Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was the first party built on opposition to slavery to win on the national stage—but its victory was rooted in the earlier efforts of under-appreciated antislavery third parties. Liberty Power tells the story of how abolitionist activists built the most transformative third-party movement in American history and effectively reshaped political structures in the decades leading up to the Civil War. As Corey M. Brooks explains, abolitionist trailblazers who organized first the Liberty Party and later the more moderate Free Soil Party confronted formidable opposition from a two-party system expressly constructed to suppress disputes over slavery. Identifying the Whigs and Democrats as the mainstays of the southern Slave Power’s national supremacy, savvy abolitionists insisted that only a party independent of slaveholder influence could wrest the federal government from its grip. A series of shrewd electoral, lobbying, and legislative tactics enabled these antislavery third parties to wield influence far beyond their numbers. In the process, these parties transformed the national political debate and laid the groundwork for the success of the Republican Party and the end of American slavery.
About the Author
Corey M. Brooks is assistant professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania. He is coeditor of Their Patriotic Duty: The Civil War Letters of the Evans Family of Brown County, Ohio. He resides in Baltimore.
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Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics
By Corey M. Brooks
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Political Abolition and the Slave Power Argument, 1835–1840
Abolitionists comprised a tiny fraction of the Northern populace in the 1830s. Widely reviled, disparaged, and sometimes physically threatened, abolitionists nevertheless quickly devised ways to recruit new adherents to the small but burgeoning movement. Among their most important and effective strategies, abolitionists crafted a persuasive analysis identifying a Southern "Slave Power" that controlled national politics and corrupted American democracy. To understand and ultimately overcome the Slave Power's stranglehold on federal policymaking, abolitionists argued, one first had to recognize its domination of both the Whig and Democratic Parties. Historians have long appreciated the importance of this anti–Slave Power rhetoric in the rise of moderate, popular antislavery politics in the second half of the 1850s. In seeking this argument's roots, however, we have often missed the degree to which abolitionist activists developed and shaped this concept as both a rational analysis of American party politics and an abolitionist partisan political argument.
Too often the abolitionists' Slave Power argument is characterized as rooted primarily in either an irrational paranoid anticonspiratorial style in American politics, or in the populist impulses of Jacksonian antimonopolism. A more general tendency to see the Slave Power concept as an appeal to amoral anti- Southernism has further combined to dissociate the argument from its abolitionist pedigree. These prevailing perspectives have shrouded abolitionists' roles in pioneering this argument. Abolitionists recognized that opposition to the Slave Power could encompass a broad spectrum of Northern political opinion. Abolitionists gradually accepted the potential alliances this elasticity promoted because they increasingly believed that Slave Power control over the government constituted the primary obstacle to emancipation. If they could wrest the support of the federal government from slavery, they argued, the institution would soon crumble. In campaigning against the Slave Power, political abolitionists incorporated a sometimes underappreciated policy program based on a constitutional interpretation formulated especially (but not exclusively) by Ohio Liberty Party leader Salmon Chase. Holding that the U.S. Constitution did not sanction federal action to establish or protect slavery, Liberty men charged that the Slave Power had diverted the federal government from its constitutional responsibility to promote freedom everywhere within its jurisdiction.
The crucial political innovation within abolitionists' Slave Power argument, though, was their analysis of the cross-sectional Whig and Democratic parties as structured to advance the proslavery agenda of Southern political elites. By the late 1830s, political abolitionists characterized these parties as the central mechanisms through which the Slave Power maintained political dominance. With even avowed antislavery Whigs and Democrats routinely privileging partisan obligations and supporting slaveholders and their sympathizers for the nation's highest offices, abolitionists perceptively identified the party system's fundamental role in sustaining the Slave Power's supremacy.
