Liberty Party

views updated Jun 11 2018


LIBERTY PARTY. The Liberty Party emerged in 1839 as an abolitionist political organization in upstate New York. Organized abolitionism was divided along several fault lines, one of which involved the constitutionality of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, who took control of the American Anti-Slavery Society, denounced the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell." Garrison insisted that the founders had embraced the sin of slavery, and that reformers must divorce themselves from the authority of the Constitution. The Liberty Party organized in opposition to this view. Gerrit Smith, William Goodell, and other leaders of the original party turned to the arguments of Alvan Stewart and Lysander Spooner, insisting that law could not be divorced from morality, and that the Constitution must be interpreted to sustain abolitionist goals.

In the 1840 presidential campaign, the Liberty Party nominated James G. Birney as its candidate. A Kentucky-born lawyer and former slaveholder, Birney had become a celebrated convert to the abolitionist cause. By the mid 1830s, the threat of mob violence convinced Birney to relocate to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, with the assistance of Gamaliel Bailey (formerly a lecturer at nearby Lane Seminary), he edited an abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist. Birney attracted further national attention in the Matilda Lawrence case, when the state of Ohio successfully prosecuted him for giving shelter and employment to a fugitive slave woman. The future Liberty Party leader Salmon P. Chase served as Birney's defense attorney. In the 1840 presidential election, Birney received about seven thousand votes.

Chase and Bailey collaborated to expand the western Liberty Party based on moderate antislavery constitutional principles. In contrast to the New York Liberty Party, Chase and Bailey distinguished between morality and law. Although they acknowledged that the Constitution permitted slavery in existing states, they insisted that it denied slavery beyond those states. The principle of freedom, Chase argued, defines the nation; slavery has no national standing. Expressing these views, at the party's Buffalo, New York, convention in August 1843, Chase drafted the Liberty Resolutions defining the party's principles.

As the presidential election of 1844 approached, the party again nominated Birney for president. It did so over the mild opposition of Chase, who wanted a candidate with wider popular appeal. As Chase expected, the electorate—excited by the agitation to annex Texas—delivered substantial support to the Liberty Party. Birney received more than sixty thousand votes. The election left Chase convinced that the time had come to form a more broadly based antislavery party.

Chase's influence in antislavery politics grew after 1844. He sponsored the Southern and Western Liberty Convention in Cincinnati in 1845. In 1848, Chase led the bulk of the Liberty Party into the new Free Soil Party coalition. With a handful of followers, Gerrit Smith opposed the Free Soil fusion. The antiabolitionist background of the Free Soil presidential nominee, Martin Van Buren, angered Smith, as did Chase's willingness to accept the constitutionality of slavery in existing states. Smith formed the short-lived Liberty League in a final attempt to maintain the moral principles of the Liberty Party.


Gerteis, Louis S. Morality and Utility in American Antislavery Re-form. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Sewell, Richard H. Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837–1860. New York: Norton, 1980.

Louis S.Gerteis

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Antislavery ; New England Anti-slavery Society ; Slavery .