Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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FREE-SOIL PARTY, The (IN U. S. HISTORY). The history of this party, the first one which aimed specially at the restriction of slavery to its state limits, covers a period of but about five years, 1848-52, and may best be understood by first considering the two elements which composed it, the political free-soilers and the conscientious free-soilers.


—1. The political free-soilers were confined to the state of New York, and were mainly the voters of that state political organization, or "machine," of which ex-President Van Buren had long been the recognized head. (See ALBANY REGENCY.) Van Buren's defeat in the democratic convention of 1844, and the political revolution in the party which was a consequence of it, were results of southern votes and of a distinct southern question; and the first effort of the Polk administration, like every other administration of any party in a similar situation, was to encourage the building up of a new organization of its own, for the purpose of ousting the old organization from the control of the great state of New York. (See DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICAN PARTY, IV.; VAN BUREN, MARTIN; NEW YORK.) The old organization, however, in the present case, was too strongly entrenched to surrender power easily, and the four years of Polk's administration were marked by a progressive split in the democratic party of New York, resulting, toward 1847, in the formation of two distinct factions, the barnburners and the bunkers (See those names.) The former was the Van Buren organization, and its opposition to the administration which had supplanted it naturally took the form of opposition to the extension of slavery to the territories. It therefore fell naturally into the free-soil party on its organization. The division in the New York democratic party, though apparently healed in 1852, lasted in reality for many years further, the former "barnburners" and "hunkers" taking the names of "softs" and "hards," respectively.


—2. The conscientious free-soilers were not confined to New York, but were found in every northern state, and in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Kentucky, in the south. They were mainly the members of the "liberty party," (see ABOLITION, II.), re-enforced, after 1844, by a part of the antislavery element which had been common, up to that year, throughout the agricultural membership of the northern democratic party. In the fall of 1847 they held a national convention at Buffalo, still under the name of the liberty party, and nominated John P. Hale, of New Hampshire, and Leicester King, of Ohio, as presidential candidates; but toward the spring of 1848 the evident division in the New York democratic party, which it was hoped would extend to other states, encouraged them to drop their nominations and take part in the formation of the "free soil party."


—The democratic convention at Baltimore in 1848 was attended by delegations from both the barnburner and hunker factions, each claiming to represent the state. May 23, by a vote of 133 to 118, the convention admitted both delegations, giving half the state vote to each. Both delegations rejected the decision, and withdrew from the convention. The hunkers, satisfied with having kept their opponents out, and secure of the support of the administration, did nothing further. The barnburners met in state convention at Utica, June 22, and nominated Martin Van Buren and Henry Dodge, of Wisconsin, as presidential candidates, apparently for the purpose of maintaining their state organization, of showing their ability to control the state electoral vote, and thus of forcing some compromise which would secure for them recognition as an essential part of the New York democracy. Gen. Dodge refused to accept the nomination.


—In the meantime a call had been issued for a general free-soil convention at Buffalo, Aug. 9. It was attended by 465 delegates from nearly all the free states, and from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, eighteen states in all. For president, Martin Van Buren received 244 votes to 181 for John P. Hale, and was nominated; Charles Francis Adams was nominated for vice-president. The platform was very long, in three preambles and sixteen resolutions. The preambles declared the delegates' independence of the slave power, their secession from the democracy; their inability to join the whigs, who, in nominating Taylor, had "abandoned their distinctive principles for mere availability"; and their determination to secure "free soil to a free people." The resolutions declared in general that slavery in the states was valid by state laws, for which the federal government was not responsible; but that congress had "no more power to make a slave than to make a king," and hence was bound to restrict slavery to the slave states, and to refuse it admission to the territories. In the election of 1848 for president the new party cast 291,263 votes, a great but deceptive advance on the liberty party's vote in 1844. It was entirely a free state vote, except 9 in Virginia, 80 in Delaware, and 125 in Maryland. Outside of New York the free-soilers outnumbered the democrats in Massachusetts and Vermont, and gave the votes of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to the democratic candidates by small pluralities, in New York they polled 120,510 votes to 114,318 votes for Cass and Butler, and gave the electoral votes of the state to the whig candidates. Both elements of the free-soil party were thus satisfied; the conscientious free-soilers, frequently called "abolitionists," had punished and demoralized the whig party, and the political free-soilers, commonly called "night soilers" by their hunker opponents, had punished and demoralized the democratic party. The principal result of the congressional elections of the same year was that the New York delegation was changed from 10 democrats and 24 whigs (in 1847-9) to 1 democrat, 1 free-soiler, and 32 whigs (in 1849-51).


