Gerrit Smith

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Gerrit Smith
Gerrit Smith - Brady-Handy.jpg
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 22nd district
In office
March 4, 1853 – August 7, 1854
Preceded byHenry Bennett
Succeeded byHenry C. Goodwin
Personal details
Born(1797-03-06)March 6, 1797
Utica, New York
DiedDecember 28, 1874(1874-12-28) (aged 77)
New York City
Political partyLiberty (1840s)
Free Soil (1850s)
Spouse(s)Wealtha Ann Backus (Jan. 1819 – Aug. 1819; her death)
(m. 1822)
ChildrenElizabeth Smith Miller and Greene Smith
Occupationsocial reformer, abolitionist, politician, philanthropist

Gerrit Smith (March 6, 1797 – December 28, 1874), also spelled Gerritt, was a leading American social reformer, abolitionist, politician, and philanthropist. Spouse to Ann Carroll Fitzhugh, Smith was a candidate for President of the United States in 1848, 1856, and 1860, but only served 18 months in the federal government—in Congress as a Free Soil Party Representative, in 1853–4.[1]

Smith, a significant financial contributor to the Liberty Party and the Republican Party throughout his life, spent much time and money working towards social progress in the nineteenth-century United States. Besides making substantial donations of both land and money to create Timbuctoo, an African-American community in North Elba, New York, he was involved in the temperance movement and the colonization movement,[2] before abandoning colonization in favor of abolitionism, the immediate freeing of all the slaves. He was a member of the Secret Six who financially supported John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, in 1859.[3] Brown's farm, in North Elba, was on land he bought from Smith.

Early life[edit]


Smith was born in Utica, New York, to Peter Gerrit Smith, whose ancestors were from Holland (Gerrit is a Dutch name),[4]: 27  and Elizabeth (Livingston) Smith, daughter of Col. James Livingston and Elizabeth (Simpson) Livingston. "In partnership with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade and alone in real estate, Peter Smith [had] managed to amass a considerable fortune. He turned over a $400,000 business [equivalent to $6,762,609 in 2020] to his son Gerrit in 1819 and bequeathed $800,000 more [equivalent to $14,401,852 in 2020] to his children in 1837. Smith was the county judge of Madison and has been described as 'easily its leading citizen'."[4]: 27  He was "a devout and emotionally religious man[...]. From 1822 on, Peter Smith was intensely engaged in the work of the Bible and Tract societies."[4]: 28 

Gerrit also inherited 50,000 acres (20,000 ha) of land from his father, and at one point he owned 750,000 acres (300,000 ha), an area bigger than Rhode Island.[5]

Gerrit Smith house, Peterboro, New York, from an 1878 book. The house was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Smith's maternal aunt, Margaret Livingston, was married to Judge Daniel Cady. Their daughter Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founder and leader of the women's suffrage movement, was Smith's first cousin. Elizabeth Cady met her future husband, Henry Stanton, also an active abolitionist, at the Smith family home in Peterboro, New York.[6] Established in 1795, the town had been founded by and named for Gerrit Smith's father, Peter Smith, who built the family homestead there in 1804.[7] Gerrit came there when he was 9.[4]: 27 

Gerrit as a young man[edit]

Gerrit was described as "tall, magnificently built and magnificently proportioned, his large head superbly set on his shoulders;" he "might have served as a model for a Greek god in the days when man deified beauty and worshipped it."[8]: 42  He attended Hamilton Oneida Academy in Clinton, Oneida County, New York, and graduated with honors from its successor Hamilton College in 1818, giving the valedictory address, and describing his stay at the college as "very active with many friends".[4]: 28  In January 1819, he married Wealtha Ann Backus (1800–1819), daughter of Hamilton College's first President, Azel Backus D.D. (1765–1817), and sister of Frederick F. Backus (1794–1858). Wealtha died in August of the same year. Returning home from college, Smith took on the management of the vast estate of his father, a long-standing partner of John Jacob Astor, and greatly increased the family fortune, described as "monumental".[4]: 28  In 1822, he married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh (1805–1879), sister of Henry Fitzhugh (1801–1866); their relationship was "loving". They had eight children, but only Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822–1911) and Greene Smith (ca. 1841–1880) survived to adulthood.[9][10]

He became an active temperance campaigner, and claimed to have given in 1824 the first temperance speech ever in the New York State Legislature.[11] In his hometown of Peterboro, he built one of the first temperance hotels in the country.

