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Free Soil Party
Free-Soilers: A History


Their opponents, called Free Soilers, countered with their own election. They drew up a constitution that outlawed slavery -- though it also barred black settlement -- and then applied for admission to the Union as a free state. Kansas now had two governments -- and its people were about to go to war with one another.

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Free Soil Party

     The Free Soil Party was a short-lived political party in the United States at the end of the Second Party System. It ran presidential candidates in 1848 and 1852, and some state candidates. After the Compromise of 1850 undercut its position some members returned to the Democratic Party, others supported John P. Hale for president in 1852, but he had little impact on the election.

     It was a breakaway faction of the Democratic Party and was largely absorbed by the Republican Party in 1854. Its main purpose was opposing the expansion of slavery into the territories, arguing that free men on free soil comprised a morally and economically superior system to slavery. The ‘free soilers’ were against the expansion of slavery but not the idea of slavery; their goal was to gain the land to the west, and keep the land free of slaves. Slavery was seen as a "social bad because it hurt free men," but, unlike the abolitionists, they did not denounce it as sinful.

     Free Soil candidates ran on the platform that declared: "...we inscribe on our banner, 'Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Man,' and under it we will fight on and fight ever, until a triumphant victory shall reward our exertions."

     The party also called for a homestead act and a tariff for revenue only (as opposed to a protective high tariff). The Free Soil Party attracted mainly Yankees from the Northeast and upper Midwest, especially Yankee areas of upstate New York, western Massachusetts, and northern Ohio.

     In 1848, the first party convention was held in Buffalo, New York, where the party nominated former Democratic President Martin Van Buren of New York, with Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts as vice president. The main party leaders were senators Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and John P. Hale of New Hampshire. They won no electoral votes.

     The Free Soil Party was a notable third party. More successful than most, it sent two senators and fourteen representatives to the thirty-first Congress, elected in 1848. Its presidential nominee in 1848, Van Buren, received 291,616 votes against Zachary Taylor of the Whigs and Lewis Cass of the Democrats; Van Buren received no electoral votes. The Party's "spoiler" effect in 1848 may have put Taylor into office in a narrowly-contested election. Its long-term impact was to allow antislavery Democrats an easy transition into the Republican Party, which formed in 1854 and incorporated Free Soil principles. Important Republicans included Senator Charles Sumner, architect of Reconstruction, Vice President Henry Wilson and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. See also: Missouri Civil War History and Kansas Civil War History.

Free Soilers, Proslavery, and Popular Sovereignty

      For the settlement of the territorial question three solutions were prominently urged. First, there was the Wilmot proviso, associated with the Free-Soilers and the Republican Party: the doctrine that slavery in all national territory ought to be definitely prohibited by Congress. Second, at the other extreme there was the doctrine of the Southern Democracy that it was the duty of the Federal government to extend positive protection to slavery in the territories, i.e. not merely to permit it, but to maintain and protect it. This solution was soon to be powerfully supported by both the President and the Supreme Court of the United States. Third, there was the "Popular Sovereignty" program associated with the policy of Douglas and the anti-Buchanan Democrats. Briefly, its purport was that slavery should be neither positively established nor arbitrarily prohibited in any territory by national action, but that the issue should be settled on the broad American principle of local self-determination by leaving the people of each territory free to deal with the matter as the majority by conventional political processes should decide."


     It is to the last-mentioned program that attention must now turn. In the slavery legislation of 1850 the principle of popular sovereignty had been applied to the Mexican acquisition; and now under Pierce a more famous instance of its application was to be seen in Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854. So truculent was the controversy waged concerning this piece of legislation that it is hard to penetrate the mists of vituperation and to isolate the causes and essential elements of the situation. A reappraisal of the much maligned Douglas will be of assistance in understanding the problem. Few men have presented so notable an example of rapid rise to political leadership. Born in Vermont, he struggled for some years as a lawyer in Illinois, became active in promoting the Democratic organization of his state, and served in the legislature simultaneously with Lincoln. For two years he was a member of the supreme court of Illinois; and the title "Judge Douglas" lasted through life. After serving briefly but brilliantly in the House of Representatives, he held the office of senator from Illinois during the critical years from 1847 to 1861, by which time he was the foremost Democrat of the North. His forthrightness, vigor, and aggressiveness, his force as a debater and talent as political strategist, had made a deep impression; and the breadth of his national vision bad given him a peculiar distinction in an age when the sectionalism of many of the nation's leaders was all too evident.