Motivated by a profound commitment to weakening and eventually eradicating American slavery, antebellum political abolitionists' Slave Power argument was both a strategic rhetorical device and a central component of their policy agenda. This Slave Power argument informed nearly all of their tactical decisions and convinced many of the need for an independent abolitionist party. As they demanded a thorough restructuring of national political debate around the issues of slavery and freedom, political abolitionists ultimately concluded that to combat the Slave Power they would have to extricate themselves from the two parties it controlled. By the time the phrase "Slave Power" was popularized in 1839, abolitionists were already well on their way to making this argument the basis of a platform for the embryonic political grouping that became the Liberty Party.
Antebellum abolitionists' comprehensive and sustained institutional analysis differentiated their Slave Power argument from the earlier anti-Southern political rhetoric on which it seems to have drawn. During the mid-1830s, abolitionists updated old arguments to emphasize new aggressions: especially the House gag rule against antislavery petitions, postal censorship of abolitionist mailings, and proslavery expansionists' designs on Texas. While Early Republic forerunners had reacted bitterly to specific affronts like the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act or Missouri's admission as a slave state, antebellum abolitionists, by contrast, mobilized each new offense to build an enduring antislavery politics aimed not merely at stopping the next incursion, but at destabilizing the national political system as a vital step towards vanquishing Southern slavery.
Confronting the Slaveholding Power in the mid-1830s: Postal Censorship, the Gag Rule, and Texas
Through energetic postal and petition campaigns, abolitionists challenged Southern slaveholders and their Northern accomplices, who responded with antidemocratic efforts to smother abolitionism. As antislavery activists confronted a proslavery federal government, they embroiled themselves ever more deeply in the political process. Both the inaugural issue of William Lloyd Garrison's Boston-published Liberator in 1831 and the Declaration of Sentiments issued at the American Anti-Slavery Society's founding meeting in 1833 had urged constitutional federal restrictions on slavery, underscoring abolitionists' early commitment to political action. In the second half of the 1830s, slaveholders' efforts to censor abolitionist mailings and gag antislavery petitions, as well as to augment their political power by annexing Texas, led abolitionists to foreground claims about the political dangers slavery posed to free white Northerners.
Even their ostensibly apolitical "moral suasion" brought abolitionists into the maelstrom of national politics. Most famously associated with Garrison and the Liberator, moral suasion initially presupposed that abolitionists must convince liberal Southerners of the immorality of slavery and convert them to the antislavery cause. This model of inducing conversions evoked the preachers of the Second Great Awakening, who converted thousands to a new, more proactive evangelical Protestantism. By 1835, the American-Anti Slavery Society's moral suasion campaign had churned out reams of pamphlets, tracts, and newspapers and sent lecturing agents traveling across the North to spread their antislavery gospel.
That year, the American Anti-Slavery Society embarked on its most impressive expansion of the moral suasion campaign. Capitalizing on the sophisticated national postal system and discounted mailing rates for newspapers, the society's New York office circulated mounds of antislavery literature to potential Southern converts. This postal onslaught mailed at least 175,000 separate items into the slave states in the summer of 1835 alone. Outraged Southerners alleged that abolitionists sought to incite slave insurrection, and the conflict came to a head when South Carolina vigilantes broke into the Charleston post office to seize and publicly burn a sack of mail their postmaster had detained.
Keenly aware that postal censorship discomfited many who had previously spurned antislavery agitation, abolitionists railed against federal complicity as President Andrew Jackson's slave-owning postmaster general, Amos Kendall, deliberately looked the other way while subordinates ignored federal law. New York City's Democratic postmaster, Samuel Gouverneur, deferred to his slaveholding bosses and asked the American Anti-Slavery Society to put their campaign on hiatus pending formal instructions from Kendall. When the society refused, Gouverneur took it upon himself to withhold their mailings. Soon after, President Jackson sought congressional legislation barring "incendiary" materials from the mails. Although Congress rejected the president's proposal, the request itself corroborated abolitionist arguments that proslavery politicians had "determined to annihilate American liberty altogether!"
