In Memoriam

Elbert B. Smith (1921–2013)

Barbara Bennett Peterson, September 2014

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Courtesy of the History Department at the University of Maryland

Historian of American History and International Relations

Elbert B. Smith, emeritus professor of American history at the University of Maryland and author of numerous books on the American presidency, died on April 30, 2013, at age 92, following a distinguished and notable career. Smith was born in Benham, Kentucky, to Elbert and Gladys Smith. He was always interested in the American west and the people who had roamed its frontiers. He graduated with a BA in 1940 from Maryville College in Tennessee. During World War II, Smith served as a communications officer in the navy. Following his military service he received his master’s (1947) and PhD (1949) in history from the University of Chicago.

Ever popular with his students, Smith taught at Youngstown University, Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Maryland. Concerned with international peace and education, Smith involved himself with the goals of the Fulbright Program, established after the war to facilitate international exchanges of scholars and students and promote cultural understanding. He was a Fulbright Scholar of American History and International Relations in Japan at Ochanomisu University and the University of Tokyo from 1954 to 1955. He served as a Fulbright Scholar again in 1976 at Moscow University and pioneered attempts to thaw the Cold War and establish détente. Having enjoyed his Russian experience, he returned to teach again at Leningrad University in 1991. Smith served as an exchange professor at Peking University, seeking to harmonize relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1983 and 1988.

Smith published a number of well-written and well-researched books, all of which received positive reviews, including Magnificent Missourian: The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1958, republished 1973), The Death of Slavery: The United States, 1837–1865 (1967), Lincoln: Opportunist or Statesman (1969), The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975), Francis Preston Blair (1980), The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore (1988), and President Zachary Taylor: The Hero President (2007, republished 2011).

Active in the social and political life of his community, Smith was a Democratic candidate for the US Senate in 1962 and 1966. He served as Lyndon Johnson’s campaign manager in Iowa in 1964. President Jimmy Carter, recognizing Smith’s efforts in international education as a Fulbright professor abroad, appointed Smith to serve on the US Board of Foreign Scholarships, the administrative umbrella for the Fulbright Exchange Program. Later Smith became president of the Fulbright Association.

Services were held to celebrate Smith’s life on May 26, 2013, at First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, Maryland. He will be long and fondly remembered as a brilliant scholar of the presidency. Smith wrote biographies of outstanding men when he felt they deserved more praise and acclaim than they had previously received. These biographies, which exemplified his spirit of generosity, became Smith’s major contributions, for which colleagues continue to be grateful.

Smith was married to Jean Smith (died 2002), and they had four sons and a daughter who survive him: Randall E. Smith, Stephen A. Smith, Henry Scott Smith, Robert O. Smith, and Amy Smith.

Barbara Bennett Peterson
University of Hawaii