Senator William A Smith

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John Farnell

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Is there a biography on Sen. William A. Smith within the E. T.? or Is there any imformation any where about him?
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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There is precious little about Smith that is readily available. The easiest to get is The Titanic: End of a Dream, by Wyn Craig Wade. Nobody has written a full biography.

On page 336 of the Penguin edition of his book, Wyn has listed a number of sources of documents related to Smith. They are in several places in Michigan.
 

Don Tweed

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Mar 30, 2006
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Dave is correct,
End of a Dream is one of my favorites.
W.A. Smith was someone you would like to be around when the analytical excrement hits the artificial wind machine!
No knowledge of maritime law, yet thundered at the apalling way of the disaster.

-Don
 
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sharon rutman

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I'm no fan of End of a Dream because of it's in your face hostility toward the surviving crewmen of the Titanic. Smith was just another self-serving political hack who capitalized on a horrendous tragedy to grab some quick publicity.
 

Inger Sheil

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Dec 3, 2000
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I think you're a little harsh on Smith, Sharon. People are rarely so black and white, politicians no less than the rest of us. I believe Wade was perhaps a tad overenthusiastic about Smith, and was very ready to cast his actions and motivations in the best possible light, but to go to the other extreme and dismiss Smith as a 'self-serving political hack' is reductive in the extreme. No doubt he had his own motivations other than those which were explicitly stated at the time (e.g. an attack on the power of the trusts), but these weren't necessarily all engendered by self-interest. I worked as a political adviser for years, and while Smith strikes me as exhibiting many of the hallmarks of a populist (a deliberate manipulation of his image that many fine individuals, such as Abraham Lincoln, have employed), I've seen many instances in which politicians have acted with a mixture of self-interest and genuine altruism. Rarely do they act entirely from one or the other - like the rest of us, they're entirely human and fit somewhere on the spectrum of human motivation. While Smith was perhaps less sympathetic and compassionate with some of the crew than he might have been, I have no doubt that he was genuinely and deeply affected by the Titanic disaster and those who contacted him seeking answers.

As for Wade's book having 'in your face hostility towards the surviving crewmen', I have to disagree with such a sweeping generalisation. Perhaps you are referring to his unsympathetic stance on Lightoller? Overdrawn, I agree, as I've discussed here before. But even with Lightoller, he made certain he made mention of the 2nd Officer's heroic conduct at Dunkirk in the postscripts.

Wade also went a considerable way towards redressing the neglect of Harold Lowe, and clearly admired him tremendously. He, too, was one of the first to highlight the heroic conduct of Perkis and the crew of #4. He also had some very positive remarks about the clarity of Boxhall's evidence.

If Wade's work reads as a bit of a revisionist text, it must be remembered that some of this revisionism was long overdue - he was attempting to combat some very entrenched myths and romanticisation of the disaster. If he swung the pendulum (in my opinion) a bit too far - as with Lightoller - then it must be remembered that he was reacting to the largely uncritical assessments that had gone before.

I'd like to see a more critical, balanced appraisal of Smith, but at the same time believe Wade's work stands as one of the most insightful, important works, and an essential re-appraisal of the American Inquiry which had received rather glib and dismissive assessments prior to the publication of 'End of a Dream'.
 

Don Tweed

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Mar 30, 2006
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Well said Inger.
W.A. Smith was not out to make a name for himself.
His reputation and achievments in Michigan stand on there own.
I truly believe he wanted to see a major change in the politics and the trusts that Inger mentioned to get the country back on track.
He brought himself up out of poverty and was a true self made man.
Just my opinion, mind you!
-Don
 
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Patricia Bowman Rogers Winship

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I did a standard biiographical information search for William Alden Smith at my library, and found a bit. I photocopied the article in Volume XXVI of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, and the obituary that appeared in the New York Times, October 12, 1932. I could put together a short bio of Senator Smith if one is wanted here.

Pat W.
 
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sharon rutman

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I know I'm harsh--that's the whole point. I don't trust politicians of any era--it seems as though Smith was champing at the bit to issue summons to everyone in sight, forgetting that the survivors were badly traumatized by this ghastly event. While Senator Smith slumbered fitfully during the night of April l4, l9l2, these people were in the middle of the North Atlantic fighting for their lives. And you wonder why I'm hostile?
 

