Gerrit Smith: A Radical Nineteenth-Century Libertarian

By Vance, Laurence M. | Independent Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Gerrit Smith: A Radical Nineteenth-Century Libertarian


Vance, Laurence M., Independent Review


Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), in his day a well-known philanthropist, publicist, orator, abolitionist, temperance advocate, social reformer, and member of Congress, has been overshadowed by some of his better-known acquaintances, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Lysander Spooner, Susan B. Anthony, and John Brown. He deserves to be better known, especially by libertarians, for his radical stand in defense of liberty.

Smith was born in Utica, New York, and settled in nearby Peterboro. (1) He was the son of Peter Smith (1768-1837), a partner of John Jacob Astor, and the cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), a pioneer of the women's fights movement. He graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1818 and soon began to manage his father's vast property holdings. This activity, together with some wise business decisions, made him one of the largest landowners in New York and a very wealthy man.

He began his political career with addresses to the New York conventions that nominated DeWitt Clinton for governor (1824) and John Quincy Adams for president (1828). In 1840, he helped to organize the Liberty Party, giving the party its name. He made several unsuccessful runs for governor of New York and president of the United States. Although he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Frec Soiler in 1852, he resigned before the end of his term. While in Congress, hc attempted to restrict the government to the narrowest possible limits. He opposed military appropriations, seed grants to farmers, land grants to railroads, and internal improvements, and he supported peace and free trade with the world, as well as the privatization of the post office at home.

Smith's laissez-faire ideas probably would have been buried forever in the Congressional Globe had he not given a speech on April 14, 1851, in Troy, New York, which was printed as a thirty-page booklet rifled The True Office of Civil Government. Although themes from this speech appear in Smith's earlier correspondence, his complete political philosophy is clearly set forth in the speech. From a letter to Smith reproduced on the title page, we know that four men in Troy had requested that he make the speech available in print. From an extant printer's bill, we know that he had three thousand copies printed (Harlow 1939, 255).

The speech opens with a statement as radical now as it was then:

   The legitimate action of Civil Government is very simple. Its
   legitimate range is very narrow. Government owes nothing to its
   subjects but protection. And this is a protection, not from
   competitions, but from crimes. It owes them no protection from the
   foreign farmer, or foreign manufacturer, or foreign navigator. As
   it owes them no other protection from each other than from the
   crimes of each other, so it owes them no other protection from
   foreigners, than from the crimes of foreigners. Nor is it from all
   crimes, that Government is bound to protect its subjects. It is
   from such only, as are committed against their persons and
   possessions. Ingratitude is a crime: but, as it is not of this
   class of crimes, Government is not to be cognizant of it (5).

Smith's statement is reminiscent of a passage written by the Anti-Federalist who called himself Philadelphiensis: "The only thing in which a government should be efficient, is to protect the liberties, lives, and property of the people governed, from foreign and domestic violence. This, and this only is what every government should do effectually. For any government to do more than this is impossible, and every one that falls short of it is defective" (qtd. in Kaminski and Saladino 1983, 351).

The radicalism of Smith's opening statement was thus no aberation. He continued in the same vein:

   No protection does Government owe to the morals of its subjects.
   Still less is it bound to study to promote their morals. … 

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