Gerrit Smith was a widely known philanthropist and social reformer who was born in Utica, New York in 1797 and lived in nearby Peterboro. He was widely respected for his disarmingly gracious temperament and affectionate disposition, the epitome of the earnest Christian. Smith had inherited his father's business empire, possessed enough land to be embarrassed by it, and had the wherewithal to be the benefactor to a host of charitable causes.
Gerrit Smith had an interest in educating "colored youth". As early as 1827, he proposed to establish a school in Peterboro to prepare blacks to exercise the Gospel ministry under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. He seems to have abandoned the plan without public explanation, but tried again in early 1834. However, land rich but cash poor, as the country headed for the fiscal Panic of 1837, Smith had to abandon his school.
Smith was a trustee of Hamilton College, the Oneida Institute's conservative rival. Beriah Green told Smith that his school (Oneida Institute) deserved more patronage than Hamilton. Smith gave generously until the Panic of 1837 caused him to plead an "extreme scarcity of money". Even then he borrowed funds and proposed to give three thousand dollars to Green's school and family. "Because of the simple, straight-forward honesty inculcated in it", Smith declared, "it (Oneida Institute) is dearer to my heart than any School with which I am acquainted''.
In 1835, Gerrit was present at the opening session of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention, held at the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church. He had barely taken his seat when a mob of about eighty commercial and professional men disrupted the meeting with cries of "Open the way! Break down the doors! Damn the fanatics! Stop your damn stuff!" Smith appealed for fairness and free speech, though he declared himself "no abolitionist". Some four hundred delegates accepted his offer to reconvene in the safety of his Peterboro mansion house, some fourteen miles southwest of Utica.
Smith assumed a prominent role in the deliberations of the reassembled state society on the day following the Utica riot. He declared himself in opposition to all those who would muzzle the moral reformer.
Gerrit Smith was a financial supporter of John Brown, and was implicated in the raid on Harper's Ferry. He denied that his intent was to promote insurrection among Southern slaves, but rather to arm for self defense those who would escape, and thereby inspire others to do so. There is little doubt that Smith was aware of, and helped to finance, Brown's plans for military action in Virginia.
When the Civil War started, Smith quickly sided with the Federal government. He saw the war question as the slave question. He hoped that abolitionists and anti-abolitionists would join hands to put down the rebellion and petition President Lincoln to proclaim the liberty of the slaves. Smith hoped that black freedom could be won on the battlefield.
Smith's commitment to social justice was wide ranging. He was a major player in various anti-slavery and temperance societies. In all it is estimated that Smith's philanthropy reach $8 million before he died.
Gerrit Smith was a candidate for President in 1848, 1856 and 1860. He served in the United States Congress, and was the only avowed abolitionist to do so. Smith passed away in 1874, during the Christmas holidays, while visiting a nephew in New York City.