James Birney and the Liberty Party, 1840 and 1844

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In this 1845 letter to Maria Weston Chapman, abolitionist activist Frances H. Drake makes plans for an anti-slavery fair and describes her recent work soliciting signatures for a petition by traveling from home to home “deliver[ing] antislavery speeches and battl[ing] stupid Whigs & wicked Democrats.” Drake was part of a group of women abolitionists who contributed invaluable labor to the anti-slavery cause. While Drake remained loyal to William Lloyd Garrison and his more radical American Anti-Slavery Society, many of her female colleagues would turn their energies to the political organizing of the Liberty Party in the 1840s. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Internet Archive.

The Liberty Party was formed in 1839 in upstate New York in response to political fractures within the American abolitionist movement, particularly around the interpretation of the US Constitution. The American Anti-Slavery Society, run by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, denounced the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell," and advocated that abolitionists divorce themselves from its authority and mainstream politics in general to achieve reform. In contrast, founders of the Liberty Party interpreted the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, and hoped to use traditional political avenues such as elected office to accomplish anti-slavery reform.

Liberty Party founder James Birney was a Kentucky-born lawyer, former slaveholder, and celebrated convert to the abolitionist cause. The Liberty Party nominated Birney as their presidential candidate in 1840, although he only received 6,797 votes. Birney was once again nominated as the party’s candidate for 1844. This time, due to concerns over the annexation of Texas and its implications for slavery and politics, the Liberty Party received more popular support from voters who found the Whig Party candidate Henry Clay too compromising on the issue.

In the election, Birney won 62,103 votes or 2.3% of the popular vote, with 15,800 votes coming from voters in New York. Many speculated that the Liberty Party’s success in New York ironically helped throw a presidential victory from Clay to James Polk, the pro-slavery Democratic candidate. With New York, Clay would have had the majority of electoral votes.