The Free Soil Party was a coalition of Free Soil Democrats, Barnburners, Conscience Whigs, and members of the Liberty Party that strongly opposed the extension of slavery in the American West during the 1840s and 1850s.
Controversy surrounding the Wilmot Proviso triggered the founding of the Free Soil Party.
The Free Soil Party held its first convention in Buffalo, New York, on August 9 and 10, 1848.
The Free Soil Party attracted a coalition of voters from three major groups:
- Members of the Liberty Party, who morally opposed slavery;
- Free Soil Democrats and Barnburners (a group of Democrats rooted mostly in New York State), who strongly opposed the extension of slavery; and
- Conscience Whigs, a group that strongly opposed slavery, and sought to end the practice by working within the American political system.
Noted Americans who attended the first Free Soil Party convention were civil-rights activist and former slave Frederick Douglass, journalist and poet Walt Whitman, and abolitionist leader Joshua Giddings of Ashtabula, Ohio.
The Free Soil Party’s motto was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.”
A core group of established politicians that included Salmon Chase (Ohio), Preston King (New York), and Benjamin Franklin Butler (Massachusetts) drafted the party’s political platform.
The Free Soil Party’s 1848 platform abandoned the extreme abolitionist views of the Liberty Party and Conscience Whigs, in favor of the more moderate call for banning the extension of slavery in the west.
The Free Soil Party’s 1848 platform endorsed the Wilmot Proviso and demanded that the federal government abolish slavery in all federal territories and districts, including Washington, D.C.
Unlike abolitionists, who abhorred slavery on moral grounds, many Free Soilers opposed extending slavery in the territories because they viewed free labor as an economic threat to white workers.
Besides opposing the extension of slavery, the Free Soil 1848 platform endorsed:
- reducing or eliminating the national debt,
- lowering tariffs,
- increasing the availability of western lands to settlers,
- cheap postage, and
- limiting government spending on internal improvements.
Delegates to the 1848 Free Soil convention selected former president Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate for the upcoming presidential election.
Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, grandson of President John Adams, and the father of future noted historian, author, and politician Henry Adams as their vice-presidential candidate for the upcoming presidential election.
In the 1848 presidential election, the Free Soil slate of Van Buren and Adams garnered 10.1% of the popular vote (291,501), but they received no electoral votes.
In the 1848 presidential election, Van Buren became the first third-party candidate in U.S. history to win at least ten percent of the popular vote. Small as it was, Van Buren’s tally was the strongest third-party showing up to that point in U.S. history.
In the 1848 election, the Ohio general assembly selected Free-Soiler Salmon P. Chase to join John Parker Hale of New Hampshire, as an anti-slavery Senator in the thirty-first U.S. Congress.
In the 1848 election, voters elected nine Free Soil candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the 1850 mid-term elections, the Free Soil Party gained a third seat in the U.S. Senate when the Massachusetts legislature elected Charles Sumner; however, they lost four seats in the House.
In the 1852 presidential election, the Free Soil Party nominated John Hale as their presidential candidate and George Washington Julian of Indiana as his vice-presidential running-mate.
In the 1852 presidential election, the Free Soil Party slate of John Hale and George Washington Julian received only 4.91% of the popular vote and no electoral votes.
By 1854, the Free Soil Party merged with the Liberty Party and disaffected Whigs and Democrats to form the Republican Party.
The Free Soil Party was short-lived—existing for less than a decade. However, during its brief duration, the party united Americans (mostly in the North) who opposed slavery and its extension, for very different reasons, leading to the ascension of the Republican Party in 1860, and ultimately, civil war the following year.