Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874Alternative names
Congressman, philanthropist, reformer.
From the description of Letter, 1840 May 16. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122379141
Gerrit Smith resided in Peterboro (N.H.?) at the time of these writings and was a strong supporter of emancipation and African American rights. Upon his death the African American citizens of Buffalo paid him a formal tribute.
From the description of Letters and broadsides, 1868-1871. (Buffalo History Museum). WorldCat record id: 34178334
Philanthropist and social reformer. Served in the U.S. House of Representatives; campaigned for the presidency in 1848, 1856, and 1860.
From the description of Gerrit Smith letter : Peterboro, Madison Co., to Augustus Porter, 1823 Sept. 1. (Buffalo History Museum). WorldCat record id: 173260162
Gerrit Smith was a Congressman, philanthropist, and abolitionist.
From the description of Letter, 1852. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232007446
U.S. representative from New York, philanthropist, and abolitionist.
From the description of Gerrit Smith correspondence, 1840-1873. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70980473
Philanthropist and reformer.
From the description of "Returning books", 1862. 2" x 3". (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122629139
American philanthropist and reformer.
From the description of Autograph letter signed : to Horace Greeley, 70 Jan. 16. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270663908
From the description of Autograph letter signed : to Messrs. Parker, Blanchard and Hall, 57 July 2. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270663903
Abolitionist and philanthropist.
From the description of Gerrit Smith letter [manuscript], 1867 August 12. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647823514
From the description of Autograph letter signed : Peterboro, to the Rev. John Pierpont, 1842 Apr. 14. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270663639
Philanthropist, businessman, reformer, and politician Gerrit Smith was born in Utica, N.Y., and educated at Hamilton College. His father had amassed a considerable fortune, including undeveloped land in the amount of a quarter of a million acres in several states, and Gerrit began managing the fortune in 1820. He also became active politics, reorganizing the Liberty party, which nominated him for the presidency during several elections, and in social issues, giving money and time to religious causes, suffrage, and especially the abolition of slavery. He formed a close friendship with John Brown, and after the raid on Harper's Ferry committed himself to a lunatic asylum for treatment, and perhaps to avoid prosecution as an accomplice.
From the description of Gerrit Smith letter to Dr. J.N. Quint (?) , 1855 May 30. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 70901366
U.S. representative from New York, philanthropist, and abolitionist. Smith resided in Peterboro, N.Y. at the time of these writings.
From the description of [Published letters of Gerrit Smith]. [1843-1857] (Dartmouth College Library). WorldCat record id: 707636283
American abolitionist and land speculator.
From the description of Autograph letter signed : New York, 1869 Jan. 24. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 639938494
Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) was an American social reformer, abolitionist, politician, and philanthropist. Born in Utica, New York, he spent much of his life in nearby Peterboro. Smith's grandfather, Colonel James Livingston, fought in the American Revolution and his first cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a founder and leader of the women's suffrage movement. Smith was non-sectarian in his religious views, active in the temperance movement, an avid and outspoken abolitionist (he was a financial backer of John Brown of Kansas, whose raid on Harper's Ferry nearly led to Smith's prosecution), and three times ran for President of the United States. His philanthropic gifts are said to have exceeded $8 million over his lifetime. Although he rarely ventured far afield from his central New York village, and spent less than two years in elected public office, his biographer Ralph Volney Harrow says, "He and a few others like him furnished the oratory, the written propaganda, and the emotional fervor necessary to keep good causes constantly before the public" (Harlow, Ralph Volney, Gerrit Smith, Philanthropist and Reformer, New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1939, p.v.)
Gerrit Smith was born at Utica, New York, 1797, one of the six children of Peter and Elizabeth Livingston Smith. Peter was a successful businessman, a partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade, and owner of vast estates in New York State. These included 20,000 acres in the Mohawk Valley and a continuous tract of more than 60,000 acres in northern Madison County. In 1806 when Gerrit was nine years old, Peter moved his family to his Madison County preserves and named the village he established there Peterboro.
