Why an Abolitionist Could Not Support the Whig Party
Digital History ID 316
In the presidential election of 1844, opponents of slavery were faced with a dilemma: whether to vote for the Whig candidate Henry Clay, or support the Liberty party candidate, James G. Birney, and possibly throw the election to the Democratic nominee James Knox Polk, an ardent supporter of territorial expansion. In 1844, the Liberty party polled some 62,000 votes--nine times as many votes as it had received four years earlier--and captured enough votes in Michigan and New York to deny Clay the presidency. In this letter to a leading New York Whig (and later Republican) politician, Gerrit Smith explains why he refused to support the Whig party.
I am of the number of those who believe that you mistake the "instincts" and character of the Whig party. Were I to regard it in the light in which you do, I should eagerly join it. Not my preference for an Independent Treasury to a National Bank; nor my preference for absolute free trade to either high or low tariffs; nor my conviction, that Government has no more right to make railroads and canals for the people, than it has to make hats and coats for them; would hold me back from joining it. These, which are regarded by most men as mere money questions, are but "as the small dust of the balance," when compared with the question of inalienable, unchangeable personal rights. I am so much of "a one idea man," that I go with the party which goes with the slave, go that party as it may on these inferior questions. To the Whig party, as you would have it, I should, as an abolitionist, make little objection. But I cannot consent to substitute your imaginations of its present, or your anticipations of its future, character, for what it really, and now, is....
I am amazed and sorrowful, that this party [the Liberty Party], should be held up as hypocritical, jesuitical, traitorous to the slave, and unprincipled, because it would not vote for Mr. Clay, and because it would pursue just such a course as it always said it would, and as consistency, truth, and decency required it should. It is not enough that, by means of the basest deceptions and boldest forgeries, the Liberty party was defrauded of not less than fifteen or twenty thousand votes. They, who thus defrauded it, are now pursuing it with a spirit envenomed by the consciousness of their cruel, deep, and causeless injuries of it....
That Mr. Clay is a slaveholder, is reason sufficient why the Liberty party could not vote for him. Not to vote for a slaveholder, in any circumstances, or under any temptations, has, from the first, been one of its cardinal and unanimously received doctrines. Though it may be taken as a confession of its narrow mindedness, I am, nevertheless, free to admit, that the Liberty party is what its enemies reproachfully call it--"a one idea party." Its sole object, its sole effort, is to abolish slavery....
It is said that Mr. Clay was opposed to the annexation of Texas. It is enough, however, to justify the opposition of the Liberty party to him, that he remained a slavery [defender]....
It is said, too, that however objectionable Mr. Clay might have been to the abolitionists, they should have voted for him, inasmuch as the party, whose candidate he was, is opposed to the annexation of Texas and to slavery; and inasmuch, moreover, as its rival party is in favor of both. Be assured, that I am not offended when the worst character is given to the Democratic party. A guiltier party there never was. It consented to vote for James K. Polk, when it well knew that its corrupt and corrupting masters nominated him for no other reason than his being in favor of the extension and perpetuity of American slavery.....
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Gerrit Smith to William H. Seward
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