1848 Platform of the Liberty Party

Adopted in Convention, 14–15 June 1848, Buffalo, N. Y.

WHEREAS, there was a National Liberty Party Convention, held in this city in 1843, and another in 1847: and whereas, whilst the former rose so high in principle, as to declare that Slavery—the crime of crimes—cannot be legalized, the other sunk so low in expediency, as to refuse to call it inconstitutional: and whereas, whilst the former honored the Liberty Party, by choosing for a Presidential Candidate the noble and spotless James G. Birney, who so ably and faithfully represented all the principles of that Party, the latter disgraced, and virtually abandoned the Liberty Party, by its nomination to the Presidency of John P. Hale, who holds not a single one of the distinctive principles of that Party: and whereas, whilst the latter Convention stultified itself by refusing to say, that the Liberty Party is a permanent party, and, therefore, bound to attend to all the political interests of the country, the former Convention manifested its integrity and good sense, by adopting Resolutions—

1st. That the Liberty Party has not been organized for any temporary purpose by interested politicians, but has arisen from among the people, in consequence of a conviction, hourly gaining ground, that no other party in the country represents truly the principles of American liberty, and the true spirit of the Constitution of the U. States.

2d. That the Liberty Party has not been organized merely for the overthrow of slavery.  Its first and most decided effort must indeed be directed against slaveholding, as the grossest and most revolting form of despotism, but it will also carry out the principles of equal rights into all their practical consequences and applications, and support every just measure, conducive to social and individual freedom.

3d. That the Liberty Party is not a sectional party, but a National party, has NOT originated in a desire to accomplish a single object, but in a comprehensive regard to the interests of this 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 practical application.