Smith wrote of himself:

But as an extemporaneous Speaker and Debater, we do not hesitate to place him in the first class. Here his eloquence is the growth of the hour and the occasion. He warms with the subject, especially if opposed, until at the climax, his heavy voice rolling forth in ponderous volume and his large frame quivering in every muscle, he stands, like Jupiter, thundering, and shaking with his thunderbolts his throne itself.[11]

Gerrit in the 1830s[edit]

He attended numerous revival meetings, and taught Sunday school. He thought of establishing a seminary for Black students. In 1834 he began a Peterboro Manual Labor School for Black students,[4]: 30  along the model of nearby Oneida Institute. It had only one instructor, and it lasted only one year.[12][8]: 42  Previously a supporter of the American Colonization Society, he became an abolitionist in 1835 after a mob in Utica, including New York congressman Samuel Beardsley, broke up the initial meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, which he attended at the urging of his friends Beriah Green and Alvan Stewart.[4]: 32 [8]: 43  At his invitation, the meeting continued the next day in Smith's house in Peterboro.[13] He resigned as a trustee of Hamilton College "on the grounds that the school was insufficiently anti-slavery", and joined the board of and financially assisted the Oneida Institute, "a hotbed of anti-slavery activity".[8]: 44  He contributed $9,000 (equivalent to $225,784 in 2020) to support schools in Liberia, but realized by 1835 that the American Colonization Society had no intention of abolishing slavery.[4]: 31 

Smith was a laggard instead of a leader in changing from supporting colonization to "immediatism", immediate full abolitionism. Support for Jefferson Davis after the war would have been unthinkable for Garrison, Douglass, or other abolitionist leaders.

Political career[edit]

In 1840, Smith played a leading part in the organization of the Liberty Party. In the same year, their presidential candidate James G. Birney married Elizabeth Potts Fitzhugh, Smith's sister-in-law. Smith and Birney travelled to London that year to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.[14]

Birney, but not Smith, is recorded in the commemorative painting of the event. In 1848, Smith was nominated for the Presidency by the remnant of this organization that had not been absorbed by the Free Soil Party. An "Industrial Congress" at Philadelphia also nominated him for the presidency in 1848, and the "Land Reformers" in 1856. In 1840 and again in 1858, he ran for Governor of New York on an anti-slavery platform.

Smith made women's suffrage a plank in the Liberty Party platform on June 14–15, 1848.

On June 2, 1848, in Rochester, New York, Smith was nominated as the Liberty Party's presidential candidate.[15] At the National Liberty Convention, held June 14–15 in Buffalo, New York, Smith gave a major address,[16] including in his speech a demand for "universal suffrage in its broadest sense, females as well as males being entitled to vote."[15] The delegates approved a passage in their address to the people of the United States addressing votes for women: "Neither here, nor in any other part of the world, is the right of suffrage allowed to extend beyond one of the sexes. This universal exclusion of woman...argues, conclusively, that, not as yet, is there one nation so far emerged from barbarism, and so far practically Christian, as to permit woman to rise up to the one level of the human family."[15] Reverend Charles C. Foote was nominated as his running mate. The ticket would come in fourth place in the election, carrying 2,545 popular votes, all from New York.[17]

Beginning in 1853, Smith served a single term in Congress, on the Free Soil ticket. He was well liked, even by Southern members, who found him "one of the best fellows in the Capitol, as one, although well known as an abolitionist, still as one to be tolerated".[18]

By 1856, very little of the Liberty Party remained after most of its members joined the Free Soil Party in 1848 and nearly of all what remained of the party joined the Republicans in 1854. The small remnant of the party renominated Smith under the name of the "National Liberty Party".

In 1860, the remnant of the party was also called the Radical Abolitionists.[19][20] A convention of one hundred delegates was held in Convention Hall, Syracuse, New York, on August 29, 1860. Delegates were in attendance from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Massachusetts. Several of the delegates were women. Smith, despite his poor health, fought William Goodell in regard to the nomination for the presidency. In the end, Smith was nominated for president and Samuel McFarland from Pennsylvania was nominated for vice president. The ticket won 171 popular votes from Illinois and Ohio. In Ohio, a slate of presidential electors pledged to Smith ran with the name of the Union Party.[21]

