Gerrit Smith – Social Justice Trailblazer made in New York

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) was a social reformer, abolitionist, philanthropist, and politician from New York who had inherited a significant fortune and vast land from his father. Smith invested huge amounts of money into anti-slavery and other social reform causes (estimated 8 million dollars, equivalent to 1 billion dollars today) and donated 120,000 acres of land to 3,000 black New Yorkers. His home served as an Underground Railroad Station, and he helped hundreds of fugitive slaves. He was a close, longtime friend of Frederick Douglass and financed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry John Brown. Smith was a candidate for President in 1848, 1856, and 1860 and served in Congress from 1853 to 1854.

Smith was born in Utica, New York, on March 6, 1797, as the son of Peter Smith, a business partner of John Jacob Astor and one of the wealthiest landowners in the nation. Peter Smith had amassed a fortune through fur trade and real estate which he turned over to his son after he graduated from Hamilton College in 1818. Gerrit married the daughter of the College’s president in 1819 and settled with her in the family home in Peterboro to manage the estate. Gerrit’s young wife died at age 19 only a few months later. In 1822, he married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh, with whom he had 7 or 8 children, but only 2 lived into adulthood, one of them women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822-1911). Gerrit increased his father’s fortune significantly over the years.

He became involved in politics in the 1820s, eventually developing an interest in the antislavery movement. For years, he supported the American Colonization Society but turned away realizing that it was not aiming at freeing slaves but removing black people from the US. He became an Abolitionist in 1835. That year, on October 21, encouraged by his friend Beriah Green, he attended the initial meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society in Utica. After it was broken up by a mob he invited the 300 to 400 abolitionists (according to some sources 600) to continue the meeting at his house the next day, the founding date of the society. 1836, he became its president. The meeting site is now home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith turned the Smith estate into a sanctuary for other social reformers, activists, and abolitionists and a place to receive not only financial but also physical and emotional help. The Smiths purchased hundreds of slaves to set them free and provided for their passage to Canada. The Smith Mansion was also an Underground Railroad station for hundreds of fugitive slaves in the 1840s and 1950s. On one occasion, they hosted 50 fugitives at the same time. In 1841, Ann and Gerrit located a slave named Harriet Sims, who had been Ann’s slave when she was a child in Maryland, bought her and her husband free, and gave them a home in Peterboro.

Peterboro is today home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and a National Historic Landmark. In 1848, Frederick Douglass printed a letter by former slave and abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet on the frontpage of his North Star newspaper:

There are yet two places where slaveholders cannot come, Heaven and Peterboro.

One of Smith’s goals was to improve educational opportunities for black people. In 1834 he established the Peterboro Manual Labor School for Black students. Although it only lasted one year, he continued to fund progressive institutions – the abolitionist Oneida Insitute, Oberlin College (first college admitting women and black people), and New York Central College (employed the first black professors).

In the 1840s he met Frederick Douglass and the two men developed a close friendship. Smith funded Douglass’ newspaper, the North Star, and Douglass dedicated his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom to Smith.

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.

In 1840, he also co-founded the Liberty Party, whose primary platform was the abolition of slavery, and during the next years, he became also involved in the land reform and free-soil movement, convinced that small family farms were key to people’s prosperity as well as environmental health.

The 1777 NYS constitution limited voting rights for men based on the property but did not include racial restrictions. However, as debates about suffrage and black citizenship increased, the revised 1821 constitution lifted the property requirement from $100 to 250$ for black men while at the same time eliminating it for white men. In 1846, civil rights and black suffrage activists who had been fighting against this discrimination for a long time succeeded to force a vote on the matter. But New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly (with ca. 70% statewide) to maintain the property requirement for black men.

In 1846, determined to help black men to be able to vote, Gerrit Smith decided to donate them land worth $250 to fulfill the property qualification needed to be eligible to vote in New York State. He also gifted land to poor whites and cash to hundreds of women. His greater vision was a prosperous, collaborative and diverse community and creating a roadmap to a post-slavery society. During this time he got to know Abolitionist John Brown, whom he land in North Elba. The plan was for Brown to help the new settlers to become productive, self-sufficient farmers. The project failed because the land in the Adirondacks turned out to be unsuitable for farming, was hard to reach, and because of opposition from white settlers in the area. John Brown is buried on his former farm, now a national historic landmark and NYS historic site.

In 1848 he ran unsuccessfully for president as the Liberty Party candidate. In the same year, after he had become more and more convinced that appeal to morality and political means alone were not enough to abolish slavery, he established a closer connection with John Brown and began to support his antislavery activities.

In 1850 Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass organized a convention in Cazenovia to protest the Fugitive Slave Law. Smith advocated for slaves to use any means to escape from slavery, including theft and force. After the passage of the law, he openly defied it and also paid for the legal expenses of other violators. Smith also helped to free runaway slaves forcefully from prison and was involved with Jermaine W. Loguen and Samuel J. May in the famous Jerry Rescue in Syracuse on October 1, 1851.

In 1852, he was elected to represent Madison and Oswego counties in Congress, running on a Free Soil ticket. He served only one term 1853 to 1854 and resigned at the end of the first session because of the distance between his workplace and his home.

In 1855 he co-founded the Radical Abolitionists Party which encouraged the use of force to end slavery and raised money to support John Brown in his anti-slavery fight in Kansas. Gerrit Smith also supplied Brown privately with money and weapons and corresponded with him regularly and joined the Secret Six, a group of influential northern abolitionists, who supported Brown’s activities. But after Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Smith had a mental breakdown, unable to deal with the deaths caused and spent several weeks in an asylum in Utica. Senator Jefferson Davis unsuccessfully tried to have Smith accused, tried, and hanged with Brown. Smith denied being aware of the specifics of Brown’s plan, however there is no doubt that he knew more than he ever admitted and played a significant role in the event.

After the war, Gerrit Smith advocated for reconciliation and emphasized that the North too had been responsible for slavery. In 1867, together with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt he paid the bail bond to release Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America, who had been held in captivity without trial for 2 years by then.

Aside from his radical abolitionism, Gerrit Smith was committed to a wide range of progressive social justice causes such as woman’s suffrage, land reform, prison reform, , vegetarianism, dress reform, Irish independence. Apart from his land grants, he did not keep proper records of the countless payments he made, but it is estimated that he donated 8 million dollars, equivalent to 1 billion dollars today. Smith working for the causes of those less fortunate than himself for the rest of his life. He died in New York City on Dec. 28, 1874. The last of his published circulars, written only two weeks earlier, was titled, “Will the American People Never Cease to Oppress and Torture the Helpless Poor?”

After his death, a newspaper wrote about Gerrit Smith’s philanthropy:

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.
Rutland Daily Herald, Rutland, Vermont, 04 Feb 1878

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