To the Liberty Party

Gerrit Smith

This letter was copied from this source.

7 May 1846

Some of the wisest and best of your number contend, that the Liberty Party was organized for other objects, as well as for the overthrow of slavery.

It is generally admitted, that the Convention, held at Arcade in January 1840, was the Parent of the Liberty Party.  Now, I cannot believe, that, among the candid and intelligent persons, who attended that Convention, there is one, who will say, that it intended to organize this Party for any other purpose than the overthrow of slavery.  But, it is said, that Meetings, held a few months after the Arcade Convention—especially one in the City of New-York—committed the Liberty Party to various objects.  I must, perhaps, admit, that they did so, if I admit their power to do so.  But I do not admit, that they had this power.  I have, always, regretted certain proceedings of the Meetings referred to.  I would not intimate, that those proceedings misrepresented the sentiments of their authors.  But, I believe no person will deny, that they had their origin in the purpose of conciliating my very democratic and much esteemed friend, Thomas Earle, and securing the acceptance of his nomination to the office of Vice President.  Without those, or similar, proceedings, he would not accept it.  With them, he did accept it.

Again—a far greater number of the wisest and best members of the Liberty Party adroit, that it was organized for no other purpose than the overthrow of slavery; but contend, that the time has come for multiplying its objects, and radically changing its character.  They would, it is true, have its antislavery-work its first work: but they lay out for it much other work.  They would have it specifically committed to the abolition of restrictions on commerce; to the abolition of monopolies; to the reduction of salaries; and to many other objects.  The question, whether it is wise to attempt such a change in the Liberty Party is a very grave one.  My own opinion (and I would have every member of the Party avail himself of his equal right and equal duty to express his—) is, that the time has not yet come to attempt it.

The principal reasons assigned for this change are, 1st, That a political party should express definite views and commit itself to definite courses in relation to the various matters, which claim the attention of Civil Government.

2d, That, in this way only, can the Liberty Party hope to become a majority, or even to increase its numbers.

On the first reason I would remark, that I have a deepening impression,—that a political party should, in its organization, solemnly purpose to give its attention to all the legitimate objects and interests of Civil Government; and that I regret, that the Liberty Party did not do so.  I add, that I should be glad to see it giving, forthwith, thus extent to the scope of its regards.  Nevertheless, for the Liberty Party to commit itself, now, to the numerous specific courses, which it is contended it should commit itself to, would, as I shall endeavor to show, be premature.  It would be premature, even on the supposition, that these courses are right;—for it would be a movement in advance of its light and convictions.  The Liberty Party, if not as extensively so as other political parties, is, nevertheless, very ignorant, in respect to the character and uses of Civil Government.  Who of us can claim to be enlightened on this subject, on which darkness so universally prevails?  Who of us does not need to go to school to first principles on this subject, ere the practical duties, resulting from there, can be made plain to him?

The chief excellence of the Liberty Party consists not in the fact, that the one thing, to which it is committed, viz: the overthrow of slavery, is a high and obvious duty.  Even more meritorious than the object of its organization is the principle of action, by which it seeks to achieve that object.  This principle of action is the equal rights of men.  This principle of action is, that a man is a man.  British abolitionists, in their struggle for the overthrow of British slavery, said, that a man ought not to be a slave:—but they were infinitely short of saying, that a man is a man, and that equal rights belong to all men.  American abolitionists, however, contend, that slavery should be abolished, not because political economy, national prosperity, or any kindred considerations demand its abolition; but because it is demanded by the principle, that “all men are created equal,” and that no man is to be excluded front the rights of manhood.

Our first duty, as Liberty men, is to study, with an earnest and obedient spirit, the antislavery claims of this admitted principle of Liberty party action.  But the antislavery claims of this principle are not its only claims.  Every political party, in all its measures—so, too, every Civil Government, in all its dealings with its subjects, whether white or black, and in all its dealings with foreigners, be they barbarous or civilized—is to be controlled by this principle of the equal rights of all men.  No English Corn-laws are to encroach on the rights of Americans.  No American Tariffs are to encroach on the rights of Englishmen.

