Free Soil Party

views updated Jun 08 2018

Free Soil Party

United States 1848-1854


Launched in 1848, the Free Soil Party sought to prohibit slavery in new U.S. territories acquired in the Mexican War. An upstart third party in the 1848 election, the Free Soilers made a promising showing with Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate. Eleven Free Soilers also won congressional seats, but the party was unable to forge a strong, unified rival to the two major parties. Although short-lived, the Free Soilers had an impact on the two major political parties, the Whigs and Democrats, and made the expansion of slavery a national political issue. When the Free Soil Party dissolved in 1854 to join the newly formed Republican Party, its members allied with a party whose platform supported their commitment to prohibit the extension of slavery while maintaining the Union.


  • 1850: U.S. Congress passes a series of laws, known collectively as the Compromise of 1850, to address growing divisions over slavery and the disposition of territories acquired in the Mexican War.
  • 1851: Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick.
  • 1852: Emigration from Ireland to the United States reaches its peak.
  • 1852: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, though far from a literary masterpiece, is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.
  • 1853: Commodore Matthew Perry arrives in Japan, and the United States forces the Japanese to permit American trade.
  • 1854: Republican Party is formed by opponents of slavery in Michigan.
  • 1854: "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walden by Henry David Thoreau are published.
  • 1855: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is published.
  • 1857: In its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a slave is not a citizen.
  • 1858: In a Springfield, Illinois, speech during his unsuccessful campaign for the Senate against Stephen Douglass, Abraham Lincoln makes a strong case against slavery, maintaining that "this Government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free."
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War sixteen months later.
  • 1859: Retired American railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake drills the first successful oil well in the United States, at Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Event and Its Context

Tensions over the Expansion of Slavery

The Mexican War brought the question of the expansion of slavery to the forefront in politics. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, added 500,000 square miles of land to the United States and stimulated the debate. Stephen Douglas, an Illinois senator, proposed popular sovereignty, which would allow residents of the territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery in their region. The plan's ambiguity as to whether territories could decide on the issue at any time or only upon statehood threw the plan into debate. John C. Calhoun, the veteran South Carolina politician, had argued that territories were under congressional authority, and therefore slave-holders could rightfully transport their property to any new territory. He further contended that the territories could only vote on whether to be free or slave upon statehood.

Northerners who were disillusioned with their parties' evasion of the issue of extension of slavery encouraged the formation of the Free Soil Party. In 1848, Salmon P. Chase called a convention in Columbus, Ohio. A leader in the weak Liberty Party, Chase, with other party members, hoped to build a stronger rival party to the Whigs and Democrats that could gain national support for their antiextension platform. The People's Convention brought together Conscience Whigs, Barnburner Democrats, and Liberty Party members. Fraught with internal discord from its beginning, the Free Soil Party nonetheless embarked on a national campaign to rally support. The party was particularly successful in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. Chase, active in the antislavery movement since the early 1830s, was largely responsible for the party's platform, which articulated a constitutional argument against the federal government's involvement in slavery. Chase argued that slavery was a state issue based on state laws alone, and the constitution prohibited federal intervention. Furthermore, the platform resolved that the founding fathers had sought to limit slavery; therefore, and act of Congress should prevent slavery in the new territories. More broadly, the platform demanded cheap postage, the elimination of unnecessary government offices, river and harbor improvements, and the elimination of the national debt. The party platform concluded with the inscription on the party banner, which read, "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men."

Chase and the Free Soil Party helped convince northerners that slave power controlled the federal government so that it protected slaveholders' interests above all others. Political events of the time seemed to confirm the threat of slave power. The failure of the Wilmot Proviso in the Senate served as one example of southern power in Congress. First introduced in 1846 by Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot, the amendment banned slavery from any territory that the United States might gain from Mexico. The House of Representatives, which was dominated at the time by northerners, passed the Wilmot Proviso on several occasions, but the southern-controlled Senate repeatedly vetoed it, revealing sectional tensions within Congress.

