1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Liberty Party

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LIBERTY PARTY, the first political party organized in the United States to oppose the spread and restrict the political power of slavery, and the lineal precursor of the Free Soil and Republican parties. It originated in the Old North-west. Its organization was preceded there by a long anti-slavery religious movement. James G. Birney (q.v.), to whom more than to any other man belongs the honour of founding and leading the party, began to define the political duties of so-called “abolitionists” about 1836; but for several years thereafter he, in common with other leaders, continued to disclaim all idea of forming a political party. In state and local campaigns, however, non-partisan political action was attempted through the questioning of Whig and Democratic candidates. The utter futility of seeking to obtain in this way any satisfactory concessions to anti-slavery sentiment was speedily and abundantly proved. There arose, consequently, a division in the American Anti-slavery Society between those who were led by W. L. Garrison (q.v.), and advocated political non-resistance—and, besides, had loaded down their anti-slavery views with a variety of religious and social vagaries, unpalatable to all but a small number—and those who were led by Birney, and advocated independent political action. The sentiment of the great majority of “abolitionists” was, by 1838, strongly for such action; and it was clearly sanctioned and implied in the constitution and declared principles of the Anti-slavery Society; but the capture of that organization by the Garrisonians, in a “packed” convention in 1830, made it unavailable as a party nucleus—even if it had not been already outgrown—and hastened a separate party organization. A convention of abolitionists at Warsaw, New York, in November 1839 had resolved that abolitionists were bound by every consideration of duty and expediency to organize an independent political party. Accordingly, the political abolitionists, in another convention at Albany, in April 1840, containing delegates from six states but not one from the North-west, launched the “Liberty Party,” and nominated Birney for the presidency. In the November election he received 7069 votes.[1]

The political “abolitionists” were abolitionists only as they were restrictionists: they wished to use the federal government to exclude (or abolish) slavery from the federal Territories and the District of Columbia, but they saw no opportunity to attack slavery in the states—i.e. to attack the institution per se; also they declared there should be “absolute and unqualified division of the General Government from slavery”—which implied an amendment of the constitution. They proposed to use ordinary moral and political means to attain their ends—not, like the Garrisonians, to abstain from voting, or favour the dissolution of the Union.

After 1840 the attempt began in earnest to organize the Liberty Party thoroughly, and unite all anti-slavery men. The North-west, where “there was, after 1840, very little known of Garrison and his methods” (T. C. Smith), was the most promising field, but though the contest of state and local campaigns gave morale to the party, it made scant political gains (in 1843 it cast hardly 10% of the total vote); it could not convince the people that slavery should be made the paramount question in politics. In 1844, however, the Texas question gave slavery precisely this pre-eminence in the presidential campaign. Until then, neither Whigs nor Democrats had regarded the Liberty Party seriously; now, however, each party charged that the Liberty movement was corruptly auxiliary to the other. As the campaign progressed, the Whigs alternately abused the Liberty men and made frantic appeals for their support. But the Liberty men were strongly opposed to Clay personally; and even if his equivocal campaign letters (see Clay, Henry) had not left exceedingly small ground for belief that he would resist the annexation of Texas, still the Liberty men were not such as to admit that an end justifies the means; therefore they again nominated Birney. He received 62,263 votes[2]—many more than enough in New York to have carried that state and the presidency for Clay, had they been thrown to his support. The Whigs, therefore, blamed the Liberty Party for Democratic success and the annexation of Texas; but—quite apart from the issue of political ethics—it is almost certain that though Clay’s chances were injured by the Liberty ticket, they were injured much more outside the Liberty ranks, by his own quibbles.[3] After 1844 the Liberty Party made little progress. Its leaders were never very strong as politicians, and its ablest organizer, Birney, was about this time compelled by an accident to abandon public life. Moreover, the election of 1844 was in a way fatal to the party; for it seemed to prove that though “abolition” was not the party programme, still its antecedents and personnel were too radical to unite the North; and above all it could not, after 1844, draw the disaffected Whigs, for though their party was steadily moving toward anti-slavery their dislike of the Liberty Party effectually prevented union. Indeed, no party of one idea could hope to satisfy men who had been Whigs or Democrats. At the same time, anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats were segregating in state politics, and the issue of excluding slavery from the new territory acquired from Mexico afforded a golden opportunity to unite all anti-slavery men on the principle of the Wilmot Proviso (1846). The Liberty Party reached its greatest strength (casting 74,017 votes) in the state elections of 1846. Thereafter, though growing somewhat in New England, it rapidly became ineffective in the rest of the North. Many, including Birney, thought it should cease to be an isolated party of one idea—striving for mere balance of power between Whigs and Democrats, welcoming small concessions from them, almost dependent upon them. Some wished to revivify it by making it a party of general reform. One result was the secession and formation of the Liberty League, which in 1847 nominated Gerrit Smith for the presidency. No adequate effort was made to take advantage of the disintegration of other parties. In October 1847, at Buffalo, was held the third and last national convention. John P. Hale—whose election to the United States Senate had justified the first successful union of Liberty men with other anti-slavery men in state politics—was nominated for the presidency. But the nomination by the Democrats of Lewis Cass shattered the Democratic organization in New York and the North-west; and when the Whigs nominated General Taylor, adopted a non-committal platform, and showed hostility to the Wilmot Proviso, the way was cleared for a union of all anti-slavery men. The Liberty Party, abandoning therefore its independent nominations, joined in the first convention and nominations of the Free Soil Party (q.v.), thereby practically losing its identity, although it continued until after the organization of the Republican Party to maintain something of a semi-independent organization. The Liberty Party has the unique honour among third-parties in the United States of seeing its principles rapidly adopted and realized.

See T. C. Smith, History of the Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest (Harvard University Historical Studies, New York, 1897), and lives and writings of all the public men mentioned above; also of G. W. Julian, J. R. Giddings and S. P. Chase.

  1. Mr T. C. Smith estimates that probably not one in ten of even professed abolitionists supported Birney; only in Massachusetts did he receive as much as 1% of the total vote cast.
  2. Birney’s vote was reduced by a disgraceful election trick by the Whigs (the circulation of a forged letter on the eve of the election); a trick to which he had exposed himself by an ingenuously honest reception of Democratic advances in a matter of local good-government in Michigan.
  3. E.g. Horace Greeley made the Whig charge; but in later life he repeatedly attributed Clay’s defeat simply to Clay’s own letters; and for Millard Fillmore’s important opinion see footnote to Know Nothing Party.