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Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, November 6, 1852



Rochester, [N.Y.] 6 Nov[ember] 1852.

Gerrit Smith Esq.


The cup of my joy is full. If my humble labors have in any measure contributed (as you kindly say they have) to your election,1Smith won election to Congress in November 1852. He received 8,049 votes to 5,620 for the Whig candidate and 6,206 for the Democrat. NASS, 11 November 1852. I am most amply rewarded[.] You are now, thank heaven, within Sight and hearing of this guilty nation—for the rest I fear nothing. You will do the work of an apostle of Liberty. May God give you strength. Your election forms an era in the history of the great antislavery struggle. For the first time, a man will appear in the American Congress completely imbued with the spirit of freedom. Heretofore, vertue has had to ask pardon of vice. Our friends who have nobly spoken great truths in Congress, on the subject of slavery—have all of them found themselves in straits where they have been compelled, to disavow or qualify their abolitionism so as to seriously damage the beauty and force of their testimony. Not so will it be with you. Should your life and health be spared—(which blessings are devoutly prayed for) you will go into Congress with the “Jerry Level”2The term “Jerry level” originated in a campaign speech delivered by Gerrit Smith. On 12 August 1852 at a convention in Pittsburgh, Smith urged his supporters “to come up to the Jerry level” by denying the legality of slavery. In this case, Jerry refers to the widely publicized fugitive slave case known as the Jerry Rescue. In October 1851, the fugitive William “Jerry” McHenry was rescued following his arrest by two marshals in Syracuse, New York. The ensuing legal case and the term “Jerry level” became symbols of opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In an editorial celebrating Smith’s election, Douglass remarked, “Our representative will go to Congress with the ‘JERRY LEVEL’ IN HIS HAND.” Another editorial admonished William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, and Horace Greeley to “avow themselves to be on the 'Jerry level,' denying that slave laws have any validity.” FDP, 3 September, 12, 26 November 1852. in your hand—regarding slavery as “naked piracy”. You go to Congress, not by the grace of a party caucus, bestowed as a reward for party services; not by concealment, bargain, or compromise, but by the unbought suffrages of your fellow citizens acting independently of, and in defiance of party!

The odds against you were not insignificant. The Dixes3A strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, John Adams Dix (1798–1879) entered New York politics as adjutant general, then gained a reputation as a champion of education as secretary of state (1833–39). In 1845 the New York legislature appointed him to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Silas Wright upon Wright’s election as governor. A protege of Martin Van Buren, Dix supported the Wilmot Proviso, but was not considered an opponent of slavery on moral grounds. In 1848 Dix followed Van Buren into the Free Soil party, becoming its gubernatorial candidate. In 1852 he returned to the Democratic party and campaigned heavily for Franklin Pierce, but he received no political appointments until the end of the decade, when President James Buchanan made him postmaster general. In 1860 he ran as a Constitutional Unionist for governor of New York, arguing that southerners were not secessionists. In early 1861 Dix served as secretary of the Treasury, and soon after the outbreak of war Abraham Lincoln appointed him a general in the army. ANB, 6:638–39. the Woodburys4A Dartmouth graduate and a lawyer, Levi Woodbury (1789–1851) had a long career as a Democratic party politician. He served as governor of New Hampshire (1823–24) and then a term in the U.S. Senate (1825–31). Woodbury supported Andrew Jackson, who rewarded him with an appointment as Secretary of the Navy in 1831, then secretary of the Treasury in 1834. He remained secretary of the Treasury through the presidency of Martin Van Buren, then returned to the U.S. Senate in 1841. In 1845 James K. Polk appointed Woodbury to the Supreme Court. Although Woodbury was not a supporter of slavery, his strong support of states’ rights made him unpopular in antislavery circles. His most controversial ruling came in the 1847 case of Jones v. Van Zandt. In that decision, Woodbury upheld the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, arguing that the act required strict enforcement to protect the property rights of slaveholders over their fugitive slaves. Woodbury also supported the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law. Robert Sobel, Biographical Directory of the United States Executive Branch, 1774–1971 (Westport, Conn., 1971), 355; NCAB, 2:471–72; ANB, 23:792–94. the Stantons5After several years of attempting to forge an alliance between the Liberty party and the Barnburner faction of the Democratic party, Henry B. Stanton became a member of the Democratic party in 1849, under the mistaken impression that it was moving toward an antislavery position. He attempted to work within the Democratic party to convince it to oppose slavery. Abolitionist sentiment, however, affected only a small group of New York Democrats, and Stanton was ultimately unsuccessful. By 1854, after the Democrats had supported the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stanton realized the error of his decision. In 1856 he joined the Republican party and attended its national convention in Philadelphia as a delegate. Arthur Harry Rice, “Henry B. Stanton as a Political Abolitionist” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1968), 286–352. the Seymours6Horatio Seymour (1810–86) began his career as a New York Democrat in the 1840s. He was elected to the state legislature in 1841 , became mayor of Utica in 1842, then returned to the legislature in 1844, where he was a strong advocate for improving the Erie Canal. Seymour was a member of the Hunker faction of the New York Democratic party, opposed to Martin Van Buren. Along with the other Hunkers, Seymour supported James K. Polk’s policy to extend slavery. When the Hunkers gained control of the Democratic party after 1848, Seymour was their candidate for governor. His opposition to nativism and his veto of the antiliquor Maine Law caused him to lose a bid for reelection. In 1862, after a decade of retirement, Seymour was again elected governor of New York, and once in office he worked to delay and limit the implementation of the Civil War draft. He was defeated in the 1864 gubernatorial election, but remained politically active. In 1868 he was the reluctant and unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee. Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York (Cambridge, Mass., 1938); ACAB, 5:470–73; DAB, 16:615–21; ANB, 19:687–438.—and the Conklings7Alfred Conkling.—the very flower of your opponents were pitted against you. You are elected and they are defeated “nough said.” You go to congress, not from quiet nor seclusion—shut out from the eye of the world where your thoughts and feelings had to be imagined—but you go from the very whirlwind of agetation, from “rescue trials”—from womans’ rights conventions8Gerrit Smith was an advocate of women’s rights. On 8 September 1852 he attended a women’s rights convention held at Syracuse, where he was the only male designated as an officer, one of five vice presidents. On 17 September 1851, in his speech to the Liberty party convention, Smith openly supported a “righteous civil government” that would fulfill the goals of all reformers. At that time, he noted that “the heart’s desire of the advocate of woman’s rights will be realized, for, then justice will be done both to man and woman. Come that blessed day! Come quickly!” FDP, 16 October 1851; Washington (D.C.) National Era, 16 September 1852. and from “Jerry Celibrations,” where your lightest words were caught up and perverted to your hurt.

You go to Congress a FREE MAN. I will not weary you with congratulations. My friend Julia,9Julia Griffiths. is even more extatic than myself about your election.

Please remind, favourably, Mrs. Smith,10Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith. of your faithful friend.


ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:219–20.




Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895)




Yale University Press 2009



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