  1. Resolved, therefore, That, in light of these opposite and characteristic proceedings, we cannot hesitate to decide, that the Convention of 1843 was genuine, and that of 1847 a spurious, Liberty Party Convention; and that, whilst the memory of the former should be cherished, that of the latter should be loathed by every lover of the true Liberty Party.
  2. Resolved, That the Liberty Party is not a temporary but a permanent party—not a piece-of-an-idea party, but the whole-of-an-idea party—not bound to carry out the one idea of political justice against slavery only, but against wars, tariffs, the traffic of intoxicating drinks, land monopolies, and secret societies, and whatever else is opposed to that comprehensive, great and glorious One Idea.
  3. Resolved, That the slaveholder, as such, has no rights, and that slaveholding laws are no laws;—that the one is but a pirate, and the other but the bloody code of his bloodiest piracy;—and that every constitution, or compact, or religion, which justifies this pirate, or upholds his piracy, merits nothing better than the utmost contempt, and the deepest execration.
  4. Resolved, That we deeply sympathise with out seventy-seven brothers and sisters, who recently made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from their bondage in the District of Columbia; and also with the three men who are suffering imprisonment for having favored that attempt.
  5. WHEREAS, G. Baily, Jr., the Editor of a paper which passes with many, though very unjustly, for a National Liberty Party paper, and, whereas, John P. Hale, the Presidential candidate of a party which passes with many, though very unjustly, for the Liberty Party, do both of them resent the charge of having favored this attempt, and do (both of them) virtually condemn and stigmatize all concealed, and, therefore, all help to the escaping slave:  Resolved, therefore, that in so doing they represent not the heart of the true Liberty Party, nor the heart of any true man, and much less the heart of the true God; but do, on the contrary, betray their insensibility to the highest and holiest claims, if not, indeed, to the fact itself, of human brotherhood and human unity, and prove themselves to be the victims of that false education, which has more respect for laws and social arrangements, even when founded in open, malignant hatred and contempt of man, than for any or all of his most sacred rights.
  6. Resolved, That God helping us, no man shall be a candidate of the Liberty Party who is not also a representative of the Liberty Party; and that John P. Hale, with his belief in the constitutionality of slavery—even of slavery in the District of Columbia, as is inferable from a late debate in the Senate, the same debate in which he was so unwilling to be construed as denying the right of property in man—and with his belief in the rightfulness of voting for pro-slavery men, and in the wrongfulness of aiding the flight of the slave, and with his confinement of his anti-slavery within the limits of moral suasion, can no more be the representative of the Liberty Party than can John C. Calhoun or James K. Polk.
  7. Resolved, That we congratulate the friends of the slave on the large amount of anti-slavery truth which has been so ably and fearlessly spoken during the present session of Congress, by Messrs. Hale, Palfrey and Giddings.
  8. WHEREAS, some of us, nearly a year ago, began to learn, both from lips and letters, of the plot of professed members of the Liberty Party to break it up; and, whereas, some of us could not doubt that the nomination of John P. Hale by the Liberty Party Convention last October, and the recalling by that Convention of some of the strongest testimonies and the renunciation by it of some of the most vital doctrines of the Liberty Party, were the beginning of the development of this plot; and, whereas, we have lamented the dullness of thousands of the sincere members of the Liberty Party to perceive, in the proceedings of that Convention, fruits of this plot, and their unwillingness to believe in its existence—Resolved, therefore, that we rejoice that at last all have tangible and unequivocal evidence of its existence, in the Circular recently put forth by Samuel Lewis, Stanley Matthews and S. P. Chase, among other professed members of the Liberty Party, and commended by Dr. Bailey as “liberal and judicious,” and as warmly, as artfully, commended by the Boston Emancipator also—the same Samuel Lewis who, with this plot then in his heart, consented to preside over the aforesaid Convention, and the same Stanley Matthews who, with this plot then in his heart, consented to be one of the Secretaries, and the same S. P. Chase who, with this plot then in his heart, consented to be a member, and was, indeed, one of the most influential members of the aforesaid Convention; and the same Dr. Bailey, who, doubtless, an originator of the plot, edits the Paper, which might better pass for almost anything else, than the National Liberty Party Paper; and the same Boston Emancipator, which, once entitled to the confidence of the Liberty Party, is, now, using that confidence to destroy the Liberty Party.
  9. WHEREAS, the foregoing Circular, (more fully explained by the Letter of Samuel Lewis, which heralded it, than by itself,) calls on Liberty Party men, as, in fact, does John P. Hale’s Letter of Acceptance, to abandon the Liberty Party, and go with and for Whigs and Democrats on the basis of the Wilmot Proviso; and, whereas, this call, already responded to by many professed Liberty Party men in various States, will, doubtless, be brought to the knowledge of the whole Liberty Party:  Resolved, therefore, that there will, now, be an effectual trial of the question, whether the masses of the Liberty Party are ready to follow the Hales and Lewises and Chases and Matthews’ and Baileys, or whether they prefer to abide in the Liberty Party and stand by those principles for which they have sacrificed and suffered so much, and which, because they believe they are from Heaven, they believe will prevail.
  10. Resolved, That we rejoice in the rapid progress of the Land Reform doctrines, and in the hope, that “the good time” is coming, when the land will be no more bought and sold; and when the right of every human being to land, light, air, and water, will be universally acknowledged to be as perfect and absolute, as his right to his body—his body itself being not less certainly dependent upon these elements of human subsistence, than are its most vital parts upon each other.
  11. Resolved, That if it be patriotism to defend the matchlessly infernal war, which this Nation has been waging against Mexico, then are we no patriots: and that if it be treason to sympathise with Mexico, and pray for her success against her destroyers, then are we traitors.
  12. WHEREAS, one of the great political parties has nominated for the Presidency a man, whom, but that he is an enslaver of men, and a butcher of men, the most extravagant thinker would never have thought of for the Presidency; and whereas the other of these parties has nominated for this office a demagogue, who is heartless and profligate enough to go for any extension of slavery, for any war, or for any other stupendous wickedness, which may promise to serve his absorbing purpose of self-exaltation:  Resolved, therefore, that the American people, in choosing between these candidates, will have but to inquire, by the election of which of them they can most insult Heaven, and afflict earth—can most rapidly fill up the measure of their Nation’s iniquity, and most rapidly complete their Nation’s destruction.
  13. Resolved, That unwillingness to use the products of slave-labor, is a beautiful and effective testimony against slavery.

