Gerrit Smith was perhaps the most important American abolitionist. However, he is largely forgotten except by those who are serious students of the antebellum period.
Perhaps America’s Wealthiest Man
One of the richest men in America, Smith gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to the poor, in addition to subsidizing the abolitionist movement. He believed in the goodness of all people, regardless of creed or color, and his life’s obsession was to stamp out slavery. Smith inherited his fortune from his father Peter who was John Jacob Astor’s partner in the fur trading business. His father used the profits to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of land in New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Michigan.
A true evangelical Christian, Smith often quoted scripture and strictly followed the Golden Rule, which influenced his generous character. Among his early philanthropic efforts were donations to schools that provided educational opportunities to people of color. In 1834, he opened a manual labor school for blacks at Peterboro, in addition to funding the Oneida Institute, another manual labor school in Central New York open to blacks. He also gave generously to Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college to admit both blacks and women together with white men, and helped to fund New York Central College at McGrawville, which employed the first black professors.
Aided Hundreds of Fugitive Slaves
Smith harbored hundreds of fugitive slaves at his mansion in Peterboro, New York, hosting as many as 50 on one occasion, and openly admitted this despite its illegality. Some believe Smith was attempting to orchestrate a forceful overthrow of slavery, not in any organized fashion, but through his personal crusade to end it. As early as 1839, he was listening to advice urging the use of force, though he was not yet ready to advocate it. Instead, in 1840, he joined the newly-formed Liberty Party, urging the use of political means to end slavery, eventually becoming its leading member.
Among his activities to combat slavery were the purchase of slaves, sometimes sending couriers into the South like John Canning Fuller on missions to achieve this. In 1846, disillusioned by the failure of a New York State referendum to give the vote to free black men, he gave land to 3,000 eligible black men so that they would meet the property requirement then needed for blacks to vote in the state. As a result of this scheme he met John Brown, who went to Smith and offered his services to aid black farmers who had accepted Smith’s land grants in the Adirondack region of New York. In 1847, when Frederick Douglass launched the North Star, the antebellum period’s most important black newspaper, Smith provided funds that enabled it to become solvent.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 escalated tensions between antislavery and proslavery forces. It also escalated Smith’s rhetoric. He called it “the greatest of all outrages upon religion and humanity,” and urged resistance with every possible means. At one meeting protesting the law, he said, “It is our duty to peril life, liberty, and property in behalf of the fugitive slave to as great an extent as we would peril them in behalf of ourselves.”
The following year, he was part of a group that openly resisted the law as the leader of the rescue of the fugitive slave, Jerry Henry, in Syracuse from federal law enforcement officials.
“A forcible rescue will demonstrate the strength of public opinion against the possible legality of slavery and this Fugitive Slave Law in particular,” he said prior to the rescue. “It will honor Syracuse and be a powerful example everywhere.”
In 1852, Smith was elected to the U.S. Congress as a representative of the Liberty Party, whose last vestiges remained in central New York. Smith was an active Congressman but failed to complete his term, frustrated by his inability to motivate his colleagues to work to end slavery.
Advocated the Use of Force to End Slavery
Not long after leaving Congress, he helped to organize the Radical Abolitionist Party, which met for the first time in Syracuse in September of 1855. It advocated the use of force to end slavery. At the organizational meeting, Smith read letters from John Brown’s sons in Kansas about the violent struggles to establish the territory as a free state. A collection was raised for Brown, who had come to the meeting on his way to Kansas. Later, Smith privately supplied Brown with weapons and money. They maintained a regular correspondence through 1859. In February 1858, Brown came to Peterboro and revealed his plan to capture Harpers Ferry to Smith. The last meeting between Smith and Brown was a three-day visit to Peterboro in 1859 by Brown following his successful rescue and escort of 12 fugitive slaves from Missouri to Canada.
At their last meeting, Smith said, “I was once doubtful in my own mind as to Captain Brown’s course (referring to his military solution). I now approve of it heartily, having given my mind to it more of late.”
After Brown’s capture at Harpers Ferry, Smith had a complete mental collapse. The catastrophic result and the deaths it caused were too much for the Christian conscience of Smith to bear. He had all correspondence between him and Brown destroyed, and disavowed support of Brown for the rest of his life.
Smith was never the same after the breakdown. Nevertheless, he became a strong advocate for the Union cause. After Civil War, he called for reconciliation, and was one of three prominent Americans, along with ten Richmond business owners, who signed the bail bond for Jefferson Davis.
Smith died in 1874. He continued until the end, working for the causes of those less fortunate than himself, the last of his published circulars, written just two weeks before he died, entitled, “Will the American People Never Cease to Oppress and Torture the Helpless Poor?”
- Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith: A Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1878).
- Ralph Volney Harlow, Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1938)
- Norman K. Dann, Practical Dreamer (Hamilton, New York: Log Cabin Books, 2009).