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Gerrit Smith

Born in 1797 in New York, Gerrit Smith was a wealthy land owner and social reformer known primarily for his efforts on behalf of African Americans. Smith initially favored colonization efforts, but in the 1830s he became an ardent supporter of the abolitionist movement and joined the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. Unlike its founder William Lloyd Garrison, who rejected both religious and political abolitionism, Smith advocated a political solution to end slavery and supported creation of the abolitionist Liberty Party in 1840.

Gerrit Smith also advocated land reform and in 1846 decided to give away a large amount of land in a multi-county area of New York. Because blacks who did not own land worth at least $250 were denied the right to vote, Smith decided they would be the beneficiaries of his gift. Within a few months, 2,000 blacks had been selected and deeds written. Among the beneficiaries were a group of blacks who settled at North Elba in Essex County. Smith's experiment in land reform largely proved a failure. It was through this project, however, that Gerrit Smith first became acquainted with John Brown.

In 1848, the majority of the Liberty Party joined with the Free Soil Party. A residual faction, the Liberty League, nominated Gerrit Smith for president. In the general election, Smith received 2,545 votes, a mere .1 per cent of the total votes cast. In 1852, he won a seat in Congress but served only until August 1854, when he resigned. A year later, Smith and several other radical political abolitionists assembled in convention and formed the American Abolition Society. Smith became the society's president and its U.S. presidential nominee in 1856 but received few votes; he also was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of New York in 1858.

Gerrit Smith became one of the group of New Englanders, known as the "Secret Six," who helped finance John Brown's activities. After the raid on Harpers Ferry, Smith denied prior knowledge. He suffered a mental breakdown shortly after the raid, was confined to an asylum in Utica for several weeks, and thereafter claimed to have "but a hazy view of dear John Brown's great work." Smith died in 1874, still claiming that he did not know of John Brown's plans.

Further Reading:
Frothingham, Octavius Brooks. Gerrit Smith; A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1878.
Harlow, Ralph Volney. Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939.
Rossbach, Jeffery. Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret six, and a Theory of Slave Violence. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Chapter Two: Springfield and North Elba
Chapter Six: The Eastern Connection

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History