Notes by Alexander S. Peak, 2010

In light of the fact that there is a lot going on in this document that may seem confusing to the modern reader, I think it prudent to add a new notes to explain the above.

First, this platform is available as “Resolutions,” in Proceedings of the National Liberty Convention, Held at Buffalo, N. Y., June 14th and 15th, 1848; Including the Resolutions and Addresses Adopted by That Body, and Speeches of Beriah Green and Gerrit Smith on That Occasion (Utica, N. Y.: S. W. Green; 1848), pp. 6–9.

With that settled, let us now note that not everyone who opposed slavery was what we would call an abolitionist.  Abolitionists were people who believed that slavery should be done away with immediately.  There were other voices in the antislavery movement who called for and supported a slow transition toward the elimination of slavery, a position repugnant to abolitionists.  This doesn’t mean that the abolitionists were unrealistic.  They understood that, despite their best efforts, things were unlikely to change over night.  But, they also recognised that simply because things weren’t going to change over night, was no reason to not support immediate abolition as the moral position, nor was it a reason to actively seek a slow transition.  Thus, as Murray N. Rothbard notes in his For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (p. 18):

Moreover, principle and strategy merged in the decay of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century liberal devotion to “abolitionism”—to the view that, whether the institution be slavery or any other aspect of statism, it should be abolished as quickly as possible, since the immediate abolition of statism, while unlikely in practice, was to be sought after as the only possible moral position.  For to prefer a gradual whittling away to immediate abolition of an evil and coercive institution is to ratify and sanction such evil, and therefore to violate libertarian principles.  As the great abolitionist of slavery and libertarian William Lloyd Garrison explained:  “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end.  We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”

The Liberty Party was created in 1839 to be a party unequivocably devoted to the abolition of slavery.  Yet, it did not, it seems, create an actual platform to annunciate its views until 1843.

In the fourth clause of the 1843 platform, the party indeed says it is not a single-issue party.  After that, the platform nevertheless focuses nearly entirely on but a single issue, i.e., slavery.  There is one exception to this, however, for in clause sixteen, the party does say that it supports “freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of petition, and the right of trial by jury.”

Because the 1843 platform does not endorse any policies that we would deem unlibertarian, I have no problem calling it a libertarian platform, and calling the party in 1843 one of the first libertarian parties in the united states of America.  (Another early libertarian party that jumps to mind is the Equal Rights Party, formed by locofoco democrats in New York.)

Unfortunately, I cannot extend to this document the same honour that I extend to the platform of ’43.  While the 1848 platform is clearly just as abolitionist as that of 1843, it nevertheless makes concessions to tyranny that we cannot condone.  I shall detail them below, in the course of analysing the various planks of this platform.

Starting with the introductory paragraph, many modern readers may already be confused.  Apparently, in 1847, people held a convention that nominated the liberal Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire for the presidency.  It would appear that Hale’s position was generally antislavery, but was not necessarily abolitionist, unfortunately.  Four years later, Hale would serve as the presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party, an abolitionist party created by Hale and Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio.  The first plank summarises the view of the convention of ’48 that the convention of ’47 was a sham.

While it would seem that the Liberty Party members of 1848 would likely regard Senator Chase as a non-abolitionist, I would very much disagree with that assessment.  As Chase’s 1845 Address clearly demonstrates, Chase wanted to see slavery immediately abolished in every state.  Both the Chase and the Smith factions agreed that slavery was unconstitutional in all federally-controlled territories, including Washington, D. C.; that slavery was unconstitutional in any state added to the union following the Philadelphia Convention; and that slavery was a violation of natural rights that should be done away with immediately in every single state of the union, and indeed, across the globe.  The sole meaningful difference between the Chase faction and the Smith faction is that the Chase faction believed that the federal government could not abolish slavery in any of the original states without the aid of an amendment to the U. S. Constitution, while the Smith faction believed that the federal government already possessed the power to abolish slavery and didn’t need a constitutional amendment to do so.  That, as far as I can ascertain, was literally the only difference between these two abolitionist factions.  Thus, I would not hesitate to classify Salmon Portland Chase as an abolitionist, notwithstanding this platform.

