- Anti-Slavery Activity
Throughout his activist career, Gerrit Smith regarded himself an
Abolitionist. Originally a supporter of the American Colonization Society,
which was involved in exporting black missionaries to Liberia, Smith was
gradually (and apparently grudgingly) moved closer to the camp of William LLoyd
Garrison by the deliberate efforts of his associates as well as unplanned
circumstances. Through their attacks on the Colonization Society, the
Garrisonian's flushed out that Society's opposition to the abolition of
slavery. Faced with the open expression of this posture on the part of the
Society, Smith felt himself obliged to withdraw. In so doing he paid up in
advance the support he had previously pledged to the Society.
Smith differed with Garrison on both principle and tactics. While Garrison
held the US Constitution to be a pro-slavery document, Smith relied on the
interpretation of Lysander Spooner that it was in fact a pro-liberty document.
He frequently cited the argument that the framers rejected a bed to have the
word "slavery" introduced into the Constitution, accepting its
original fugitive slave provisions only when the term "fugitive from
service" was substituted. While Garrison held that political action was to
be avoided, Smith helped to found the Liberty Party, and helped to convert
Frederick Douglass to his views.
A strong influence upon Smith's decision to leave the Colonization Society
was his associate the
Rev. Beriah Green. Green was the President of the
Oneida Institute, an interracial college at Whitesboro, near Utica, that was a
center of Abolitionist activity. Green (after whom Smith named his only son to
reach adulthood) actively encouraged Smith to abandon the Colonization Society,
and to join with Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society. Smith had been
reluctant to do so, and had published a statement of his differences with the
Garrisonian's. When a convention was held at Utica for the purpose of
organizing a New York Anti-Slavery Society, Smith accepted Green's invitation
The convention was held on October 21, 1835, a day that appears to have been
fateful in the history of the anti-slavery cause. Smith and his wife attended
the Utica convention while on the way to visit Smith's father in Schenectady.
When the convention was broken up by a local mob, Smith invited the group to
reconvene the next day at Peterboro, where he assured they would be welcome to
continue their activities. He and his wife immediately set out for home, and at
3:00 AM he reportedly began writing his Crime of the Abolitionists
speech, to be delivered the next day. He also wrote that on his arrival at
Peterboro, he and others armed themselves in defense against any pursuers from
Utica. None came.
On the same day, Abolitionist gatherings were also broken up in New England.
Garrison was led through Boston streets by a rope, before being rescued by
police. It was the sight of the victimized Garrison that reportedly stirred
Wendell Phillips to join Garrison, providing the movement one of its most
When the New York Anti-Slavery Society convened in the
Presbyterian Church in Peterboro, resolutions were
passed to seat Smith and the other Peterboro abolitionists. Smith rose to offer
his resolution supporting the free speech rights of the Abolitionists, and
condemning those who would limit them. He also said:
It is not to be disguised, that a war has broken out between the North and
the South. - Political and commercial men are industriously striving to restore
peace : but the peace, which they would effect, is superficial, false, and
temporary. True, permanent peace can never be restored, until slavery, the
occasion of the war, has ceased. The sword, which is now drawn, will never be
returned to its scabbard, until victory, entire, decisive victory, is our or
theirs ; not, until that broad and deep and damning stain on our country's
escutcheon is clean washed out - that plague spot on our country's honor gone
forever ;- or, until slavery has riveted anew her present chains, and brought
our heads also to bow beneath her withering power. It is idle - it is criminal,
to hope for the restoration of the peace, on any other condition.
Smith went on to say the Abolitionists would not seek their aims with "carnal
weapons" but "Truth and love are inscribed on our banner, and 'By
these we conquer.'"
For some time Smith remained committed to the peaceful, and generally
political/legal opposition to slavery. A year after announcing to the newly
formed New York Anti Slavery Society that he was not yet ready to join, he was
elected its President. In the years to come, Smith supported the Abolitionist
cause with speeches, money, and his own direct support to those fleeing to
Canada. His home was a major way station on the Underground Railroad, where
others were provided the opportunity to hear first hand the stories of persons
escaping from slavery. The story of Harriet Powell is one such, notable for the
local intrigue as well as for the impression that meeting Powell had on Smith's
young cousin, Elizabeth Cady (Stanton).
Smith subscribed to and supported
several Abolitionist newspapers, including the Liberty Press, edited for a time
by James Caleb Jackson, whom he brought to Peterboro. When Congress was
considering the passage of a Fugitive Slave Law, Smith organized a
convention at Cazenovia that made news throughout the
country. When efforts were made to enforce Secretary of State Daniel Webster's
May 1851 promise to execute the law "in Syracuse, during the next
anti-slavery convention" the stage was set for Smith's involvement in the
dramatic rescue by force of a fugitive from the custody of federal marshals.
For the next seven years, Smith gave the address at annual commemorations of
the Jerry Rescue. The 1858 program also included
speeches by Frederick Douglass and Thomas W. Higgison. A year later all three
would be implicated in the preparations for John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry,
an event most readers believe to be expressly foretold in his
letter declining to participate in the Jerry Rescue
celebration of October 1859.
In the 1850's Smith remained active in the attempt to fight slavery through
legal means. The campaign poster shown here details plans for the fateful
October 1851 convention of the NYS Liberty Party at Syracuse (the next
anti-slavery convention following Webster's speech), as well as the events
that led to the dissolution of the Party in 1848. Smith is named (lower left)
as the Party's candidate for President. In fact, Smith was elected to Congress
in 1852, serving one frustrating term trying to advance an agenda that had
several "peculiarities" listed in his thank you letter
to the voters of the counties of Oswego and Madison.
During Smith's tenure in Washington, his daughter Elizabeth
displayed the fashionable version of the so-called Bloomer costume credited to
As dissolution of the Union crept ever closer, Smith became increasingly
frustrated, and increasingly accepting of the use of violence as an instrument.
He joined a group of Massachusetts Abolitionists in lending support to the
anti-slavery struggle in Kansas, and ultimately in support of John Brown's plan
to set up a permanent base of operations in the mountains of Virginia. In the
period leading up to the raid on Harper's Ferry, Brown made frequent visits to
Smith and his associates, and discussed the outline of his plan not only with
Smith and his New England supporters (the secret six), but also with Jermain
Loguen, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. The ill-fated
Harper's Ferry raid and its aftermath devastated
Smith, and provoked a psychotic episode that followed an extended period of what
appears to be manic activity on Smith's part.
When war finally broke out between North and South, Smith became a strong
and vocal supporter of the Union cause. After Emancipation, he joined Douglass
in advocating the priority of black suffrage, a position that further distanced
him from the position of his cousin and the other feminists who had united with
others in the cause of Equal Rights for all. He remained throughout his life an
advocate for African Americans, in his final printed circular blaming the
Republican Party for its failure to assure legislation to protect their civil
Throughout his career Smith presented a striking model of the committed
abolitionist who truly believed in, and advocated for, the equality of all
persons. Nowhere in his public or private papers is there any sign of the
latent or overt racism displayed by many of his contemporaries. He was also, in
this regard, distinguished from many of his colleagues in the reform movements.