It follows from what I have said, that every political party should inform itself of all the bearings of the great principle of action referred to, and stand ready to apply it in every direction, in which its application may be called for.  Nothing short of this should the Liberty party propose to itself.  But this Party is not yet sufficiently acquainted with the wide scope of its own principle of action to justify it in arriving at confident conclusions on all the applications of that principle.  It is not yet prepared to arrive at such conclusions.  It is not yet prepared to drive down its stakes on the various financial and economical questions, which are to be considered and decided on, in the light of this principle.

As proof, that the Liberty party is not yet very conversant with this principle of equal regards for the equal rights of all men, I remark,

1st.  That not a few of its members think it right to honor men with civil office, who believe traffickers in human flesh fit for it.  The recent ruin (I hope not irretrievable) of the Liberty Party in this State is to be ascribed to this unhappy belief.

2d.  That many of its members do not see it to be a violation of this principle—do not see it to be injustice to the slave—to continue in Church fellowship with those, who connive at his slavery, or even with those, who are guilty of directly holding him in slavery.  As if they, who have Church fellowship with my oppressors, do not thereby most effectually indorse my oppression, and trample on my rights!

3d.  That not one in fifty of the members of the Liberty Party see it to be unjust toward the slave to purchase the products of his unrequited and coerced toil, and, thereby, supply the most efficient motive for continuing him in slavery.

Now, the man, who casts a proslavery vote, or who clings to a proslavery Church, or who eats and wears stolen articles—and eats and wears them, because he can buy them cheaper than he can the like articles honestly produced—stay, indeed, have very confident views concerning Banks and Tariffs and Monopolies.  But, that these views spring from a clear and intelligent apprehension of the equal rights of all men is, to say the least, very questionable.  How can one see distant objects, who is unable to see those, which lie at his feet?  How can one discern the remoter and less certain demands of a principle, whilst blind to those obvious duties, which are its immediate and first called for duties?

Would not the Liberty Party, instead of prematurely committing itself on financial and economical questions, do better to take up a part of the time of its meetings and a part of the columns of its newspapers, in kind, sincere, earnest endeavors to learn, not what is taught by corrupt and benighted political parties on these questions, but what is taught on them by its own admitted principle of action—its principle, that a man is a man, and that the rights of any one man are as great and as sacred, as the rights of any other man?  Let such men, as Birney, and Goodell, and Green, be left perfectly free to contend in antislavery meetings and antislavery newspapers, that this principle of equal rights demands free trade; and let the many wise and faithful members of the Liberty Party, who believe, that restrictions on trade are not only compatible with, but even protective of; the equal rights of men, have the like freedom and facility to express their views also.  In this wise, two or three years would not only shed great light on the path of the Liberty Party, but would produce an extensive agreement among its members, on subjects, on which they are now opposed to each other, and opposed to each other chiefly, as is probable, for the lack of this light.  I am helped to this conclusion not a little by the fact, that Liberty men have come to see alike on questions, which they have freely discussed.  For instance, every Liberty man sees, that the great principle of Liberty Party action—the principle, that a man is a man entitles blacks, as well as whites, to the right of suffrage.  Every Liberty man sees also, that the patriotism, which would exclude foreigners from the ballot box and from office, is a sentiment unworthy of every just and generous heart, and contrary to all the teachings of this great principle of Liberty Party action.  Again, abolitionists are, as much more generally than anti-abolitionists, in favor of restoring to woman her natural right of suffrage, as they have, more generally than anti-abolitionists, discussed the duty of such restoration.  As I have referred to the discussion of this duty, let me add, that the continuance of this discussion by abolitionists will soon make the conviction universal amongst them, that it is for heathen, not for christian, for barbarous, not for civilized, communities to stamp woman with inferiority, and to thrust her away from duties, to which she is as well adapted by her nature, as man is by his.

