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Liberty Party

Timeframe: 1840 - 1848

The Liberty Party was the first antislavery party, grown out of a split in the ranks of the American Anti-Slavery Society between followers of William Lloyd Garrison’s radical program and a conservative group which held that abolitionist aims could be best obtained by orthodox political means.

The leading initiators of the anti-Garrison movement and the new party were the New York philanthropists Gerrit Smith, Arthur Tappan, and Judge William Jay, and the Ohio antislavery stalwart, Salmon P. Chase. At a state convention in Warsaw, New York on November 13, 1839, James G. Birney, an abolitionist crusader and one-time Alabama slave-holder, was tentatively nominated the Liberty Party’s candidacy for president, with Francis J. Lemoyne for vice president.

At a national convention in Albany, New York, on April 1, 1840, delegates from six states confirmed the nominations, officially adopted the party name, and declared abolition of slavery to be the single plank in its platform.

In the ensuing 1840 national elections, the Liberty party candidates polled only around seven thousand votes, but thereafter the party nominated candidates for local elections and gained strength. Since 1840 the Liberty party had gained recruits and newspaper support and was becoming a threat to the two major parties in close northern states, where it aimed to swing the balance of power. Birney was nominated again in November 1844 and ran with Thomas Morris, this time polling 62,300 votes, which could have secured the election of Henry Clay, but tipped it in favor of James K. Polk. When Texas became a major issue, the Liberty party was in a difficult position; a heavy third party vote might reduce the Whig vote and elect Polk over Clay, committed against Texas. Birney had accepted a Democratic nomination for the Michigan legislature, making it seem as if there was a Liberty-Democratic bargain to defeat Clay. Birney attempted to explain it in terms of local issues, but that hurt his candidacy. The party was also hurt by a forged letter, appearing in Whig newspapers, where Birney promised not to agitate the slavery issue.

In 1848, although the Liberty party had nominated John P. Hale and Leicester King, the party leaders urged the members to vote for candidates of the newly organized Free Soil party instead. Chase presided over Buffalo, New York for the convention of the Free Soil Party on August 9, 1848, which led to the demise of the short lived Liberty party. As such, Hale withdrew his candidacy.

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