Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

United States of America flag

Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Freeman Thorpe (American, 1844-1922)
North American
oil on canvas
Overall: 41 in x 34 in; 104.14 cm x 86.36 cm
This portrait of Robert Smith, which is a copy, was purchased by the Department of State from Mr. Thorp on April 9, 1902.
Signed "Thorp 1902"
Credit Line
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number


Robert Smith (1757–1842) was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After serving briefly in the Continental Army during the Revolution, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), studied law, and began practicing in Baltimore. He also served in the Maryland legislature. Recognizing Smith’s knowledge of maritime law, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him secretary of the navy in 1801, a position he held until he became secretary of state in 1809.

Smith had actually been President James Madison’s second choice for secretary of state, and Madison did not trust him. Having been secretary of state himself, Madison redrafted many of Smith’s diplomatic notes. It was a tense time, as the United States attempted to maintain neutrality in the continuing war between Great Britain and France, hoping to trade freely with both countries. But neither Britain nor France recognized U.S. neutrality, and both countries seized American ships suspected of trading with the other country.

Advised by Madison, Smith entered into negotiations with the British minister in Washington, hoping to secure neutral trading rights. They formed a tentative agreement that would end hostilities between the United States and Britain. But, their success turned to disappointment, when their agreement was rejected by the British prime minister in London because it did not commit the United States not to trade with France. Madison sought to dismiss Smith, offering him the post of minister to Russia, but Smith resigned and did not return to government service. Frustration over the agreement’s failure helped propel Britain and the United States into the War of 1812.