Collection inventory

Special Collections home page
printer friendly version

Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection

A description of the collection at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Creator: Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874.
Title: Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection
Inclusive Dates: 1793-1906
Quantity: 700+ items
Abstract: Circulars, speeches, sermons, and tracts which deal with such topics as abolition, suffrage, temperance, transportation, and the postal system.
Language: English
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

By Dr. Milton C. Sernett, Professor of African American Studies and History, Adjunct Professor of Religion, Syracuse University.

Gerrit Smith

"There are yet two places where slave holders cannot come," the Rev. Henry H. Garnet declared in 1848, "Heaven and Peterboro." (North Star, December 8, 1848). Garnet, an activist Presbyterian clergyman who as a child had escaped with his parents from slavery in Maryland, knew the village of Peterboro well, for he had taken up residence there at the invitation of Gerrit Smith, one of New York State's most notable abolitionists and social reformers. Garnet was not the only African American drawn to Peterboro by the presence of Gerrit Smith. Many others, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, visited Smith at his home during the fourscore decades Smith participated in social reform movements of one kind or another. Abolitionists, women's rights crusaders, educational reformers, anti-tobacco proponents, temperance advocates, Sabbatarians, anti-land monopolists, politicians, fugitives seeking help along the Underground Railroad, religious leaders, international peace supporters and a host of others made a pilgrimage to Peterboro during the half century Gerrit Smith dominated this Madison County Community. In short, Peterboro became a haven for social reformers because of the presence of "the great philanthropist," as Garnet termed Smith.

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) is surely one of the most under-chronicled figures in American social reform, despite the fact that at the time of his death, the New York Times could say: "The history of the most important half century of our national life will be imperfectly written if it fails to place [Smith] in the front rank of the men whose influence was most felt in the accomplishments of its results." Ralph Harlow's Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1939) is the most recent scholarly biography. Why there has been so little attention to Smith and his reform career in the academic establishment during the past half century is difficult to explain. A wealth of archival material exists, much of it incorporated in the Gerrit Smith Papers, a collection given to Syracuse University by Gerrit Smith Miller, grandson of "the great philanthropist," in 1928. The manuscripts and published material found in the Gerrit Smith Papers provide contemporary students of the American culture and social reform with access to almost every important issue troubling the public mind in the half century from c. 1820-1870.

Gerrit Smith attempted to influence the citizens of Peterboro, Madison County, New York State, the United States, and the World, in every widening concentric circles, through a variety of means. He spoke, he wrote, and he gave money. Smith felt it his duty to leverage others in the direction of the causes he advocated, and he had the means to do so. As a young man (age 22) he had assumed responsibility for administering the large land holdings amassed by his father Peter Smith, and in the ensuing decades he profited from other business ventures, including canals and railroads. Smith's wealth enabled him to indulge his real passion-efforts to make the world a better place by influencing others to better themselves. Contemporaries favorably commented on Gerrit Smith's oratorical powers, and Smith himself once avowed that as a public speaker he warmed with his subject "especially if opposed, until at the climax, his heavy voice rolling forth in ponderous volume and his large frame quivering in every muscle, he stands, like Jupiter, thundering, and shaking with his thunderbolts, his throne itself." (Jupiter, appropriately enough, was the Greek god who protected the poor and the oppressed.)

Smith was less self-congratulatory on his power and skills as a writer, admitting that although he always strove to express himself "with clearness and simplicity," his writing did not rank high in rhetorical beauty and lacked "almost entirely the element of poetry." ["Autobiographical Sketch of the Life of Gerrit Smith," in John R. McKivigan and Madeleine L. McKivigan, "'He Stands Like Jupiter': The Autobiography of Gerrit Smith," New York History (April 1984): 199] Despite Smith's reservations about the power of his pen, he flooded his reform allies and the general public with a stream of correspondence, constantly urging them to higher ground on the moral issues of the day. As most researchers who have used the manuscript letters quickly discover, Smith's penmanship is nearly undecipherable at times. At the very least, comprehension of the letters requires a trained and disciplined eye.

