Third Parties – The Free Soil Party

Print shows a campaign poster for Free Soil Party candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams in the presidential race of 1848, under slogan "Free Soil, Free Labor, "Free Speech".

There have been a large number of “third parties” in our political history. A third party is any party other than one of the two major parties, often primarily a one-issue party such as the Prohibition Party. Sometimes more than one third party has appeared in an election. One of the most significant of these third parties was the short-lived Free Soil Party. Unlike many of the others, however, the Free Soil Party had a major effect on the politics of the day, and even changed the outcome of one presidential election.

The Free Soil Party was formed in 1848. It was a combination of the small anti-slavery Liberty Party and the “Barn Burners” of New York. The Barn Burners were a faction of the New York Democratic Party, so named because it was said they were like a farmer who would willingly burn down his barn to get rid of the rats infesting it. The New York Democratic Party at that time largely ignored the divisive issue of slavery as a matter of policy. The Barn Burners spoke out against slavery even though it might hurt or even split the Democratic Party and lose elections. This is why the regular Democrats called the probably self-destructive anti-slavery members “Barn Burners.”

Added to the Barn Burners and the Liberty Party were other anti-slavery Democrats, “Conscience Whigs” (so named because they were against slavery as a matter of principle much like the Barn Burners) and assorted independents and members of other parties. The Free Soil Party was strongest in New York, New England and the mid-west. Although the Free Soil Party never had a chance of winning the presidential election in 1848, the Free Soil Party decided the outcome of the election, and changed our history.

When the party organized for the election of 1848, they knew they lacked the national organization necessary for the campaign. They tried to compensate for some of this disadvantage by naming a well-known candidate who would attract a large number of voters to the party. They nominated for President the former President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was still the leading figure in the New York Democratic Party, and he had long since abandoned his compromise position on slavery and come out strongly against slavery.

The key to the election in 1848 was going to be New York. With its 36 electoral votes (12.4% of the total electoral votes), New York would decide the election in a year when the race would be very close. This prediction proved to be very true. As it became apparent who was ahead in which states, it became clear that New York would decide the entire election. Whoever won New York would win the election. This made Martin Van Buren, probably the most popular politician in New York, an even more desirable candidate.

The Democrats, expecting to win, nominated Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan for President, and former Representative William O. Butler of Kentucky for Vice President. The Whigs nominated popular Mexican War Hero General Zachary Taylor for President. For Vice President, the Whigs selected Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was a former Congressman and was currently the Comptroller of New York, the only Whig elected state-wide at that time, he was very popular in New York and would help win the state for his party. The Free Soil Party nominated former President Van Buren for President, and for Vice President Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts. Adams was a well-known anti-slavery politician and lecturer and the son and grandson of a President. Like Van Buren, his name alone attracted many votes to the ticket.

After an exciting campaign in which all three parties concentrated on New York, the Whigs won the election in New York with a plurality (less than a majority but more than anyone else) taking all 36 electoral votes, which gave them the presidential election. A majority of the New York voters were Democratic, but they split between the regular candidate (Cass) and the Free Soil candidate (Van Buren), who was the true leader of the Democratic Party in New York. Indeed, Van Buren won more votes than Cass. Van Buren took 26.4% and Cass 25% of the vote in New York. The Whigs (Taylor and Fillmore) won 47.94%, largely due to Fillmore’s presence on the ticket. But that plurality gave the Whigs the state, and the White House.

It is safe to assume that almost all of the Free Soil votes in New York would have gone to Cass had it been a two-way race between the Democrats and the Whigs. Van Buren’s presence on the ballot split the Democrats, allowing the Whigs to win the state, which in that close year gave them the victory nationally.

Zachary Taylor, the Whig President elected in 1848, firmly opposed the Compromise of 1850, the Democratic Party’s solution to the slavery issue in the newly acquired western lands then threatening to divide the nation. Had the Democrats won the election, President Cass would have supported and signed the measures immediately. But President Taylor opposed them and prevented their passage by threatening to veto them. This increased the tensions between the North and South, and the country may have been heading towards civil war but for the sudden death of President Taylor in 1850. The new President, Millard Fillmore, supported and signed the measures temporarily ending the threat of violence.

But the Free Soil Party accomplished much more than playing spoiler in the Presidential election of 1848. They elected over a dozen men to both houses of Congress, and ran another Presidential campaign in 1852. They eventually formed the corps of the Republican Party when it formed in 1854, so in a way, they are still around today.

In the next article, we will see the other accomplishments of the Free Soil Party. They elected several important men to Congress who went on to become influential senators, members of the cabinet, and even a Chief Justice of the United States.

