William Smith Shaw (1778-1826)

A 2016 inductee to the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame.

William Smith Shaw, from the collection of the Boston Athenaeum.

Shaw was born in Haverhill Aug. 12, 1778 to Reverend John Shaw, minister of the First Parish Meetinghouse, and his wife Elizabeth Smith Shaw. Elizabeth was the sister of Abigail Adams and by all all reports just as distinguished as her famous sister in intellectual power and literary attainments. Although a sickly child, William, or “Billy,” as he came to be known, was admitted to Harvard College at age 16, graduation in 1798.

After graduation, he was appointed private secretary to his uncle John Adams, by then the second President of the United States. Shaw left the service of the President after Adams’ defeat to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and became a student of law in the offices of William Sullivan. He was admitted to the bar in 1804.

It was during this period that his interest in the advancement of literature was re-established.He rapidly secured a reputation as one of the Early Republic’s “men of letters” and was a founder of the Anthology Society, which commenced the establishment of The Boston Athenaeum, the preeminent Reading Room and Library.The Athenaeum became a means for men of intellect and position to disengage from commerce and politics and to focus on the more enlightened subjects of the day. It was an institution to which Shaw remained devoted for the rest of his life as a founding member, secretary, and librarian.


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