Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

Since its publication twenty-five years ago, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men has been recognized as a classic, an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the causes of the American Civil War. A key work in establishing political ideology as a major concern of modern American historians, it remains the only full-scale evaluation of the ideas of the early Republican party.

Now with a new introduction, Eric Foner puts his argument into the context of contemporary scholarship, reassessing the concept of free labor in the light of the last twenty-five years of writing on such issues as work, gender, economic change, and political thought.

Through a careful analysis of the attitudes of leading factions in the party's formation (northern Whigs, former Democrats, and political abolitionists) Foner is able to show what each contributed to Republican ideology.

He also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in that ideology.

He goes onto show that even after the Civil War these guarantees for "free soil, free labor, free men" did not really apply for most Americans, and especially not for blacks.

Demonstrating the profoundly successful fusion of value and interest within Republican ideology prior to the Civil War, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men remains a classic of modern American historical writing.

Eloquent and influential, it shows how this ideology provided the moral consensus which allowed the North, for the first time in history, to mobilize an entire society in modern warfare.

Reviews of the Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

The partys fundamental achievement in the pre-war years was the creation and articulation of an ideology which blended personal and sectional interest with morality so perfectly that it became the most potent political force in the nation. Grants Personal Memoirs, a superb command history of the war, is also, upon reflection, a testament of the working of that potent political force among the sentimentally but not yet politically antislavery North. Grant was one of the millions who had for years subordinated their discomfort with slavery to national unity and party harmony, but who were drawn to the Republicans as they began to see that unity and harmony would mean little if slaveholders dominated the government and polluted the vast Western reaches with an institution whose political economy and social system were radically repugnant to their own idea of Americas future. Grant, a border state resident with slaveholding in-laws (and who briefly owned a slave himself), went from voting Democratic in 1856, to forestall secession, to supporting Lincoln in 1860, and acting as drillmaster to the Republicans torchlight-parading semi-militia, the Wide Awakes. Still, Republican control of the national government was a repudiation of the southern way of life as a basis for Americas development, and a pronouncement of doom upon slavery, however long emancipation took.

Catchphrases like "Free labor" have always meant different things to different people (he mentions the modern Orwellianism of "right to work" laws), but at the time of the Republican ascendancy, when the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were making it clearer than ever that the US had broken decisively with its agrarian origins, the slogan implied to many people that the American promise of labor freedom meant working with and through industrial capitalism instead of against it. Foner discusses the limitations of the ideal - the "freedom" to engage in wage labor often meant settling for dangerous, degrading, and poorly remunerated factory jobs; women were excluded almost entirely; arguments that white laborers shouldn't have to compete with black slave labor were often extremely racist - but in an era where the democratic, egalitarian, populist sentiments of Jacksonian democracy still remained powerful, "free labor" was quite congenial to the white working majority. The Republican Party that competed in unsuccessfully in 1856, more successfully in 1858, and triumphantly in 1860 was composed of several heterogenous groups of political refugees, and Foner constructs ideological and organizational genealogies for each: - the Free Soil Party (an extremely influential single-issue anti-slavery party focused on slavery's negative economic impact on white workers, they invented the eponymous slogan of the book) - the Liberty Party (a related but much smaller single-issue party that focused more on the immorality of slavery than its economic effects) - many Whig Party members (the Henry Clay-led stereotypically pro-industry, pro-banking, pro-tariff "big government" party that broke up over its inability to unify on the slavery issue, Lincoln and many other Republican leaders were originally Whigs) - the Know-Nothing Party (AKA the American Party, an anti-immigrant pro-WASP racist party that was officially neutral on slavery, but the anti-slavery wing liked how abolition helped white workers by reducing competition from slave labor) - disaffected Northern Democrats (they hated how plantation aristocrats dominated the Southern wing of the party and were uneasy at slavery's relationship to their supposed Jacksonian ideals, even if they weren't quite comfortable with how Whig-dominated the Republicans were) Each of these groups brought something different to the table, and it's interesting watching the Republican leadership trying to cobble together a coherent party platform out of all these antagonistic blocs. Southerners played right into their hands by forcing repeated showdowns over how to deal with each new territorial acquisition, using the Kansas-Nebraska Act to renege on the Missouri Compromise, or trying to get federal judges to overturn Northern "personal liberty" emancipation laws for escaped slaves via terrible Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott. Many otherwise orthodox Republicans gave extremely impassioned speeches in the 1850s about the rights of free states to nullify pro-slavery federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, only to change their tune when, thanks to the influence of the more moderate and conservative factions, they discovered that abolition and pro-Unionism was a better sell in most of the North. The Republicans' emphasis on national unity, the evils of slavery, and the power of free labor to help the workingman gave them a greater and greater advantage in the North, and in 1860, Lincoln and the Republican Party won convincingly in the Senate, House, and Presidential races. There's a lot to be said about how much of Southern opposition to the North was due to their conception of themselves as a unique region of the country, with their own ethnic heritage and distinct culture, and how with the South out of the government during the war, many important initiatives were passed - good ones like the Morrill Land Grant College Act, the Homestead Act, and the National Banking Act, along with more mixed ones like the Pacific Railroad Act. Additionally, I would have liked for more info on how the Democratic Party managed to survive splitting in two in 1860 and remaining the usually weaker party for the next few decades instead of simply dissolving.

