- Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics by Corey M. Brooks
corey m. brooks
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016
Corey M. Brooks aims to elevate the standing of antislavery third parties in the historical analysis of American politics between 1830 and [End Page 506] 1860. He contends that vote counts and voting percentages in national elections during those three decades minimize the real impact of third-party abolitionism. In national balloting for president, Liberty Party candidates received only .3 percent in 1840, 2.3 percent in 1844, and .1 percent in 1848. The Free Soil Party got 10.1 percent of the popular vote in 1848 and 4.9 percent in 1852, when the Democrat, Franklin Pierce, won in a landslide. Brooks argues that antislavery politicians who aimed to break the hold of the “Slave Power” (a term that emerged in 1839) over the Whigs and Democrats transformed political debate and facilitated, if not caused, the emergence of the Republican Party in 1854, as the Whig Party splintered and died. The Republicans thus became a national party with abolitionist goals, garnering 45 percent of the popular vote for their presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, in 1856 and 40 percent for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln, of course, also won the electoral college ballot, thereby proving that a party could win national office without a coalition that included proslavery voters, but at the price of a Civil War.
Where other historians have seen third-party abolitionists as bit players in the transformation of national party politics, Brooks portrays them as leading actors on the national scene. He advocates a historiographic realignment in which the typically independent stories of abolitionism and party politics in the antebellum era are reintegrated as one. In this telling, it’s the radical Garrisonian abolitionists who work principally offstage and less productively to bring about political change in the North, although Brooks recognizes that provocation of proslavery southerners, at which William Lloyd Garrison et al. were brilliant, was an effective tactical tool, and that overreactions by southerners contributed to the transformation.
Brooks sees the contributions of antislavery politicians as rhetorical and tactical, intentional and opportunistic. He believes that by casting assaults on the two national parties as ideological betrayals of manly independence, the leaders of third-party movements kept abolitionism in play among northern voters as well as politicians of all stripes from both regions—despite the gag rule that suppressed antislavery petitions to Congress—in the face of “compromises” that favored the spread of slavery, the annexation of Texas, and the invasion of Mexico in support of the Slave Power. He portrays a core of brilliant and morally uncompromising politicians on the national scene—including John Quincy Adams, Salmon [End Page 507] Chase, Seth Gates, Joshua Giddings, Henry B. Stanton, William Slade, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, not all of whom were consistent third-party supporters—as heroic.
Ultimately, though, it remains unclear that there was a causal relationship (or that Brooks is consistently claiming one) between the antislavery third-party movement and the emergence of the Republican Party, and is unlikely that the Liberty Party (founded in 1840) was a primary or independent cause of national party realignment. Brooks makes a real contribution by integrating the third-party movement into the stories of abolitionism, the fall of the Whigs, and the rise of the Republican Party. A fully integrated story would have included the radical abolitionists as well—who were pushing the same agenda by different means and also heating up the abolitionist assault on northern compromisers and southern defenders of slavery—in addition to the internal histories of the Whigs and Democrats and the impact of regional, interregional, and international events on the process.
If Thomas Bender is correct—and he makes a strong case in A Nation among Nations—such apparently internal American events as party realignments in the decades leading up to the Civil War can best be understood in relation to the external contexts that pushed and pulled them as much as the internal ones that appear...