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Gerrit Smith
- Autobiography *


Gerrit Smith was born at Utica, N.Y., on the 6th March 1797. His Father, Peter Smith, a man of purely Holland blood, was widely known as a large land-holder, having traded very extensively with the Indians. His Mother was a daughter of Col. Livingston of the Revolutionary army, and his maternal Grandmother was born and bred and [sic] Ireland. Mr. Smith graduated at Hamilton College in 1818, bearing away the first honors of the class, and the following Winter he married Miss Backus, daughter of Dr. Backus, first President of the same University. He soon after took upon himself the care of his father's immense property, the charge and improvement of which, though naturally a very industrious man, have made his life a very busy one.

Mr. Smith is generally known as an Abolitionist whether he may, or may not be fairly chargable, on some points, with extreme belief and action, he cannot justly be called a man of one idea. Since 1824 a large amount amount of his time and money has been spent in advocating many civil and social changes: in behalf of Temperance; of the abolition of Slavery; of the abolishment of imprisonment for debt; of land-reform against land-monopoly; of securing the rights of suffrage to free blacks; of giving to women social and civil rights equal to those of men; of the abrogation of sects in religion; and above all, in making practical in thousands of instances, the theories he has advanced, and to which he has made his life a harmonious and beautiful testimony!

To use a word which is some what trite, in these days, Mr. Smith is entitled to be called a philanthropist. For as he shows that he is a lover of Christ because he keeps his Commandments, so he proves himself a lover of his fellow men, because he practically endeavors to relieve their woes. 200,000 acres of his land he had divided among various destitute people, and 650 poor women have received money from him to help provide themselves with homes. This is practical land Reform. To pass over his other public bequests, (among which the gift of $25,000 to the city of Oswego for the founding of a library is one of the most judicious.) Mr. Smith is every day relieving the wants of this or that poor, or unfortunate, or sick person, in greater or less sums. It is found to be no easy matter to respond wisely & properly to the thousands of appeals which the fame of this benevolence brings upon him, and some of the requests are very curious. One lady has desired "factory cotton enough for a night-gown," and "alpakky," with a figure of rare device to match a dress possessed by her neighbor, -- both to be sent to her address; while another has preferred a piano. The newly married couple have written for a library, while the better-half of yet another, not so felicitous, complains of her husband, and would seek protection and an asylum with Mr. Smith; -- and a sick man, having lost his "digestive apparatus," earnestly implores a way for its recovery.

When a young man, Mr. Smith was led to take some part in politics, and in 1824 reported the Address to the convention which nominated DeWitt Clinton for governor; also in '28 the Address to the N.Y. State Convention which nominated John Quincy Adams for President. At a later day, in 1844, he was one of the first organizers of the Liberty Party and himself gave it its name. The majority of this party, which in 144 polled 70,000 votes for James G. Birney, -abandoned their radical platform in 148 and became merged in the Free Soil party. As Mr. Smith, however, was unwilling to desert, they left him on the old platform, and his friends insisted on running him for President as an exponent of their principles. In the present canvass he is again made the Presidential candidate of the Radical Abolition Party; a party which demands the abolition of Slavery where it already exists, as well as the prohibition of its extension. They can hardly hope for success in the present contest, but persevere in running their candidates, contented with no more practical result than to signify their assurance that they are in the right and that they have nailed their flag to the mast.

As early as 1824 Mr. Smith was an advocate of the Temperance Reform, and spent fifty days in the year lecturing in that subject; -- making the first speech thereon ever delivered in the Capitol at Albany. At that day the lecturer only advocated abstinence from unfermented liquors: today he is perhaps the strongest Maine law advocate in New York, and affirms that both fermented & distilled liquor when offered for sale at the grog shops, are not property.

In the year '26 also, Mr. Smith became interested in the Abolition of Negro Slavery, and has from the first advocated immediate emancipation. The Colonization Society, to which he gave largely of time and money, making speeches in its behalf at Washington and elsewhere, he left in '35. With the Garrisonians so called, he differs in this wide respect, that he reads the U.S. constitution in favor of liberty (a construction, which, by the imperative rule of legal interpretation its letter will certainly bear) and they in favor of Slavery. They make nothing of political action; he everything.

While Mr. Smith gained celebrity at the North by his abolition speeches, he became the aversion -- even the terror, the saw-head-and bloody-bones, of Slaveholders. An incident occurred, illustrative of this, at the place of the present writing, (Saratoga Springs) which I cannot forbear relating. In the year '39 a gentleman from South Carolina said to a northern friend one morning in the Breakfast room at Union Hall.

"R___ I neither I nor my wife nor child could sleep a wink last night: I can't imagine any other reason and think that d_____d Gerrit Smith must be here." -- It was the case, though S.C. had not known it.

"I will go at once to the bar," he cried, "and if he's not turned out, I quit."

"I too will go to the bar, & if he is dismissed I quit," replied R_____.

They went on their respective errands but the casus belli was absent--had already gone to make an earnest anti-slavery speech in a neighboring town.

Some days after R_____ and his friend South Carolina were walking past the dining room windows of Union Hall when the following dialogue ensued:

"Why R_____ look there! who's that fine looking man sitting yonder? -- Splendid looking man -- he must be a Southerner."

R_____ (laconically and dryly) "That's Gerrit Smith."

It so happens that with all the severity and unsparing denunciation of his speeches, one very seldom meets a man of so noble and commanding an appearance, or of so pleasant genial and elegant manners, as Mr. Smith.

A gentleman from Louisiana was once breakfasting at a public table at the North when a friend said to him:

"Did you ever hear of Gerrit Smith?" "Oh My God yes," was the startled & half terrified reply.

"There he is," quietly rejoined his friend, pointing to a fine looking gentleman, who was taking his breakfast with a cheerful relish.

Louisiana dropped knife & fork spasmodically, and left the table with speechless solemnity. Men from all parts of the Union have since met Mr. Smith in public life, and found him the most affable and agreeable of men -- kindly in heart, in word and in deed.

In the year 1852, the people of his Congressional District, desirous of seeing Mr. Smith in Congress, met irrespective of party, in a Mass Convention and placed him in nomination. He was elected by an overwhelming majority. In Washington his habits of industry kept him drivingly busy, as ever. And with a great press of private business (which at last compelled him to resign his seat) he yet delivered speeches enough in a single session, to make a book of 400 pages.

Men of all parties, and of every shade of opinion, from various parts of America and Europe shared the abundant hospitality of his table. Although no wines glittered upon the board, and the glasses gleamed only with the crystal lustre which God has given to water, yet the dinners were excellent, and all were not only delighted with the vivands set before them, but pleased with the perfect success of this new experiment in Washington -- a cold water table. Some hard drinkers, however, found it difficult to forego their usual indulgence; and John Wentworth of Michigan, remarked that should some shrewd Yankee set up a grog shop near Mr. Smith's house, where one might drink before going in and after coming out, he would make his fortune. Abercrombie, of Georgia, pronounced the dinners excellent, but thought it rather long between the drinks.

As a Writer, Mr. Smith, in point of rhetorical beauty, does not rank high, aiming only to express himself with clearness and simplicity. His performances contain startling figures and similies, which indeed arrest the eye. But they are barren of ornament, of musical or rythmical flow of sentences, and lack almost entirely the element of poetry.

But as an extemporaneous Speaker and Debater, we do not hesitate to place him in the first class. Here his eloquence is the growth of the hour and the occasion. He warms with the subject, especially if opposed, until at the climax, his heavy voice rolling forth in ponderous volume and his large frame quivering in every muscle, he stands, like Jupiter, thundering, and shaking with his thunderbolts his throne itself.

Note: Text shown in italics is underlined in the original


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