South Carolina governor George McDuffie's response to the postal campaign especially substantiated abolitionist charges about slavery's antagonism to open political discussion. McDuffie's November 1835 address to the state legislature eulogized "domestic slavery" as the "CORNERSTONE OF OUR REPUBLICAN EDIFICE" and pronounced that abolitionists deserved to be punished "BY DEATH WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY." McDuffie even went so far as to demand Northern penal laws to squelch antislavery activism. Four other Southern legislatures endorsed similar resolutions, and several Northern politicians, including New York governor William Marcy (a Democrat), expressed sympathy — though no Northern states actually criminalized abolitionism. Noting Northern revulsion at such outrageous Southern ultimatums, abolitionist James Birney, a reformed ex-slaveholder himself, commented, "McDuffie's Message is doing a great deal for the salvation of the Country." Abolitionists learned quickly that they could advance their own movement by deliberately provoking Southern overreactions.
The petition controversy that gripped the House of Representatives from 1835 through 1844 even more dramatically influenced the growth and politicization of abolitionism. This petition controversy grew directly out of the main political strategy advocated by abolitionists in the early 1830s: targeting congressional abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia as an initial policy goal, one they hoped would be the first in a long line of federal legislative inroads against American slavery. Other policy changes that abolitionists assumed would follow included abolition in federal territories, a ban on new slave states, prohibition of slavery at federal forts and on the high seas, and most potentially revolutionary, prohibition of the extensive interstate slave trade — "the great door to the slave Bastile, left in the side of the constitutional temple," as Utica abolitionist lawyer Alvan Stewart described it. This prospect of domestic slave trade interdiction, with its radical challenge to property rights and questionable constitutionality, lurked in the background of federal conflicts over slavery, but abolitionists more often emphasized first abolishing slavery where clearly under federal authority, most conspicuously in the District of Columbia. Treating such proposals with deadly seriousness, slaveholding congressmen went to great lengths to avert any such entering wedge for the abolitionist legislative program.
No Southern offense did as much to inspire the Slave Power argument as the infamous gag rule. Even more egregious than efforts to censor abolitionist mailings, in the spring of 1836, proslavery House majorities inaugurated a policy of systematically silencing antislavery petitioners. The political storm that erupted over abolitionist petitioning would dominate debate over slavery and the Slave Power for the next nine years. Imperious Southern tactics to suppress antislavery petitions became abolitionists' clearest evidence of the troubling political power of slavery. Through this experience, abolitionists further apprehended the allure of a Slave Power argument.
This "Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy," as historian William Freehling aptly described it, came on unexpectedly, during a routine round of petition presentation in December 1835. Abolitionists had been submitting petitions since the very first Congress, but after a pitched initial debate in 1790, most subsequent Congresses had managed to ignore these pleas. Beginning in 1834 though, the newly founded American Anti-Slavery Society spearheaded an expanded, organized drive that gathered at least 34,000 signatures on antislavery petitions, most of which called for a House bill to end slavery in the District of Columbia. In the early days of the 1835–36 session, South Carolina freshman James Henry Hammond impetuously demanded that Congress refuse to even receive such petitions. For almost two months, the House debated the merits of receiving petitions for abolition in the District, with a small group of Northern Whigs, led by ex-president John Quincy Adams (who had returned to Congress as a representative from Massachusetts in 1831) and Vermont representative William Slade, defending abolitionist petitioners against both proslavery extremists like Hammond and Democratic allies of Vice President, and presidential hopeful, Martin Van Buren (of New York). Finally, Charleston's Henry Laurens Pinckney, trying to "arrest discussion of the question of slavery," "harmonize the Union," and "put down fanaticism," proposed that Congress refer antislavery petitions to a select committee chaired by himself. This committee returned with a report declaring abolition of slavery in the capital inexpedient but constitutional, and recommending the first gag rule, which stipulated that all petitions or resolutions "relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery" were to be automatically and indefinitely "laid on the table." Cries of "Order!" silenced Adams's lone protest, and the Democratic leadership rammed through Pinckney's resolution, soon to be known as the gag rule, or just the gag, by a 117–68 vote.
