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 close-fisted.
His ancestors were Dutchmen, long settled in Rockland County, New York. Gerrit’s father owned the farm upon which Major André 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 and regret.