In any event, the position that the platform takes is that the Hale men were not antislavery enough and therefore not a proper representation of their party.  So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the real problem begins with the second plank.  The plank notes that the party was against slavery, wars, and tariffs (i.e., taxes on imports).  All things that are good to oppose; these positions are certainly libertarian.  But the plank also mentions the traffic of intoxicating drinks (i.e., alcohol), land monopolies, and secret societies.  Let’s start with alcohol.

The temperance movement was a big thing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Opinions within the movement ranged from the relatively-liberal position that alcohol should not be banned, but rather simply rejected; to the obviously-authoritarian position that alcohol should be banned outright.  With the passage of the eighteenth amendment in 1920, America witnessed first hand the horrors of alcohol prohibition.  Since the twenty-first amendment repealing prohibition in 1933, alcohol prohibitionism hasn’t been taken seriously again in the united states (save for the insane craze to ban Four Loko).  But back before the failure of the prohibitionist experiment, it was taken seriously, and many genuinely thought that an alcohol-free society would promote brotherhood or Godliness or whatever.

This plank indeed appears to be in support of the prohibition of the transport and sale of alcohol, and insofar as this is the case, the Liberty Party had, very unfortunately, taken a rather illiberal turn.

Of course, if you own your own body, as abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison would have readily said you do, then not only is slavery inherently unjust, but so too is government-enforced prohibitionism.  That a party dedicated to the abolition of slavery could irrationally advocate something as tyrannical as prohibition is, honestly, somewhat shocking.

Next, this plank speaks of land monopolies and land reform, which it speaks of again in plank ten.  Land reform is actually a somewhat complicated issue for libertarians, for a libertarian will either support or oppose it given certain conditions.  For example, the libertarian fully supports land reform when it involves taking plantations away from slaveholders and transferring that land and all other properties thereupon to those slaves who were unjustly forced to labour thereupon.  Likewise, in the event that the Communist Party has taken over all of the land within a given region, the libertarian would not hesitate to demand that the land be delivered back to the peasants who, unlike the officials of the Communist Party, at least live on and work the land.  But the libertarian will not willy-nilly support just any land reform proposal.  If Smith finds an unowned plot of land, and decides to clear away the rocks and twigs, and toil the dirt to make it suitable for farming, then that land becomes his legitimate and private property.  He has homesteaded it in accord with the Lockean homesteading principle; and, thus, it is his.  His, too, are whatever crops he grows on this land.  So, would the libertarian support taking the land away from Smith and giving it to Robinson?  If Smith has not enslaved Robinson, nor has committed any other crime against Robinson or Robinson’s justly-acquired property, nor against anyone else, then the answer is simple:  No, the libertarian would not.  Nor would the libertarian say that Smith’s property should be stolen from him and given, somehow, to “all the people of the earth,” for no matter how noble that may sound, such an act would still constitute theft against Smith, and enslavement of his labour.  If someone takes Smith’s crops without consulting Smith, such a person is thereby forcing Smith to labour for the thief without the consent of Smith; taking the product of Smith’s labour without Smith’s consent is retroactive enslavement, pure and simple.  Thus, the libertarian must be very careful when addressing the matter of land reform, for such a policy could be either just or unjust depending upon the conditions of the land.

Finally, the second plank speaks of secret societies, which might strike many as somewhat odd.  This was, interestingly, another issue of some degree of importance in the nineteenth century, and in fact there was a whole party, the Anti-Masonic Party, dedicated to this issue from 1828 to 1838.  Their only position was opposition to secret societies such as the Free Masons.  As for the libertarian position on this matter, the libertarian has no problem with someone being concerned about the activities of secret societies, but does not support, in any way, shape, or form, the prohibition of secret societies.

