This blog post was written by graduate assistant Mikah Sauskojus, master’s student in History.
I recently had the opportunity to work with the papers of William R. Smith, a collection containing correspondence dating to his time served as a Texas district judge and then congressman from 1890-1912. These papers offer a glimpse into the tensions caused by long distances and an erratic postal service between maintaining a family life and a political career.
W.R. Smith was born near Tyler, Texas, in 1863. After an education in public schools, he graduated from Sam Houston Normal Institute in 1883 and was admitted to the bar in 1885. In 1890, Smith married Frances Lipscomb Breedlove after a long correspondence. The couple had five children, at least three of whom appear by name in Smith’s papers.
His first documented position was a law office opened with W.S. Smallwood, where he worked from 1888 until 1897. He then won an appointment as judge to the 32nd Judicial District, which appears to have launched his political career. In 1903, Smith was elected into the Fifty-Eighth Congress as a Democrat representing the 16th District of Texas.
Smith served his state faithfully both in the general body and as a member of several committees, winning each of his re-election campaigns until the 1916 contest, when he lost a primary battle with Thomas Blanton, which could have ended his political career. However, President Woodrow Wilson intervened and appointed Smith a US district judge in 1917. Smith moved his family to El Paso (which lessened the need to write letters explaining his desire to be home), where he lived and served until his death in 1924.
Smith appears to have been a devoted family man despite the extreme distance imposed by his legal and congressional responsibilities. He wrote consistent letters home that detailed his personal state of being, inquired after the affairs of family members (particularly the health of his children), and expressed an ongoing desire to return home. These letters were transported primarily through the postal service, though they were also sometimes delivered by family friends. He seems to have kept his family and professional lives mostly separate; there are relatively few examples of Smith discussing his work in Congress with his wife. He did, however, make note of at least one irrigation bill going through the House, showing a continued interest in the development of rural Texas which provided justification for his appointment to the Committee on Irrigation of Arid Lands during the latter half of his tenure in Congress.
Long after Smith’s death, many of his letters were found in the inventory of an Oklahoma paper dealer and donated to the Poage Library in 2001. The papers are undergoing re-processing by the Poage Library staff for use by researchers. We look forward to re-opening them to the public soon!
1) William R. Smith Papers, Accession #89, Baylor Collections of Political Materials, W. R. Poage Legislative Library Baylor University.
2) William R. Smith Papers, Accession #89, Box #1, Folder #18, Baylor Collections of Political Materials, W. R. Poage Legislative Library Baylor University.