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 21st district
In office
March 4, 1853 – August 7, 1854
Preceded by Henry Bennett
Succeeded by Henry C. Goodwin
Personal details
Born (1797-03-06)March 6, 1797
Utica, New York, Oneida County, New York
Died December 28, 1874(1874-12-28) (aged 77)
New York City, New York
Political party Liberty (1840s)
Free Soil (1850s)
Spouse(s) Wealtha Ann Backus (Jan. 1819 – Aug. 1819; her death)
Children Elizabeth Smith Miller and Greene Smith
Occupation social 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


Smith was born in Utica, New York to Peter Gerrit Smith (1768–1837), whose ancestors were from Holland,[4]:27 and Elizabeth (Livingston) Smith (1773–1818), daughter of Col. James Livingston (1747–1832) and Elizabeth (Simpson) Livingston (1750–1800). "Peter Smith's marriage into the Livingston family with its aristocratic connections among the Schuylers and the Van Rensselaers gave him considerable prestige." "In partnership with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade and alone in real estate, Peter Smith managed to amass a considerable fortune. He turned over a $400,000 business [equivalent to $6,546,957 in 2018] to his son Gerrit in 1819 and bequeathed $800,000 more [equivalent to $13,942,593 in 2018] 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 Smith house, Peterboro, New York

Smith's maternal aunt, Margaret Livingston, was married to Judge Daniel Cady (1773–1859). 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.[5] 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.[6] Gerrit came there when he was 9.[4]:27

Gerrit as a young man

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."[7]: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.[8][9]

He became an active temperance campaigner, and claimed to have given in 1824 the first temperance speech ever in the New York State Legislature.[10] 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.[10]

Geritt in the 1830s

He attended numerous revival meetings, and taught Sunday school. He thought of establishing a seminary for negro students. In 1834 he began a Peterboro Manual Labor School for Blacks,[4]:30 along the model of nearby Oneida Institute. It had only one instructor, and it lasted only one year.[7]:42 Previously a supporter of the American Colonization Society, he became an abolitionist in 1835, after a mob, including New York congressman Samuel Beardsley in Utica broke up the initial meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention, which he attended at the urging of his friends Beriah Green and Alvan Stewart.[4]:32[7]:43 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".[7]:44 He contributed $9,000 (equivalent to $218,584 in 2018) 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 be unthinkable for Garrison, Douglass, or other abolitionist leaders.

Political career

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.[11]

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.[12] At the National Liberty Convention, held June 14–15 in Buffalo, New York, Smith gave a major address,[13] including in his speech a demand for "universal suffrage in its broadest sense, females as well as males being entitled to vote."[12] 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."[12] 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.[14]

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.[15][16] 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.[17]

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.[18]

Social activism

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 African Americans needed to vote in New York, Smith attempted to colonize approximately 120,000 acres (49,000 ha) of land in remote North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid) with free blacks. Abolitionist John Brown joined his project, purchasing land and moving his family there. The difficulty of farming in the Adirondack Mountains, coupled with the settlers' lack of experience in housebuilding and the bigotry of white neighbors, caused the "Timbuctoo" experiment to fail.[19]

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.[20]

After 1850, Smith furnished money for the legal expenses of persons charged with infractions of the Fugitive Slave Law.[21] 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.[22] It was during this movement that he first met and financially supported John Brown.[23][24] He later became more closely acquainted with Brown, to whom he sold a farm in North Elba, 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, West Virginia (then 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.[21] 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][25]

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. 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.[26] 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.[27][28]


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.

List of philanthropic activities

Smith provided support for a large number of progressive causes. The dates given are in some cases approximate, either because documents do not provide a definite date, or because there were multiple payments.


  • Smith, Gerritt (July–August 1858). "Peace better than war : annual address delivered before the American Peace Society, in Boston, May 24th, 1858". The Advocate of Peace. pp. 97–118.
  • Smith, Gerrit (1864). Speeches and letters of Gerrit Smith (from January, 1863, to January, 1864) on the rebellion. New York.
  • Smith, Gerrit (1865). Sermon in Peterboro, May 21, 1865. The nation still unsaved, Only repentance can save it. Author not stated; deduced from location Peterboro. Peterboro, New York (?).

Archival material

  • Gerrit Smith Papers, Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center. Library description of holdings: "Business, family and general correspondence; business and land records; writings; and maps. Notable correspondents include Susan B. Anthony, John Jacob Astor, Henry Ward Beecher, Antoinette Blackwell, Caleb Calkins, Lydia Maria Child, Cassius Clay, Alfred Conkling, Roscoe Conkling, Charles A. Dana, Paulina W. Davis, Edward C. Delavan, Frederick Douglass, Albert G. Finney, Sarah Grimke, Elizabeth Cady and Henry B. Stanton, Louis Tappan, Sojourner Truth, and Theodore Weld."

See also



  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. ^ Griffith, p.26
  6. ^ Renehan, p.16; Historic Peterboro
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Gerrit Smith. Biographical Information". New York History Net. 2012. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  9. ^ Gunston Hall Plantation. "Descendants of George Mason, 1629-1686". p. 48. Archived from the original on 2009-01-15.
  10. ^ a b c Smith, Gerrit (2011). Autobiography. New York History Net. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  11. ^ List of delegates, 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840, Retrieved 2 August 2015
  12. ^ a b c Wellman, 2004, p. 176.
  13. ^ Claflin, Alta Blanche. Political parties in the United States 1800-1914, New York Public Library, 1915, p. 50
  14. ^ "1848 Presidential General Election Results - New York". U.S. Election Atlas. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ "RADICAL ABOLITION NATIONAL CONVENTION". Douglass' Monthly. October 1860. p. 352.
  17. ^ "US President - Liberty (Union) National Convention". Our Campaigns. November 24, 2008.
  18. ^ "Resignation of Gerrit Smith," New York Daily Times, vol. 3, whole no. 868 (June 29, 1854), pg. 1.
  19. ^ Renehan, pp 17-18
  20. ^ Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, January 2007
  21. ^ a b Renehan, p.12
  22. ^ Harlow, Ralph Volney. (1939) Gerrit Smith, philanthropist and reformer p. 351
  23. ^ Heidler, David Stephen. (1996) Encyclopedia of the American Civil War p. 1812
  24. ^ Harlow, Ralph Volney. (1939) Gerrit Smith, philanthropist and reformer
  25. ^ 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).
  26. ^ Renehan, p.11
  27. ^ "Gerrit Smith Estate". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. 2008-01-17. Archived from the original on 2012-10-09.
  28. ^ 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

Further reading

  • Frothingham, O. B., Gerrit Smith: a Biography (New York, 879). ISBN 0-7812-2907-3.
  • Griffith, Elizabeth, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Oxford University Press; New York. 1984. ISBN 0-19-503729-4. (pp. 3–26)
  • Martin, John H. (Fall 2005). "Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. The Anti-Slavery Impulse in the Burned-Over District". Saints, Sinners and Reformers : The Burned-Over District Re-Visited. Crooked Lake Review.
  • Historic Peterboro
  • Renehan, Edward J., The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New York. Crown Publishers, Inc.; 1995. ISBN 0-517-59028-X.

External links

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

March 4, 1853 – August 7, 1854
Succeeded by
Henry C. Goodwin
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