As abolitionists followed the debate over petitioners' rights, they quickly discerned its potential to bolster their arguments about the incompatibility of slavery and freedom. While the Senate managed to quietly bypass antislavery petitions through an esoteric procedural mechanism, abolitionists fulminated against the more barefaced House restriction, warning that "the oppression that has so long robbed the slave of his rights and liberties, is now grasping at the rights and liberties of all." Henceforth abolitionists would cast their movement as "the conflict of liberty with slavery — the issue of which is to be universal freedom or universal bondage." "Let no one think for a moment," the American Anti-Slavery Society admonished, "that because he is not an abolitionist, his liberties are not and will not be invaded." In their calls for antislavery political mobilization, abolitionists questioned the honor, independence, and (implicitly) manhood of the Slave Power's "servile" Northern abettors, whom abolitionists besmirched with the derisive epithet "doughface" (which eccentric Virginia congressman John Randolph of Roanoke had famously, cryptically coined during the 1820 debates over Missouri's admission as a slave state).
The House gag on antislavery petitions, along with Southern contempt for sanctity of the mails, led abolitionists to increasingly emphasize the coherence and power of the slaveholding interest in the federal government. Anticipating language abolitionists would soon deploy about a voracious Slave Power, the American Anti-Slavery Society lamented in 1836 that "the broadest and highest bulwark of our liberties already lies prostrate to make room for the grasping monster." Alvan Stewart, in a letter to the founding meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, similarly anticipated future personifications of the Slave Power by describing slavery as "a dreadful monster" preying on slaves' labor and Northerners' freedoms.
The great strength of these arguments was their ability to both target a wider audience and remain persuasive to immediatist abolitionists. Addressing a convention of committed activists, the eloquent antislavery lecturing agent Henry B. Stanton stressed his paramount concern for "the rights of free citizens," cautioning that the apparent "spirit of slavery at the North would not only prevent freeing the slaves of the South, but would make us slaves." In raising the specter of slavery's threat to white freedom, Stanton's remarks underscore many abolitionists' understanding of, and immersion in, a political culture in which white male independence was so jealously guarded. Stanton, however, also exhorted antislavery activists to capitalize on the Northern outrage at Southern encroachments as a tactic for inducing new conversions to abolitionism.
Excerpted from Liberty Power by Corey M. Brooks. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Political Abolition and the Slave Power Argument, 1835-1840 15
Interlude 1 "Bowing Down to the Slave Power": Northern Whigs, Slavery, and the Speakership, 1839 43
Chapter 2 Agitating the Congress: Abolitionist Lobbying and Antislavery Alliances, 1836-1844 47
Interlude 2 "A Temporary 'Third Party'": Antislavery Whig Dissidents in the 1841 Speakership Contest 73
Chapter 3 Building Third-Party Electoral Power, 1841-1846 77
Chapter 4 Antislavery Upheaval in the Capitol: The Wilmot Proviso Debates and the Widening Sectional Divide, 1846-1848 105
Interlude 3 "Let the Lines Be Drawn": Conscience Whig Insurgency and the 1847 Speakership Election 125
Chapter 5 Liberty Men and the Creation of an Anti-Slave Power Coalition, 1846-1849 129
Interlude 4 "Glorious Confusion in the Ranks": The Free Soil Balance of Power, 1849 155
Chapter 6 Free Soil Politics and the Twilight of the Second Party System, 1849-1853 161
Chapter 7 The Nebraska Outrage and the Advent of the Republican Party, 1853-1855 187
Interlude 5 "A New Era in Our History": The Longest Speakership Contest in American History and the First Republican National Victory, 1855-1856 207