Free labor ideology was a significant part of the Free Soil campaign. Northerners argued that wage laborers chose their own employers and working conditions. Moreover, the market economy offered mobility, and wage earning was a stage in the process of becoming one's own boss. This reasoning protected republican values, although its logic was problematic and based on white racism. The majority of white northerners wanted to keep all African Americans from the western territories and worried that slaves would not only undermine free white laborers, but that the slave population would grow and eventually compete for jobs. Slaveholders rebuffed the free labor argument, defending the system of slavery as a benevolent one that provided for the slave from the "cradle to the grave." The slaveholders argued that this was preferable to the condition of the northern wage laborers who endured precarious living conditions and suffered at the whim of the market and employers and received no compensation when their working days were finished.

Van Buren Takes the Helm

In the presidential election of 1848, both the Whigs and Democrats faced the problem of finding candidates with national appeal. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass who supported popular sovereignty, and the Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, who had made no public statement on the issue of slavery in new territories. Both parties attempted to avoid the issue, but the Free Soil Party's platform in support of the Wilmot Proviso made antiextension part of the national election. With Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate and Charles Francis Adams running as vice president, Free Soilers hoped to attract both Democrats and Whigs who were disillusioned with their own parties. Embroiled in bitter rivalry within the Democratic Party, disheartened with Polk, and virulently opposed to Lewis Cass, Van Buren accepted the Free Soil nomination. He was convinced that southern influence posed a threat to northerners, and, ironically, after a history of avoiding the issue of slavery, became the presidential nominee for the antiextension party.

Aware that they needed to campaign on more than the Wilmot Proviso, the Free Soil Party sought to attract midwesterners and working-class men from the Democratic Party by promoting federal funds to improve rivers and harbors in the Midwest. Free Soilers counted on appealing to white northerners who saw their settlement in western territories threatened by southern slaveholders. Zachary Taylor won the presidency in 1848, but Van Buren earned 10 percent of the electoral vote, which was a substantial achievement for the nascent party. Despite Van Buren's modest success, he failed to carry a single state.

After the 1848 presidential election, Free Soilers focused on state and local elections and gained 11 seats in Congress. Free Soilers also had some success winning state legislature elections, but political maneuvering to win elections, along with tenuous alliances with Whigs and Democrats to gain some level of power, caused friction within the Free Soil Party. Joshua Giddings and Charles Sumner wanted to retain the Free Soil Party's independence and chafed at Chase's suspect alliance with the Democrats that was designed to win a seat in the Senate. Chase, on the other hand, believed that forging alliances was the only way to achieve the party's political objectives. Van Buren, still a Democrat at heart, never thought of the third party as a permanent solution but viewed it as a way to redirect the Democratic Party. These divisions continued to undermine party cohesion and resulted in fierce battles between Giddings and Chase in Ohio, which greatly weakened the party in that state.

African Americans resoundingly rejected the Free Soil's racist platform. Frederick Douglass, Henry Garnett, and other prominent black abolitionists denounced the party's defense of whites' rights rather than equal rights for all. Many African Americans reluctantly supported the party, however. Some Free Soilers were abolitionists, but for political expediency they focused on containment rather than abolition. In Ohio, Chase and Giddings vigorously lobbied to repeal the state's black codes.

Their success in passing the repeal gave some African Americans hope that Free Soil might benefit blacks in the long run.

Compromises and Alliances

The Compromise of 1850 further exacerbated the problems of Free Soilers. The omnibus bill, which had been created originally by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, passed Congress piecemeal. The compromise strengthened the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law to allow slaveholders more latitude in the capture of runaway slaves in the North. It also outlawed the slave trade in the nation's capital, although slavery remained legal. Additionally, California was admitted as a free state, and the rest of the land gained from Mexico was organized into two territories, New Mexico and Utah, which would decide to enter as a free slave states by popular sovereignty at the time of statehood. Although the Fugitive Slave Law outraged northerners, the compromise temporarily placated regional conflict.