      Western problems and territorial issues bad been a specialty of Douglas, who had since 1847 been chairman of the committee on territories of the United States Senate after having held a similar chairmanship in the House, Questions of territorial organization, involving far-reaching phases of the westward movement, necessarily awaited his action in the formulation and recommendation of policies. It has already been noted that his part in the Compromise of 1850 was as vital as that of Clay himself; in 1854 no man was more thoroughly conversant than he with the whole background of territorial politics. By this time the territorial organization of the vast "Platte country" was overdue.


      Speaking for his committee, Douglas reported a bill for the territorial organization of the Platte country on January 4, 1854. Most of its provisions were conventional, but those concerning slavery attracted attention. Douglas declared that his bill was in tune with "certain great principles" which had already been enacted into law in 1850: "Your committee,' he said, "deem it fortunate . . . that the controversy then resulted ill the adoption of the compromise measures, which the two great political Parties . . . have affirmed . . . and proclaimed . . . as a final settlement of the Controversy and an end of the agitation." Briefly, these Principles, as he stated them, were that the people, through their representatives in the Legislature, should decide as to slavery in the territories with the right of appeal on matters of constitutionality to the Supreme Court of the United States.


      Historians have long argued over Douglas's motives in introducing this measure, which seemed indirectly to repeal the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Nebraska region and thus reopened the sectional conflict. Some critics have maintained that Douglas bad a material interest in the promotion of slavery, since his first wife bad inherited a plantation with 150 slaves. More frequently it has been argued that Douglas was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1856 and hoped to win Southern support. Refuting these charges, friendly historians have suggested instead that Douglas wished to assist Senator David R. Atchison in his campaign for re-election in Missouri, that be desired to promote the building of a transcontinental railroad with eastern termini at Chicago and St. Louis, or that he hoped to give the floundering Democratic party a fresh issue upon which it could appeal to the voters. Recently the argument has been settled by the discovery of a contemporary letter in which Douglas himself explained his motives. His purpose in introducing the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas declared, was to remove the "barbarian wall" of Indian tribes checking further settlement in the central plains and "to authorize and encourage a continuous line of settlements to the Pacific Ocean." His central idea of continental expansion included railroad development. As he explained:


How are we to develop [sic], cherish and protect our immense interests and possessions in the Pacific, with a vast wilderness fifteen hundred miles in breadth filled with hostile savages, and cutting off direct communication. The Indian barrier must be removed. The tide of emigration and civilization must be permitted to roll onward until it rushes through the passes of the mountains, and spreads over the plains, and mingles with the waters of the Pacific. Continuous lines of settlements with civil, political and religious institutions, under the protection of law, are imperiously demanded by the highest national considerations. These are essential, but they are not sufficient. . . . We must therefore have Rail Roads and Telegraphs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through our own territory. Not one line only, but many lines, for the valley of the Mississippi will require as many Rail Roads to the Pacific as to the Atlantic, and will not venture to limit the number.


     Intent upon opening the West to further development, Douglas wished to ignore or by-pass the slavery question. Knowing that he had no chance whatever of getting a territorial bill adopted without Southern votes, he presented a deliberately ambiguous measure which did not explicitly exclude slavery from the area, but which almost certainly would have left the Missouri Compromise prohibition in effect during the territorial stage of its development. Personally hostile to slavery, Douglas did not think the South's peculiar institution could ever extend into the great plains; consequently he believed that his token concession to the South in no sense endangered liberty. "It is to be hoped," he argued, "that the necessity and importance of the measure are manifest to the whole country, and that so far as the slavery question is concerned, all will be willing to sanction and affirm the principles established by the Compromise measures of 1850."


