Born March 6, 1797     Died December 28, 1874

Gerrit Smith was the benefactor and founder of our Oswego Public Library. As you enter the library, notice his lighted 1866 picture painted by Alonzo Pease to the left of the magazine area.

Portrait of Gerrit Smith circa the 1860s.

The fire of 1853 destroyed a part of the East Side from the Oswego River to East Fourth Street in the area North of Bridge Street. Gerrit Smith wrote, 12 days after the fire, to eight of the leading citizens of the city asking them to be Trustees for the endeavor and he promised to fund it with $25,000 for the building and books. Considered the richest man in the state, he was also a social reformer, three time U.S. Presidential candidate and ardent Abolitionist. He made two requirements for the new library:

  1. locate the library on the East side of the Oswego River
  2. shut out no person on account of their race, complexion, or condition

The men chosen agreed to Smith’s offer and, with few exceptions, served until they died. At least three of the Trustees agreed with the benefactor’s views on slavery and were active Abolitionists. From the opening of its doors to the present, the Oswego Public Library has had African-American patrons including prominent members of the Underground Railroad and the local community. Originally, many of the African-American patrons were children whose parents had been slaves.

Gerrit Smith was a noted abolitionist who openly invited fugitive slaves to his estate in Peterboro, New York. “From Peterboro they were sent in Mr. Smith’s wagon to Oswego.”1 Mr. Smith owned a majority of the land on the Oswego River’s east side. Gerrit Smith ran for President of the United States three times and was a close friend of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

As a teen, Gerrit worked alongside persons held in slavery on his father’s estate in Peterboro, New York. Gerrit Smith graduated from Hamilton College in 1818 and married the daughter of the college president; she did not live to see their first anniversary. In 1818, after losing his wife, Smith’s father turned his land business over to Gerrit. Suddenly Gerrit was one of the wealthiest landowners in New York State! Four years later he married Ann Fitzhugh, daughter of a founder of Rochester, and as long-lived as Gerrit. Of their eight children only two lived to adulthood.

From 1852 to 1854, Gerrit Smith served in Congress representing Madison and Oswego Counties. During these years, he had a close relationship with Frederick Douglas, Daniel Webster, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Smith was highly regarded for his political views in the early days of the women’s rights movement. He also financially supported anti-slavery actions. From the Syracuse University Library:

“Gerrit Smith’s interest in social reform was wide ranging. He was a major participant in various anti-slavery and temperance societies. Disgusted with secularism and the forgiving posture of contemporary churches toward slavery, Smith founded his own church at Peterboro, where he professed what he called the Religion of Reason.

Gerrit Smith circa the 1840s.

He gave away an average of forty acres of Adirondack land in Northern New York to each of more than 2000 poor (and “temperate”) black men, to permit them to meet the requirements for voting, and in hopes of promoting self-sufficiency. He made 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 settlements were formed.

Smith was a candidate for President in 1848, 1856 and 1860. In 1852 his nomination was considered by the Liberty Party, but he chose not to campaign. Instead, he served in the Congress, representing Madison and Oswego counties during 1853 and ’54. He resigned at the close of his first session. A thank you letter to his constituents outlines his political philosophy at the time of his election. In Congress, he advocated an agenda consistent with that described in his letter, and as noted in the draft of his 1856 campaign biography, his speeches there fill a book of nearly 400 pages. His Final Letter to His Constituents provides a defense of his Congressional service and illustrates the self-sustaining quality of Smith’s reasoning. Many of his fundamental ideas and beliefs can also be found in a letter he wrote to Henry Clay.

Smith’s close relationship with Frederick Douglass helped shape many of his beliefs, and continued on for a great many years. Smith helped to convert Douglass away from the ‘moral suasion’ approach of the Garrisonians, and to a belief in political action. He lent financial support to the publication of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and persuaded Douglass of his strongly held view of the US Constitution as a pro-liberty document, a view that also conflicted with that of the Garrisonians. It is to this belief that Douglass refers in his dedication to Smith of his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Frederick Douglass’s dedication letter to Gerrit Smith.

Douglass frequently traveled to Peterboro. A daguerreotype of an 1850 anti-slavery convention in Cazenovia, NY shows a young Frederick Douglass standing alongside Gerrit Smith as they work together in solidarity. The dramatic story behind this picture has been extensively researched by historians in the years since then.

An even more dramatic story surrounds the arrest of a fugitive from slavery in Missouri, called William “Jerry” Henry, and his subsequent liberation from custody by an angry mob. The event was foretold in a speech in Syracuse, and apparently set up, by then Secretary of State Daniel Webster. 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 Peterboro that Cady met Henry Stanton, also a leading Abolitionist, whom she married shortly thereafter. On her “honeymoon” at the World Anti-Slavery Society meeting in London, Stanton met Lucretia Mott, with whom she planned the first Women’s Rights Convention, held 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. Though a strong public advocate of equality, Smith gave very little money directly to the women’s rights movement. He also exchanged public correspondence with his cousin and with Susan B. Anthony that was critical of the movement’s leadership. Though this is not addressed directly in their correspondence, Smith held very conservative views on the subject of marriage (he opposed divorce under any conditions) that strongly diverged from those of Stanton, and other radicals in the women’s rights movement.

Smith’s strong 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 papers of Peter and Gerrit Smith in the care of Syracuse University in 1928, twelve years before the family mansion and its contents were destroyed in a fire.

Smith was a financial supporter of John Brown’s military activity in Kansas, and was implicated in his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He denied that he knew of Brown’s plan to raid the federal arsenal, believing he intended to create a haven for fugitive slaves, to arm for self defense those who would escape, and thereby inspire others to do so. Though Smith and several of Brown’s other co-conspirators (The Secret Six) reportedly avoided knowledge of the specifics, there is little doubt that he was generally aware of, and helped to finance, Brown’s plans for anti-slavery action in Virginia. The Harper’s Ferry raid, and its aftermath, make up an important part of Smith’ life story.

Having played a significant role in starting the Civil War, Smith was a strong advocate and fundraiser for Union causes. After the war was over, he called for reconciliation, and was one of three prominent Americans who, along with ten Richmond business owners, signed the bail bond for Jefferson Davis.

Gerrit Smith, photograph circa 1850-1850.

1. Siebert, Wilbur Henry and Albert Bushnell Hart. The Underground Railroad: from slavery to freedom. Page 127.