John Stauffer’s The Black Hearts of Men is a story of social idealism and friendship in nineteenth century America. Its protagonists are four radical opponents of slavery, two black and two white, two major historical figures and two almost forgotten. Gerritt Smith is presented as the central character in the alliance of the four. Smith was a wealthy resident of the state of New York, a U.S. congressman for a time, and an abolitionist. James McCune Smith was a graduate of the University of Glasgow in Scotland and the first black professional physician in the United States. Frederick Douglass was a self-educated escaped slave, author, and orator, one of the renowned heroes of African American history. John Brown was a financial failure who became a prophet of violent slave uprising, a martyr in the eyes of some and a fanatic in the eyes of others after he was hanged for a raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. These four men were tied to each other by friendship and by their commitment to ending slavery. Stauffer argues that it was an unusual friendship in the setting of nineteenth century America, not just because it cut across racial lines, but because the two white men, Gerritt Smith and John Brown, identified with the blacks and became black in their hearts.
Although all four were close friends, the only recorded time that they were together in the same place was in June, 1855, at the convention of Radical Abolitionists at Syracuse, New York. The Radical Abolitionists, also known as the Radical Political Abolitionists, differed from other abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). Garrison and his associates favored a chiefly moral opposition to slavery and many favored breaking up the United States to maintain the moral purity of the nonslave portion of the country. In most abolitionist societies, the leaders were all white and blacks played only supporting roles. Colonization, the program of sending freed blacks to Africa, was widely popular among abolitionists. Few argued that freed slaves should become equal citizens in the United States. The Radical Abolitionists, however, favored political action to end slavery and looked forward to an interracial society. James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and other blacks were prominent in the Radical Abolitionist party.
Gerritt Smith’s father was self-made man who made money in fur trading, invested in land, and became a partner of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). The young Smith had uneasy relations with his father. The older man, for much of his life, saw business and the pursuit of wealth as the only worthwhile occupations and he was apparently uncomfortable with close personal relations. Gerritt aspired to be a scholar and a poet in the Romantic tradition of Lord Byron (1788-1824). Raised in prosperity, the younger man wanted to realize high ideals in his life, not to be caught up in the tedium of making money. However, after his father turned to religion, Gerritt was left with no option but to take over the family business.
Gerritt Smith resolved his dilemma by turning his wealth to idealistic ends. He involved himself in temperance reform, a cause that would continue to concern him throughout his life. He also turned to abolitionism, buying slaves and setting them free. He supported Oberlin College, the first American college to make a policy of admitting blacks and an institution strongly associated with the abolitionist cause. Elected to Congress, Gerritt Smith served a largely ineffectual term attempting to promote his causes.
One of Smith’s most ambitious acts of philanthropy was his plan to donate land in the Adirondacks for settlement by poor blacks. The members of the community, known as Timbucto by the inhabitants, were expected to be self-sufficient on their farms. Although intended for blacks, one piece of the land was acquired by John Brown, who lived there for a time.
James McCune Smith was Gerritt Smith’s close associate. McCune Smith was born a slave in New York City, but was freed by a state emancipation act when he was fourteen. Unable to enter any American universities because of the color of his skin, McCune Smith went to Scotland to become a physician. Stauffer argues that McCune Smith was an admirer of author Herman Melville and that Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) served as a model for some of the black physician’s own writing. If this is true, then James McCune Smith deserves more attention from literary scholars as well as historians. Moby Dick was generally regarded as unreadable in the nineteenth century and was only acclaimed to be a masterpiece with the emergence of modernist approaches to literature in the early twentieth century. McCune Smith may have shown...
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