Smith, along with his friend and ally Lysander Spooner, was a leading advocate of the United States Constitution as an antislavery document, as opposed to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who believed it was to be condemned as a pro-slavery document. In 1852, Smith was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Free-Soiler. In his address, he declared that all men have an equal right to the soil; that wars are brutal and unnecessary; that slavery could be sanctioned by no constitution, state or federal; that free trade is essential to human brotherhood; that women should have full political rights; that the Federal government and the states should prohibit the liquor traffic within their respective jurisdictions; and that government officers, so far as practicable, should be elected by direct vote of the people. Unhappy with his separation from his home and business, Smith resigned his seat at the end of the first session, ostensibly to allow voters sufficient time to select his successor.[22]

In 1869, Smith served as a delegate to the founding convention of the Prohibition Party.[23] During the 1872 presidential election Smith was considered for the Prohibition Party's presidential nomination.[24]

Social activism[edit]

Gerrit Smith

After becoming an opponent of land monopoly, he gave numerous farms of 50 acres (20 ha) each to indigent families. In 1846, hoping to help black families become self-sufficient, to isolate and thus protect them from escaped slave-hunters, and to provide them with the property ownership that was needed to vote in New York, Smith attempted to help free blacks settle approximately 120,000 acres (49,000 ha) of land he owned in the remote Adirondacks. Abolitionist John Brown joined his project, purchasing land and moving his family there. The difficulty of farming in the mountains, coupled with the settlers' lack of experience in housebuilding and farming and the bigotry of white neighbors, caused the project to fail.[25] The John Brown Farm State Historic Site is all that remains of the settlement, called Timbuctoo, New York.

Peterboro became a station on the Underground Railroad. Due to his connections with it, Smith financially supported a planned mass slave escape in Washington, D.C., in April 1848, organized by William L. Chaplin, another abolitionist, as well as numerous members of the city's large free black community. The Pearl incident attracted widespread national attention after the 77 slaves were intercepted and captured about two days after they sailed from the capital.[26]

After 1850, Smith furnished money for the legal expenses of persons charged with infractions of the Fugitive Slave Law.[27] Smith became a leading figure in the Kansas Aid Movement, a campaign to raise money and show solidarity with anti-slavery immigrants to that territory.[28] It was during this movement that he first met and financially supported John Brown.[29][30] He later became more closely acquainted with Brown, to whom he sold a farm in North Elba for $1/acre, and from time to time supplied him with funds. In 1859, Smith joined the Secret Six, a group of influential northern abolitionists, who supported Brown in his efforts to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and start a slave revolt. After the failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Senator Jefferson Davis unsuccessfully attempted to have Smith accused, tried, and hanged along with Brown.[27] Upset by the raid, its outcome, and its aftermath, Smith suffered a mental breakdown, and for several weeks was confined to the state asylum in Utica.[3][31]

When the Chicago Tribune later claimed Smith had full knowledge of Brown's plan at Harper's Ferry, Smith sued the paper for libel, claiming that he lacked any such knowledge and thought only that Brown wanted guns so that slaves who ran away to join him might defend themselves against attackers.[32] Smith's claim was countered by the Tribune, which produced an affidavit, signed by Brown's son, swearing that Smith had full knowledge of all the particulars of the plan, including the plan to instigate a slave uprising. In writing later of these events, Smith said, "That affair excited and shocked me, and a few weeks after I was taken to a lunatic asylum. From that day to this I have had but a hazy view of dear John Brown's great work. Indeed, some of my impressions of it have, as others have told me, been quite erroneous and even wild."[3]

Smith was a major benefactor of New-York Central College, McGrawville, a co-educational and racially integrated college in Cortland County.[citation needed]

Smith was in favor of the Civil War, but at its close he advocated a mild policy toward the late Confederate states, declaring that part of the guilt of slavery lay upon the North. In 1867, Smith, together with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt, helped to underwrite the $100,000 bond needed to free Jefferson Davis, who had, at that time, been imprisoned for nearly two years without being charged with any crime.[33] In doing this, Smith incurred the resentment of Northern Radical Republican leaders.

Smith's passions extended to religion as well as politics. Believing that sectarianism was sinful, he separated from the Presbyterian Church in 1843. He was one of the founders of the Church at Peterboro, a non-sectarian institution open to all Christians of whatever denomination.

His private benefactions were substantial; of his gifts he kept no record,[citation needed] but their value is said to have exceeded $8,000,000.[citation needed] Though a man of great wealth, his life was one of marked simplicity.[citation needed] He died in 1874 while visiting relatives in New York City.

