Updated Election Results for Nader/Gonzalez State by State

The Election of 1844

Monday, November 3, 2008 at 12:00:00 AM

Press Release
Contact: Toby Heaps, 202-441-6795

Why Third Parties That Might Not Win Elections Still Matter:
The Crucial Role of Third Parties in the Abolishment of Slavery

An important third party candidacy for abolishing slavery took place in 1844. James G. Birney, of the Liberty party ran against James K. Polk of the Democratic Party and Henry Clay of the Republican Party.

The Democrats were running on a platform of immediate territorial expansion, war with Mexico, and the continuation of slavery. The Republicans, knowing the popularity of territorial expansion took a very nebulous stance. They were for territorial expansion, but only gradually. Slavery — either abolishing it or maintaining its legality — was not on their platform.

James G. Birney ran on the Liberty ticket with an anti-slavery platform. He’d run in the previous election, winning only 0.4% of the vote. But in 1844 he did significantly better with 2.3% of the vote.

The election was close:

Candidate            James K. Polk              Henry Clay                           James G. Birney
Party                     Democratic                   Whig                                      Liberty
Platform               Invade Mexico Now    Invade Mexico later             Anti-slavery
                             (Pro-Slavery)               (More liberal slavery laws)
% of Pop. Vote      49.54%                       48.09%                                   2.30%
Electoral Vote       170                              105                                          0

The election is close. Some scholars charge that James G. Birney got enough votes in New York to tip the election for Polk. In that state, Polk beat Clay by little over one percent. James G. Birney had 3.25% of the vote there. Henry Clay would have won the election if he had New York’s 36 electoral votes by a margin of 7 electoral votes (141-134).

If the election happened today, Birney would have been lambasted as a "spoiler" for taking a principled stance on slavery and "stealing" votes from Clay.

As history shows, the strong third-party showing in the elections from 1844 through 1852 led to tumult in the Whig party that eventually broke it in two. The Whig party divided over the issue of slavery. The "Cotton" Whigs went to the pro-slavery Democrats. And the so-called "Conscience" Whigs went on to Free Soil, and eventually the newly formed Republican party.

If those who voted for Birney, instead decided to cast a "strategic" vote for the Whigs, the party may have held together longer than it did. Birney’s strong showing proved that the abolitionist movement was not something politicians could ignore if they wanted to stay in office.

Without the third party run that agitated the Whigs, who had become a party that was closely aligned with the Democrats, abolition may have taken much longer. Only 21 years after that, the 13th amendment, banning slavery, was added to the Constitution. A marginal candidate’s platform became the law of the land.