The Liberty Party, 1840–1848: Antislavery Third-Party Politics in the United States (review)
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Liberty Party, Elections, Antislavery, Third parties, Abolitionism

The Liberty Party, 1840–1848: Antislavery Third-Party Politics in the United States. By Reinhard O. Johnson. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 500. Cloth, $75.00.)

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Students of American abolitionism have long been familiar with the work of Reinhard O. Johnson. Between 1978 and 1982, Johnson published a series of valuable articles on the Liberty Party in New England that stemmed from his 1976 Syracuse University dissertation. Since then Johnson expanded the scope of his research to include the entire North. The result is this deeply researched study of political abolitionism that now stands as the most comprehensive work on the Liberty Party. Without question, no one has devoted greater attention to the Liberty Party or made a better effort to review all the party’s newspapers and relevant manuscript collections.

Johnson’s book is chiefly a political history that focuses on elections, voters, coalition building, interparty fighting, and ideological fights waged by newspaper editors and platform committees.1 Historians, he argues, have neglected the Liberty Party and consistently overemphasized the significance of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, even though the Liberty Party’s members vastly outnumbered the Garrisonians. While providing the party’s national narrative, Johnson emphasizes complexity and conflict and devotes a large portion of the book to the vicissitudes of individual state Liberty organizations. Since the national party existed only when it held national conventions, Johnson explains that the party is better understood as a conglomeration of state parties, each of which operated independently.

Because it lacked access to patronage (which could have been used to reward and discipline its members), the Liberty Party may have been even more disputatious than the Whigs and Democrats. Libertyites generally eschewed disunionism and other Garrisonian ideas but their antislavery positions otherwise spread across a wide spectrum. Some Liberty supporters were moralists, and some wanted to link antislavery more closely to temperance. Some interpreted the constitution as a proslavery document; others saw it as an antislavery one and believed that the federal government could eliminate slavery everywhere. Some favored a coalition with antislavery Whigs and Democrats; others believed the [End Page 555] mainstream parties tainted by slavery and abhorred cooperation. Some hoped to appeal to more voters by expanding the platform to include issues besides slavery; others held zealously to the party defining itself by the “one idea.” Because ideological factionalism affected state organizations differently, Johnson’s decision to tell much of the party’s story from the view of the state parties—fifteen northern states plus Virginia— helps us understand the party better, even if it may not fulfill those readers desirous of a flowing narrative.

His state-by-state approach notwithstanding, Johnson discerns some broad trends within this fractured party. He demonstrates, for example, how the Liberty Party of the early 1840s differed from the increasingly coalition-minded body after 1844. Before 1844, former Whigs constituted about three-fourths of the Liberty Party’s membership. Johnson estimates after 1844, however, that former Democrats became dominant in New England, New York, Ohio, and possibly elsewhere. He surmises that this post-1844 shift occurred due to defections of northern Democrats arising from the Polk administration’s proslavery policies, a stronger antislavery tone to the northern Whig Party that minimized the Whigs’ antislavery defections, Democratic policy positions adopted by some prominent Libertyites, and the elevation, with Liberty support, of New Hampshire’s John P. Hale, an independent Democrat, to the United States Senate in 1846.

As some of the state and national Liberty leadership looked to unite with other antislavery politicians, a few individuals, such as Salmon Chase and Gamaliel Bailey, saw more promise of a partnership with the Democrats than with the Whigs. The Liberty Party’s most important move toward forming a broader antislavery coalition, though, came from its association with Hale. While not a member of the Liberty Party, Hale squarely opposed slavery extension and spoke before many Liberty gatherings in New England. After the national party nominated Hale for president in October 1847, it essentially accepted anti-extension as its creed and paved the way to...