Gerrit entered Hamilton College in 1814 and graduated as valedictorian in 1818. In January of the following year he married Wealtha Ann Backus, daughter of Hamilton’s president. Wealtha Ann died seven months after the wedding, and in l812, Gerrit married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh of Rochester, New York. There were four children of this union: Elizabeth, born September 20, 1822; Fitzhugh, born October 18, 1824 and died July 1836; Ann, born July 7, 1830 and died April 1835; and Green, born April 14, 1842.
In 1818 Gerrit purchased 18,000 acres of land in Oneida County. The following year his father Peter turned over responsibility for the management of all his property to Gerrit and Gerrit’s uncle, Daniel Cady. Gerrit moved into the "mansion house" in Peterboro, thus at age twenty-one assuming responsibility not only for the extensive lands in central New York, but also as "patron" for the village of Peterboro. By 1823 value of his purchase in Oneida County had increased and he took his first step in philanthropy, never ceasing from then until his death to provide funds generously for public causes, particularly those he considered "moral."
When Peter Smith died in 1837, he held some 556,000 acres of land in 43 counties of New York State. His will directed that the property should be sold and the proceeds divided among his son Peter Skenandoah, the children of his daughter Cornelia, and Gerrit. Gerrit gained the consent of the other heirs to maintain the property and bought out their shares for cash.
Gerrit Smith was something of a hypochondriac and imagined himself ill for most of his life. However, according to Harlow, "In the course of his life he had printed approximately two hundred circular letters, speeches, and pamphlets, dealing with the various questions, political, social, and theological, in which he happened to be interested. Then he kept a close oversight of his voluminous correspondence, both general and business, as the numerous notes and endorsements in his own hand show. He also wrote out drafts of replies for his clerks to copy. His land books carried about fifteen, hundred separate accounts, which ran on year after year. All these were in addition to the numerous transactions in which he bought or sold land for cash. Much of the routine work in connection with these accounts was done by his clerks, but Smith was always an observant employer.' (Harlow, pp.33, 35)
In addition to his land interests, in the 1830s Gerrit Smith was a director of the Utica branch of the Bank of the United States, held a franchise for the mail stage between Utica and Peterboro, and owned considerable stock in the Hudson and Mohawk Railroad, forerunner of the New York Central, During the 1840s, he helped to reorganize the Commercial Bank of Oswego and to promote the Syracuse and Oswego Railroad. One of his early ventures in business had been the purchase of 91 of the total 100 shares in the Oswego Canal Company, which proved to be one of his most profitable business investments, and during the 1840s, he also worked actively to prevent discriminatory rates on the Canal. Before he was fifty, then, he was a landholder of large estates, ¡r businessman, and a citizen of reputation as one ready to espouse business and commercial enterprises of public concern.
The record indicates, however, that Gerrit Smith's most significant contributions to his era were his efforts in the causes of social and moral reform. He used his powers of oratory and his ability to write on controversial issues on behalf of anti-slavery, anti-tobacco, and anti- Masonic movements; temperance, women's rights; religion; education; and international peace. His gifts to these causes were divided roughly into three categories: speaking, writing both for publication and privately, and providing funds.
One of Gerrit Smith's earliest concerns was religion, and he claimed its precepts as the basis of his reform efforts throughout his life. He was involved in the work of the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, and the American Home Missionary Society. After he became interested in abolition, he thought Protestant denominationalism was wrong because he believed the churches, as organizations, were not taking a "sufficient" stand against slavery. He was instrumental in forming non-denominational churches in Oswego and Peterboro.
Perhaps the first significant reform movement espoused by Smith was that of temperance. He was a member of the New York Temperance Society and spoke at its first annual meeting in January 1830, to the effect that alcohol was responsible for most of the crime and poverty in the world. He established a "temperance hotel" in Peterboro, where no liquor was sold or consumed, and had an interest in similar hostelries in Oswego and Utica. In 1833, he attended the National Temperance Convention of the American Temperance Society in Philadelphia, where he spoke at meetings, introduced resolutions, and wrote circular letters. He attacked with his oratory distilleries in Cazenovia and Eton, neighbors of Peterboro, and apparently "cleaned up" Peterboro, which "went dry" in 1846, following passage of the New York option law on the licensing of liquor sales.