     But once the measure was presented to the Senate, it became the object of intense political pressure. Excited Free-Soilers attempted to add amendments reaffirming the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery. Angered by these maneuvers, Southerners informed Douglas that slavery must be permitted in the Nebraska country during the territorial phase of its organization. Reluctantly yielding to this latter pressure, Douglas on January 10 brought forward an additional section of his bill, which, he asserted, had previously been omitted through "clerical error"; it provided "that all questions pertaining to slavery in the Territories, and in the new States to be formed there from, are to be left to the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives." Though this provision plainly implied the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, proslavery leaders were still not satisfied, and Douglas was obliged to add a further amendment declaring the Missouri Compromise "inoperative and void."


      At the same time his bill was modified in another important fashion by dividing the area under consideration into the two separate territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Thus the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska bill was not Douglas's alone; it was, as Roy F. Nichols has said, "the work of many hands and the fruit of much strategic planning."  Assisted by relentless pressure from the Pierce administration, the bill, after months of riotous debate, was passed; the fateful measure became law on May 30, 1854.


      It was at once apparent that this legislation had let loose the dogs of war. While Southerners at first showed either indifference or resentment toward the act as one that offered them insufficient protection, they soon came enthusiastically to endorse it as "a measure . . . just in regards to the rights of the South, and . . . reasonable in its operation and effect." In the North Douglas's bill furiously aroused antislavery sentiment, and free-soil men in both parties took steps to have the action of Congress repudiated. Chase of Ohio, a puritan 'in politics who had labored in the Liberty party of 1840 and with the Free-Soilers of '48, now headed a movement to capture the Democratic party for the cause of antislavery. In his "Appeal to the Independent Democrats" he denounced Douglas's action as a violation of a solemn pledge, predicted its dire effect upon immigration to the West, warned the country that freedom and union were in peril, and besought all Christians to rise in protest against this "enormous crime." The vocabulary of abuse was exhausted in the attacks upon Douglas: "never before has a public man been so hunted and hounded."  As he himself declared, he could have traveled from Boston to Chicago by the light of his burning effigies. Even in his home state he was vigorously condemned. Both in Chicago and in downstate Illinois he encountered abuse and insult when he tried to defend his course, but he managed to strike home with his argument that it was the extremists on both sides, not himself, who were responsible for the storm of sectionalism.


      In keeping with the prevailing tendency toward political realignment, and as a direct result of the Kansas-Nebraska act, a new political party now came into being. Wilmot-proviso sentiment caused various diverse elements here and there to fuse into organizations which sometimes bore the awkward designation of "anti-Nebraska" parties, but which soon carne to be known as the "Republican" party. There has been some dispute as to the exact time and place where the party was "born." Coalition movements of a similar sort were afoot in many parts of the country at about the same time, and such a dispute is of little importance. The name “Republican" was adopted at a mass meeting on July 6, 1854, at Jackson, Michigan; prior to this, however, while the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was pending in Congress, a similar mass meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin, had resolved that in the event of such repeal old party organizations would be discarded and a new party would be built "on the sole issue of the non-extension of slavery." Elsewhere in the country local conventions followed suit; and by late summer of 1854 the new party movement was well under way. Made up of old-line Whigs, many of whom, such as Bates of Missouri and Browning of Illinois, preserved the Southern conservative tradition, together with radical antislavery men such as Sumner and Julian, Knownothings, and free-soil Democrats such as Trumbull and Chase, the new party combined many diverse ingredients; the force that cemented them (at the outset) was common opposition to the further extension of slavery in the territories.


