Antislavery agitation provoked a harsh public reaction in North as well as the South. States debated "gag" laws to suppress antislavery agitation, and the U.S. Postmaster General refused to deliver antislavery tracts to the South.
Abolitionists never expected such a reaction. "When we first unfurled the banner of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, "we did not anticipate that...the free states would voluntarily trample under foot all order, law and government, or brand the advocates of universal liberty as incendiaries." This harsh response produced division within the antislavery movement.
At the 1840 annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, abolitionists split over such questions as women's right to participate in the administration of the organization and the advisability of nominating abolitionists as independent political candidates. Garrison won control of the organization, and his opponents promptly walked out. From this point on, no single organization could speak for abolitionism.
Some abolitionists, led by Garrison, moved in a radical direction. They questioned whether the Bible represented the word of God, withdrew from membership in established churches that condoned slavery, refused to vote, and called for voluntary dissolution of the Union. In 1854, Garrison attracted widespread notoriety by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution, which he called "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."
Other abolitionists looked to politics as the answer to ending slavery and in 1840 founded the Liberty party for that purpose. Under the leadership of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy New York businessmen, and James G. Birney, a former slaveholder, the Liberty party called on Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, end the interstate slave trade, and cease admitting new slave states to the Union. The party also sought the repeal of local and state laws in the North which discriminated against free blacks. The Liberty party nominated Birney for President in 1840, but gathered fewer than 7100 votes in its first campaign.
Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), a leading abolitionist and a wealthy New York landowner, gave away thousands of acres of land to African American and white workers, to allow them to set up farms. In this selection, he reports on the 1840 campaign.
Election Day is past!--and now, in behalf of the friends of the slave in the County of Madison and State of New-York, I declare to you, that we "have fought a good fight--have kept the faith." We have "fought" earnestly, strenuously, untiringly. We have "kept" the whole antislavery "faith." We have stood up for all its righteous and glorious principles; and have stood by each other. We have pursued slavery, hotly and unsparingly, into all its hiding places, whether in the Church or in the State. We have dealt impartially with proslavery demagogues, and proslavery ministers, and proslavery schools, and proslavery churches--and unmasked them all.
At an early day, the duty of voting for the slave was felt by a few persons in this County. Our first systematic effort to get votes for him was in 1837. By means of much toil--of much riding, and writing, and speaking--we induced about fifty of the inhabitants of the County to vote that year upon anti-slavery principles.
In the year 1840, the year of the organization of the Liberty Party, about 230 anti-slavery votes were cast in this county....
In common with the great body of abolitionists, I had not, at this time , given up my reliance on the interrogation-system [of asking Democratic and Whig candidates their stand on slavery]. But, very soon after, a train of thought passed through my mind, leaving the conviction that this reliance should be given up.... I saw now, for the first time, and I was surprised that I had not seen it before, that no National party in this country, whether ecclesiastical or political, is, so long as the system of American slavery endures, to be trusted on the question of slavery. It was now evident to me, that every such party is necessarily proslavery--and that it is so from the simple reason that the South, making slavery her paramount interest, will abide in no party, will come into no party, save on the condition that such party shall not attack slavery. Some may say that the Liberty Party is a National Party, and is, therefore, involved in my condemnation of all National Parties. To this I reply--that it is, in its hopes and objects, a National Party: but that, until the South has come into it, which cannot be until she has let go of slavery, it cannot be an actual National Party....