The Free Soil Party did more than merely change the outcome of the 1848 presidential contest. It elected a dozen or more men to both houses of Congress, and elected at least one state governor, Salmon P. Chase in Ohio.

The Free Soil Party had its roots in the Liberty Party, formed in Albany, New York in 1840. The Liberty Party never became a major force. In the presidential election of 1840, it nominated James G. Birney, a “reformed” slave owner, and won only 7,000 votes. But it succeeded in placing the slavery debate on the national agenda, and in 1844 it again nominated James. G. Birney and won 62,000 votes.

In 1848, the Liberty Party could not agree on a nominee. Different factions of the party were arguing over the future of the party, and the result was the end of the Liberty Party. While Liberty Party members joined a variety of other parties, most joined the new Free Soil Party, along with New York “Barn Burners” and Conscience Whigs.

As stated earlier, the Free Soil Party nominated former President Van Buren and won over 10% of the vote in the 1848 presidential election. Of course, as we have seen, Van Buren’s presence on the ballot in New York split the Democratic majority and gave New York, and the election, to the Whig Party.

Unlike the defunct Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party grew and gained in strength and influence. They elected a number of people to the U.S. House of Representatives, but none of these men became leaders in Congress. Most served only one or two terms.

Charles Allen served two terms (1849-1853) and declined to run for re-election in 1852. He returned to Massachusetts, where he had been a judge before serving in Congress, and became the Chief Justice of the Suffolk County Superior Court (1859-1867).

Walter Booth of Connecticut served one term (1849-1851). He was defeated when he ran for re-election.

Alexander DeWitt served one term (1853-1855) as a Free Soiler, and then served two terms (1855-1857) as a Republican after that party was formed. He was defeated for re-election in 1856.

Joseph M. Root served two terms as a member of the Whig Party (1845-1849) and then, joining the Free Soil Party was re-elected to another term (1849-1851). He then joined the Republican Party and, during the Civil War, he served as a U.S. Attorney in Ohio. After the Civil War, he joined the Democratic Party.

Edward Wade, brother of Senator and “Acting Vice President” Benjamin Wade, was a Free Soil member of the House of Representatives for one term (1853-1855) before joining the Republican Party and serving another three terms in the House (1855-1861). He did not run for re-election in 1860.

The Free Soil Party also elected men to the U.S. Senate. Two of them merely filled short vacancies. Lawrence Brainerd had been the Liberty Party candidate for governor of Connecticut in 1846, 1847, 1848, 1852, and 1854. After joining the Free Soil Party, he was elected to fill a vacancy and served in the Senate from October 10, 1854 until the end of the term on March 3, 1855. Francis Gillette, also a Free Soiler from Connecticut, was elected to fill a vacancy and served in the Senate from May 24, 1854 to March 3, 1855. Neither man ran for a full term of their own.

But where the Free Soil Party was most successful was the election of three of the most powerful and respected Senators of their generation. Salmon Portland Chase, one of only three non-presidents to appear on our currency, joined the Free Soil Party and served in the U.S. Senate from 1849-1855. He was not a candidate for re-election, choosing instead to run for governor of Ohio, winning that election. He was re-elected governor of Ohio as a Republican, and was then re-elected to the Senate in 1860. He served only a few days before resigning to become Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War, a post in which he served brilliantly. He later became Chief Justice of the United States and presided at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

Charles Sumner was one of the founders of the Free Soil Party and was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1851. He was re-elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1857, 1863 and 1869. He became one of the foremost leaders of the Radical Republican faction during and after the Civil War. Prior to the war, he was one of the best known and most effective leaders in the fight against slavery. One of his more emotional (and offensive) speeches caused a South Carolina Representative to enter the Senate and beat Sumner, who was sitting in his seat with his legs wrapped around the chair legs, with a brass handled cane. It was almost three years before Sumner recovered sufficiently to resume his seat in the Senate.

The last of this trio was Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. As a youth, he was apprenticed to a farmer. After serving his apprenticeship, he moved to Boston and learned the shoe-makers trade, and eventually started his own factory. He later bought and edited a major pro-abolition newspaper, The Boston Republican. Joining the Free Soil Party, he was elected to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate in 1855 by a coalition of the Free Soil, American (Know-Nothing) and Democratic Parties. He was re-elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1859, 1865, and 1871. He resigned from the Senate in 1873 to become Vice President of the United States.

The Free Soil Party voted itself out of existence in 1854, when it joined with other anti-slavery groups to form the new Republican Party. The Free Soil Party formed the core of the new party. The Republican Party adopted the Free Soil position on slavery, which said that slavery would be protected in states where it already existed, but should not be allowed to extend to new territories. In providing that all-important center piece of the Republican Party platform, the Free Soil Party continued to exist and influence the course of American history.