As Smith's reputation as both reformer and philanthropist grew' he was besieged by founders of societies and organizations devoted to one or another of the social reforms, both for funds and for the support of his name. He either became a member of, wrote circular letters for, provided funds to--or all three--societies fighting the use of tobacco, vegetarian groups, societies to save the souls of canal workers, supporters of sexual purity' the American Peace Society, the Seamen's Friends Society, and organizations devoted to limiting the control of the federal government over canals, railroads' schools, and internal improvements. He supported women's rights movements, including Amelia Bloomer's drive for reform in women's dress, and responded with speeches, funds, and letters to requests for help from feminists Lucy Stone; Susan B. Anthony; his cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and his own wife and daughter Elizabeth, both of whom became active in the women's rights movement.
In December 1831, Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker publisher of the journal The Genius of Emancipation, visited Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, the first of many abolitionists to be entertained there over the ensuing years. For about four years, Smith remained more of an observer than active supporter of the more militant anti-slavery groups, but by the mid-thirties he had become an avowed abolitionist. He attended the convention in Utica In 1835 where the New York State Anti-Slavery Society was born, and from that time to the Civil War and beyond, he was a committed and articulate member of the country's anti- slavery forces. The Utica meeting was broken up by a mob of anti- abolitionists and Smith was appointed chairman of a committee to decide on the place and time of the next meeting; it reconvened in Peterboro the next day.
Gerrit Smith was elected president of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and began publication of approximately fifty essays on slavery printed in the form of circular letters. By the decade of the 1830s he also was helping slaves to escape and sheltering them at Peterboro before sending them on, usually to Canada. In some cases, he bought slaves and set them free.
The Liberty Party was born in Albany, New York, on April 1, 1840, on the basis of pledges by its members not to support pro-slavery candidates for office. Although he refused the party's nomination as a gubernatorial candidate in 1842, Gerrit Smith spoke at conventions, wrote his circular letters, gave his financial support, and seems to have had considerable influence in the party. He was nominated as a presidential candidate in 1848 by the National Liberty Party, the Liberty League, and the Industrial Congress. In New York State, Smith polled 2,545 votes out of more than 500,000, the moderate abolitionists of the state giving 120,510 votes to Martin Van Buren.
Combining his interests in land reform and in free labor as opposed to slavery, Gerrit Smith gave parcels of his lands, the greater part in the Adirondacks, to thousands of poor white and black families to give them a start as farmers. He also granted lands to 196 white families in Madison County, with an additional thousand grants going to other inhabitants of New York State.
In 1853 Gerrit Smith was elected to Congress, representing the 22nd New York District of Oswego and Madison counties. He was supported by anti- slavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Democrats, and other abolitionists. While an incumbent, he strongly advocated temperance, abolition, and peace, and fought the Kansas-Nebraska-Bill. But he resigned his seat in August 1854, giving as his reason "the pressure of my too extensive private business.
Gerrit Smith was caught up in the Kansas Aid movement, becoming its leader in Madison County and pledging more than $3000 to help pour anti-slavery settlers from the North into the-territory in order to secure a free state. He was active in supporting the "free soilers" of Kansas in their sometimes bloody battles with the Missouri slave-holders, who were determined to make Kansas a slave state.
John Brown had been a leader for free soil in Kansas, but by 1857 the Kansas troubles had lessened, and Brown turned his thoughts to an attack on Virginia and the colonization of free-soilers there. He traveled about from place to place seeking funds, and arrived in Peterboro in February 1858' where he discussed his plans with Gerrit Smith and others. Documents indicate that Smith understood perfectly what John Brown had in mind and that it would involve violence. The attack on Harper's Ferry began on 0ctober 16, 1859. Brown was captured; charged with conspiracy, murder and treason; found guilty; sentenced; and hanged in early December.