Adam McGuirk

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May 19, 2002
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Yes I wonder why you are hostile, when all the man was doing was trying to find out what really happened.
Adam
 
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sharon rutman

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OK Adam--I don't trust politicians at all. One of my favorite websites is www.mediawhoresonline.com. which exposes the media as they slobber and drool over the self-serving political hacks we elect. (It's usually hold your nose and vote.) You're voting for the lesser of two evils.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Easley South Carolina
I don't trust politicians either, but befor jumping on Senator Smith, (Yes, he had his agenda...who didn't?) we might want to consider the value of the information uncovered during the Senate Investigation. Information that was fresh on everyones mind and which might have been lost or poorly remembered in the course of the Mersey Wreck Commissions inquiry.

I might point out that Mersey and Company were also safe in their beds when the Titanic was sinking, but that didn't detract from the legitamacy or the need or their investigation. Considering that British passenger vessels were carrying American passengers, was owned by American interests, and using American ports, I can see why the Commerce committee would take an interest. I would expect the British to do the same were it the other way around.
 

Inger Sheil

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Dec 3, 2000
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Sharon, it must be wonderful to view the world and the individuals in it clear-cut black and white. It certainly simplifies things, even if it's not particularly reflective of the shades of black and white that make up the spectrum of human nature and events
happy.gif


It's very easy and glib to just dismiss politicians altogether. But I've worked with them for years - all my life, in a sense, as from the time I was able to walk I was helping my parents letter-box for local council elections. I joined a political party when I was 17, and was recruited out of my post-graduate degree to work in a ministerial office when I was 21. I've know politicians who were self-serving - I've also known men and women who were self-serving in private enterprise. In a democracy, politicians do have to reflect a certain lowest common denominator - if they don't draw broadbased electorate support from the largest number of people possible, then they don't get elected.

But to make sweeping generalisations about 'self-serving political hacks' is a grotesque generalisation about men and women who run the whole range of human qualities and defects. I can tell you now - the woman I had the priviledge of working with for four years was one of the most insightful, caring, genuinely compassionate, shrewd and brilliant individuals it has ever been my good fortune to know. I wouldn't change a bloody thing about having worked for her - it was an honour. I'm not particularly keen on resuming a career in politics, but I number many former colleagues, including my former employer, among my closest friends.

So what was Smith? History is not about taking sides - that's far to simplistic and reductive. As for understanding historical figures, people and their motivations are comprised of shades of grey. I understand, for example, why Harold Lowe deeply resented Smith, particularly in light of the question about drinking. When the full story behind that is revealed, Lowe's point of view makes sense and is easy to sympathise with. While one can also understand some of the crew's resentment at not being able to return home immediately, the flip side of the coin is that Smith had to secure witnesses as soon as possible before they dispersed. Indeed, one reason why he took the crew evidence first was so he could release them as soon as possible.

Smith strikes me as a populist in a classic mould - a very carefully constructed image capitalising on his origins and cultivating what were seen as the virtues of a particular social group - plainspoken honesty, self-made man etc etc. The American variation was perhaps typified by Abraham Lincoln, but they exist all over the world and I've seen and worked with examples of the breed in Australia. It wasn't necessarily a fabrication, I hasten to add - Smith was, like Lincoln, undoubtedly a self-made man - but rather an emphasis on certain characteristics.

I disagree, too, with your assessment of Wade's work - as I said above, your characterisation of his attitude towards the crew seems to stem primarily from his attitude toward Lightoller. You disregard the fact that he had positive observations to make on other crewman - I, for one, rather appreciate the fact that he was one of the first author/historians to look at Harold Lowe's role in some detail, not to mention crewmen like Perkis.
 

Dave Gittins

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Well said, Inger!

Like all of us, Smith was a mixture. As I pointed out elsewhere, he rushed ahead with the inquiry because he knew very well that the British Ambassador was trying to see if it could be stopped. That was inconsiderate of certain witnesses, notably Bride. He certainly loved the sound of his own voice and he used the inquiry to push his own barrows. Some of his work was plain stupid, in particular, the Luis Klein saga. Some was in bad taste, notably his harrying of Pitman. However, even his enemies, and he had plenty, never accused him of dishonesty. In an age when senators were not elected, most were in the pocket of big business, but Smith was his own man. I would add that anybody who had the insufferable Furnifold Simmons among his enemies was a good guy. In contrast to Smith, you'll find quite a bit about Simmons on the Internet, and it's not complimentary.

If you want a real crook who had a minor role in the Titanic affair, read up on Horatio Bottomley.
 
