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Gerrit Smith


WERE we called upon to point out a man whose whole course of life had been controlled, both in public and private, by the conscientious desire to obey the great law of love, "whatsoever things ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them," we should have no hesitation in selecting Gerrit Smith as that man.

He may have erred in judgment at times; his measures for accomplishing good may have failed, in some instances, either from their own imperfection, or the weakness, stupidity or unworthiness of those whom he has sought to benefit; he may, in his anxieties to benefit his fellow-man, have been led into erroneous and dangerous views of the plans, purposes, and 
revelation of Him, whom yet, in his heart of hearts, we believe he reverently worships; but of his earnest desire to do his whole duty to his fellow-man there can be no question.

GERRIT SMITH was born in Utica, New York, March 6th, 1797. His father, Hon. Peter Smith, was known in the early part of the present century as one of the largest land-holders in the United States. At his death his great fortune was divided mainly between his two sons, Peter Sken Smith and Gerrit Smith, the former receiving the larger share of the personal, and the latter the greater part of the real estate.

Gerrit Smith was graduated at Hamilton college, Clinton, New York, in 1818. He never entered himself as a student of law, but was admitted to practice in the State and Federal courts of New York in 1853, and has participated in several important trials.

His philanthropic disposition led him at an early age to take an active part in the benevolent enterprises of the day. In 1825, he connected himself with the American Colonization Society, in the hope that it would facilitate the emancipation of the slaves. He contributed largely to its funds, but finally becoming satisfied that it was not the intention of its founders or directors to promote general emancipation, he withdrew from it in 1835, and has been ever since identified, heart and soul, with the voting portion of the anti-slavery party.

Gifted with a simple and natural eloquence, very effective with the masses, he has plead the cause of the slave for thirty years past with great earnestness, and a confiding faith in the eventual triumph of the principles of emancipation; and that his faith might not be unsustained by works, he has given, with a princely liberality, to every effort for the promotion of the abolition of slavery.

It is a characteristic of Mr. Smith's mind that he must push his views of philanthropy to their ultimate logical conclusions, and he cannot rest in any thing short of these. Thus holding that slavery was wrong, and that no man had a right to enjoy the rewards of the enforced labor of another, he came to the farther conclusion, that it was wrong to purchase or use any thing produced by the labor of the slave, and hence he refused to wear or use any article made of cotton, unless he could be satisfied that it was free labor cotton, any sugar except that produced by free labor, any rice except that grown in India or China.

But his philanthropy was not confined to the slave; the victim of intemperance was equally an object of his sympathy and commiseration, and his own eloquence, and his means, were freely expended in the endeavor to restrain or prohibit the sale of intoxicating drinks. He was strongly opposed to the use of tobacco, and aided in the publication and circulation of tracts to dissuade people from its use. He believed woman oppressed by the laws, and exerted himself to have them changed so as to better her condition. He aided in prison reformation and the establishment of juvenile reformatories ; and when the news of the attempts to fasten slavery upon Kansas came to his ears, though in general a peace-man and non-resistant, he contributed largely for the purchase of Sharp's rifles, and for the outfit and forwarding of large bodies of sturdy northern settlers to that territory. Though by inheritance and purchase from his fellow-heirs, one of the largest land-holders in the United States, he had convinced himself of the wrongfulness of land monopoly, and practically illustrated his views, by distributing two hundred thousand acres of land, partly among institutions of learning, but mostly among the poor white and black men, to whom he allotted, in tracts of about fifty acres, one hundred and twenty thousand acres of land, accompanying the deed in many instances with a sum of money sufficient to enable them to erect a cabin, and procure a little stock.

Some of his colonists did well; but many, a majority, we fear, proved unworthy of his kindness, and after receiving his bounty, abandoned their lands, and reviled him because he 
would not support them in idleness.

It was in connection with these gifts of land, that he first became acquainted with John Brown, afterward of Kansas. Mr. Brown was of great service to him in the care and instruction of his colored colonists, add some of them, under has influence, did well. In the Kansas troubles, Mr. Smith put money into Brown's hands frequently, to distribute among the poor in that territory. Brown visited him a few months before his Harper's Ferry raid, but did not communicate to him his plans.

In 1832, Mr. Smith was elected to Congress from the twenty-second Congressional district of New York, but resigned at the close of the first or long session, on account of the pressure of his private affairs, and his extreme disrelish for public life. After the John Brown raid, in 1859, an attempt was made by Virginians, and other pro-slavery leaders, to identify Kim and other prominent anti-slavery men at the North with the movement, and to demonstrate that it was an extensive conspiracy against the South. The charge was absolutely false ; but Mr. Smith being at the time in very feeble health, and being excited by the virulent attacks made upon him, became for a short time insane. He speedily, however, recovered his reason, with the improvement of his general health. In 1861, he entered with great spirit and patriotism into the efforts for raising regiments and sustaining the Government in a vigorous prosecution of the war. He addressed a number of large gatherings on this subject, and, as usual, gave liberally for it. The war over, he inclined to the policy of extreme mercy to the South, and in May, 1867, at the request of one of Mr. Jefferson Davis's counsel, became one of the signers of his bailbond, qualifying in the sum of five thousand dollars for his appearance. His course in the matter, like that of Mr. Greeley, occasioned considerable animadversion, but both gentlemen defended themselves by published letters, to the best of their ability.

For several years past, Mr. Smith has advocated, both by published speeches, and public essays and appeals, a larger liberty of opinion, and freedom from what he believed the bondage of sect. These views, which at first took only the form of a protest against denominationalism, have gradually, from his habit of pushing his speculations to their ultimate conclusions, developed into a modified deism, rejecting many of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, and assailing, with great vehemence, the Christian church, and to some extent, the Scriptures. In this crusade he has made very few converts, and in common with most of his friends, we believe his errors to be rather of the head than the heart.

Under his abundant, almost lavish giving, Mr. Smith's princely estate has diminished till he is now comparatively poor. Yet his generous nature remains, and we doubt not he suffers more than the applicant for his bounty, when he is obliged to deny or diminish the amount of his beneficence. 

Mr. Smith published a volume of his "Speeches in Congress," in 1856 ; a volume entitled "Sermons and Speeches by Gerrit Smith," in 1861; and numberless pamphlets and broad sheets. His latest pamphlets are, "The Theologies," 1866; "Nature's Theology," 1867; "A Letter from Gerrit Smith to Albert Barnes," 1868; and several other pamphlets, mostly political, in 1870-72. He has taken very decided ground in favor of President Grant's reelection, and against his old friend Greeley, in the spring and summer of 1872.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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