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Liberty Power

Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics

Liberty Power

Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was the first party built on opposition to slavery to win on the national stage—but its victory was rooted in the earlier efforts of under-appreciated antislavery third parties. Liberty Power tells the story of how abolitionist activists built the most transformative third-party movement in American history and effectively reshaped political structures in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

As Corey M. Brooks explains, abolitionist trailblazers who organized first the Liberty Party and later the more moderate Free Soil Party confronted formidable opposition from a two-party system expressly constructed to suppress disputes over slavery. Identifying the Whigs and Democrats as the mainstays of the southern Slave Power’s national supremacy, savvy abolitionists insisted that only a party independent of slaveholder influence could wrest the federal government from its grip. A series of shrewd electoral, lobbying, and legislative tactics enabled these antislavery third parties to wield influence far beyond their numbers. In the process, these parties transformed the national political debate and laid the groundwork for the success of the Republican Party and the end of American slavery.


“Through intensive research, careful dissection of events, and imaginative re-creation of interactions among abolitionists, Brooks has wrought something almost entirely new and completely convincing: his book is a powerful retelling of the story of how antislavery politics triumphed in the United States and, unlike almost every other narrative, places the abolitionists in the center of political events. For historians of antebellum America, this is the single most important book to read in 2016.”

Journal of the Civil War Era

“Brooks has written an excellent study that forces readers to consider the historiographic consensus that surrounds the familiar topic of political abolitionism in the antebellum US. . . . He ably demonstrates that the Free Soil and Republican parties did not arise from a vacuum but emerged from the effective partisan work of the ‘liberty power’ in US political culture. This well-researched, compelling study deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended.”


“A must-read for historians of politics and political institutions and offers a compelling description of an under-explored type of abolitionist.”

Civil War History

Liberty Power [offers] perceptive readings of both the politics of abolition and abolitionist politics in the early republic. . . . Exemplary.”

Reviews in American History

Liberty Power is a wonderfully fresh study of a well-trod topic of continuing interest. Brooks tells the story of antislavery third parties confidently and with a commanding grasp of the political and social events of the era. The book is thoroughly and impressively researched and an impressive addition to the flourishing literature on abolitionism as well as political history. Brooks writes fluidly and convincingly, making this a compelling and sophisticated narrative.”

Amy Greenberg, Pennsylvania State University

“In response to the Slave Power, opponents of slavery constructed a ‘Liberty Power’ that took concrete form as the Liberty Party. Brooks shows us how they did it and why it mattered. Elegantly crafted, thoroughly researched, and invariably insightful, this is one of the truly essential books on the antislavery movement and the origins of the Civil War.”

James Oakes, the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Liberty Power is a game changer. For too long political historians have seen abolitionists as so far removed from the electoral mainstream that their impact on politics was negligible. And historians of abolitionism have concluded that a deeply pro-slavery antebellum political system remained immune to the efforts by serious reformers to move it toward emancipation. Brooks persuasively contests both of these generalizations by demonstrating that abolitionists involved in the Liberty and Free Soil Parties succeeded over a span of two decades in wresting control of the House of Representatives from the slaveholders and their northern allies. Grounding these claims in deep research, Brooks’ study reconstructs the sophisticated long term strategies these abolitionists developed, their short-term political tactics, and, most welcome and revealing of all, their incontestably significant impact on the deliberations of the Congress itself. Scholars of Civil War causation must attend to this book.”

James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College

Table of Contents


Chapter One
Political Abolition and the Slave Power Argument, 1835–1840

Interlude One 
“Bowing Down to the Slave Power”: Northern Whigs, Slavery, and the Speakership, 1839

Chapter Two
Agitating the Congress: Abolitionist Lobbying and Antislavery Alliances, 1836–1844

Interlude Two
“A Temporary ‘Third Party’”: Antislavery Whig Dissidents in the 1841 Speakership Contest

Chapter Three
Building Third-Party Electoral Power, 1841–1846

Chapter Four
Antislavery Upheaval in the Capitol: The Wilmot Proviso Debates and the Widening Sectional Divide, 1846–1848

Interlude Three 
“Let the Lines Be Drawn”: Conscience Whig Insurgency and the 1847 Speakership Election

Chapter Five
Liberty Men and the Creation of an Anti–Slave Power Coalition, 1846–1849

Interlude Four 
“Glorious Confusion in the Ranks”: The Free Soil Balance of Power, 1849

Chapter Six
Free Soil Politics and the Twilight of the Second Party System, 1849–1853

Chapter Seven
The Nebraska Outrage and the Advent of the Republican Party, 1853–1855

Interlude Five
“A New Era in Our History”: The Longest Speakership Contest in American History and the First Republican National Victory, 1855–1856




Center for Political History, Lebanon Valley College: Sally & Morris Lasky Prize

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