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May 14, 2018

The Liberty Party

Smith discusses some circumstances that led to the formation of the abolitionist Liberty Party in 1840.

In the third essay in this lengthy series on abolitionism I discussed a major split in the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). At the annual convention in 1840, the election of a woman, Abby Kelley, to a business committee sparked vigorous dissent from hundreds of abolitionists who disagreed with William Lloyd Garrison’s defense of equal rights for women. Over 450 dissenting delegates bolted the convention, retreated to the basement of the same building, and, led by Lewis Tappan, formed another abolitionist organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

Tappan was correct when he pointed out that far more was involved in this split than the woman question. This was only one issue on which Garrison’s views were opposed by many other abolitionists. As I noted in the essay cited above, “Garrison had injected extraneous causes—such as equal rights for women, pacifism, disunionism (secession by the free states), repudiation of political action, and the condemnation of most American churches (“a den of thieves,” as one radical characterized them for their support of “manstealing”)—into the abolitionist movement,” and these causes were bound to alienate many potential supporters of abolitionism. Tappan may have had a point, but some historians have misunderstood the fundamental disagreement in this controversy. Tappan argued that those who, like Garrison, opposed political action should be barred from membership in the AASS. Garrison, in contrast, did not believe that agreement with his positions on political action, disunionism, woman’s rights, and so forth, should be a condition of membership in the AASS. The fact that these and other subsidiary positions were included in resolutions passed by the AASS merely indicated approval by a majority of delegates; they did not imply approval by those who voted against them, nor did they suggest that dissenters should hypocritically defend proposals that violated their own consciences.

Thus, contrary to those historians who have portrayed Garrison as a dogmatic ideologue in this important controversy, it was Garrison, not Tappan, who defended the individual’s right of conscience. A sincere commitment to abolitionism should be the only requirement for membership in the AASS, according to Garrison. Subsidiary issues, such as whether abolitionists should vote, should be debated among abolitionists themselves, but particular views on these matters should not disqualify anyone from membership in the AASS. The individual should always follow the honest judgments of his or her own conscience, even if those judgments disagreed with Garrison’s.

The hundreds of AASS members who left the 1840 convention and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society gave a significant boost to the growing demand for an abolitionist third political party. (The Liberty Party was formally organized later the same year.) Garrison’s anti-political views had dominated abolitionist thinking during the 1830s and helped to prevent the formation of an abolitionist party, but by 1840 dissatisfaction with his “moral suasion” strategy had become widespread. Garrison’s critics wondered why abolitionists should unilaterally deny to themselves a political strategy with considerable potential. Garrison, of course, did not deny that emancipation would eventually involve political action; but he also believed that abolitionists, who comprised a small minority of the American population, could exert most influence through the moral suasion of individuals, without the taint of political interests that naturally accompanied a political party. Moreover, given Garrison’s belief that the Constitution was a proslavery document, an abolitionist could not even swear to uphold and defend the Constitution, as was required by the oath of office, without violating his antislavery principles in the process.

The complexity of Garrison’s views on issues tangentially related to abolitionism generated various reasons for splitting with him to join the Liberty Party, which effectively operated from 1840 to 1848. These reasons were evident in the original mass desertion during the AASS Convention. As Reinhard O. Johnson explained in The Liberty Party, 1840-1848 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009):

These New Organization abolitionists had mixed motives for breaking with the old society [the AASS]. Liberty Party leaders Joshua Leavitt, Elizur Wright, and Henry B. Stanton agreed with Garrison on the woman question, but they strongly disagreed with him on political action. Lewis Tappan, Arthur’s brother, agreed with Garrison that direct political action was inexpedient, but he differed with him on the role of women. James G. Birney, a former slaveholder and presidential candidate for the Liberty Party, was at odds with Garrison on both women and politics. These and other dissidents came together on one major point; they believed that William Lloyd Garrison was forcing his ideas and personality on the American Anti-Slavery Society to such an extent that they needed to break away to form another society. Nonetheless, some of those who disagreed with Garrison on individual points remained in the Old Organization. For instance, Samuel Sewall, Boston lawyer and seven-time Liberty Party gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, did not accept Garrison’s position on politics. Nonetheless, he remained in the Old Organization while serving on the Liberty Party’s state central committee because he wished to emphasize his belief in the primacy of moral suasion in the anti-slavery struggle.

