Robert Smith was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on 3 November 1757. His family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, where his father worked as a merchant. During the American Revolution, Smith briefly served as a private in the Continental Army and fought in the Battle of Brandywine. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1781, studied law, joined the Maryland bar, and headed a leading admiralty practice in Baltimore. While practicing law in Maryland, Smith was a member of the Electoral College in 1789, a state senator from 1793 to 1795, and a member of the House of Delegates from 1796 to 1800 while also sitting in the upper branch of the Baltimore City Council.
Recognizing Smith’s knowledge of maritime law, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him Secretary of the Navy for his administration, a position he occupied until he became Secretary of State in 1809. Smith resigned from that position on 1 April 1811 (after having a difficult relationship with President James Madison) to devote his time to civic affairs in Maryland. President of a branch of the American Bible Society in 1813 and of the Maryland Agriculture Society in 1818, Smith later served as provost of the University of Maryland. Smith died in Baltimore on 26 November 1842.
USS Robert Smith (DD-324), a destroyer that operated off the U.S. West Coast and in the Pacific between World Wars I and II, was named in his honor.