James Birney and the Liberty Party, 1840 and 1844

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This map by John Lewis illustrates the free states, slave states, and territories of the United States in 1848. At this time, many former members of the Liberty Party joined forces with Barnburner Democrats, who were angered by the Democratic Party’s refusal to ban the expansion of slavery to territories acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War. Together they formed the Free Soil Party. This party was against the expansion of slavery, but not fully abolitionist. By 1854, it had merged with the Republican Party. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

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.