Heritage \ Writings \

James G. Birney and the Liberty Party
Abolitionist leaders in fight against slavery.

Republican Julee - held June 17, 18 & 19, 1906, in Philadelphia, PA. (Added Feb., 2009)

Golden Jubilee of the Republican Party, 1906


In December, 1839, The Liberty Party on the initiative of Gerrit Smith held a convention at Warsaw, N. Y., and nominated James G. Birney for president.

A National Convention was called to meet at Albany, April 1, 1840, and by a vote of 43 yeas to 33 nays, nominated James G. Birney for President and Thomas Earle for Vice-President.

Approving letters were read, among others, from John G. Whittier and Gerrit Smith.

Birney received at the election of 1840, -- 7,069 popular votes.

In August, 1843, the Liberty Party Convention met at Buffalo and again nominated James Gillespie Birney for President and Thomas Morris of Ohio for Vice-President. One hundred and forty-eight delegates were present from 12 states.

Among other resolutions passed were the following:

“Resolved, That the Liberty Party is not a sectional party but a National party; was not organized in a desire to accomplish a single object, but in a comprehensive regard to the great interests of the whole country; is not a new party or a third party but is the party of 1776, reviving the principles of that memorable era and striving to carry them into practicable application.

“Resolved, That the General Government has under the Constitution no power to establish or to continue slavery anywhere and therefore all treaties and acts of Congress establishing, continuing or favoring slavery in the District of Columbia, in the Territory of Florida or on the high seas, are unconstitutional and all attempts to hold men as property within the limits of exclusive National jurisdiction out to be prohibited by law.

“Resolve, That we regard voting in an eminent degree as a moral and religious duty, which when exercised, should be by voting for those who will do all in their power for immediate emancipation.

In 1844 James G. Birney received 15,812 votes in the State of New York, and 62,300 in all the free States.

The following letter from Sanuel W. Green, the son of the Rev. Beriah Green, of Oneida Institute, and who was President of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833, contains many facts of historical value and is therefore worthy of preservation at this Golden Jubilee of our Party, of which the Liberty Party was the pioneer and forerunner:

Hon. William Barnes, No. 493 State St., Albany, N.Y.:

“Dear Sir: -- Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller, of Geneva, N. Y., has sent to me your letter to her of July 7 inst. with request I answer it directly to you. I was born May 9, 1822, the son of Beriah Green, who became an Abolitionist at the Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio, early in the thirties, and was President of the Convention at Philadelphia in December, 1833, at which was formed the American Anti-Slavery Society.

“The Abolitionist for the first few years contented themselves with exerting a moral influence against slavery. But as time went on they began to look for results, and took to questioning candidates as to what each would do in case of election, concerning matters brought up in the questions. The Whigs were pretty apt to answer as favorably as they could; the 'Locofocos' took much less notice or ignored the question altogether.

“In 1838 the Whig nominee for the Governorship of this State was William H. Seward, and the Democratic nominee was William L. Marcy. The former, you may remember, was familiarly christened 'Little Bill' because he favored paper currency as small as one or two dollars. The other 'Big Bill,' because he favored making five dollars the lowest. The Abolitionists questioned the two, and I found myself in Utica, one of two compositors detailed to spend a long evening at the printing office of 'Bob' Roberts, an older brother of Ellis H. Roberts. This office was near Bagg's Hotel where was a se-re-dunt of Whig leaders, headed by Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward, busy with the answer. A paragraph would come over to us, be put in type, and proofs sent to Bagg's. After an interval more came, and so on, until in some wee short hours ayont the twal – the answer was finished. Seward was elected by some ten thousand majority, toward which this answer contributed its share.

“But the question and answer business did not suit the mass of the Abolitionists, and they began to yearn for a new political party. After some tentative meetings, a 'National' Convention was called, to meet in Albany, April 1, 1840. The movement was repeatedly dubbed an 'April Fool' one. Some 76 members' reported, and the vote on organizing the Liberty Party and nominating candidates was 43 yeas and 33 nays. The meeting by this majority nominated James G. Birney for President and Thomas Earl for Vice-President. Among the yeas in attendance were Charles T. Torrey, Elizur Wright, Jr., Linneus P. Noble, Myron Holley, William Goodell, Alvan Steward, Beriah Green, Jr., David Cushman, and Joshua Leavitt. Approving letters were read from among others, John G. Whittier and Gerrit Smith. The Birney ticket received a recorded, 7,059 votes. Not being then of age, I was not in this immortal seven thousand who did not 'bow to the knee to Baal!'

