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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 618


This is the grave of Gerrit Smith.

Born in 1797 in Utica, New York, he grew up wealthy. His father had married into the New York Livingston elite and made a bunch of money in the fur trade and in real estate, becoming one of the richest men in New York. His father was also interested in reform causes as they began developing in the early 19th century. Gerrit took after his father in this regard. He graduated from Hamilton College in 1818 and married Wealtha Ann Backus, the daughter of the college president, in 1819. However, she died within a just a couple months of their marriage. He went back home and took over managing his father’s land estate. In 1822, he remarried, to Ann Carroll Fitzhugh, the sister of New York politico Henry Fitzhugh.

By the 1820s, the reform movements that would become associated with the Burned-Over District of upstate New York were beginning and Smith was on their front lines. He became impassioned by temperance and opened one of the first temperance hotels, places where people could not drink at all, an unheard of thing in the alcoholic early republic, in his home town of Peterboro. A fantastic public speaker, Smith roused New York audiences with his denunciation of alcohol and his commitment to evangelical revivalism. Later, he became a supporter of other causes as well. He was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin and in fact she met her husband Henry Stanton at Smith’s house. He was a big supporter of women’s rights, as Stanton mentioned by name during her 1848 Seneca Falls speech. Moreover, he was absolutely furious in his denunciation of slavery. Even in the abolitionist movement, there were few people who were really truly anti-racist. Gerrit Smith was one of them.

Smith started an active fight for black rights in about 1835. Before that, he, like many whites, north and south, believed that colonization was the answer to slavery, or finding ways to send African-Americans back to Africa. But in 1835, a mob in Utica, led by a sitting member of Congress, broke up a gathering of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention and demonstrated to Smith the awfulness of the pro-slavery crowd. He resigned from the board of trustees from Hamilton College for it not being an anti-slavery institution. And then he dedicated himself to creating a community around him that was starkly different from the rest of the nation. In this era of reform, this wasn’t all that shocking of a principle. After all, this was the period of Brook Farm and New Harmony and so many other intentional communities. But Smith started giving away his land to black families so they could become independent farmers. This was part of his becoming not only concerned about the fate of African-Americans but his growing belief that large-scale land ownership was a sin. He gave away 50 acre plots that also provided them with the property qualifications they needed to vote. He also attempted to start a huge colony for free blacks in the Adirondack Mountains, around North Elba. Among the people to join that experiment was a white man named John Brown. More on him shortly. Experiment mostly didn’t work out though.

All of this made Smith one of the most unique people of his age, a real fighter for racial justice. He really put his money where his mouth was too. He is who funded the mass slave escape attempt in Washington in 1848, the so-called Pearl Incident, when 77 slaves fled on a boat that was captured two days later. Smith’s town of Peterboro naturally enough became a central stopping point on the Underground Railroad, especially after 1850 when the flight to Canada was necessary to truly gain freedom. He put up money to pay the defense funds of those prosecuted for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. When Bleeding Kansas began, Smith funded abolitionist activities there too. This is when he first met John Brown in person. He also served a very short time in Congress, being elected on an abolitionist platform but hating Washington and its politics so passionately that he resigned before the end of his first term.

Smith’s amazing leadership led Frederick Douglass to write this dedication to him in his 1855 book My Bondage and My Freedom:

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 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.

Smith became one of the Secret Six, the elite abolitionists funding John Brown’s activities leading up to Harpers’ Ferry. Perhaps no one provided more funds to see this through than Smith. But when Brown launched his legendary and doomed attack, it broke Smith’s brain. Literally. Smith had a nervous breakdown. Evidently, the violence overwhelmed him. He was committed to an asylum. He denied he had knowledge of the attack and even sued the Chicago Tribune for claiming that he did. Jefferson Davis demanded that Smith be tried alongside Brown. That did not happen. But Smith was permanently changed. Even as he recovered from his mental breakdown, he lost the fighting spirit that he once had.

What makes Smith’s story so sad is that he not only lost that spirit but he lost his commitment to racial equality. Evidently the lesson he took from Brown was that he was to blame for fighting so hard for black equality. He moved away from Douglass and other black abolitionists. He supported the Union cause in the Civil War, but only passively. He was no longer a leading voice for emancipation or for the suffrage in the aftermath. Yes, he supported those causes to an extent and even expressed his disapproval at his cousin Stanton’s position on the Fifteenth Amendment, but he began openly expressing racist thoughts too. Worse, he became a leading proponent of a soft Reconstruction, letting the South back into the nation almost immediately after the war. Unbelievably, he joined Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt in paying the $100,000 bond to free Jefferson Davis in 1867, after his two-year imprisonment. All Douglass and his other former allies could do was shake their heads in wonderment and sadness and what had become their former comrade, though by the time he went for Davis’ bond, he was loudly denounced by many northern Republicans. In his last years, Smith largely stayed behind the scenes and engaged in philanthropy, as he was still very wealthy. He died in 1874, at the age of 77.

Gerrrit Smith is buried in Peterboro Cemetery, Peterboro, New York.

This grave visit was funded by LGM readers on my trip to upstate New York last month. Many thanks for it! If you would like this series to cover other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Brown is in North Elba, New York and Martin Robison Delaney is in Cedarville, Ohio. Previous posts are archived here.

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