During this period, the New York Herald printed documents disclosing Smith's connection with John Brown and his plot, and accused Smith of being an accessory. Smith's fear and anxiety over the possible effects of his involvement resulted in a nervous breakdown. Five days after John Brown was sentenced, Gerrit Smith was taken to the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, where he remained for about two months before he was returned to Peterboro. He consistently denied any more than the most superficial knowledge of Brown's plans and activities and brought libel suits against those who published attacks on him. However, he settled out of court in preference to having his close connection with John Brown publicized through the documents held by his accusers.
For a year after his breakdown, Smith withdrew from public life and lived in retirement; he then resumed his activities in defense of the slaves. He ran for the United States presidency on an abolitionist ticket in 1861 but, while voting for himself, supported Lincoln and gave the administration his full approval once the Civil War had begun. Although he sometimes criticized Lincoln's attitude toward slavery, he made speeches and wrote public letters upholding the government. He advocated Negro suffrage but was in favor of making literacy a prerequisite of the ballot. He advocated bail for Jefferson Davis and, with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt, signed Davis' bail bond.
Gerrit Smith emerged from the Civil War a Republican. By the 1870's he had become active in the party and a supporter of business enterprise. At age 75, he was a delegate to the National Republican convention in Philadelphia, and even supported Ulysses S. Grant in spite of Grant's indulgence in liquor and Smith’s abhorrence of alcohol In his late years, Gerrit Smith continued to contribute funds liberally to any cause he thought worthwhile. He spent freely for his own village of Peterboro, providing for flagstone walks, swamp drainage, and the building of roads. He reopened the Peterboro Academy, providing a site for it in the village as well as a salary budget and free tuition for needy students. He gave money to Cornell University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Alfred University, and finally, in the last year of his life, $10,000 to his alma mater, Hamilton College, although for many years he had disapproved of its policies and refused to have anything to do with it except to criticize.
Gerrit Smith died suddenly on December 28, 1874, in New York City, where he had gone to spend Christmas with his nephew, John Cochrane. He was buried in Peterboro. The New York Times of December 29 commented: "The history of the most important half century of our national life will be imperfectly written if it fails to place Gerrit Smith in the front rank of the men whose influence was most felt in the accomplishment of its results without official participation in politics, beyond a single session in Congress, he was active and powerful in forming the public sentiment that controlled politicians."
[Biography taken from the Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Gerrit Smith Papers, Microfilming Corporation of America, 1974.]
A genealogy of the Smith family is available here (if online) or at the end of this finding aid (if in hard copy).
From the guide to the Gerrit Smith Papers, 1762-1962, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)
1797 March 6:
Born in Utica, N.Y., to wealthy landowners, Perer and Elizabeth Smith.
Graduated from Hamilton College with honors and inherited father's estate.
1819 January 11:
Married wealthy Ann Backus who died months later of dropsy of the brain.
1822 January 3:
Married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh and had four children.
Became member of Presbyterian Church. Built reputation of reform.
Nominated to office for State Senator on the Anti-Masonic ticket.
Helped to initiate Liberty Party.
Appointed a committee for land reformers and abolitionist to parcel out a land grant of 150,000 acres to poor white settlers and Negroes.
1853- 1854: Elected as Independent to Congress.
Ran for Governor on the "People's State Ticket" advocating temperance, anti-slavery, and land reform.
1874 December 28:
Died in N.Y.
From the guide to the Gerrit Smith Collection, 1843-1871, (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|New York (State)|
|New York (State)|
|Madison County (N.Y.)|
|New York (State)|
|Madison County (N.Y.)|
|Madison County (N.Y.)|
|New York (State)|
|New York (State)|
|New York (State)--New York|
|New York (State)|
|New York (State)--Syracuse|
|Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877)|
|Antislavery movements--United States|
|Politics, government and public administration|
|Activism and social reform|
|New York State|
|Books and reading|
|Letters to the editor|
|Social reformers--United States|
|Business and industry|
|Representatives, U.S. Congress--New York (State)|