“In my younger years I attended many anti-slavery conventions, occasionally being secretary. I do not remember one in which representation was confined to 'delegates,' or any attention paid to credentials. In this convention of April 1, 1840, the Yea votes were credited to Maine, Connecticut, each 1; Vermont 2; Massachusetts 7; New York 26. Of the Nays, Massachusetts 3; New York 30 (See 's Life of Myron Holley, pages 259 on.) Whoever chose could sit and vote as a member.

“This made possible the capture of the American Anti-Slavery Society by the Garrison clique in April, 1840. This clique was a numerically insignificant fraction of the Abolitionists and had no controlled voice in the American Anti-Slavery Society, up to May, 1840. For those in, and near Boston, desirous of attending the May meeting, 1840, of that Society in New York, a steamboat was chartered which landed more than 550 Eastern 'delegates,' men and women. This gave the clique a working majority of about one hundred. At the first vote in which this became apparent, the others withdrew, and with Lewis Tappan at their head formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The old American Anti-Slavery Society remained ever afterward an appanage of the Garrison clique.

“I do not remember the particulars of the renomination of Mr. Birney by the Liberty Party in 1844, with Thomas Morris as running mate. But is probable that the ticket received many more votes than were counted. 'Scattering' votes have few rights which regulars are bound to respect.

In 1848, Van Buren and Adams were nominated at Buffalo on a Freesoil ticket. There was a vast mass of us, in a great tent who listened to soul-stirring speeches galore. Meantime in a nearby building, a few were sitting and shaping the action to be taken. At the appointed time, Salmon P. Chase came in and dictated to the Convention what it should do. No man not on his program stood the least chance to be heard, and the Convention was officially reported to have done exactly what S. P. C. and those behind him directed. But neither Van Buren nor Adams could be swallowed by Simon Pure Abolitionists, and we had to go back to the old tactics. Mr. Birney had been thrown heavily from his horse in May, 1845, and permanently disabled, though he did not die till 1857. I remember we met at Buffalo – or was it Rochester? that same year, and nominated for the Presidency, Gerrit Smith – I forgot who his mate was. Mr. Smith had, or thought he had, some new light on 'land reform' whatever that might be; and on his nomination, Elizur Wright withdrew to the far depths of the tent, and there excogitated these lines which were read to the Convention:

Smith have wrought since Time began;
Sometimes forging chains for man;
Our, who now the anvil smites,
Cuts the chains from human rights.
Let us blow for him to strike,
For he treats all chains alike.
Severed by his trusty hand,
Fall they both from the limb and land.”

“I cannot remember anything as to the votes cast for this ticket and they are caret in the records. Van Buren and Adams received 291,263 votes.

“In 1852, I do not remember that there was any Liberty Party or League ticket, and presume the Abolitionists generally voted for John P. Hale, as they did in 1856, for John C. Fremont, and in 1860, for Abraham Lincoln. Gerrit Smith's last vote was for Grant in 1872.

“If you propose writing on this subject, I suggest that you consult the University Libraries at Cornell and Harvard. They are reported to be especially rich in anti-slavery material.

“I lived in Albany many years in the forties and used to meet Thurlow Weed generally twice a day on State street. “Yours truly,

“No. 326 Pearl St., New York, July 11, 1904.”

The Liberty Party has unjustly criticized and blamed even by intelligent citizens by confounding it with the Boston Garrison non-voting and non-political party or coterie which proposed to abolish slavery immediately by simply preaching and objurgating against it. Oliver Johnson says in his life of Williams Lloyd Garrison (page 308), “Mr. Garrison thought in the first place that it was wholly unnecessary for Abolitionists to organize a political party. Moreover he insisted that a political anti-slavery party was subject to the limitations and compromises of the Constitution.” Garrison considered the Union and the Constitution as a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell.”

