Smith, Gerrit

Gerrit Smith (1797 - 1874) was a free thinker, but not a "freethinker" in the narrower sense of one who rejected Christianity. He remained a Christian, albeit a radical one, throughout his life. But in every other way, Smith exemplified the radical reform impulse and the astonishing cross-fertilization of causes and people that distinguishes the Freethought Trail.

Smith was pre-Civil War America’s foremost philanthropist and reformer. He became a seminal figure in the abolition movement, a major participant in the Underground Railroad, and a significant figure in the woman suffrage movement, some of whose leading figures are closely associated with him. In addition, he took a strong interest in the dress reform movement of the 1850s, which sought more practical and healthful clothing for women. His daughter, Elizabeth Smith Miller, is credited with developing dress reform’s signature garment: the Bloomer costume, consisting of Turkish-style pantaloons over a midlength skirt.

Smith was also the prototype for a conspicuous American stereotype, the child of great wealth who takes up liberal causes. His father, Peter Smith, made a fortune in the fur trade as a partner to John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) and established the village of Peterboro, New York, in 1795, naming it for himself. In 1804 he established the homestead that would become the Gerrit Smith Estate.

Gerrit Smith greatly increased his inherited fortune through his own business acumen. He built a mansion and other buildings on the homestead site, married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh (1805-1875), and began devoting his energy and his wealth to reform causes of the day, including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage. A stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, he lodged hundreds of fugitive slaves, frequently purchasing their freedom, facilitating their passage to Canada, or assisting them in settling in New York State. His home became a salon that leading reformers, politicians, and businesspeople visited to discuss pressing issues.

On October 21, 1835, Smith attended the inaugural meeting of the reconstituted New York State Anti-slavery Society at Utica’s Second Presbyterian Church. The meeting was disrupted by a mob. Smith invited all of the delegates to travel to Peterboro that night and complete their meeting there the next day. Three to six hundred of them did so. On October 22, New York’s first public antislavery meeting was completed at Peterboro’s Presbyterian Church; the experience prompted Smith to abandon his former advocacy of colonization -- the repatriation of enslaved blacks to Africa -- and take up "immediatism," the demand for slavery to be abolished immediately. The Peterboro meeting site is now home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

In 1840 Smith helped organize the Liberty Party, the first openly abolitionist political party. In 1848 he was its presidential candidate; his acceptance speech at the party’s convention in Buffalo included a bold demand for universal suffrage, explicitly encompassing black and white and male and female. This was an audacious position for an anti- slavery activist of the time. He would be nominated for president of the United States four times and for governor of New York once. In 1852 Smith was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives on the Free Soil ticket; this was a short-lived political party focused on ensuring that western states newly joining the Union would be free states, not slave states. Despairing of achieving social change through participation in government, he thereafter focused on philanthropy and private organizing.

As a philanthopist, Smith generously supported all the causes he believed in. He built the nation’s first temperance hotel (no alcohol served) at Peterboro, and provided lavish support for the abolition movement, the Underground Railroad, and the woman’s movement. It is believed that he funded the first dress reform convention, held in January 1857 in Canastota, just down the road from Peterboro. He was one of the “Secret Six” Northern philanthropists who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry which helped spark the Civil War. (He became so distraught over the raid’s outcome that he suffered a brief nervous breakdown; it remained controversial throughout his life how much he had known regarding Brown’s plans for an armed slave revolt.)

It is estimated that during his life Mr. and Mrs. Smith donated some eight million dollars (at current values, more than $250 million) to charitable causes. His Peterboro estate became such a center for abolition organizing that African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet wrote: “There are yet two places where slaveholders cannot come, Heaven and Peterboro.” Frederick Douglass published this comment on the front page of his Rochester-based abolition paper The North Star on December 8, 1848. (Douglass would later dedicate his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), to Smith.)

In August of 1850, he helped to organize a protest convention in Cazenovia to oppose the Fugitive Slave Law, which empowered the federal government to capture escaped slaves even in free states and obliged free-state residents to cooperate with apprehension efforts. (Protests notwithstanding, the U.S. Congress passed the measure on September 18 as part of the Compromise of 1850.)

In October, 1851, Smith exhorted Syracuse-area abolitionists to defy the then-new Fugitive Slave Act. On the evening of October 1, reformers and activists broke down the door of a police station to free William "Jerry" Henry, an escaped slave being held pending his forcible return to Missouri. The raid, known as the Jerry Rescue, was successful. "Jerry" escaped to freedom in Canada within a few days; the event galvanized abolitionists nationwide. Afterward, Smith lauded the Rescue as the epitome of abolitionist principles in action, urging his colleagues to operate always at the "Jerry Level." He would later grow disillusioned when this level of abolitionist fervor was not maintained.

On January 7 - 8, 1857, Smith attended the first significant dress reform convention, held at Canastota, just a few miles north of Peterboro. In all likelihood, Smith paid the costs of the event. Attendees included Mary Edwards Walker of Oswego, who would become the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor and would adopt radical reform dress for the rest of her life.

Smith’s personal connections were as impressive as his activism. He was cousin to the future Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who met her future husband Henry Brewster Stanton at a social event at Smith’s mansion. His daughter Elizabeth (Smith Miller) lived across the town green from her father’s estate and became a suffragist and a philanthropist in her own right. Her role in developing the Bloomer costume (named for its most conspicuous promoter, Seneca Falls activist Amelia Bloomer) has already been mentioned.

The Smith mansion burned down in 1936. The Gerrit Smith Estate was declared a national historic landmark in 2001. The former Peterboro Presbyterian Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994; in 2004 it became the home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame.