Anti-Masons. The Anti-Masonic Party was an expression of the burgeoning democracy and political involvement of early-nineteenth-century America. The party sprung out of a bizarre series of local events in upstate Batavia, New York. In 1826 bricklayer William Morgan, a former member of the Freemasons, wrote an
exposé of the organization and revealed its secret rituals. The Freemasons, or Masons, were originally a fraternal order of freethinkers skeptical of religion but by the mid 1820s had evolved into a secret social organization that many suspected of trying to monopolize political offices at the people’s expense. Morgan disappeared after writing his book, and rumors spread that the Masons had kidnapped, tortured, and killed him, dumping his body into the Niagara River. Eventually a body, supposedly mutilated according to Masonic ritual, was found. No one was ever arrested or charged, which led to accusations that police officials and judges were secret members of the organization protecting their brother Masons. Some politicians stirred class resentment by noting that Morgan was a worker while most Masons were bankers, merchants, or wealthy farmers and by suggesting that the Masonic Order wanted to keep the common man down. Within a short time a mass movement, calling itself Anti-Mason, spread across the Northeast. By the 1830s the Anti-Masonic Party was strong enough to capture seats in several state legislatures, and Pennsylvania elected an Anti-Mason governor in 1834. Though Anti-Masons emphasized returning power to the people and frequently spent legislative time searching for Masons, they had no real economic program. Because Andrew Jackson was a Mason, the Anti-Masons tended to ally with the Whigs and accept Whig economic policies (although many Whigs were also Masons). Fear of Masonry was hardly a solid foundation for a political party, and when concerns about tyranny faded, the party declined and most members joined the Whigs. In its brief life, however, the Anti-Masonic Party introduced several important political innovations: it was the nation’s first major third party; it held the first nominating convention in 1831; and it framed the first party platform.
Liberty. In 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society split over a variety of issues, including the role of women in the movement and the degree to which normal political channels should be used to achieve abolitionist goals. William Lloyd Garrison controlled that year’s meeting, and his opponents walked out; met in Albany, New York; and formed their own organization, the Liberty Party. Under the leadership of two wealthy philanthropist brothers, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, the party called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, an end to the interstate slave trade, and prohibitions against the admission of more slave states to the Union. They also sought to repeal “black laws” in the North that discriminated against free African Americans. James Birney an former slaveholder, was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844. Birney won 7, 069 votes in 1840 and 62, 300 in 1844. In 1848 the Liberty Party merged with antislavery Democrats and Whigs to form the Free-Soil Party.
Free Soil. The Free-Soil Party was a coalition of Barnburners (northern free-soil Democrats), Conscience Whigs, and former Liberty Party members. In August 1848 these groups met in Buffalo, New York, after the Mexican War had reopened the question of slavery’s spread into the federal territories. The Barnburners had bolted from the Democratic Party after its rejection of Martin Van Buren in 1844 and opposed territorial expansion and the spread of slavery. The Conscience Whigs had left their party in opposition to slaveholder Zachary Taylor’s nomination. The Liberty Party, which had come into existence in the late 1830s, was dedicated to abolition and had already nominated a candidate, John Hale. Hale stepped aside in favor of Van Buren, and the Liberty Party altered its demands for immediate abolition after the three groups merged. The Free-Soil platform sought the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, exclusion of slavery from the federal territories, a homestead law providing free western land to free-soil settlers, a high tariff, and federally funded internal improvements. Though they opposed slavery, they did not advocate African American equality. Van Buren polled 291, 263 popular votes and probably helped elect Taylor by taking votes away from his Democratic rival, Lewis Cass. Though the party declined after the election, it foreshadowed the coalition that would become the Republican Party in the mid 1850s.
Working Men. The democratization of politics allowed laboring men to participate more actively. Several workingmen’s parties appeared in eastern cities in the 1820s. Made up of artisans and workers pressed by the Panic of 1819 and by changes caused by the market revolution, these men entered politics to secure reforms that would protect mechanics and workers. They sought the end of imprisonment for debt, wanted mechanic lien laws that protected workers’ property and enabled them to secure wages from employers, and desired free public education and a ten-hour workday. The “Workies” won several local elections and were particularly strong in New York and Philadelphia. Their inexperience, initially attractive to their supporters, became a liability, and they faded quickly, unable to secure much of their program. Many found their way into the Democratic Party, which in time appropriated many of their issues.
Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).