The motto of “The Liberator” newspaper was, “No union with slave-holders,” and he favored the dissolution of the Union if slavery could not be abolished.

The Garrison Abolitionists were persecuted and often deprived of the liberty of free speech and mobbed, their presses destroyed, and Owen Lovejoy was even murdered in Illinois. But a century of declaiming against slavery, without any political action, would have only excited the derision of the LeGrees of the South.

The Liberty Party proposed political action, but only within the limits of the Constitution, and thus initiated the principles of subsequently adopted by the “Democratic Republican” or Free-Soil Party of 1848, and the Republican Party of 1854-56.

The arguments against human slavery had already been made in forcible language by Wilberforce, Thompson, Lord Brougham, Lord Mansfield and others in England, and by the fathers of our Republic – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, JayJohn Randolph of Roanoke and others – shortly after the Revolution.

The Garrison Abolitionists were conscientious and devoted philanthropists, but they misjudged the situation when they supposed that mere talking would remedy the evils of slavery without political action., and the practical fruits of political action achieved by the “Liberty,” the “Democratic Republican,” and “Republican” Parties should be credited to those far-sighted patriots who supported such action and not to those who oppose political action and the organization of Free-Soil parties.

1844: Presidential election. (Added Feb., 2009)

The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest, by Theodor C. Smith, 1897

Excerpts Related to James G. Birney

Page 74.

In Michigan the Liberty organization created by Birney and his sympathizers in the preceding year was working effectively. The usual State and local conventions met, and the by the middle of the summer a full ticket for Congress and the legislature was in nomination. The State campaign became active when Birney took the stump in July and by a joint debate with Z. Platt in Detroit excited wide-spread interest. The differences between Whigs and Liberty men reached an acute stage in Michigan sooner than in any other Northwestern State; and by July the newspaper controversy became acrimonious to a degree, which gave intense delight to the Democrats.

Page 76.

In October, however, there came to light in Michigan a most remarkable state of things, which, more than any possible Whig arguments or abuse, damaged the Liberty cause. It was learned that, on September 28, just after starting on an electioneering tour to the East, James G. Birney, one of the founders of the party and its candidate for President, had been nominated for the legislature by a Democratic convention. Nothing could have been more opportune for the Whigs. In their indignation at Liberty obstinacy, they had been crying that nothing could explain it except a bargain between Birney and Polk; and here was an incident that seemed to confirm their claim. As soon as the discovery was reported to the Michigan Whig Committee, then under the lead of Jacob M. Howard, the news was sent all over the country. “There is no earthly doubt of this.” said Howard, in a letter to R. C. Winthrop, of Massachusetts. “Use it then! It will influence 20,000 votes in the North.” The news accompanied by stinging comments, appeared in every Whig paper, followed often by a crop of stories regarding statements made by Birney to the effect that he preferred Polk to Clay, and admissions that he favored free trade and, most incredible of all, the annexation of Texas!

The effect on the Liberty men was stupefying. In spite of all Birney's sacrifices, his labors, his repeated condemnations of Democrats and of slavery, it seemed to many as if he had actually played them false, or had at least committed a stupendous piece of folly. Birney himself hastened to explain, though not to satisfy. In letters to the New York Tribune and to the Liberty party at large he made it evident that the nomination was simply the result of local questions in Saginaw County; that the Democrats in nominating him had done so without regard to anything but a desire to break up a local ring which had been mismanaging affairs; and the he himself, when he gave them permission to nominate him, regarded the nomination as coming from the people and not from any party. The fact remained, however, that it was an extraordinary performance on his part, particularly since the Michigan State Liberty Convention, which nominated him for Governor in 1843, had resolved: “That in the opinion of this Convention great injury will be suffered by the Liberty party if the members permit their names to be placed on the tickets of other parties unless they are taken up by them distinctly as Liberty men, and this ought to be ascertained by the fact of their nomination then existing on the Liberty party ticket.

Birney denied the accuracy of the stories regarding his alleged preference for Polk, but admitted the truth of their main contention, namely, that he preferred Polk to Clay. The reasons which he assigned were, that Clay, as well as Polk, had expressed himself in favor of annexation, and the Clay could and would lead his party, while Polk was incompetent to lead his. The question suggests itself at once whether Polk's party needed any leading to bring it to favor annexation. Birney's position was not perfectly logical, and his statement was a piece of very unnecessary frankness; for the Whig papers, in the heat of the campaign, brushed aside without ceremony his fine distinctions, as weak attempts to justify Democratic leanings; and they continued to repeat phrases taken from the affidavit of one Driggs, who had been sent by the Michigan Whig Committee to investigate the matter and to work up the case against Birney, and who reported that the letter “had sought the nomination,... expressed himself a Democrat, [and] had promised if elected not agitate the slavery question in the legislature.”

Seasoned abolitionists knew Birney too well to heed the uproar; but recent recruits became doubtful. In Ohio, Giddings, always a tower of strength to the Whig party, spoke with great effect, never missing an opportunity to excoriate Birney; until, in alarm at the havoc that he was making among the abolitionists of that region, the Ohio Liberty Committee issued an address written by Chase begging Liberty men to stand firm and to trust in Birney: “To say that such a man has united himselt to the Democratic party, bound as it is at present by the atrocious resolutions of the Baltimore Convention, is based beyond measure... Reject with scorn this gross libel... We entreat you to stand! For God and Duty stand! Stand this once!

Perhaps the Liberty men would have stood, had matters rested at this stage; but suddenly, one or two days before the national election, there appeared in most of the Northern States a copy of a letter written by Birney to J. G. Garland, of Saginaw. Sworn to by Garland himself, and taken from a copy of the Genesee County Democrat Extra of October 21. In this letter Birney concluded to accept the Democratic county nomination, authorized Garland to say that he was a Democrat of the Jeffersonian school, and promised if elected to forego the agitation of the slavery question in the State legislature. This document, apparently unimpeachable, was sprung upon the country with consummate skill. It appeared on the same day in Portland, Boston, Washington, Columbus, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, in other cities a little earlier, in Detroit, significantly enough, considerably later. It was printed as a handbill and distributed by the Indiana Whig Central Committee. It was over the circulated all over the Western Reserve, endorsed by the Ohio Whig Central Committee, and carried, as indignant Liberty men said, “by the hands of deacons and church members.”

Birney was at this time travelling westward; but the letter was not published in western New York, -- Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo, -- until he had passed by, and he did not see it himself until he reached Painesville, on the Western Reserve. As soon as he read it, he pronounced it an utter forgery throughout; but it was too late; the document had done its work. Following after him Democratic nomination and the flood of Whig innuendo, containing the very phrases repeated by the Whigs and seeming to confirm them, signed and sworn to with all due forms, it had turned hundreds more away from the polls, and had in New York and Ohio seriously reduced the Liberty vote. In New York the vote was 1,000 less than in 1843; in Ohio it was probably at least 1,000 less than in the State election a month before. Even in far-off Illinois, the Western Citizen reported that fifty voters in one county were kept from the polls.

But argument, appeal, and Garland forgery together, failed to save the Whigs in the November election. In spite of all distractions, enough Liberty men supported their candidate in the State of New York alone to give the electoral vote to Polk. Had there been no Liberty party, most of those who composed its membership would probably have voted for Clay. -- enough of them, the Whigs claimed, to make his election certain. Whether this last assertion is true, it is of course impossible to say; but in any case it is safe to conclude that, had not Birney been in nomination, Whig chances would have been much better.

The Liberty vote in the country at large in this year amounted to 62,000, showing a very slight increase over that of the preceding year. In the Northwest each State made a substantial increase except Ohio, whose decrease from October we may ascribe in no small degree to the effect of the Garland forgery on the Western Reserve.