Fortunately, we have another avenue of access to Gerrit Smith's reform career, and thereby, to the history of American social reform in the 19th century, especially as it played out in New York State's so-called "Burned-over District," those parts of central and western New York which after the revivals sparked by the Rev. Charles G. Finney in the 1820s became fertile soil for so many important movements aimed at redeeming America. The Gerrit Smith Papers at Syracuse University contain 300+ broadsides, printing documents meant for public consumption, akin to the open letters or extended editorials one finds in newspapers today.

The Broadside

Although the broadside is traditionally thought of as a single leaf or folio format, other formats such as pamphlets are also included in SUL's collection. As a form of public expression, the broadside is at least as old as Tudor times, when writers distributed penny flysheets to ordinary citizens in the hope of winning them over to a point of view or as a means of promoting one cause or another. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (Vol. III, Chap. V., p. 107) goes so far as to say, "The history of this mental awakening [the advent of modern thought] is the history of the broadside." The popularity of the broadside carried over to America, and partisans of American independence used broadsides to great effect. Gerrit Smith was, therefore, drawing on a well-known means of influencing public opinion when he authored a broadside "to the Electors of the County of Madison" in 1823-24 using the pseudonym Juvenis. During the next half century, he would authorize the printing of nearly six hundred more. The last one in the Gerrit Smith collection carries the date of December 12, 1874, and the title, "Will the American People Never Cease to Oppress and Torture the Helpless Poor." It demonstrates not only the unwavering passion Smith had for championing social reform but also his lifelong use of the broadside as a means to influence public opinion. Smith died December 28, 1874. Lewis Tappan, the wealthy New York City abolitionist and reformer, received most of Smith's printed letters, as it was Smith's custom to distribute his broadsides in reform circles widely and hope for their re-publication in the local and regional press. Tappan wrote his friend and ally on October 14, 1843, expressing some bemusement over the torrent of paper coming his way from Peterboro: "Do you keep a press in your house? Are your family all printers? Do you sleep nights? To be serious, I rejoice that you have the power-intellectual and physical-to do so much, and that in general you do so well." (Tappan to Smith, 14 October 1843, Smith Papers)

Gerrit Smith's Broadsides

The broadsides and pamplets in the Gerrit Smith Papers at Syracuse University provide many access points to the long and multi-faceted reform career of Gerrit Smith. Some are open letters, addressed to the general public on issues contested at the time. Others are directed to specific individuals with whom Smith differed or with whom Smith sympathized. All were meant for the public's edification. Even a cursory review of the titles will suggest the wide range of Smith's interests Smith and the extent to which he was in communication (via the broadside) with so many prominent figures. Each broadside is a kind of primer on American reform. By parsing out the contents and reconstructing the historical context of, for example, Smith's famous broadside "The Crime of the Abolitionists" (1835), today's student of American social reform will re-cover whole chapters of American history. These broadsides can serve as portals allowing to other access historical materials. For example, a student might read and analyze Smith's speech on black suffrage (Albany, 1856) in conjunction with the study of the crusade for voting rights in New York State. This might lead the student to consideration of Smith's effort in the late 1840s to distribute thousands of acres of land in the Adirondacks to African Americans as a means of having them meet the then discriminatory property requirement for voting. A high school social studies class might then visit a showing of the museum exhibit on "Timbuctoo"-the colony of Smith land grantees who settled near North Elba. Then they could engage the question of Smith's relationship to John Brown as one of the so-called "Secret Six,"for Brown purchased land from Smith in close proximity to the black farmers who took up Smith's offer to move to farms of their own.

Gerrit Smith's broadsides are frequently jeremiads calling upon his fellow citizens to repent of their ways and restore America to her greatness as the "chosen people of God." Individual broadsides, therefore, have an absolutist, almost hectoring, tone. Some of Smith's contemporaries, especially those who held contrary opinions, resented the ability of this man of wealth to so readily broadcast his point of view. One suspects that they felt as does today's so-called "average citizen" who cannot afford full page editorials/ads in prominent newspapers, television and radio time, or well-paid lobbyists. Student commentary on Smith's use of the broadside might well lead to discussion of the impact of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication in our digital age.