     The outcome of Douglas's policy had been the opposite of his intentions. So far from allaying sectional conflict and uniting his party, he had reopened the strife which he himself had designated the "fearful struggle of I850"; he had split the historic Democratic party; he had supplied the occasion for the entrance of a wholly sectional party onto the scene; and he had driven many Northern Democrats into the ranks of this sectional group.

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

Recommended Reading: The Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 (Law in the American West). Description: The Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 turns upside down the traditional way of thinking about one of the most important laws ever passed in American history. The act that created Nebraska and Kansas also, in effect, abolished the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in the region since 1820. This bow to local control outraged the nation and led to vicious confrontations, including Kansas’s subsequent mini-civil war. The essays in this volume shift the focus from the violent and influential reaction of “Bleeding Kansas” to the role that Nebraska played in this decisive moment. Essays from both established and new scholars examine the historical context and significance of this statute. Continued below...

They treat American political culture of the 1850s; American territorial history; the roles of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Frederick Douglass in the creation and implementation of the law; the reactions of African Americans to the act; and the comparative impact on Nebraskans and Kansans. At the 150th anniversary of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, these scholars reexamine the political, social, and personal contexts of this act and its effect on the course of American history.

About the Author: John R. Wunder is a professor of history and journalism at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of numerous books, including “Retained by the People”: A History of American Indians and the Bill of Rights, and the coauthor of Americans View Their Dust Bowl Experience. Joann M. Ross has a JD from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is currently a history instructor at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts and is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Contributors include: Nicole Etcheson, Tekla Ali Johnson, Mark E. Neely Jr., Phillip S. Paludan, James A. Rawley, Brenden Rensink, Joann M. Ross, Walter C. Rucker, and John R. Wunder.

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Related Studies:

Recommended Reading: CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR: The Political, Cultural, Economic and Territorial Disputes Between the North and South. Description: While South Carolina's preemptive strike on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's subsequent call to arms started the Civil War, South Carolina's secession and Lincoln's military actions were simply the last in a chain of events stretching as far back as 1619. Increasing moral conflicts and political debates over slavery-exacerbated by the inequities inherent between an established agricultural society and a growing industrial one-led to a fierce sectionalism which manifested itself through cultural, economic, political and territorial disputes. This historical study reduces sectionalism to its most fundamental form, examining the underlying source of this antagonistic climate. From protective tariffs to the expansionist agenda, it illustrates the ways in which the foremost issues of the time influenced relations between the North and the South.


Recommended Reading: A House Divided: Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848-1865 (The American Moment). Reviews: "The best short treatment of the sectional conflict and Civil War available... Sewell convincingly demonstrates that the conflict was a revolutionary experience that fundamentally transformed the Republic and its people, and left a racial heritage that still confronts America today. The result is a poignant discussion of the central tragedy of American history and its legacy for the nation." -- William E. Gienapp, Georgia Historical Quarterly. "A provocative starting point for discussion, further study, and independent assessment." -- William H. Pease, History. "Sewell's style is fast moving and very readable... An excellent volume summarizing the stormy period prior to the war as well as a look at the military and home fronts." -- Civil War Book Exchange and Collector's Newsletter. Continued below…

"A well-written, traditional, and brief narrative of the period from the end of the Mexican War to the conclusion of the Civil War... Shows the value of traditional political history which is too often ignored in our rush to reconstruct the social texture of society." -- Thomas D. Morris, Civil War History. "Tailored for adoption in college courses. Students will find that the author has a keen eye for vivid quotations, giving his prose welcome immediacy." -- Daniel W. Crofts, Journal of Southern History.


Recommended Reading: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States) (Hardcover: 928 pages). Review: The newest volume in the renowned Oxford History of the United States-- A brilliant portrait of an era that saw dramatic transformations in American life The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent. Continued below…

Howe's panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs--advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans--were the true prophets of America's future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion -- Manifest Destiny -- culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States. By 1848, America had been transformed. What Hath God Wrought provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.


