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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



Forlorn Hope of Freedom: The Liberty Party in the Old Northwest, 1838-1848.

By Vernon L. Volpe. (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1990, xxii +

236p.; notes, tables, bibliography, index. $24.00.)


In Forlorn Hope of Freedom, Vernon L. Volpe reassesses the brief life of the

Liberty Party in the Old Northwest by emphasizing the religious foundations of

the abolitionist third party. Historians have often treated eastern Liberty leaders

as religious in motivation but have viewed western Liberty men, as epitomized

by Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, as more political and pragmatic. Volpe, however,

locates the sources of the midwestern Liberty appeal within evangelical Protes-

tantism, discounts the pragmatism of Chase and the "Cincinnati group" of abo-

litionists as atypical, and identifies a religious core of Liberty support in the Old

Northwest that focused on principle rather than practicality.

At the outset, Volpe contrasts "religiously minded abolitionists" with "politi-

cally minded abolitionists," such as Chase and Gamaliel Bailey, and finds the re-

ligiously minded at the heart of western Liberty. "More than any other factor,"

he argues, "identification with a particular church community motivated indi-

viduals to cast Liberty party ballots" (p. xiii). Liberty men were concentrated in

"come-outer" sects of evangelical Protestants-Congregationalists, Free Pres-

byterians, Wesleyan Methodists, Free Will Baptists, and Anti-Slavery Quakers-

who refused to commune with slaveholders and so chose to leave their churches

to preserve their own purity. They were also concentrated geographically in ho-

mogeneous rural communities dominated by these antislavery sects. Regional-

ly, the Liberty movement commanded minuscule electoral power, garnering at

its peak no more than 3.3 percent of all northern votes. Locally, however, the par-

ty controlled many communities. Whole "antislavery villages" and "third party

communities" united in their "come-outer" dissociation from the sin of slavery.

Volpe's emphasis on the community context of Liberty support-"communities

of believers"-is his major contribution.

Unfortunately for Liberty, however, the religious roots of the party represented

its greatest weakness. Volpe points out that sectarians, the core of Liberty, clung

to the Whig Party as the best hope for antislavery until after the disappointing elec-

tion of 1840. After embracing Liberty, their religious orientation limited the third

party's popular appeal. Liberty men emphasized national, rather than merely

southern, responsibility for slavery and roundly condemned northern society for

its complicity in the sin. They rejected half measures, such as free soil, insisting

on abolitionism as their only legitimate political goal. Liberty men therefore dis-

trusted the Free Soil and Republican parties as compromises with sin orchestrated

by political opportunists. Volpe thus challenges the currently fashionable notion

of continuity between the Liberty Party and its more effective free soil succes-

sors. Throughout the 1840s, gains were slight and were considerably offset by the

antiabolitionism that swept the North in the wake of Liberty agitation. Volpe con-

cludes that religiously minded Liberty men managed to preserve their own puri-

ty by leaving their churches and the major parties but failed to persuade anyone

else to join the antislavery crusade.

Despite its forceful arguments, however, this slim book is more suggestive than

conclusive and should prompt additional research. Volpe's dichotomy between