Though the tone of an individual broadside may be absolutist (propaganda in the technical sense), the larger corpus of Smith's writings reveal a great deal of evolution of thought. Some critics charged Smith with inconsistency, but his seeming inconsistency, as he himself once said, was the result of engaging issues with an inquiring mind over long periods of time and was not the byproduct of shallow reasoning or the fear of political consequences. Thus it is important to have the entire set of broadsides digitized in a searchable format. This will enable students and scholarly researchers to see the varying contours of Smiths reform career. After or, in conjunction with an examination thematically of the broadside collection, students and researchers could consult the microform collection of Smith letters and other writings.

Significance for the Region

With this project, we have made available a resource of immense value in educational settings ranging from the social studies classroom to the university research seminar. Given the high level of public interest currently shown in studying the reform movements with which Smith identified, this digitized collection will find a place in local libraries and historical societies as well. The New York Freedom Trail endeavor (focusing on the Underground Railroad) and the resurgence of interest in the Women's Rights movement are two examples of ways to integrate the Gerrit Smith collection. The Gerrit Smith estate in Peterboro is now a designated National Historic Landmark. This recognition will stimulate greater interest in his life and reform work. The Gerrit Smith broadside collection is rich in educational potential. By publishing it in this format, we hope that it will receive the wide distribution it deserves.

Return to top

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The personal collection of Gerrit Smith himself, the Gerrit Smith Papers at Syracuse University, contain a significant volume of his collected works, publications by others on important themes of the day, and a large body of correspondence. Among the correspondents are Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stow, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and William Henry Seward. The collection has been microfilmed, and an index prepared, which supplements the WPA Project Calendar of the Gerrit Smith Papers. Smith's outgoing correspondence is not indexed, largely because of its progressive illegibility.

Included among the publications authored by Gerrit Smith are various circulars, speeches, sermons, and tracts which deal with such topics as abolition, suffrage, temperance, transportation, and the postal system.

Return to top

Arrangement of the Collection

The entire collection of more than 700 printed items has been cataloged. Please refer to the Classic Catalog and search for call numbers beginning with "Smith", limited to Special Collections, for a complete listing.

Return to top


Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Return to top

Related Material

The entire collection is also available on microfilm (item #3998), and more than two hundred of the items have been digitized and are available online -- see the Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides in our Digital Collections page.

More information about Gerrit Smith can be found in the Gerrit Smith Papers, which hold Smith's correspondence and other publications written by him and others.

Return to top

Subject Headings


Anthony, Susan B. (Susan Brownell), 1820-1906.
Beecher, Henry Ward, 1813-1887.
Clay, Cassius Marcellus, 1810-1903.
Delavan, Edward C. (Edward Cornelius), 1793-1871.
Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895.
Seward, William H. (William Henry), 1801-1872.
Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 1815-1902.

Corporate Bodies

Liberty Party (Madison County, N.Y.)
Liberty Party (U.S. : 1840-1848)


Abolitionists -- United States.
Antislavery movements -- United States.
Social reformers -- United States.
Women -- Suffrage -- United States.


Madison County (N.Y.) -- History.
New York (State) -- History -- 1775-1865.
Peterboro (N.Y.) -- History.
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.

Genres and Forms

Broadsides (notices)


Social reformers.

Return to top

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection, [item number],
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Majority of collection, transferred from the Gerrit Smith Papers. Items also occasionally acquired by purchase or donation.

Finding Aid Information

Created by: MRC
Date: 27 Mar 2013
Revision history: 9 May 2016 - updated related material (MRC)

Return to top


Note on alternate formats:

The entire collection is also available on microfilm (item #3998), and more than two hundred of the items have been digitized and are available online -- see the Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides in our Digital Collections page.

Printed material
The entire collection of more than 700 printed items has been cataloged. Please refer to the Classic Catalog and search for call numbers beginning with "Smith", limited to Special Collections, for a complete listing.

Return to top