The Liberty Party fared poorly in the 1840 elections, especially on the national level, when its presidential candidate, James Birney, received 0.3 percent of the popular vote—and this was during a year in which turnout was the highest in American history (up to that point). But this was largely because the Party was still in its organizational stage. Party membership grew rapidly for the next few years. We should keep in mind that the Liberty Party always remained a rather loose coalition of local and state organizations, so its successes occurred at those levels. As Corey M. Brooks wrote in Liberty and Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2016):

Focusing on combating “the pestiferous rule of the Slave Power,” the Liberty Party enjoyed substantial growth. Liberty vote totals increased steadily from 1840 to 1843 in every free state. In Maine, for example, where only 195 men cast Birney votes in 1840, the Liberty Party polled 1,662 in 1841, 4,080 in 1842, and 6,746 in 1843. New York abolitionists exulted at holding the balance of power in four counties in 1841 and believed that they might soon mobilize this “balance power” to secure “Liberty representation on the floor of the [state] capitol.” Though that success did not materialize, Liberty partisans controlled 4.5 percent of the Empire State’s electorate by 1843. In Vermont, the growth was especially dramatic, with the 1843 Liberty gubernatorial candidate capturing 7.5 percent of votes cast. Even in New Hampshire, where the doughfaced Democratic machine reigned unrivalled, Liberty men polled about 3,000 votes and elected four state representatives in 1842; the following year Liberty partisans sent ten legislators to Concord. While major-party votes still dwarfed Liberty totals, the increase was dramatic.

The rapid growth of the Liberty Party in its early years probably gave some members a false sense of optimism about its future. A political platform with essentially one plank—the abolition of slavery—will naturally attract many hard-core abolitionists to its banner as its existence becomes known. But as this reservoir dries up, new members can no longer be plucked from a preexisting pool; they must be converted to the cause instead, and this process will considerably slow the growth of any political organization.  

Before 1845—the year Lysander Spooner published Part 1 of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery—most Liberty men agreed with Garrison that the Constitution is proslavery. This generated the problem of how men seeking political office should deal with the slavery provisions in the Constitution. As indicated by its resolutions, the Liberty Party appealed to a higher law (and the common law) and declared such provisions null and void. Here, for example, is how the Liberty Party dealt with Article IV, Section 2, which declares: “No person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” The following passages appear in the resolutions of the Liberty Party in 1843.

WHEREAS, The principle of common law—that any contract, covenant, or agreement, to do an act derogatory to natural right, is vitiated and annulled by its inherent immorality—has been recognized by one of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, who in a recent case expressly holds that “any contract that rests upon such a basis is void;” and

WHEREAS, The third clause of the second section of the fourth article of the constitution of the United States, when construed as providing for the surrender of a fugitive slave, does “rest upon such a basis,” in that it is a contract to rob a man of a natural right—namely, his natural right to his own liberty—and is therefore absolutely void. Therefore,

  1. RESOLVED, That we hereby give it to be distinctly understood by this nation and the world, that, as abolitionists, considering that the strength of our cause lies in its righteousness, and our hope for it in our conformity to the laws of God, and our respect for the rights of man, we owe it to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, as a proof of our allegiance to Him, in all our civil relations and offices, whether as private citizens, or public functionaries sworn to support the constitution of the United States, to regard and to treat the third clause of the fourth article of that instrument, whenever applied to the case of a fugitive slave, as utterly null and void, and consequently as forming no part of the constitution of the United States, whenever we are called upon or sworn to support it.

This was the type of provision that outraged Garrisonians, especially Wendell Phillips in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? According to Phillips, to specify that abolitionists could swear to uphold the Constitution in good conscience, so long as it was understood that allegiance was given only to those provisions consistent with natural or divine law, was nothing more than an effort to dupe the American people, the vast majority of whom would have no inkling of the abolitionist’s mental reservations.

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