Recommended Reading: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Paperback), by David M. Potter. Review: Professor Potter treats an incredibly complicated and misinterpreted time period with unparalleled objectivity and insight. Potter masterfully explains the climatic events that led to Southern secession – a greatly divided nation – and the Civil War: the social, political and ideological conflicts; culture; American expansionism, sectionalism and popular sovereignty; economic and tariff systems; and slavery. In other words, Potter places under the microscope the root causes and origins of the Civil War. He conveys the subjects in easy to understand language to edify the reader's understanding (it's not like reading some dry old history book). Delving beyond surface meanings and interpretations, this book analyzes not only the history, but the historiography of the time period as well. Continued below…

Professor Potter rejects the historian's tendency to review the period with all the benefits of hindsight. He simply traces the events, allowing the reader a step-by-step walk through time, the various views, and contemplates the interpretations of contemporaries and other historians. Potter then moves forward with his analysis. The Impending Crisis is the absolute gold-standard of historical writing… This simply is the book by which, not only other antebellum era books, but all history books should be judged.

Recommended Reading: Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860. Review: The critical northern antebellum debate matched the rhetorical skills of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in an historic argument over the future of slavery in a westward-expanding America. Two years later, an equally historic oratorical showdown between secessionists and Unionists in Georgia generated as much popular interest south of the Mason-Dixon line, and perhaps had an even more profound immediate effect on the future of the United States. Continued below...

With Abraham Lincoln's "Black Republican" triumph in the presidential election of 1860, the United States witnessed ardent secessionist sentiment in the South. But Unionists were equally zealous and while South Carolina--a bastion of Disunionism since 1832--seemed certain to secede; the other fourteen slave states were far from decided. In the deep South, the road to disunion depended much on the actions of Georgia, a veritable microcosm of the divided South and geographically in the middle of the Cotton South. If Georgia went for the Union, secessionist South Carolina could be isolated. So in November of 1860, all the eyes of Dixie turned to tiny Milledgeville, pre-war capital of Georgia, for a legislative confrontation that would help chart the course toward civil war. In Secession Debated, William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson have for the first time collected the seven surviving speeches and public letters of this greatest of southern debates over disunion, providing today's reader with a unique window into a moment of American crisis. Introducing the debate and debaters in compelling fashion, the editors help bring to life a sleepy Southern town suddenly alive with importance as a divided legislature met to decide the fate of Georgia, and by extension, that of the nation. We hear myriad voices, among them the energetic and self-righteous Governor Joseph E. Brown who, while a slaveholder and secessionist, was somewhat suspect as a native North Georgian; Alexander H. Stephens, the eloquent Unionist whose "calm dispassionate approach" ultimately backfired; and fiery secessionist Robert Toombs who, impatient with Brown's indecisiveness and the caution of the Unionists, shouted to legislators: "Give me the sword! but if you do not place it in my hands, before God! I will take it." The secessionists' Henry Benning and Thomas R. R. Cobb as well as the Unionists Benjamin Hill and Herschel Johnson also speak to us across the years, most with eloquence, all with the patriotic, passionate conviction that defined an era. In the end, the legislature adopted a convention bill which decreed a popular vote on the issue in early January 1861. The election results were close, mirroring the intense debate of two months before: 51% of Georgians favored immediate secession, a slim margin which the propaganda-conscious Brown later inflated to 58%. On January 19th the Georgia Convention sanctioned secession in a 166-130 vote, and the imminent Confederacy had its Southern hinge. Secession Debated is a colorful and gripping tale told in the words of the actual participants, one which sheds new light on one of the great and hitherto neglected verbal showdowns in American history. It is essential to a full understanding of the origins of the War Between the States.


Sources: The Civil War and Reconstruction, by Randall and Donald; Frederick J. Blue; Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics 1987; Frederick J. Blue. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics, 1848-54 (1973); Martin Duberman; Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 1968; Eric Foner; Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War 1970; Oliver Gromwell Gardiner. The Great Issue, Or, The Three Presidential Candidates (1848); T. C. Smith, Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest (1897).

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