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Gerrit Smith
- Biographies

The Biographies

The "Autobiography of Gerrit Smith"
Gerrit Smith By Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Gerrit Smith - The Story of a Noble (Man's) Life, By Charles A. Hammond
Gerrit Smith by Ralph Volney Harlow

Other Publications About Gerrit Smith

A number of articles based on the Gerrit Smith Miller Collection have been published in the Courier, the quarterly journal of Syracuse University Library Associates. Key articles have been reproduced on this site with permission of the publisher.


The Black Dream of Gerrit Smith, New York Abolitionist
by John R. McKivigan and Madeleine Leveille, Courier, Fall 1985

Common Cause: The Antislavery Alliance of Gerrit Smith and Beriah Green
by Milton C. Sernett, Courier, Fall 1986

Gerrit Smith's "Autobiography"

The full text is presented here of what appears to be a draft campaign biography (approx. 1600 words). The text is also included in 'He Stands Like Jupiter': The Autobiography of Gerrit Smith, by John R. McKivigan and Madeline L. McKivigan, written around 1983. In that article, the authors added a brief introduction and extensive footnotes, along with an analysis of Smith's psychological development. Only the original text by Smith is included here.

Gerrit Smith by Octavius Brooks Frothingham

Octavius B. Frothingham was a clergyman, and a scholar. His biography was prepared with the cooperation of Gerrit Smith's daughter, Elizabeth Smith Miller. It has been criticized for its affectionate treatment of the subject, stilted 19th Century phrasing, and for the fact that after initial publication it was altered on demand of Smith's family. In the preface to his own book, Harlow said of Frothingham's effort that the book "was so contrived as to satisfy nobody except possibly the author himself."

After publication, the Smith family publicly chastised Frothingham for his conclusion that Smith had prior information regarding John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The book was recalled, the bindings broken, and the offending pages removed. Future editions were published without these pages, and with other related changes, on the family's insistence. The changes appear in the second edition on pp. 238-252.

Reports of the events concerning alteration of the first edition are in the archives of the Alumni Quarterly of Hamilton College. The 1969 reprinting by Negro Universities Press is of the complete first edition.

A charming and not fully explained feature of the book is a small engraving of two clasped hands, one with a lace cuff, placed at the end of the text. The hands depicted are those of Gerrit Smith and his wife, Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith "taken from life." The sculpture shown below, identical to the illustration, is in the collection of the Madison County Historical Society. According to the Historical Society record, it was carved by a man who was born in slavery.

Gerrit Smith - The Story of a Noble (Man's) Life by Charles A. Hammond

The first edition of this book, published in 1900 includes the word "Man's" in the title, but this is excluded from the title of the 1908 edition. Hammond was well acquainted with Smith, and like Frothingham, was an admirer. This volume is much smaller (115 pages) than the Frothingham and Harlow books, and reads like a personalized digest of the Frothingham book. A few representative examples are provided of the similarity between the two.

Hammond's avowed purpose was to provide an inspirational example to young persons. He relates a number of personal conversations, including some about Smith's hospitalization at Utica and his relationship with John Brown. He supports the genuine character of Smith's breakdown, and is the only biographer to report on the content of Smith's delusions at the time he was hospitalized.

Gerrit Smith by Ralph Volney Harlow

Ralph Volney Harlow was Chairman of the Syracuse University History Department at the time of Gerrit Smith Miller's 1928 gift to the University of the papers of Peter and Gerrit Smith. In 1932 excerpts from Gerrit Smith's correspondence were printed in the Syracuse Journal in an article that made reference to Dr. Harlow's work on a Gerrit Smith biography. The work was finally published in 1939.

A contemporary reading of Harlow's biography illustrates some of the perennial problems of the historian and of the biographer. The selection of facts to be reported, their interpretation, and contextual presentation all must be affected by the lens that is the writer. Time has made apparent some of the qualities of this biographer's lens, sufficient to cause several who are familiar with Gerrit Smith to long for a contemporary, and more sympathetic treatment. The Biographical Material page on this website represents an attempt, short of full blown biography, to collect sources of information that may help the interested reader come to an understanding of who Gerrit Smith was, and the personal and social context in which he lived.

Harlow conducted extensive research into Smith's papers and publications held in libraries throughout the country. For information on Smith's early life he relied on Frothingham's biography, which he regarded as an unreliable source. He completely overlooked Hammond's, and made no reference to him, though Hammond was for a time pastor of Smith's Church of Peterboro, and furnished first hand accounts that sometimes conflict with Harlow's.

A striking feature of the Harlow biography is it's often negative tone. The pages often drip with sarcasm, and the author rarely resists an opportunity to mock his subject. In the process, Harlow reveals his own biases, as in this passage, which follows the text of a letter Smith wrote to William Lee, intended to be read to Lee on his arrival at Peterboro following Smith's purchase of his freedom from a southern slaveholder:

Here in this letter appears the abolitionist notion in its simplest form, that the Negro was a black Anglo-Saxon, capable of being stirred as a white man would be by this evidence of disinterested philanthropy. And at precisely this point appears the overwhelming weakness of every true Abolitionist: an absolute inability to see the Negro as he was, and when the blacks were concerned, a total lack of anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor. (p.273)

Harlow's interpretation of the letter to William Lee contrasts with typical Frothingham:

The "evangelical" minister who permits the use of this letter pronounces it worthy to rank with Paul's letter to Philemon. And so it is. (p.121)

On the subjects of Smith's complicity in John Brown's raid on Harpers' Ferry, Harlow concludes Smith fully informed and culpable. While noting that his subsequent admission to the asylum at Utica "saved Gerrit Smith from further embarrassment on account of his complicity in Brown's work.." (p. 413) he does not question that Smith was in fact ill. Harlow's analysis was that "Delirium was the only escape from this tangle of conflicts" (p.412).

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