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Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History

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Gerrit Smith's Insanity.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Times-Picayune [Democratic]

(11 November 1859)

We suppose it likely to be true, through it may not be as reported by the telegraph from New York, that Gerrit Smith has become insane, so as to require to be put under restraint. Nothing is more probable than such an effect of the circumstances in which he is placed upon a mind like his. Born to a large fortune, his training in youth was neglected, and he grew up unregulated and self willed. The habit of following his own whims continued when he came into possession of very great wealth, and his self indulgence took the form of an eccentric care for the public. Having no regular occupation to employ his thoughts and time, and being naturally vain and obstinate, he began early to think himself called to regulate the affairs of others, and to undertake the radical reform of society.

His disposition was easy and liberal, and he could be induced at any time to do works of real charity; money was plenty, and he gave with facility; but as often and as easily, he could be led into lavish contributions, and crotchetty zeal for any scheme which proposed to dislocate the established order of things, with a view to reconstruct society, according to the model of some ranting reformer in morals and politics. With him the rule appeared to be established that whatever is, is wrong, and that he was born, and endowed with money, to set everything right. The process by which he grew to think this result is to be effected, is by dissolving society into its elements, that he and the philosophers, with and without petticoats, with whom he consorted, and who preyed on him, might reconstruct it, extemporareously, better than custom, philosophy, law, statesmanship, and the Bible have been able to do since the beginning of the world. The idle, visionary brain became the workshop for a multitude of absurd and impracticable projects, upon which he wasted his money, to no better purpose than to feed ranters and impostors.

The negro question, at last, seems to have absorbed him, above all others, and he has been engaged for years in writing and publishing and speaking rhapsodies on the subject of negro rights, and in advising and contriving projects for the extinction of slavery. He made expensive experiments of trying to demonstrate the capacity of the negro to take care of himself by dividing a large body of land among blacks and helping them to cultivate it -- an experiment that ended in a miserable failure, besides the large cost, to which he attached little importance. He worked himself into a sort of frenzy on this topic, and wrote and talked, and gave money for the purpose of encouraging the flight of slaves from their masters, and to prevent their recapture. He came at last to open denouncement of all laws that protect this species of property, and to open contempt and defiance of the officers of the law, and he gave counsel and furnished means to support and reward the resistance. He came to preach sedition and robbery, as the proper instruments for working out his idea of negro rights. The pursuit of these objects became so intensified in his thoughts that it got to be the one idea which dominated exclusively over all others, and made a fierce and bloody fanatic of him who was not naturally cruel by temperament.

We have said that it is not surprising that the effect of recent events should have unwitted a man of this cast, with a brain so fevered and a judgment so shattered must have been. To any man not totally depraved and utterly insensible, the result of the outbreak at Harper's Ferry must have been a dreadful shock. That he had a guilty knowledge of the plans of which this was one, and of the purpose of invasion, in some form, if not specifically that of Brown, is very evidently is in conformity with opinions publicly expressed, which cannot be withdrawn. It is quite as likely that he gave money directly for this particular object. He has given large sums before for objects of the same essential character; and this is but the practical embodiment of the theories he has preached and labored for.

If he have any sensibility left -- if he be not entirely without nerves and heart, a more bold, bad ruffian -- he must shrink with horror and alarm at the consequences of the acts which he has been encouraging so recklessly -- the crime to which he has been inciting others, and for which they are to pay the forfeit of their lives. If there were no remorse for the train of unspeakable calamities which the success of their attempt would bring upon hundreds of innocent families, there must, at least, be compunction, sorrow, and regret, for the deluded conspirators who rushed into this foolish enterprise under the incitement of such doctrines as Gerrit Smith has preached, and in the expectation of succor from each man as he is, and as he prepares for such work. He cannot but feel that he is morally guilty of their blood -- their tempter into the crime which has led them to shameful death.

Perhaps the sense of this awful responsibility may have come with sudden awakening effect upon the conscience, and startled it into a knowledge of the enormity of the crimes to which it had been dragged, and the fevered brain gave way before the shock. Perhaps the fear of consequences, the excitement of a threatened arrest, terror and apprehension for himself, may have helped to overthrow reason, and to give a relief from present terror, and an asylum from punishment in the unconsciousness of madness. None of these are improbable effects of the Harper's Ferry events on a man of Gerrit Smith's temperament, history frailties and fanaticisms; and be succumbing to the powers of that terrible condition, he will have proven himself, in some respects, a better man than those who, guilty as he of the great conspiracy against humanity and justice, can look calmly on the frightful disasters they are inciting, and the bloody catastrophe, and go about remorselessly to prepare new schemes and entice new victims by canonizing the foiled conspirators as heroes and martyrs.

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