Move Over, Mr. Smith

In 109th, the Davises Win the Name Game

Posted January 28, 2005 at 6:46pm

Where have all the Smiths gone?

The 109th Congress features only three Representatives and one Senator with the last name Smith — a surprisingly, and disproportionately, low number. Who is the new king of surnames in the House? Davis.

The 109th Congress features no less than eight Representatives with the last name Davis. That is almost 2 percent of the entire class, or four times the national rate of Davises. A veritable swarm of Davises has descended upon the Capitol.

Historically, Smith is the most common surname in the United States — and Congress. A full 1 percent of Americans share Smith as their last name, according to the most recent Census data. By comparison, only one half of 1 percent of all Americans are named Davis.

The etymology of Smith is both simple and interesting. The name is something of a “catch-all for linguistic naturalization,” according to Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays, authors of “The Language of Names.” In addition to the basic meaning of Smith as “one who works with metals,” some “immigrants [request] a name change, as a new beginning,” as Jayare Roberts wrote in the Genealogical Journal. Smith is a common choice when making changes.

Versions of Smith are also common in countries around the globe. Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz, Szmyt and McGowan can all be translated to Smith. To further Americanize themselves, people would often adopt the name so they and their children would find greater acceptance among their friends and neighbors.

Smith has long reigned supreme in Congressional roll calls. Over the years, almost 150 people named Smith have served in Congress, according to the Congressional Biographical Directory. Not surprisingly, John Smiths are the most common. Fifteen different John Smiths have had stretches in the House, while seven John Smiths have been Senators. One John Smith served in both bodies — John Walter Smith (D-Md.), who served in the House from 1899 to 1900 and in the Senate from 1907 to 1920. And the first John Smith of them all served in the Continental Congress.

Hence the title to Frank Capra’s classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The perfect embodiment of the noble everyman, right down to his plain clothes and plain name, Mr. Smith — played by the classic Hollywood everyman, Jimmy Stewart — was meant to invoke the image of the average American.

Mr. Smith has left town, however. Mr. Davis has taken his place.

The Davis delegation is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and features two Members from Virginia, Reps. Tom Davis (R) and Jo Ann Davis (R). Were they to team up with the rest of the Davises — Artur (D-Ala.), Danny (D-Ill.), Geoff (R-Ky.), Jim (D-Fla.), Lincoln (D-Tenn.) and Susan (D-Calif.) — to create a voting bloc, the Davises would have greater sway over policy than the entire delegations of 29 states.

Davis is not the only overrepresented last name, however. The second most common surname in the 109th is Miller; there are five Millers serving in the House this term — Brad (D-N.C.), Candice (R-Mich.), Gary (R-Calif.), George (D-Calif.) and Jeff (R-Fla.) — making up about 1.2 percent of the Congress. Miller is only the seventh most common last name in America, shared by 0.4 percent of the population, according to the Census.

The only common name represented in equal proportions in both Congress and the general population is Johnson. The second most common American name and third most common name in Congress with four Members — Eddie Bernice (D-Texas), Nancy (R-Conn.), Sam (R-Texas) and Timothy (R-Ill.) — Johnson makes up about 0.8 percent of their respective populations.

Will there be a resurgence of Smiths in future years? Only time will tell, but it could be an uphill battle for the once far-reaching surname.