smith came to America when he was probably ten years. His family settled in York County, Pennsylvania. Smith’s early education consisted of surveying and classical languages. In addition, he studied law with his older brother. His was admitted to the bar in 1745.
Smith’s political involvement probably began around 1774. A Whig leader, he stood behind nonimportation measures and called for an intercolonial congress. Additionally, he became captain and later an honorary general of a militia company he started. He attended the Continental Congress from 1776 until 1778. From 1779 to 1782, he was immersed in state politics, holding down various positions from legislator, judge of the Pennsylvania high court of errors and appeals, and brigadier general of the militia, to State counselor during the Wyoming Valley land dispute that took place between Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Smith died in 1806 in York at the age of eighty-seven. He lies in the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery.