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Gerrit Smith Virtual Museum

The Gerrit Smith Collection

George Arents Research Library
Syracuse University

Gerrit Smith was a widely known philanthropist and social reformer who was a leading Abolitionist in the mid-Nineteenth Century. He was born in Utica, NY in 1797 and lived in nearby Peterboro until his deat in 1874. Smith was a financial supporter of John Brown, and was implicated in the raid on Harper's Ferry. He denied that his intent was to promote insurrection among Southern slaves, but rather to arm for self defense those who would escape, and thereby inspire others to do so. Though he and several of Brown's other co-conspirators (The Secret Six) reportedly avoided knowledge of the specifics, there is little doubt that Smith was aware of, and helped to finance, Brown's plans for military action in Virginia.

Smith's commitment to social justice was wide ranging. He was a major player in various anti-slavery and temperance societies. As a philantropist he gave away forty acres of Adirondack land in Northern New York to each of 3000 poor (and "temperate") Blacks, to permit them to meet the requirements for voting, and in hopes of promoting self-sufficiency. He mad similar gifts to poor whites, though for women he decided the gifts impractical and substituted $50 in cash. He sold John Brown and his family land at North Elba, NY (near Lake Placid) where Brown is buried. The plan was for Brown's family to help the new settlers to become productive farmers. Though much of the land was clearly unsuitable for farming, some lasting settlments were formed.

Smith was a candidate for President in 1848, 1856 and 1860. In 1852 he was nominated by his Liberty Party, but chose not to campaign. Instead, he served in the Congress, representing madison and Oswego counties in 1853 and '54, but left before the end of his term. In Congress he advocated an anti-Slavery and temperance agenda, an called for an end to the concept of private ownership of land.

Smith's close relationship with Frederick Douglass spanned many years. A dauguerotype of an 1850 anti-slavery convention in Cazenovia, NY pictures the young Frederick Douglass in front of the older Smith. The dramatic story behind this picture has been extensively researched, and is described in a publication by the Madison County (NY) Historical Society.
An even more dramatic story surrounds the arrest of a fugitive slave from Missouri, called William "Jerry" Henry, and his subsequent liberation from custody by an angry mob. The Jerry Rescue is memorialized by a monument in Downtown Syracuse.

A less well known story is that of Harriet Powell, who was liberated from slavery during an 1839 visit to Syracuse. During the three weeks she stayed at Smith's home, before making her way to Canada, Powell was introduced to Smith's daughter Elizabeth Smith (Miller) and his young cousin, Elizabeth Cady (Stanton). It was in Smith's home that Cady met Henry Stanton, also a leading Aboliotionist, whom she married shortly thereafter. It was on her "honeymoon" at the World Anti-Slavery Society meeting in London that Stanton met Lucretia Mott, with who she later planned the first Women's Rights Convention eight years later in Seneca Falls.

Smith was highly regarded by Stanton and others in the early years of the women's rights movement, and was mentioned in Stanton's address to the Seneca Falls Convention. A letter expressing his support was read at the opening of the August 1848 Convention in Rochester, immediately following Seneca Falls.

Along with Frederick Douglass and the American Woman Suffrage Association, Smith split with Stanton and Anthony over the Sixteenth Amendment, supporting the precedence of suffrage for Black men over that for women.

Smith's advocacy for women's dress reform was likely related to his daughter's innovation in that area. An active supporter of women's rights, Elizabeth Smith Miller is probably best known for the development of the costume popularized by Amelia Bloomer. Miller's husband Charles Dudley Miller worked with Smith in his land office in Peterboro, and also helped in the destruction of records after John Brown's capture at Harper's Ferry. Their son, Gerrit Smith Miller placed the Gerrit Smith Collection in the care of Syrcause University in 1928, twelve years before the family mansion and its contents were destroyed in a fire.

Events to commemorate the Bicentennial of Gerrit Smith's birth are being organized by the Peterboro Area Museum. Persons interested in attending or sponsoring events are encouraged to contact the Peterboro Area Historical Society, PO Box 42, Peterboro, NY 13134

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