Ohio History Journal

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The Southern Strategy

of the Liberty Party





The great debate among American abolitionists prior to the Civil

War centered upon the question of the proper method of ending

slavery. How was a movement with negligible support outside of the

northern states to abolish an institution that existed in the southern

states? The alternatives appeared to be: convince southerners to

voluntarily give it up, take federal action against it, or use indirect

methods to make slaveholding economically infeasible. The leaders of

the Liberty party of Ohio have been correctly portrayed as advocates

of the third alternative. These men, who led the Liberty party into the

Free Soil coalition of 1848, were able opportunists willing to abandon

an already watered-down abolitionism for a more attractive policy

opposing the further expansion of slavery. What has been largely

overlooked is that these same men had from 1840 onward sought to

expand the Liberty party into the southern states, where it might

bring about the direct abolition of slavery through state legislation.

They based their efforts upon the premise that large numbers of

southerners would be receptive to antislavery arguments. This view,

repeated frequently, nurtured a belief among antislavery men that

there was a reservoir of untapped antislavery sentiment in the South,

and it contributed to the great Republican misconception that pro-

Union sentiment in the South was strong enough to stem the move-

ment for disunion.

Few would dispute that the Virginia House of Delegates' overwhelm-

ing rejection of a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1832

was the symbolic terminus of significant antislavery action within

the southern portion of the United States. A year earlier Nat Turner's

brief but bloody slave revolt had encouraged southerners to discuss

whether to shore up the slave system or to plan for its liquidation.

Virginia set the pattern for the entire South by choosing perpetual



Stanley C. Harrold, Jr., is Assistant Professor of history at South Carolina State Col-