The Free Soil Party’s Rise and Fall in the Pre-Civil War Years

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In this 1850 political cartoon, the artist attacks abolitionist, Free Soil, and other sectionalist interests of 1850 as dangers to the Union.

Supporters of the Free Soil Party opposed the extension of slavery into the new U.S. territories and rejected any further compromises with the Slave Power.

The Free Soil Party was formed in 1848 when the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan, denying Martin Van Buren another chance at the presidency. Van Buren’s “barnburners” attracted members of the Liberty Party, which had fielded a candidate in 1844, and which rejected any constitutional interpretation permitting the extension of slavery into new territories. Democrats rejecting Cass’ solution of “squatter” or “popular sovereignty” also supported the Free Soilers. The party achieved success in several Northeastern states, most notably in New York, Van Buren’s home state. This cost Cass the New York electoral vote and the election.

Free Labor and Free Men Characterize the Free Soil Party Platform

The 1848 Free Soil Party Platform, crafted by Salmon Chase, represented, “a union of freemen…in a common resolve to maintain the rights of free labor against the aggressions of the Slave Power…” According to historian Eric Foner, Free Soilers believed that free labor “was economically superior to slave labor.” Taking their cue from Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso, some Free Soilers saw the new territories as a “white man’s mecca,” free of any blacks, whether slave or free.

National versus Local Perspectives on Slavery in the 1840s and 1850s

The party platform used American history to conclude that, “it was the settled policy of the Nation not to extend, nationalize or encourage, but to limit, localize and discourage slavery…” Thus, Free Soilers called upon Congress to abandon efforts to interfere “with Slavery within the limits of the State.” The conclusion was “no more Compromises” with the Slave Powers and the prohibition of slavery in the new territories. The “national” perspective maintained that “freedom” defined American virtue and local politics had no business supplanting those inherent values.

Results of the Election of 1848

Martin Van Buren received 291,263 popular votes but the decisive votes occurred in New York. But presidents win by electoral votes. In 1848, the winning candidate needed to receive at least 146 electoral votes. Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, emerged with 163 elector votes; Lewis Cass received 127. Van Buren’s popular vote in New York hurt Cass, who lost the state’s 36 electoral votes as a consequence. Had Cass won, he – rather than Zachary Taylor, would have ended with 163 elector votes, thus becoming the next president.

Zachary Taylor and Slavery

Taylor, however, was nonpolitical, owing his nomination to his exploits during the recently concluded Mexican War. A Southern planter who owned many slaves, he was perceived as being favorable to the expansion of slavery. Once in office, however, Taylor proved otherwise, recommending that California be swiftly admitted as a free state and, in 1850, threatening to veto the Compromise of 1850.

The Free Soil Party After 1848

Although the party ran a candidate in 1852, most Free Soilers gravitated to the American Party or “Know-Nothings,” supporting Millard Fillmore in the 1856 election. By 1860, however, the Republican Party successfully incorporated many supporters of the various fringe parties that had formed during the 1850s, including the Free Soilers.

References:

  1. Text of the 1848 Free Soil Party Platform
  2. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford Unidersity Press, 1995)
  3. William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)
  4. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Volume 4 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)