Adding Active Resistance to Abolitionism

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1848

The long, hard campaign to ban slavery was the first, and still largest, triumph of public-policy philanthropy in the U.S. When it began in earnest in the 1830s, private donations from hundreds of thousands of Americans were used for everything from dogged journalism, literature creation, and tract distribution, to the creation of schools for slaves and former slaves, to special events like the Amistad trial (see 1841 entry). From the beginning there were also acts of civil disobedience—as by the volunteers and financial donors who aided furtive transport of escaped slaves to northern states or Canada via the Underground Railway.

As decades passed, some abolitionists edged closer to active, physical resistance. Gerrit Smith’s family had partnered with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade and became the largest landowners in New York state. But Gerrit lived simply so that he could give most of his money to favorite causes, primarily his passion for eliminating slavery. Smith donated to every kind of anti-slavery effort. He was the main funder of Frederick Douglass’s newspapering. He paid large sums to buy the freedom of slaves and whole slave families. He supported the building of schools. He gave money and land to create a village of new freedmen surrounding his own home in central New York state.

Smith was not a vindictive man, as shown by the fact that he also bailed Jefferson Davis out of jail after the Civil War, and argued against criminal prosecutions of Southerners in order to hasten national healing. In the decades of stalemate before the war, however, Smith became frustrated with mainstream efforts to change public law on slavery. In 1848 he met for the first time with John Brown, who was countenancing lawbreaking.

In 1850, Smith organized and underwrote the Cazenovia Convention that urged Americans to disobey and nullify the Fugitive Slave Law. Its resolution, written by Smith, called on slaves to use all means necessary to escape, including stealing and force. Over the next decade, Smith brought John Brown to his home for meetings several additional times, and he secretly began to finance Brown’s running of guns into Kansas, and then his attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. “I can see no other way,” he said.

These violent acts of resistance were an exception to Smith’s mostly pacific philanthropy, and they led him to a nervous breakdown. But they were part of his indefatigable use of his personal fortune to end legal slavery, and of course the Harper’s Ferry attack ultimately sparked the Civil War. Gerrit Smith’s abolitionist philanthropy totaled about a billion dollars of donations, in current value. There is no question that this giving accelerated the most important national policy change that our nation is ever likely to undergo.