In the 1852 election, Free Soilers, now calling themselves Free Democrats, ran John P. Hale for president and George Julian for vice president. Franklin Pierce, the Democratic presidential nominee, won the election with more than half the popular vote. Hale only managed 5 percent of the vote—half of what Van Buren had received in 1848. Free Soil was still feeling the results of the Compromise of 1850 and could not find many faithful converts from the two major parties. The two-party system seemed entrenched, and the United States was not ready to accommodate a third, sectional party.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 further elevated sectional tensions. The ambitious Stephen Douglas bargained to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Submitting to pressure from southern congressmen, Douglas replaced a prohibition clause with popular sovereignty, which annulled the Missouri Compromise. Northern outrage exposed problems with the second party system; sectional divisions between the North and South were becoming more rigid. The Republicans emerged as a party of the North in 1854 and quickly garnered support from northern Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers. The North was poised to support a sectional political party.

The Free Soil Party's brief existence influenced U.S. politics by exposing divisions within the major parties. Although unable to challenge the two-party system, Free Soil agitation kept the issue of antiextension in public debate, and as events of the antebellum era unfolded, slavery became a significant national issue both economically and politically.

Key Players

Chase, Salmon Portland (1808-1873): Chase was an Ohio attorney who became a Whig city councilman in 1840 and joined the Liberty Party in 1841. Chase helped establish the Free Soil Party in 1848 and served in the Senate from 1849 to 1855, when he became governor of Ohio. He served as secretary of the treasury in Lincoln's cabinet until his appointment as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1864.

Giddings, Joshua Reed (1795-1864): An Ohio attorney, Giddings became a state house representative in 1826. He was elected to Congress as a Whig in 1838, and in 1848, he was elected as a Free Soiler. Giddings continued his tenure as a Republican congressman until 1859. In 1861, Lincoln appointed him consul general to the British North American Provinces where he served until his death.

Hale, John Parker (1806-1873): A New Hampshire attorney, Hale was elected to the House in 1832, served as attorney general (1834-1841), and then returned to Congress (1843-1845). Hale refused to vote on the annexation of Texas. He won a seat in the Senate in 1846 as an independent Democrat and remained in the Senate until 1853. In 1852, he ran a failed presidential campaign for the Free Soil Party.

Sumner, Charles (1811-1874): A Massachusetts attorney who declined Whig nomination to Congress in 1846, Sumner helped found the Free Soil Party but lost his bid for a congressional seat that year. Elected to the Senate in 1851, Sumner became a Republican in 1854 and held his Senate seat until his death in 1874. During Reconstruction, Sumner was part of the "Radical Republicans," who were instrumental in advocating universal suffrage for African American men and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.

Van Buren, Martin (1782-1862): A New York lawyer, VanBuren was elected to the Senate in 1821. Known as "the Little Magician" for his evasiveness, Van Buren rode Jackson's coattails to the presidency in 1836. Van Buren reluctantly accepted the New York Barnburner Democrats' nomination for president on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He hoped the Barnburners' desertion from the Democratic Party would precipitate the party's redesign.

See also: Abolition of Slavery, United States.



Bilotta, James D. Race and the Rise of the Republican Party,1848-1865. New York: P. Lang, 1992.

Blue, Frederick J. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics,1848-54. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1978.

Mayfield, John. Rehearsal for Republicanism: Free Soil and the Politics of Anti-Slavery. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1980.