—In congress the free-soil representatives at once took separate ground, apart from both whigs and democrats. In the 31st congress they numbered 2 in the senate, (Hale and S. P. Chase), and in the lower house 14, including Preston King, of New York, J. R. Giddings, Lewis D. Campbell and Joseph M. Root, of Ohio, Geo. W. Julian, of Indiana, David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania (see WILMOT PROVISO), and Horace Mann, of Massachusetts. In the 32d congress (1851-8) they had 3 in the senate, Charles Sumner having taken his seat there, and 17 in the house. In the 33d congress (185-5) the free-soilers in the senate numbered from 3 to 5; in the house they had about the same number. After that time they were swallowed up in the sudden rise of the anti-Nebraska tide. (See REPUBLICAN PARTY.)


—Negotiations between the political free-soilers and the other democratic faction in New York began again (if they had ever really ceased) in 1849. Both factions attended the state convention of that year, and united in the nomination of state candidates and in the adoption of a vague and indefinite resolution on the slavery question. In 1850 the state convention went further, and passed a resolution that it was "proud to avow its fraternity with and devotion to" the principles of the democratic national convention of 1848. Against this resolution the political free-soilers, headed by John Van Buren, could now muster but twenty votes. The result was the absorption of the Van Buren faction into the state democratic party, and the reduction of the free-soil vote of New York in 1852 to its real limits. The breach in the state democracy was thus closed, but never really healed.


—In 1852 the national convention of both the whig and the democratic parties accepted the compromise of 1850 (see COMPROMISES, V.) in all its parts. The free-soilers therefore held a convention at Pittsburg, Aug 11, 1852, with delegates from all the free states, and from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Their recent New York allies were not represented. Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, presided; the platform of 1848 was enlarged to twenty-two resolutions, and John P. Hale, of New Hampshire, and George W. Julian, of Indiana, were nominated as presidential candidates. The platform of the "free democratic party" denounced slavery as "a sin against God and a crime against man;" it denounced "both the whig and the democratic wings of the great slave compromise party of the nation;" and it repudiated the compromise of 1850, and demanded the repeal of the fugitive slave law. In the presidential election of 1852 the free-soilers cast but 156,149 votes, all in northern states excepting 62 in Delaware, 54 in Maryland, 265 in Kentucky, and 59 in North Carolina. In all the northern states, except Iowa, the free-soil vote was slightly decreased, owing mainly to the party's rejection of the compromise of 1850; in New York it had fallen to 25,329, the real free-soil vote, apart from its political allies in that state.


—After the election of 1852 the free-soilers shared in the general suspension of political animation which followed. In 1854 they opposed the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and in 185-6 were absorbed by the newly formed republican party. The 34th congress, when it met in December, 1855, contained democrats, whigs, anti-Nebraska men, free-soilers, and Americans or know-nothings; before February, 1856, there were only republicans, democrats and Americans, and the whig and free-soil parties had disappeared from congress.


—The principles of the free-soil party as to slavery restriction were identical with those of the great and successful republican party which followed it, and yet the former, from 1846 until 1854, probably never really gained 10,000 votes in the entire country. Its lack of success was due in part to its insistence upon strict construction in other matters than slavery, while the republican party was generally broad construction; but the principal reason was, that the country was not yet ready for it. Some such measure as the Kansas-Nebraska bill was an essential prerequisite to the formation of a successful anti-slavery party, and opposition to that particular measure required broad construction views of the powers of congress. (See NATION; DEMOCRATIC PARTY, IV.; REPUBLICAN PARTY, I.; WILMOT PROVISO; ABOLITION, II.; SLAVERY..)


—See 16 Benton's Debates of Congress; 1 Greeley's American Conflict, 191, 223; 2 Wilson's Rise and Fall of the Slace Power, 129, 140, 150; International Review, August, 1881, (G. W. Julian's Reminiscences of the 31st Congress); Giddings' History of the Rebellion, 283, 357; 2 Benton's Thirty Years' View, 723; Schuckers' Life of S. P. Chase; Gardiner's Historical Sketch of the Free-Soil Question (to 1848); 27 Democratic Review, 531; Tribune Almanac, 1849-55; D. S. Dickinson's Speeches; authorities under articles referred to; the platforms of the party in full are in Greeley's Political Text Book of 1860, 17, 21.


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