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The British Inquiry had limited resources - they only had access to British witnesses - ie the crew and the few passengers who had been on the "out" leg of a return trip - only the Duff-Gordons testified to the British Inquiry from amongst the passengers.

North America had all the remaining witnesses - the emigrants and those on the "in" leg of a return trip.

Leaving politics aside, one would very much hope that someone in America would take responsibility and try to find out the truth of what happened (and how future tragedies could be avoided) by contacting those witnesses, as well as those Brits available prior to their return to Europe.

This is what Senator Smith did. That he may have been self-serving, arrogant, and unnecessarily hostile to Ismay and some of the crew is a matter for legitimate debate.

But that he fulfilled a very necessary role and that he did it with robust enthusiasm cannot really be denied.

His motivation is, in one sense, irrelevant. It could be important if his motivation had served to suppress the truth, silence voices, or seriously alter the focus of investigation away from where it needed to be. But that isn't what happened is it?

Because he acted quickly and decisively (where it counted) our view of the Titanic will always be enlightened by his findings.

bob
 

Inger Sheil

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You raise some good points there, Robert. I certainly think there was a skew on a lot of those lines of questioning, and even, in at least one instance I can think of, from whom he sought an affidavit. However, it was very much largely due to his efforts and energies that as much data was gathered as quickly as it was, and for this alone - regardless of what we think of personal agendas and prejudices the man might have had, his extremely important and very real contribution towards understanding the disaster should be recognised. Your points on the difficulty of securing witnesses before they dispersed are particularly relevent - even Smith, acting rather swiftly, had difficulty securing steerage passengers before they all went their seperate ways.

Dave -

Some of his work was plain stupid, in particular, the Luis Klein saga.

Funny you should mention this - discussions on this board inspired me to look further into the Klein affair, and I have an article on this Titanic imposter coming up in September's White Star Journal. This is one instance where I think Wade glossed over matters somewhat - his explanation that Smith pursued the matter as a diplomatic concession to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador doesn't seem to jibe entirely with the material.

Looking in to it, it's hard to explain why Smith pursued Klein's story as far as he did, going to the extent of holding the man under arrest on a technical charge until he could arrange to get him to Washington. The Austro-Hungarian diplomatic community showed an initial interest in the matter, but washed their hands of it (very publicly in the media) when their own contacts in New York made it clear to them that Klein, as indicated by the Titanic's crewlists, was not aboard the ship. Newspapers were skeptical from the outset, pointing out flaws in Klein's story, and Smith expressed his doubts, saying it sounded 'fishy'. And yet he pursued it doggedly to the fiasco's conclusion in Washington DC.
 

Dave Gittins

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Inger, Smith seems to have made no effort to find steerage passengers until after he had heard Gracie's evidence about the great crowd that he saw coming up on deck at the very end. Then Smith asked the immigration societies to find some English-speaking third class passengers. Thus he limited himself quite a bit.

Some have proposed that Smith intended to make an example of Klein but I doubt if there is evidence. I think it more likely that it was just one of his pointless pursuits of trivia. Another example is the fuss he made over the railroad cars ordered for survivors. He jumped to confusions because he was so eager to catch Phillip Franklin up to some mischief. He could have cleared it up in a moment with the railroad man.
 

Inger Sheil

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Dave - good point on the delay in seeking out the third class. Taking crew evidence was given priority in order to release them as soon as possible, and even so Smith had to take measures to speed up taking evidence from them.

If Smith was trying to make an exmaple of Klein, there's no evidence of it in contemporary sources that I've seen. If so, it backfired when Klein did a runner in Washington. He may have been persuaded to pursue it long past the point of rationality when Klein was able to convince some of his questioners while still held in Cleveland that he was on board the ship - how Klein managed this when he'd already modified his original story and the newspaper reporters had been skeptical from the get-go is remarkable in and of itself.
 

Dave Gittins

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Smith's inquiry was more organised than many think. He tried to question the British crew and officers first and fitted in people like Rostron and Peuchen at their convenience. Later he moved on to American residents. His order of witnesses is actually more logical than was Lord Mersey's, because Mersey started his inquiry while many witnesses were still in the USA. His early witnesses are a very odd mixture of firemen, seamen, stewards and a baker. Then he called Captain Lord and his officers, Captain Moore and John Durrant, and eventually got back to Titanic crew. Later Mersey got more organised