The election of 1844 was decisive for Liberty men; for by their own conduct they had succeeded in putting out of their own reach all success along the line which they were pursuing. From the Democratic party they had from the outset nothing to hope, since its strength lay in the South and in the ruder classes of the North and West, among whom anit-slavery principles would be the last to penetrate. To the Whig party alone could they look; and now after 1844 accessions from that quarter were rendered infinitely less likely than heretofore. Liberal people were repelled by the intolerance of the Liberty men for any opinion but their own; practical men were displeased by their adherence to Birney, when by voting for the other candidates they would have influenced directly the election in regard to Texas; Old-line Whigs were disgusted at their refusal to accept the Whig view of the duty of anti-slavery men, and were enraged beyond control by their unsparing and bitterly personal condemnation of Clay. In the opinion of hundreds of thousands of Whigs, the persistence of Birney in running in 1844 could be explained only on the theory that he was a Democrat in disguise, subsidized by Polk to aid the latter's election. When the news of his nomination by the Democrats of Saginaw County, of his own honest but ill-judged acceptance of the name “Democrat” “in the true sense,” and of his still more unwise preference for Polk over Clay were spread abroad, the last shadow of doubt vanished, and from 1844 to the end of the Whig party's career neither Birney nor the Liberty party was ever forgiven.

Related Pages/Notes

James G. Birney

Related Links:
Birney: Mich. Politics
{Saginaw News Article}
Birney: Final Years
Birney: Death (NY Post)
Birney: Bio. & Family
People Referenced
Birney, James G.
Chase, Salmon P.
Cushman, David
Earle, Thomas
Fremont, John C.
Garrison, William L.
Goodell, William
Green, Beriah Rev.
Green, Beriah, Jr.
Green, Samuel W.
Hale, John P.
Holly, Myron
Johnson, Oliver
Leavitt, Joshua
Lincoln, Abraham
Lovejoy, Owen
Marcy, William L.
Miller, Elizabeth Mrs.
Morris, Thomas
Noble, Linneus P.
Randolf, Jay J.
Roberts, Bob
Roberts, Ellis H.
Seward, William H.
Smith, Gerrit
Steward, Alvin
Tappan, Lewis
Torrey, Charles T.
Weed, Thurlow
Whittier, John G.
Wilberforce, Wm.
Wright, Elizur, Jr.
A biography on many of the above are available at [Wikipedia.org]
Subjects Referenced
Albany, NY
American Anti-Slavery Society
Amer. Fgn. Anti-Slavery Soc.
Bagg's hotel
Buffalo, NY
Cornell University
Democrat party
Democrat Republic party
Free Soil party
Liberty Party
Liberty Party Convention
Florida territory
Garrison abolitionists
Geneva, NY
Harvard University
Hudson, OH
Oneida Institute
Phil. Anit-Slavery Conv.
Republican party
Roanoke, VA
Rochester, NY
Simon Pure Abolitionists
Utica, NY
Washington, DC
Western Reserve Col.
Whig party

Gerrit Smith
Was married to Anne H. Fitzhugh, sister of Elizabeth P. Fitzhugh, wife of James G. Birney.

Elizur Wright
Publisher and abolitionist. One of the founders of the National Anti-slavery Society & Liberty party.

Beriah Green

Wm Lloyd Garrison

Henry Clay

James Polk

Abraham Lincoln
Birney Presidential Elections
New Hampshire1264,161
New Jersey60131
New York2,79515,812
Rhode Island42107
Anit-Slavery Party Growth
On face value. the lack of success in Birney's political campaigns, may not seem significant in political history, but the outcome of anti-slavery political actions says otherwise, as evidenced by the party's growth after Birney's initiative for the presidency, as numerated below:
(Rounded to hundredth)
1840: 7,100 Liberty (1)
1844: 62,300 - Libery (1)
1848: 300,000 - Free Soil (2)
1852: 155,900 - Free Soil (3)
1856: 1,341,000 - GOP (4)*
1860: 1,900,000 - GOP (5)*
* Republican party
Presidential candidate:
(1) James G. Birney
(2) Martin Van Buren
(3) John P Hale
(4) John C. Fremont
(5) Abraham Lincoln

Birney was 56 years old when he ran in 1848, had he not been injure in a fall from his horse a year later and became ill leading to a stroke that paralyzed him, it is almost certain that Birney would have been the party's candidate again in 1852, and possibly in 1856. As it was Birney's life work the gave the aniti-slavery movement a political voice.
Internet References
The harsh realities of slavery are well documented and are readily available on the internet. The Ebooks from Project Gutenberg are from writings of The American Anti-Slavery Examiner, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, when James G. Birney was president of the society:
Ebook 1 of 4]
Ebook 2 of 4]
Ebook 3 of 4]
Ebook 4 of 4]
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.