Smith, Theodore Clarke. The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

—Karla Kelling

Free Soil Party

views updated Jun 08 2018


FREE SOIL PARTY. This third party took shape in the aftermath of the August 1846 through March 1847 congressional debate over the Wilmot Proviso. When the House member David Wilmot of Pennsylvania and other dissident northern Democrats attempted to amend an appropriation bill by introducing language forever banning slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, they reintroduced the slavery issue into national party politics. While President James K. Polk fumed and the South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun demanded southern rights in the future territories, Whigs and Democrats struggled to hold the northern and southern wings of their parties together. In 1848, after both major parties refused to endorse the Wilmot Proviso, the antiextensionists, led by opportunistic Barn-burner Democrats in New York and Ohio Liberty Party men, called for a national convention to unite proponents of the proviso: Northern Democrats, unhappy with Polk's patronage assignments and his opposition to internal improvements; Liberty Party members willing to forsake abolitionism; New York Democrats loyal to Martin Van Buren, who sought revenge for his defeat at the 1844 Democratic National Convention; and Conscience Whigs, who feared the consequences of acquiring new territory from Mexico, formed an unlikely coalition.

When representatives of these groups convened on 9 and 10 August 1848 at Buffalo, New York, the New York Barnburners secured the nomination of Van Buren for president but permitted others, notably Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, to write a platform that both demanded "No more Slave States and no more Slave Territory" and announced the new party's slogan, "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men." Although the Free Soil Party failed to carry a single state in the presidential election of 1848, it did garner 291,263 votes nationally and elected several congressmen. By 1851 Chase, John P. Hale of New Hampshire, and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts all spoke for the new party in the U.S. Senate. The party's fortunes declined precipitously, however. The New York Barnburners quickly rejoined their state Democratic Party, and Free Soilers in several other northern states soon found themselves coopted by the regular Democrats or Whigs. In 1852 the Free Soilers nominated Hale for president, but their lack of strong state and local organizations, together with a national sense that the Compromise of 1850 had settled the slavery issue, contributed to the party's lackluster performance in that year's elections.

Assailed as fanatics on the subject of slavery by some critics, Free Soilers were not embraced by northern blacks or by Liberty men suspicious of their reluctance to endorse the abolition of slavery. Few Free Soilers favored racial equality. Indeed their vision for free territories generally encompassed only white males, not free blacks. By 1853, however, party rhetoric emphasizing the need to contain slavery and to check the dangerous slave power had exerted a powerful influence on the northern electorate. When in January 1854 the Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced his bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska Territories on the principle of popular sovereignty, protests began almost immediately in northern legislatures. After Douglas's bill passed in May 1854, the antiextension position long championed by the Free Soil Party became the cornerstone of the emerging Republican Party. Former Free Soil leaders such as Chase and Sumner became Republicans. The Republican Party platforms of 1856 and 1860 closely reflected Free Soil positions not only on slavery but also regarding support for internal improvements and for homesteads for white settlers.


Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Sewell, Richard H. Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Smith, Theodore Clarke. The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest. 1897. Reprint Arno Press, 1969.

Julienne L.Wood

See alsoAntislavery ; Republican Party .

Free Soil Party

views updated Jun 08 2018


The Free Soil Party evolved in the 1840s in response to the growing split between pro- and anti-slavery movements in the United States. National politics was controlled primarily by two parties, Democratic and Whig. Within both parties there were supporters and opponents of slavery, and the issue became more heated as the U.S. added territory. Proponents of slavery wanted to extend it into the newly acquired territories, while opponents wanted the territories to remain free. The issue grew especially heated among members of the state democratic party in New York. Two groups emerged: the "Barnburners," who opposed slavery, and the "Hunkers," who supported slavery or were neutral on the question.

In 1844, the Barnburners pushed for the nomination of former president and fellow New Yorker martin van buren. Southern Democrats supported james k. polk, who was more sympathetic to their views, and although the New York Democrats were well organized they could not defeat a strong Southern bloc. Polk won the Democratic nomination and beat the Whig candidate, henry clay, in the general election.

