SMITH, GERRIT (1797-1874), American reformer and philanthropist, was born in Utica, New York, on the 6th of March 1797. After graduating at Hamilton College in 1818, he assumed the management of the vast estate of his father, Peter Smith (1768-1837), long a partner of John Jacob Astor, and greatly increased the family fortune. About 1828 he became an active worker in the cause of temperance, and in his home village, Peterboro, he built one of the first temperance hotels in the country. He became an abolitionist in 1835, after seeing an antislavery meeting at Utica broken up by a mob. In 1840 he took a leading part in the organization of the Liberty party, and in 1848 and 1852 he was nominated for the presidency by the remnant of this organization that had not been absorbed by the Free Soil party. An " Industrial Congress " at Philadelphia also nominated him for the presidency in 1848, and the " Land Reformers " in 1856. In 1840 and in 1858 he was a candidate for the governorship of New York on an anti-slavery platform. In 1853 he was elected to the National House of Representatives as an independent, and issued an address declaring that all men have an equal right to the soil; that wars are brutal and unnecessary; that slavery could be sanctioned by no constitution, state or federal; that free trade is essential to human brotherhood; that women should have full political rights; that the Federal government and the states should prohibit the liquor traffic within their respective jurisdictions; and that government officers, so far as practicable, should be elected by direct vote of the people. At the end of the first session he resigned his seat. After becoming an opponent of land monopoly, he gave numerous farms of fifty acres each to indigent families, and also attempted to colonize tracts in N. New York with free negroes; but this experiment was a failure. Peterboro became a station on the " underground railroad "; and after 1850 Smith furnished money for the legal expenses of persons charged with infractions of the Fugitive Slave Law. With John Brown, to whom he gave a farm in Essex county, New York, he became very intimate, and from time to time* supplied him with funds, though it seems without knowing that any of the money would be employed in an attempt to incite a slave insurrection. Under the excitement following the raid on Harper's Ferry he became temporarily insane, and for several weeks was confined in an asylum in Utica. He favoured a vigorous prosecution of the Civil War, but at its . close advocated a mild policy toward the late Confederate states, declaring that part of the guilt of slavery lay upon the North. He even became one of the securities for Jefferson Davis, thereby incurring the resentment of Northern radical leaders.
In religion as in politics Gerrit Smith was a radical. Believing that sectarianism was sinful, he separated from the Presbyterian Church in 1843, and was one of the founders of the Church at Peterboro, a non-sectarian institution open to all Christians of whatever shade of belief. His private benefactions were boundless ; of his gifts he kept no record, but their value is said to have exceeded $8,000,000. Though a man of great wealth his life was one of marked simplicity. He died on the 28th of December 1874, while on a visit to relatives in New York City.
See O. B. Frothingham, Gerrit Smith: a Biography (New York, 1879).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)