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Smith Forgives Jefferson Davis
Gerrit Smith, born into a wealthy family in 1797 in New York State, became one of America's richest men, an abolitionist, and an unsuccessful candidate for President three times. His home in Peterboro, NY, became a station on the Underground Railroad, and he gave numerous black families land to farm. In the course of his abolitionist activities, he became friends with and supporter of John Brown. The 1850 census shows him in Smithfield, NY, as a land holder with $350,000 worth of real estate.
Harper's Ferry, at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in what is now West Virginia, was the site of one of two federal armories and arsenals. Because it was also on the railroad, Harper's Ferry was a very strategic location. In 1859, John Brown and 22 others led a doomed raid to capture the arsenal. Although many thought Brown wanted the weapons to support a slave revolt, Smith said he thought the weapons were only wanted for the defense of runaway slaves. After the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis attempted to have Gerrit Smith tried for treason and hung along with John Brown. In fact, Smith had a nervous breakdown and ended up spending time in an asylum.
Gerrit Smith was in favor of the Civil War but, at its end, pleaded for a mild policy against the former Confederate states. He, along with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt, were prepared to underwrite a $1,000,000 bond to free Jefferson Davis. He was willing to free the very person who had attempted to have him hung!
As a side-light, Smith's grandfather James Livingston was credited with firing at the Vulture, the ship that was supposed to carry Benedict Arnold and Maj. John Andre to safety. Instead, the Vulture sailed away - leaving Andre to be captured and Arnold to flee to England.
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