The Gerrit Smith Estate, in Peterboro, New York, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001.[34][35]


Frederick Douglass dedicated to Smith My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):

To honorable Gerrit Smith, as a slight token of esteem for his character, admiration for his genius and benevolence, affection for his person, and gratitude for his friendship, and as a small but most sincere acknowledgement of his pre-eminent services in [sic] behalf of the rights and liberties of an afflicted, despised and deeply outraged people, by ranking slavery with piracy and murder, and by denying it either a legal or Constitutional existence, this volume is respectively dedicated, by his faithful and firmly attached friend, Frederick Douglass.

Years before, a student at his Peterboro Manual Labor School, where "Mr. Smith liberally supplies us with stationary, books, board and lodging", stated that "if the man of color has a sincere friend, that friend is Gerrit Smith".[36]

Philanthropic activities[edit]

Smith provided support for a large number of progressive causes and people and, except for his land grants, did not keep careful records. The dates given are in some cases approximate, either because documents do not provide a definite date, or because there were multiple payments.

After his death, a newspaper reported his philanthropic activities as follows:

His private benefactions were boundless. He literally gave away fortunes to relieve immediate distress. Old men and women asked for sustenance in their infirmity. To redeem farms, to buy unproductive land, to send children to school, applications were made from every part of the country.
But permanent institutions, too, bear witness to the solid character of his bounty. The public subscription papers of his times usually bore his name at the head and for the largest sum. There were $5,000 to a single war fund. The English destitute received at one time $1,000, the Poles $1,000, the Greeks as much more. The sufferers by a fire at Canastota received the next morning $1,000. The sufferers by the Irish famine were gladdened by a gift of $2,000. A thousand went to the sufferers from the grasshoppers in Kansas and Nebraska. The Cuban subscriptions took $5,000. Individuals in distress, anti-slavery men, temperance reformers, teachers, hard-working ministers of whatever denomination, received sums all the way from $500 to $50. In cases when money was required to vindicate a principle—as in the Chaplin case—thousands of dollars were contributed, To keep slavery out of Kansas cost him $18,000. He helped on election expenses, maintained papers, supported editors and their families, was at perpetual charge for the maintenance of societies organised for particular reforms. The free library at Oswego, an admirable institution, comprising about six thousand wisely selected volumes, with less trash than any public collection of books we ever saw, owes its existence to his endowment of $30,000 in 1853. Judicious management, seconded by the liberality of the city, makes this library minister to the higher intellectual culture. His own college, Hamilton [Colgate], received $20,000; Oneida Institute thousands at a time; Oberlin, a pet with him on account of its freedom from race and sex prejudice, was endowed with land as well as aided by money. The New York Central College appealed to him, not in vain. The Normal School at Hampton obtained in response to an appeal in 1874 $2,000. Reading rooms, libraries, academies of all degrees drew resources from him. Seminaries in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Vermont, tasted his bounty. General R. E. Lee's Washington College was as welcome as any to what he had to bestow. Berea College in Kentucky, received in 1874 $4,720. Storer College, at Harper's Ferry, received the same year two donations each of a thousand dollars. Fisk University, at Nashville, the Howard University at Washington, drew handsomely from his stores. He at one period, shortly before the establishment of Cornell University, projected a great university for the State of New York, for the highest education of men and women, white and black, and would have carried his plan into execution but for the difficulty of procuring the superintendent he wanted. His donation of $10,000 to the Colonization Society because he had pledged it, though when he paid the money he had satisfied himself that the society was not what he had been led to believe—was considered by many abolitionists a proceeding the chivalrous honor whereof hardly excused the indiscreet support given to what he now regarded as a fraud. His charges for the rescue and maintenance of fugitive[s] from southern slavery were very heavy; in one year they amounted to $5,000. To meet the incessant casual calls that were made on him, it was a custom to have checks prepared and only requiring to be signed and filled in with the applicant's name, for various amounts. No call of peculiar necessity escaped his attention, and his bounty was as delicate as it was generous. Whole households looked to him as their preserver and constant benefactor. A unique example of his benevolence was his donation, through committees, of a generous sum of money, as much as $30,000, to destitute old maids and widows in every county of the State. The individual gift was not great, $50 to each, but the total was considerable; the humanity expressed in the idea is chiefly worth considering.[37]


