For many years we were in the habit of hearing, now and then, of a
certain Gerrit Smith, a strange gentleman who lived near Lake Ontario,
where he possessed whole townships of land, gave away vast quantities of
money, and was pretty sure to be found on the unpopular side of all
questions, beloved alike by those who agreed with him and those who
differed from him. Every one that knew him spoke of the majestic beauty
of his form and face, of his joyous demeanor, of the profuse hospitality
of his village abode, where he lived like a jovial old German baron, but
without a baron's battle-axe and hunting spear.
He was indeed an interesting character. Without his enormous wealth he
would have been, perhaps, a benevolent, enterprising farmer, who would
have lived beloved and died lamented by all who knew him. But his wealth
made him remarkable; for the possession of wealth usually renders a man
steady-going and conservative. It is like ballast to a ship. The slow
and difficult process by which honest wealth is usually acquired is
pretty sure to "take the nonsense out of a man," and give to all his
enterprises a practicable character. But here was a man whose wealth was
more like the gas to a balloon than ballast to a ship; and he flung it
around with an ignorance of human nature most astonishing in a person so
able and intelligent. There was room in the world for one Gerrit Smith,
but not for two. If we had many such, benevolence itself would be
brought into odium, and we should reserve all our admiration for the
His ancestors were Dutchmen, long settled in Rockland County, New York.
Gerrit's father owned the farm upon which Major Andre was executed, and
might even have witnessed the tragedy, since he was twelve years old at
the time. Peter Smith was his name, and he had a touch of genius in his
composition, just enough to disturb and injure his life. At sixteen this
Peter Smith was a merchant's clerk in New York, with such a love of the
stage that he performed minor parts at the old Park theatre, and it is
said could have made a good actor. He was a sensitive youth, easily
moved to tears, and exceedingly susceptible to religious impressions.
While he was still a young man he went into the fur business with John
Jacob Astor, and tramped all over western and northern New York, buying
furs from the Indians, and becoming intimately acquainted with that
magnificent domain. The country bordering upon Lake Ontario abounded in
fur-bearing animals at that period, and both the partners foretold
Rochester, Oswego, and the other lake ports, before any white man had
built a log hut on their site.
Astor invested his profits in city lots, but Peter Smith bought great
tracts of land in northern and western New York. He sometimes bought
townships at a single purchase, and when he died he owned in the State
not far from a million acres. His prosperity, however, was of little
advantage to him, for as he advanced in life a kind of religious gloom
gained possession of him. He went about distributing tracts, and became
at length so much impaired in his disposition that his wife could not
live with him; finally, he withdrew from business and active life, made
over the bulk of his property to his son, Gerrit, and, settling in
Schenectady, passed a lonely and melancholy old age.
Gerrit Smith, the son of this strong and perturbed spirit, was educated
at Hamilton College, near Utica, where he figured in the character, very
uncommon at colleges in those days, of rich man's son; a strikingly
handsome, winning youth, with flowing hair and broad Byron collar, fond
of all innocent pleasures, member of a card club, and by no means
inattentive to his dress. It seems, too, that at college he was an
enthusiastic reader of passing literature, although in after days he
scarcely shared in the intellectual life of his time. At the age of
twenty-two he was a married man. He fell in love at college with the
president's daughter, who died after a married life of only seven
months. Married happily a second time a year or two after, he settled at
his well-known house in Peterboro, a village near Oswego, where he lived
ever after. The profession of the law, for which he had prepared
himself, he never practiced, since the care of his immense estate
absorbed his time and ability; as much so as the most exacting
profession. In all those operations which led to the development of
Oswego from an outlying military post into a large and thriving city,
Gerrit Smith was of necessity a leader or participant,--for the best of
his property lay in that region.
And here was his first misfortune. Rich as he was, his estate was all
undeveloped, and nothing but the personal labor of the owner could make
it of value. For twenty years or more he was the slave of his estate. He
could not travel abroad; he could not recreate his mind by pleasure.
Albany, the nearest large town, was more than a hundred miles distant, a
troublesome journey then; and consequently he had few opportunities of
mingling with men of the world. He was a man of the frontier, an
admirable leader of men engaged in the mighty work of subduing the
wilderness and laying the foundations of empires. He, too, bought land,
like his father before him, although his main interest lay in improving
his estate and making it accessible.
In the midst of his business life, when he was carrying a vast spread
of sail (making canals, laying out towns, deep in all sorts of
enterprises), the panic of 1837 struck him, laid him on his beam ends,
and almost put him under water. He owed an immense sum of money--small,
indeed, compared with his estate, but crushing at a time when no money
could be raised upon the security of land. When he owned a million
acres, as well as a great quantity of canal stock, plank-road stock, and
wharf stock, and when fifteen hundred men owed him money, some in large
amounts, he found it difficult to raise money enough to go to
Philadelphia. In this extremity he had recourse to his father's friend
and partner, John Jacob Astor, then the richest man in North America.
Gerrit Smith described his situation in a letter, and asked for a large
loan on land security.
Mr. Astor replied by inviting him to dinner. During the repast the old
man was full of anecdote and reminiscence of the years when himself and
Peter Smith camped out on the Oswego River, and went about with packs on
their backs buying furs. When the cloth was removed the terrible topic
was introduced, and the guest explained his situation once more.
"How much do you need?" inquired Astor.
"In all, I must have two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
"Do you want the whole of it at once?" asked the millionaire.
"I do," was the reply.
Astor looked serious for a moment, and then said:--
"You shall have it."
The guest engaged to forward a mortgage on some lands along the Oswego
River, and a few days after, before the mortgage was ready, the old man
sent his check for the two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Through
the neglect of a clerk the mortgage papers were not sent for some weeks
after, so that Mr. Astor had parted with this great sum upon no other
security than a young man's word. But John Jacob Astor was a good judge
of men, as well as of land.
Thus relieved, Gerrit Smith pursued his career without embarrassment,
and in about twenty years paid off all his debts, and had then a revenue
ranging from fifty to a hundred thousand dollars a year. He gave away
money continuously, from thirty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars a
year, in large sums and in small sums, to the deserving and the
undeserving. Of course, he was inundated with begging letters. Every
mail brought requests for help to redeem farms, to send children to
school, to buy a piano, to buy an alpaca dress with the trimmings, to
relieve sufferers by fire, and to pay election expenses.
"The small checks," Mr. Frothingham tells us, "flew about in all
directions, carrying, in the aggregate, thousands of dollars, hundreds
of which fell on sandy or gravelly soil, and produced nothing."
He gave, in fact, to every project which promised to relieve human
distress, or promote human happiness. He used to have checks ready drawn
to various amounts, only requiring to be signed and supplied with the
name of the applicant. On one occasion he gave fifty dollars each to all
the old maids and widows he could get knowledge of in the State of New
York--six hundred of them in all. He gave away nearly three thousand
small farms, from fifteen to seventy-five acres each, most of them to
landless colored men.
"For years," said he, "I have indulged the thought that when I had sold
enough land to pay my debts, I would give away the remainder to the
poor. I am an Agrarian. I would that every man who desires a farm might
have one, and no man covet the possession of more farms than one."
I need not say that these farms were of little benefit to those who
received them, for our colored friends are by no means the men to go
upon a patch of northern soil and wring an independent livelihood out of
it. Gerrit Smith was a sort of blind, benevolent Samson, amazingly
ignorant of human nature, of human life, and of the conditions upon
which alone the welfare of our race is promoted. He died in 1874, aged
seventy-seven, having lived one of the strangest lives ever recorded,
and having exhibited a cast of character which excites equal admiration