Because the Liberty Party of 1848 decides to adopt these certain illiberal policies, I can hardly consider the party of ’48 a libertarian party, despite the fact that I readily regard the party of ’43 a libertarian one.

The fourth plank references, what is called either the Pearl incident or the Pearl affair, which was the attempted escape, orchestrated by Daniel Drayton, of seventy-six or seventy-seven slaves on 15 April 1848.  Said slaves attempted to escape on a ship called The Pearl, but were unfortunately thwarted.  Since the public thought that Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the antislavery paper National Era was partially responsible, a crowd of slave owners and their supporters gathered in front of and began throwing rocks at the National Era office, some even demanding that Bailey be lynched; this led to a three-day standoff known as the Washington Riot of 1848.  (This is the same Bailey referenced later in clauses five, eight, and nine.  Later, in 1780, the paper would be acquired by Frederick Douglass, who renamed it The New National Era.)  At least two men were arrested, convicted, and jailed in the plot to free the slaves: Edward Sayres, Captain of The Pearl, and Daniel Drayton.  After appeals were filed and charges were reduced, a third man, Chester English, was released.  This was the largest recorded escape attempt by slaves in the United States, and was allegedly part of the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  After spending four years in jail, the men were pardoned in 1852 by President Fillmore at the request of Senator Charles Sumner.

The Wilmot Proviso, referenced in clause nine, as a legislative edict, written by Judge Jacob Brinkerhoff and first introduced by Congressman David Wilmot in 1846, that would have made sure that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of [any territory from the Republic of Mexico acquired by the United States], except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.”  The law did not pass the Senate.  In 1847, another attempt was made.  This time, the proviso read as follows:  “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in any territory on the continent of America which shall hereafter be acquired by or annexed to the United States by virtue of this appropriation (the $3,000,000) or in any other manner whatever, except for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  A third attempt was made in 1848, which also failed.  When the Democratic Party nominated Lewis Cass, a man who opposed the Wilmot Proviso, for president, many antislavery Democrats were furious.  The conservative elements within the Democratic Party called these antislavery Democrats “Barnburners,” implying that they were the kind of people who would burn down their own barns in order to deal with a rat infestation.  The liberal elements within the party called the conservative elements “Hunkers.”  Many of the Barnburners, including Martin Van Buren, bolted from the Democratic Party to form the Free Soil Party, a party was was abolitionist but which, unfortunately, often failed to employ rhetoric as radically antislavery as it ought to’ve.  The radical liberal Free Soil Party nominated former president Martin Van Buren for the Presidency, and garnered over ten percent of the vote.  According to Historian Leonard Richards, the liberal Barnburners regarded “the movement to acquire Texas, and the fight over the Wilmot Proviso, [as] the turning point, when aggressive slavemasters stole the heart and soul of the Democratic Party and began dictating the course of the nation’s destiny.”  In other words, since the party was turning against its radical liberal or Jeffersonian roots, there was no longer a reason to support the party.

Finally, the eleventh plank references the Mexican–American War, which the Democratic Party unfortunately strongly favoured in its 1848 national political platform.  The war was condemned by that great libertarian, Henry David Thoreau, in a speech given in 1848 which he titled, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government.”  This was published a year later as an essay in the Æsthetic Papers as “Resistance to Civil Government”.  Finally, in 1866, it would get the title with which we are most familiar today: “Civil Disobedience.”  Here is an excerpt:

The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.  The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.  The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.  Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

This was the beginning of the end for the Liberty Party.  Most people who had previously voted for the Liberty Party voted that year for the Free Soil Party candidate, Martin Van Buren, who had previously served as president as a Democrat, and who I consider to be one of the three least horrendous presidents that the united states had post–1787, along with Thomas Jefferson and Warren G. Harding.  While the party’s existence continued at least up until 1860, the puritanical elements within the party drove out its libertarian elements, thus leaving the party a shell of what it had been only a few years earlier.  Thus ended what has once been a truly great party in American history.