Archival material[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the colonization movement in America. Penn State Press. 2005. p. 88. ISBN 0-271-02684-7.
  2. ^ Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men, p. 265
  3. ^ a b c Renehan, pp.13-14
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sorin, Gerald (1970). The New York Abolitionists. A Case Study of Political Radicalism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837133084.
  5. ^ "Gerrit Smith at Home". Belvidere Standard (Belvidere, Illinois). November 26, 1867. p. 1 – via
  6. ^ Griffith, p.26
  7. ^ Renehan, p.16; Historic Peterboro
  8. ^ a b c d Sernett, Milton C. (1986). Abolition's axe : Beriah Green, Oneida Institute, and the Black freedom struggle. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 9780815623700.
  9. ^ "Gerrit Smith. Biographical Information". New York History Net. 2012. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  10. ^ Gunston Hall Plantation. "Descendants of George Mason, 1629-1686". p. 48. Archived from the original on 2009-01-15.
  11. ^ a b c Smith, Gerrit (2011). Autobiography. New York History Net. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  12. ^ "Peterboro Manual Labor School". African Repository. 1834. pp. 312–313.
  13. ^ "Both sides! Speech of Mr. Gerrit Smith, In the Meeting of the New-York Anti-Slavery Society, held in Peterboro, October 22, 1835". Richmond Enquirer. November 20, 1835. p. 4 – via VirginiaChronicle.
  14. ^ List of delegates, 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840, Retrieved 2 August 2015
  15. ^ a b c Wellman, 2004, p. 176.
  16. ^ Claflin, Alta Blanche. Political parties in the United States 1800-1914, New York Public Library, 1915, p. 50
  17. ^ "1848 Presidential General Election Results - New York". U.S. Election Atlas. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  18. ^ "Gerrit Smith in Congress". Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph (Ashtabula, Ohio). November 5, 1859. p. 1 – via
  19. ^ Proceedings of the Convention of Radical Political Abolitionists, held at Syracuse, N. Y., June 26th, 27th, and 28th, 1855, New York: Central Abolition Board, 1855
  20. ^ "RADICAL ABOLITION NATIONAL CONVENTION". Douglass' Monthly. October 1860. p. 352.
  21. ^ "US President - Liberty (Union) National Convention". Our Campaigns. November 24, 2008.
  22. ^ "Resignation of Gerrit Smith," New York Daily Times, vol. 3, whole no. 868 (June 29, 1854), pg. 1.
  23. ^ "Page Six of Brief history of prohibition and of the prohibition reform party". p. 6. Archived from the original on March 18, 2020.
  24. ^ "Page Twenty Three of Brief history of prohibition and of the prohibition reform party". p. 23. Archived from the original on March 18, 2020.
  25. ^ Renehan, pp 17-18
  26. ^ Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, January 2007
  27. ^ a b Renehan, p.12
  28. ^ Harlow, Ralph Volney. (1939) Gerrit Smith, philanthropist and reformer p. 351
  29. ^ Heidler, David Stephen. (1996) Encyclopedia of the American Civil War p. 1812
  30. ^ Harlow, Ralph Volney. (1939) Gerrit Smith, philanthropist and reformer
  31. ^ a b McKlulgan, John R.; Leveille, Madeleine (Fall 1985). "The 'Black Dream' of Gerrit Smith, New York Abolitionist". Syracuse University Library Associates Courier. 20 (2).
  32. ^ Gerrit Smith and the Vigilant Association of the City of New-York. New York. 1860.
  33. ^ Renehan, p.11
  34. ^ "Gerrit Smith Estate". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. 2008-01-17. Archived from the original on 2012-10-09.
  35. ^ LouAnn Wurst (September 21, 2001), National Historic Landmark Nomination: Gerrit Smith Estate (PDF), National Park Service, archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-11-02
  36. ^ A student (November 8, 1834). "Letter to the editor". The Liberator. p. 3.
  37. ^ "Gerrit Smith". Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland (city), Vermont). February 4, 1878. p. 4 – via
  38. ^ "Reminiscent Matter Called to Mind by Hon. Gerrit Smith Miller's Gift to the University". The Adirondack Record–Elizabethtown Post. Gerrit Smith Miller was Gerrit Smith's grandson. January 10, 1929. p. 8.CS1 maint: others (link)
  39. ^ Gerrit Smith papers, 1763-1924 (inclusive), Microfilming Corporation of America, 1974, OCLC 122452293
  40. ^ Gerrit Smith papers, 1775-1924, Also at OCLC 21778731, Microfilming Corporation of America, 1974, OCLC 883513856CS1 maint: others (link)
  41. ^ Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection 1793-1906, OCLC 953532298

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 22nd congressional district

March 4, 1853 – August 7, 1854
Succeeded by