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Liberty Party (1840s)


Liberty Party (1840s)

Liberty Party
Founded 1840
Dissolved Unknown (became politically insignificant after 1848)
Succeeded by Free Soil Party
Ideology Abolitionism
International affiliation None
Politics of the United States
Political parties

The Liberty Party was a minor political party in the United States in the 1840s (with some offshoots surviving into the 1850s and 1860s). The party was an early advocate of the abolitionist cause. It broke away from the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) to advocate the view that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document; William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the AASS, held the contrary view that the Constitution should be condemned as an evil pro-slavery document. The party included abolitionists who were willing to work within electoral politics to try to influence people to support their goals; the radical Garrison, by contrast, opposed voting and working within the system.

Party origin

The party was announced in November 1839, and first gathered in Warsaw, New York. Its first national convention took place in Arcade on April 1, 1840.

The Liberty Party nominated James G. Birney, a Kentuckian and former slaveholder, for President in 1840[1] and 1844.[2] The second nominating convention was held in August 1843 in Buffalo, New York. The Liberty Party platform of 1843 resolved "to regard and to treat" the fugitive slave clause of the U. S. constitution "as utterly null and void, and consequently forming no part of the Constitution of the United States", and also:

Resolved, That the Liberty Party...will demand the absolute and unqualified divorce of the general [i.e., federal] government from slavery, and also the restoration of equality of rights among men, in every State where the party exists, or may exist.

Support and influence

The party did not attract much support; in the 1840 election, Birney received only 6,797 votes, and in the 1844 election 62,103 votes (2.3% of the popular vote). However, it may have thrown victory from Henry Clay to James Polk in the 1844 election, with Birney having received 15,800 votes in New York and Polk winning New York by 5,100 votes.[3] If Clay had won New York, he would have had the majority of electoral votes, not Polk.

A third nominating convention was held in Syracuse, New York in October 1847, endorsing John P. Hale of New Hampshire with 103 votes (there Gerrit Smith received forty-four votes for the nomination, with another twelve scattered votes for others).[4] However, this nomination was later withdrawn due to the subsequent events of 1848.


Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1840 lost James G. Birney (New York) Thomas Earle (Pennsylvania)
1844 lost James G. Birney (New York) Thomas Morris (Ohio)
1848 withdrew John P. Hale (New Hampshire) Leicester King (Ohio)
1848 lost Gerrit Smith (New York) Charles C. Foote (Michigan)
1852 lost William Goodell (New York) S. M. Bell (Virginia)

Relationship to the Free Soil Party

In 1848, with the political sentiment stirred up by the Wilmot Proviso controversies, and the "Barnburner" faction of New York Democrats splitting off from the rest of the Democratic party, there was the possibility of forming a much larger and more influential political grouping devoted to anti-slavery goals—but not all of whom considered themselves to be primarily abolitionists as such, or were willing to work under the Liberty Party name. Therefore, many Liberty Party members met in Buffalo, New York with other groups in August 1848 to form the Free Soil Party, a party that, although opposed to slavery, was not strictly speaking abolitionist. A minority which was not willing to merge with the Free Soil Party nominated Gerrit Smith as rump National Liberty Party candidate for 1848, at a convention held on June 14th and 15th 1848 in Buffalo.[5] Smith went on to win 2,545 votes, less than 1% of the Free Soil vote total.

The Free Soil Party later merged with the Republican Party in 1854, by which time many of the issues originally championed by the Liberty Party had become politically mainstream. A member of the Liberty Party who later rose to great political prominence as a Free-Soiler and Republican was Salmon P. Chase.

Chase had joined the Liberty Party in 1841, and had a significant influence on the Liberty Party platform of 1843/1844, as well as organizing the "Southern and Western Liberty Convention" in Cincinnati in 1845, where a number of delegates from the midwest and upper south met. In order to broaden the appeal of the party, Chase advocated supplementing the almost purely religious and moral Liberty Party rhetoric of the 1840 election with political and constitutional analysis, and wished the party to emphasize that its immediate goal was to withdraw all direct federal government support and recognition of slavery (or to "divorce" the federal government from slavery), as opposed to simply demanding the abolition of slavery everywhere in the United States (something which was beyond the legal power of the federal government to accomplish as the U. S. constitution then existed). In 1847–1848, Chase was a strong supporter of the fusion movement which resulted in the formation of the Free Soil Party.[6]

The Liberty Party continued to exist many years afterwards, despite most of its supporters having left to join less-religiously-motivated parties. In the absence of Chase, religious rhetoric in the party's official addresses and platforms increased. The 1848 platform strongly condemned the perceived attempts to moderate the party. That same year, the party began openly advocating various general moralistic policies, such as prohibitions on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Other than these religiously motivated restrictions on market activity, the party largely favored free trade, and opposed tariffs. One year later, the twenty-second plank of the 1849 platform praised Lysander Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery.

In 1852, the party held its national convention on September 30, 1852, in Syracuse, N. Y. The presidential nominee that year was William Goodell of New York, and his running mate was S. M. Bell of Virginia. The platform that year only had four planks.



  • National Party Conventions 1831–1972, Rhodes Cook, Congressional Quarterly, 1976. ISBN 0-87187-093-2.

Further reading

External links

  • An archive of Liberty Party-related documents and platforms
  • The Liberator Files, Items concerning the Liberty Party from Horace Seldon's collection and summary of research of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator original copies at the Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts.
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