The Mexican War, which began in 1846, further exacerbated the slavery question. david wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, introduced what became known as the wilmot proviso. It called for a prohibition of slavery in any territory acquired by the United States in the war with Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso came up for a vote several times; it was routinely passed by the House and defeated by the Senate.

Democrats and Whigs wanted to avoid party division in the election of 1848, so they virtually ignored the slavery question. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, who was sympathetic to Southern slaveholders. In defiance, anti-slavery

Democrats joined with the Barnburners in New York to create the Free Soil party. The party held its convention in Buffalo, New York, in August 1848 and adopted the slogan, "Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men." The Free Soilers nominated Van Buren for president and Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts for vice president.

The Free Soilers had a mixed reception. Many people saw them as a cynical group of Van Buren loyalists who had no real desire to abolish slavery but merely to take votes away from the major parties. Senator daniel webster, the statesman from Massachusetts (and himself a Whig), derisively called the party the "Free Spoilers." Yet the party drew a surprising amount of support from abolitionists, including frederick douglass.

Hostilities even among different state Free Soil organizations kept the party from building enough strength to win the presidency, although the Free Soilers did make their presence known. Van Buren received 291,616 votes, not enough to regain the White House—but enough to take votes away from Cass and ultimately ensure a Whig victory for zachary taylor. The Free Soil party did respectably in Congress, electing 13 representatives and two senators.

The slavery question continued to divide the country, although the compromise of 1850 attempted to provide a framework that everyone could accept by legislating which states and territories would be free and which would be slave. To those who had strong feelings about slavery, the Compromise of 1850 solved no problems, and the Free Soilers nominated John Parker Hale, an abolitionist from New Hampshire, as their candidate for president in 1852. By then, however, interest in the Free Soil party had dwindled. Hale received only about five percent of the popular vote.

By 1854 the Free Soil party had disappeared, but many of its supporters and former members still held sway in national politics. Well-known figures formerly tied to the Free Soilers included politicians such as Schuyler Colfax, charles sumner, and salmon p. chase, as well as newspaper editor Horace Greeley. These influential men became key figures in the creation of the republican party, whose 1860 candidate for president was abraham lincoln.

further readings

Blue, Frederick J. 1973. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics 1848-54. Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Foner, Eric. 1970. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Independent Parties; Republican Party; Slavery.

Free Soil Party

views updated Jun 08 2018

Free Soil Party

The Free Soil Party formed during the presidential election of 1848. It contained members who had left the two major parties, the Whig Party and the Democratic Party , over the issue of slavery . Former president Martin Van Buren (1782–1862; served 1837–41), the party's candidate, came in third place in the popular vote behind the winner, the Whig Party's Zachary Taylor (1784–1850; served 1849–50), and the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass (1782–1866).

The United States annexed Texas from Mexico in 1845. After winning the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the country acquired the lands that would become California , Nevada , New Mexico , Utah , most of Arizona , and parts of Colorado and Wyoming . The new land raised a question that was controversial in American politics: whether slavery would be allowed in the new American territories.

The Democratic Party was popular in the South, where free white people supported slavery. To avoid controversy over slavery in the election of 1848, the Democratic Party left the slavery expansion question out of its platform. It was well known, however, that Cass supported the right of the free people of new territories to decide on their own whether they wanted slavery.

The Whig Party was most popular in the North. Slavery was largely abolished there, but like the Democratic Party, the Whig Party decided to avoid the slavery expansion controversy. Taylor, in fact, was generally silent on all of the major questions of the day during the campaign.

Silence over the slavery question led dissatisfied members of both parties to form a new party, the Free Soil Party. Its motto was “Free soil, free speech, free labor and free men.” Free soilers opposed the expansion of slavery because they believed that slavery interfered with the rights of free men to find work. In general, members of the Free Soil Party were not particularly concerned with the plight of slaves, and they did not support equal rights for African Americans.

Taylor won the election of 1848. The Free Soil Party declined after the election, but its philosophy led to the creation of the Republican Party in the 1850s.

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