So that wouldn't do; the new party was silent on economic policy. Laws making life difficult for immigrants were wildly popular among New Englanders and many native westerners, but they didn't play well with the German immigrants whose support the Republicans needed to win elections in some states. So unlike a tariff or an immigration restriction or a temperance law, it wouldn't put anybody in the north at a disadvantage. The early Republicans presented slavery as degrading the standing of free labor: Foner points out that they were often ambiguous about whether this was because the slave was enslaved, or because he was black.

In a time of rancorous sectional division, during which the Democratic Party was sundered north and south, with each section nominating its own presidential candidate, the Republicans drew anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats together under one banner. The North and South represented two incompatible social systems, and expansion of the decadent South, as Seward warned, might lead to "entirely a slave-holding nation." Several critical chapters of Foner's book delineate the radical, conservative and moderate elements within the newly-formed Republican party, and include the northern Democratic-Republicans who were alienated by the slaveocracy which by then controlled their party. The former Democrats found their party no longer a "champion of popular rights." (177) The radicals battle cry was, "Liberty and Union." This small but powerful minority was influential within the party, and brooked no compromise with the South, believing that the Founders intended that slavery would eventually cease to exist in the nation. It was the political anti-slavery, Free Labor ideology which "blended personal and sectional interest with morality so perfectly that it became the most potent political force in the nation." (309) Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University whose interest in the antebellum period started in college in the 1960s.

In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Eric Foner discusses the various political and social constituencies that merged under the banner of anti-slavery to form the Republican party in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. The book is, in a sense, a companion to Eugene Genoveses The Political Economy of Slavery, in which Genovese explains the extent to which ante-bellum southern society had embraced the institution of slavery as a unique, deeply held world-view, and how the preservation of slavery became an ideology so dear to them that they would sooner abandon the Union than part with it. What is fascinating is that each of these constituencies united into a cohesive political party dedicated to anti-slavery while, at the same time, never abandoning their respective fundamental ideologies that had made them abolitionists, Whigs, Democrats or nativists in the first place.

Despite their divergent views on economics and race, they all believed in the preeminence of free labor and insisted that slavery be barred from the new territories. This party was a coalition of Northern and Mid-Western men who wanted to put a stop to slavery's further expansion and monopoly on American government. Foner's book is a classic and one that cannot be ignored when trying to understand the causes of the Civil War. His level of research is breath taking.

I did read the rest, which is broken into almost essay-like categorical chapters rather than a chronological recap of the Republican's formation and rise to power. The book covers northern and southern society; the party's relation with nativism, race, and slavery; and the various factions that made up the Republicans (radicals & abolitionists, free soilers, Whigs, and disgruntled Democrats).

Eric Foners magnificent work, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men seeks to remedy these views by examining the origins and ideological foundations of the Republican Party in all their complexity. He asserts that the party was essentially a coalition of radicals, alienated former democrats, and moderate conservatives, united by the concept of free labor. The work begins by defining the free soil ideology that marked the emerging Republican Party. Viewing themselves as the true heirs of Jackson, the dissolution of financial debates surrounding the tariff, banks, and currency issues allowed these former democrats to support the fledgling republicans, although many would fly back to their former party after the war. The Republican Party is not presented here as a morally good force fighting to free the slaves. Foner argues that a consensus formed among republicans that advocated equal legal rights to blacks, such as equality in the justice system, but this liberty did not include equal social and civil rights. Ultimately, Foners in-depth study of primary archival material allows him to weave a careful thread through the historiography, creating a rich picture of republican ideology as a coalition of radicals, ex-democrats, and conservative moderates, united though a common desire to make antislavery attitudes politically viable. The various pieces of this ideology included hatred of southern political power, antislavery, preservation of the union, free labor, racial prejudice, and preservation of the northern social order. Thus, in Foners conception, secession was the only logical option that was consistent with southern ideology, and the refusal to allow secession was perfectly logical from the northern perspective.

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America.

  • English

  • History

  • Rating: 4.09
  • Pages: 400
  • Publish Date: April 20th 1995 by Oxford University Press, USA
  • Isbn10: 0195094972
  • Isbn13: 9780195094978