But, I hasten to consider the other reason for modifying the Liberty Party.  This reason is, that it is only by means of the proposed modification, that the Liberty Party can intelligently hope to become a majority, or even to increase its present numbers.

Such modification could not—nothing can—drive a sound Liberty man into a proslavery party.  But it might have the effect to drive some of its members out of the Liberty Party.  Some of them, strenuously opposed to the views on financial and economical questions to which the Liberty Party had committed itself, would, because of such committal, quit it.  I trust, however, that their number would be small.  Proper, as such opposition might be, it would in most cases, I doubt not, be accompanied by enough of forbearance to prevent the quitting of a Party, which is the only antislavery political party.

I turn now to inquire, whence would be the accessions to the Liberty Party, consequent on such a modification of it?  The answer is, that they would come from the Whig party, if the modification should be such, as to please Whigs; and from the Democratic party, should it be such, as to please Democrats.  But to this we reply, that they, who shall be attracted to us by our positions on financial and economical questions, and who, but for this attraction, would remain in their proslavery party, will not be worth our having.  They will be accessions of weakness and corruption, instead of strength and purity.  We wish none to come to us, who do not feel themselves drawn toward our antislavery position.

I say nothing more on this head, than to express my belief, that the proposed changes, in the plan and object of the Liberty Party, would bring but few persons into it—even fewer than they would exclude from it; and to express my further belief, that the Liberty Party would be better without than with those, who should, in this wise, be brought into it.

I would there were less impatience to multiply members of the Liberty Party.  Were they but half as many as they are, they would, still, be sufficiently numerous, if only faithful to its principles, to crown it with victory.  The Liberty Party is feeble, not because of its small numbers; but because it misrepresents, is unfaithful to, and stands in the way of the progress and power of, its own principles.  If but “free course” be given them, these principles will themselves work out the victory.  To give them “free course” however, they who profess them, must practice, and not abandon, them; must represent, and not belie them.

All I will add is, that, although I think, the time for modifying the Liberty Party, in the way proposed, has not yet come—and not yet come, because its members do not sufficiently understand the bearings and requirements of its admitted principle of action—the principle, that a man is a man—that “all then are created equal”—I, nevertheless, desire no controversy with them, who, believing, that the time for it has already come, contend, that such modification should take place immediately.  I admit, that they, who urge such immediate modification, will, if, in their own practices, they make a consistent exhibition of the great Liberty Party principle of action, exert no little influence on their brethen.  Five thousand Liberty men, declaring their solemn conviction, that the principle of equal rights requires a stern refusal to belong to a proslavery Church, or to vote for any man, who votes for traffickers in human flesh; a stern refusal to continue to strip woman of her political rights, or to encourage the keeping of men in slavery by the consumption of the products of slave-labor—I say, that five thousand such men might, by the force of such a recommendation of this principle, and by the force of such consistency, take any position whatever within the range of that principle, and yet be, probably, able to draw to it the other sixty-five thousand Liberty men.  Indeed, five thousand such men would be so valued for their fidelity to principle, and so trusted for the clearness of their vision, that, take almost what positions they might on questions of finance and economy, it would not be strange, if the great mass of Liberty men should soon take them.

But how vain it would be for Liberty men, who are themselves blind to the direct and immediate teachings of the great principle of equal rights, to attempt to instruct other Liberty men in the indirect and remote teachings of this principle!  For instance, what a farce, and how fruitless of good, for several hundred Liberty men to come together at Port Byron, or elsewhere, with stolen clothes upon their backs and stolen food in their stomachs (for such are all slave labor-products,) and, to turn up the white of their eyes, and put on sanctimonious looks, and shudder and scowl at the violence done to sound morality by Banks and Tariffs and high salaries!


PETERBORO, May 7, 1846.