Gerrit Smith’s mighty shadow over Peterboro, N.Y., did not fade after his death in 1874. All of us who grew up in or near the tiny Madison County village knew who he was.
Peterboro, where Smith lived, was an outpost of the Underground Rail Road that assisted run-away slaves on their trek to freedom in Canada. Smith was an aggressive abolitionist who provided financial assistance for slaves who attempted to challenge their re-capture under the Fugitive Slave Act, and he financially supported John Brown’s anti-slavery campaign. He was a member of the “Secret Six” who supported Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, though he denied knowing Brown intended a violent attack on the outpost.
Gerrit Smith was a three-time candidate for president of the United States on the Liberty and Free Soil tickets and a member of Congress for one year. He was an active social reformer who opposed the monopoly of land and gave many poor families 50 acres of land to farm.
Smith supported the Civil War as the only means of eradicating slavery from the U.S. but – like President Lincoln – favored a moderate policy toward former Confederate states.
Gerrit Smith was also an evangelist and an active temperance campaigner who claimed to be the first to deliver an anti-alcohol speech to the New York legislature in 1824.
Smith was clean-shaven during his active political years but grew a full beard in later life. Staring sternly at the camera in his maturity, he looks like his contemporary, Karl Marx. But unlike Marx, whose revolutionary activities were restricted to thinking and writing, Gerrit Smith was at the vanguard of the radical movement that eradicated slavery from his land. He was also personally involved in the freeing of thousands of his fellow human beings.
Ever since I left Central New York in 1964, I have been puzzled that Gerrit Smith is not better known. For those of us who grew up in the environs of Peterboro, he will never be forgotten.