Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), American philanthropist and reformer, was a founder of the radical-abolitionist Liberty party.
Gerrit Smith was born on March 6, 1797. His father, a partner of merchant John Jacob Astor, was one of the biggest landowners in the nation. Smith graduated in 1818 from Hamilton College. He inherited not only the estate but also his father's intense concern for religious truth. He settled with his first wife, Ann Backus, daughter of Hamilton College's president, in the family home in Peterboro, N.Y.
Smith's concern for religious salvation took him into the Presbyterian Church, where he was associated with such reform causes as tract distribution and Sabbath observance. His developing views, however, caused him to build his own "Church of Peterboro" on more liberal principles, and he himself often preached in the church's chapel. His benefactions ranged from individual gifts to distributions of funds for the relief of old maids and widows and the support of temperance and antitobacco movements.
Smith believed that true religion must express itself in true politics. In 1825 he joined the American Colonization Society, but a decade of experience with the ACS persuaded him that the society's purpose was not to free slaves but to rid the country of free Negroes. He then turned to the American Antislavery Society. One of his most notable acts took place in 1846, when he appointed a committee of land reformers and abolitionists to parcel out a land grant of some 150,000 acres to poor white settlers and blacks. Although much of the land was inferior (and thus failed to demonstrate capacities at land ownership), the grant won wide publicity for the free-soil cause.
In 1840 Smith joined in initiating the Liberty party. He was the party's presidential candidate in 1848, receiving 2,733 votes. In 1853 he was elected as an independent to the Congress, where he mixed defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law at home with a belief that United States annexation of Cuba would be advantageous to its slaves. He resigned his House seat the next year.
Smith's combination of radicalism and conservatism showed itself during the secession crisis. He supported John Brown's assault on Harpers Ferry, Va., but when Smith's position was exposed, he protested his innocence and was sufficiently overwrought to become temporarily insane. When he recovered, he supported the Union, but after the Civil War he held that slavery had been the responsibility of both North and South. Accordingly, he joined with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt to provide bail bond to free Jefferson Davis, holding that his captivity without trial was an injustice to the country. He died in New York City on Dec. 28, 1874.
Further Reading on Gerrit Smith
Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith: A Biography (1878;
3d ed. 1909), though often imprecise, is written by a distinguished transcendentalist. It was deepened and corrected by the scholarly Ralph Volney Harlow and published as Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer (1939).
Additional Biography Sources
Harlow, Ralph Volney, Gerrit Smith, philanthropist and reformer, New York, Russell & Russell 1972.