Throughout his activist career, Gerrit Smith regarded himself an Abolitionist. Originally a supporter of the American Colonization Society, which was involved in exporting black missionaries to Liberia, Smith was gradually (and apparently grudgingly) moved closer to the camp of William LLoyd Garrison by the deliberate efforts of his associates as well as unplanned circumstances. Through their attacks on the Colonization Society, the Garrisonian's flushed out that Society's opposition to the abolition of slavery. Faced with the open expression of this posture on the part of the Society, Smith felt himself obliged to withdraw. In so doing he paid up in advance the support he had previously pledged to the Society.
Smith differed with Garrison on both principle and tactics. While Garrison held the US Constitution to be a pro-slavery document, Smith relied on the interpretation of Lysander Spooner that it was in fact a pro-liberty document. He frequently cited the argument that the framers rejected a bed to have the word "slavery" introduced into the Constitution, accepting its original fugitive slave provisions only when the term "fugitive from service" was substituted. While Garrison held that political action was to be avoided, Smith helped to found the Liberty Party, and helped to convert Frederick Douglass to his views.
A strong influence upon Smith's decision to leave the Colonization Society was his associate the Rev. Beriah Green. Green was the President of the Oneida Institute, an interracial college at Whitesboro, near Utica, that was a center of Abolitionist activity. Green (after whom Smith named his only son to reach adulthood) actively encouraged Smith to abandon the Colonization Society, and to join with Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society. Smith had been reluctant to do so, and had published a statement of his differences with the Garrisonian's. When a convention was held at Utica for the purpose of organizing a New York Anti-Slavery Society, Smith accepted Green's invitation to attend.
The convention was held on October 21, 1835, a day that appears to have been fateful in the history of the anti-slavery cause. Smith and his wife attended the Utica convention while on the way to visit Smith's father in Schenectady. When the convention was broken up by a local mob, Smith invited the group to reconvene the next day at Peterboro, where he assured they would be welcome to continue their activities. He and his wife immediately set out for home, and at 3:00 AM he reportedly began writing his Crime of the Abolitionists speech, to be delivered the next day. He also wrote that on his arrival at Peterboro, he and others armed themselves in defense against any pursuers from Utica. None came.
On the same day, Abolitionist gatherings were also broken up in New England. Garrison was led through Boston streets by a rope, before being rescued by police. It was the sight of the victimized Garrison that reportedly stirred Wendell Phillips to join Garrison, providing the movement one of its most forceful speakers.
When the New York Anti-Slavery Society convened in the Presbyterian Church in Peterboro, resolutions were passed to seat Smith and the other Peterboro abolitionists. Smith rose to offer his resolution supporting the free speech rights of the Abolitionists, and condemning those who would limit them. He also said:
It is not to be disguised, that a war has broken out between the North and the South. - Political and commercial men are industriously striving to restore peace : but the peace, which they would effect, is superficial, false, and temporary. True, permanent peace can never be restored, until slavery, the occasion of the war, has ceased. The sword, which is now drawn, will never be returned to its scabbard, until victory, entire, decisive victory, is our or theirs ; not, until that broad and deep and damning stain on our country's escutcheon is clean washed out - that plague spot on our country's honor gone forever ;- or, until slavery has riveted anew her present chains, and brought our heads also to bow beneath her withering power. It is idle - it is criminal, to hope for the restoration of the peace, on any other condition.
Smith went on to say the Abolitionists would not seek their aims with "carnal weapons" but "Truth and love are inscribed on our banner, and 'By these we conquer.'"
For some time Smith remained committed to the peaceful, and generally political/legal opposition to slavery. A year after announcing to the newly formed New York Anti Slavery Society that he was not yet ready to join, he was elected its President. In the years to come, Smith supported the Abolitionist cause with speeches, money, and his own direct support to those fleeing to Canada. His home was a major way station on the Underground Railroad, where others were provided the opportunity to hear first hand the stories of persons escaping from slavery. The story of Harriet Powell is one such, notable for the local intrigue as well as for the impression that meeting Powell had on Smith's young cousin, Elizabeth Cady (Stanton).
Smith subscribed to and supported several Abolitionist newspapers, including the Liberty Press, edited for a time by James Caleb Jackson, whom he brought to Peterboro. When Congress was considering the passage of a Fugitive Slave Law, Smith organized a convention at Cazenovia that made news throughout the country. When efforts were made to enforce Secretary of State Daniel Webster's May 1851 promise to execute the law "in Syracuse, during the next anti-slavery convention" the stage was set for Smith's involvement in the dramatic rescue by force of a fugitive from the custody of federal marshals.
For the next seven years, Smith gave the address at annual commemorations of the Jerry Rescue. The 1858 program also included speeches by Frederick Douglass and Thomas W. Higgison. A year later all three would be implicated in the preparations for John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, an event most readers believe to be expressly foretold in his letter declining to participate in the Jerry Rescue celebration of October 1859.
In the 1850's Smith remained active in the attempt to fight slavery through legal means. The campaign poster shown here details plans for the fateful October 1851 convention of the NYS Liberty Party at Syracuse (the next anti-slavery convention following Webster's speech), as well as the events that led to the dissolution of the Party in 1848. Smith is named (lower left) as the Party's candidate for President. In fact, Smith was elected to Congress in 1852, serving one frustrating term trying to advance an agenda that had several "peculiarities" listed in his thank you letter to the voters of the counties of Oswego and Madison. During Smith's tenure in Washington, his daughter Elizabeth displayed the fashionable version of the so-called Bloomer costume credited to her innovation.
As dissolution of the Union crept ever closer, Smith became increasingly frustrated, and increasingly accepting of the use of violence as an instrument. He joined a group of Massachusetts Abolitionists in lending support to the anti-slavery struggle in Kansas, and ultimately in support of John Brown's plan to set up a permanent base of operations in the mountains of Virginia. In the period leading up to the raid on Harper's Ferry, Brown made frequent visits to Smith and his associates, and discussed the outline of his plan not only with Smith and his New England supporters (the secret six), but also with Jermain Loguen, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. The ill-fated Harper's Ferry raid and its aftermath devastated Smith, and provoked a psychotic episode that followed an extended period of what appears to be manic activity on Smith's part.
When war finally broke out between North and South, Smith became a strong and vocal supporter of the Union cause. After Emancipation, he joined Douglass in advocating the priority of black suffrage, a position that further distanced him from the position of his cousin and the other feminists who had united with others in the cause of Equal Rights for all. He remained throughout his life an advocate for African Americans, in his final printed circular blaming the Republican Party for its failure to assure legislation to protect their civil rights.
Throughout his career Smith presented a striking model of the committed abolitionist who truly believed in, and advocated for, the equality of all persons. Nowhere in his public or private papers is there any sign of the latent or overt racism displayed by many of his contemporaries. He was also, in this regard, distinguished from many of his colleagues in the reform movements.