Bowdoin's Research Atlas for Nineteenth-Century History

Exercise 2:  What were the sources of Liberty Party support in the 1844 presidential election?

When William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator in 1831, he inaugurated a radical movement for the immediate and uncompensated end to slavery.  The new push to abolish slavery adopted fierce rhetoric previously unheard in American public life.  "I will be as harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice,” Garrison stormed in print.  “I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard."  The radical abolition movement began and ended as a marginal movement, its advocates a scorned and despised minority.  Yet, somehow, abolitionism slowly infiltrated the center of American politics.  Whereas in 1831 few could have imagined that slavery would become a national political issue, in 1861 few would have denied that it was slavery, somehow, that had sundered the union.

The presidential election of 1844 marked a turning point when national politics began to reform around the issue of slavery.  In that year, a third political party arose to challenge the dominance of the two major parties: the Democrats and the Whigs.  The new Liberty Party was built solidly on antislavery foundations.  Its leaders, culled from abolitionist ranks, modified their antislavery message, watering it down enough to attract considerable popular support throughout the North.

The election itself offered Americans a titanic struggle between Henry Clay, one of the founders of the Whig Party and a towering figure in antebellum politics, and James K. Polk, a dark horse Democrat and advocate of national expansion.  Polk won, but narrowly.  A critical factor in the outcome was the electoral vote of New York state, which Polk took by a mere 2,500 votes.  Had most of the fifteen thousand Liberty Party voters in New York had voted Whig, Polk would have lost New York's 36 electoral votes, and with them perhaps the entire election.

The Liberty Party’s success demonstrated the significance of third parties in American politics.  It also paved the way for the realignment of national politics in the 1850s --- a reconfiguration of national parties that birthed the Republican Party and ultimately led to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

This exercise will help us understand the sources of support for the Liberty Party.  Using historical voting and census data, we will explore a range of social factors and their relationship to Liberty Party votes.

James K. Polk Henry Clay James G. Birney
Democratic Whig Liberty

Click here for a map of the 1844 electoral college results.

(26 States in the Union)
Presidential Candidate Party Home State Popular Vote Electoral Vote
Count Percentage
James K. Polk Democratic Tennessee 1,337,243 49.6% 170
Henry Clay Whig Kentucky 1,299,062 48.1% 105
James G. Birney Liberty New York 62,300 2.3% 0
Total 2,698,605 100% 275
Needed to win 138

1 Let’s start with an establishing map.


  1. What does this map show?
  2. In what regions did James G. Birney, the Liberty Party presidential candidate, enjoy the greatest support? 
We will consider the counties where the party garnered more than 7% of the popular vote to be "Liberty strongholds," deserving of our special attention.

2 Let’s place the Liberty Party vote in comparison with the votes of the two major parties.

  1. What might these maps suggest about the geographic distribution of party voting patterns in antebellum America?
  2. Can you identify any particular areas that might be worth investigating further?
  3. What might these maps suggest about the significance of the Liberty Party vote?

3 Now let’s begin to explore the social underpinnings of Liberty Party voting.  We’ll concentrate on those counties we’ve identified as particularly strong supporters of the party.  And we’ll use data from the 1850 federal census --- the closest to 1844 to include a wide range of social data.

Examine the following maps with these questions in mind:

  1. Is there a clear connection between Liberty Party strongholds and the data shown on the map?  Remember that we’re not just looking at the extremes of the data.
  2. What conclusions might we draw about the sources of Liberty Party support and the characteristics portrayed in the maps?
  3. What regions (states or sets of counties) invite further exploration?  Why?

4 The final category we will examine is religion, as evident in the prevalence of churches in antebellum America.  Historians have long wondered about the relationship between antebellum religion and the abolitionist movement.  On the one hand, some of the most radical abolitionists disdained organized religion.  Elizur Wright, secretary for the American Anti-Slavery Society, declared that “Christianity is itself a total failure” -- a plan only for “saving souls for a future life without saving souls and bodies for this.”  On the other hand, scholars have long recognized the profound impact of the Second Great Awakening --- that profound explosion of evangelical ferver which struck America in the antebellum decades --- on fostering a range of social reforms, like temperance, anti-prostitution, and ultimately abolitionism.

  1. Can anything be gleaned from this map regarding the relationship between religion and Liberty Party support in antebellum America?
  2. What are the potential hazards of using churches as a measure of religious belief?

5 The total number of churches may not reveal much about the sources of support for political abolitionism.  Of course, antebellum Americans embraced many forms of Protestant Christianity, as well as Catholicism and Judaism.  Perhaps religious support for abolitionism tended to emerge from certain sects and not from others.  Below we have mapped the presence of different church sects in relation to Liberty Party strongholds.  What do these maps suggest about the religious bases of Liberty Party support? 

The Methodists and Baptists were the most popular churches in antebellum America.  They embraced a range of worshippers, and confronted conflicts within their church structures over the morality of slavery.

The Congregationalist Church was the church of New England's Puritan forbearers.  A long tradition of American history has looked to New England as the cultural hearth of the entire nation in the nineteenth century.  Thus we might wonder if the religious values of New England, a clear stronghold of antislavery sentiment, helped spread Liberty Party support across the nation.  Does the following map bear out such a conclusion?

Finally, perhaps we should consider the influence of Unitarian and Universalist churches.  Prominent Unitarians such as Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Parker numbered among abolitionisms' most ardent champions. 

For all maps:
  1. Based on the maps, which Protestant sects seem to have been most predisposed to lend support to the Liberty Party?
  2. Can you identify regional differences in the relationship between each sect and Liberty Party support? 

6 Conclusions

What overarching arguments can you formulate regarding the social bases of Liberty Party support?  Can you identify particular social characteristics associated with Liberty Party support?  Can you identify possible regional variations in the bases of support for the Liberty Party? 

Finally, formulate a plan for further investigation of Liberty Party support in a particular region or regions within the nation.  What kinds of additional census and map data would you like to have?  What sorts of other historical sources would you try to obtain?

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