GERRIT SMITH, the most famous man that has ever lived in Madison County, the man who made the village of Peterboro known hundreds and thousands of miles away as the home of a millionaire Abou Ben Adhem, was born in Utica, N.Y., March 6, 1797, second son of Peter and Elizabeth (Livingston) Smith. His paternal ancestors were Hollanders, who settled at Greenbush, Rockland County, N.Y.
His father, from whom the town of Smithfield and the village of Peterboro had their names, was a son of Gerrit P. and Wintje Lent Smith, and grandson of Petrus Smith and wife, Annitje. Peter Smith was for a number of years in partnership with John Jacob Astor in carrying on a trade in furs with the Indians. Both young men began poor: both applied themselves closely to business with the practical wisdom that commands success. Mr. Astor invested his money in
real estate in New York City; Mr. Smith, his in land in the interior of the State, where by repeated purchases he came in time to possess, it is said, nearer a million than half a million acres. Having removed to Madison County, he became a Judge, and presided at the county courts. He lived on very friendly terms with the Indians, and named his eldest son for an Oneida chief, Peter Skenandoah. Of the six children of Judge Smith, only four reached maturity; and none are now living. The family left Utica for Whitesboro about the year 1802, and removed to Peterboro early in 1806, taking up their abode in the house built by the father in 1799--a large, square mansion of wood, which, having been altered in 1855, is still occupied by his descendants. It is probable that a greater number of guests and a greater variety, embracing all sorts and conditions of men, have been entertained in this house than at any other private dwelling in America.
Leaving home in his sixteenth year, Gerrit pursued his preparatory studies at the academy at Clinton, Oneida County. A handsome youth, well endowed physically and mentally; a social favorite, cheerful and sportive, but "never wild"; a faithful student--he was graduated with honors at Hamilton College, under the Presidency of Rev. Henry Davis, in 1818. The death of his mother in the same year, and his father's ensuing mental depression, led to his remaining at home and devoting himself to business instead of studying law.
He was not quite twenty-three years of age when he was invested by his father, who had no longer any ambition for worldly cares and activities, with the entire charge of an estate of about four hundred thousand dollars--a large fortune in those days--with debts to the amount of seventy-five thousand, the judge himself to receive the income of one hundred and twenty-five thousand, and one-half of the remainder eventually to be distributed among other heirs, nieces, and nephews of Gerrit. A gigantic task was before him, and he performed it well. Having good natural abilities to begin with, he developed a wondrous capacity for business. His name stood so high in commercial circles that, when during a period of financial straitness he needed the loan of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, he had but to ask and receive it of Mr. Astor--on a mortgage, to be sure, the papers whereof, through the mistake of a clerk, not being forthcoming, inquiry was made from the New York office, but not till after two or three weeks had gone by. Every talent intrusted to him must have doubled itself several times, as it is understood that on his demise property to the value of a million of dollars fell to his heirs, and that he bad previously distributed in charity eight times that amount. "God gave me money to give away," he said; and he was always giving - from fifty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars a year, after his wealth had accumulated to warrant that expenditure. In settling the estate after his father's death, in 1837, he was more than just to the heirs, his nieces and nephews, promptly paying them their portion according to the value of the estate at that time, and in later years at divers times distributing among them other sums, amounting in all to three hundred and twenty thousand dollars.
It would take volumes to tell of his varied activities and his munificent benefactions to individuals, to institutions and communities. As a reformer, he was especially interested in the anti-slavery and temperance movements, helping each with voice and pen and purse. His work for temperance began in 1828, and ceased only with his life. That he was about a quarter of a century in advance of his contemporaries forty years ago in regard to the duties of women appears from a letter written by him to Susan B. Anthony, dated 1853, in which he says: "I know not why it is not as much the duty of your sex as it is of mine to establish newspapers, write books, and hold public meetings for the promotion of the cause of temperance. The current idea that modesty should hold women back from such services is all resolvable into nonsense and wickedness. . . . There is but one standard of modesty and delicacy for both men and women." "Every one," he held, "should be at entire liberty to choose an individual sphere."
Elected to Congress as an independent candidate in the fifties, he served one term, made his voice heard, his influence felt, and declined a renomination. Emphatically a man who would do his own thinking and follow his own convictions, he worked not well in party traces. His course was often censured, his motives misunderstood.
His first wife, Miss Backus, daughter of the first President of Hamilton College, having died in the year of their marriage, 1819, in 1822 he married Ann Carroll, daughter of William Fitzhugh, of Geneseo, Livingston County, N.Y. It was a true marriage: he had found a fitting mate. After more than half a century of happy wedded life, the union was broken by the sudden death of Mr. Smith, of apoplexy, while they were on a visit to a friend in New York City, December 28, 1874. Mrs. Smith survived her husband but a few months, leaving a son, Greene Smith, and a daughter, Elizabeth, Mrs. C. D. Miller.
Throughout his mature life Gerrit Smith was characterized by a deeply religious spirit. He and his wife joined the Presbyterian church; but, coming in time to dissent widely from its doctrines and practices, he took the lead in organizing in 1843 "The Church of Peterboro," for whose use in 1847 he built a chapel, in which religious services were regularly held till two years after his death, Mr. Smith himself sometimes being the preacher, and hesitating not to preach politics as often as he saw fit. He had a deep reverence for the Bible, and at his home held family worship every morning, which all guests were expected to attend. Horace Greeley once spoke of him in the Tribune as, though "wrong in some of his notions," "an honest, brave, kind-hearted philanthropist, whose religion is not put aside with his Sunday cloak, but lasts him clear through the week."
After his school-days he was not a great reader of anything but newspapers. Of these he took and read a great many, because he wanted to live in touch with his own age. Besides writing and printing on his own press in Peterboro many pamphlets relating to questions of the day, he was the author of several books, the list including "Speeches in Congress," 1855; "The Religion of Reason," 1864; "Nature the Base of a Free Theology," 1867; and others. His authorized biography, by Octavius B. Frothingham, published in 1878, is a careful study of his life and character, and very interesting reading. One only wishes it were fuller, contained somewhat more of homely, simple detail. The author repeats from the Nation a former utterance of Rev. Dr. Channing, describing Mr. Smith as "a man worthy of all honor for his overflowing munificence; for his calm, great, invincible moral courage; for his Christian liberality, embracing men of every sect and name; and for his deep, active, inexhaustible sympathy with the sinful, suffering, and
oppressed"--words which that paper said "might well furnish an inscription for his tombstone."
It is certainly much to know that here was one who tried to follow the Master in doing good, one who did not allow the management of a large estate, necessitating a great deal of care, to so engross his time but that he found abundant opportunity also to be about his "Father's business," trying to make the world better.
In connection with this memoir is presented a portrait of Mr. Smith.
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