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.
The Constitutional Convention
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and the South centered on slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union” between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition as the nation expanded west in the coming decades.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820
When the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood in 1818, about 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory. Southerners expected Missouri to join the Union as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill that would have gradually ended slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment started a year of acrimonious debate in both houses of Congress.
Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820, admitting Missouri as a slave state in exchange for admitting Maine as a free state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts in the future, Congress also prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Territory, north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30′ north latitude).
The Missouri Compromise tempered the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for over three decades, but it did not appease abolitionists, who lobbied for the prohibition of slavery nationwide. In 1839, this small but vocal group met in Warsaw, New York, to form an anti-slavery political party. Although the party’s candidates were never serious challengers for national offices, its existence provided a platform for abolitionists hopeful of ending slavery by working within the political system.
The Mexican-American War and the Wilmot Proviso
The slavery dispute re-emerged in 1846 when the Republic of Texas accepted an offer to become the 28th state on December 29, 1845. When Mexico objected to the annexation of its former possession, the two nations went to war in 1846. On August 6, 1846, President James K. Polk submitted a request to Congress to appropriate $2,000,000 to negotiate the end of the war by purchasing Texas, and much of the land that comprises modern-day southwestern United States, from Mexico.
Two days later, on August 8, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced an amendment to Polk’s request. Wilmot’s amendment, later known as the Wilmot Proviso, mandated the prohibition of slavery in any new territories acquired from Mexico. The House of Representatives added Wilmot’s Proviso to Polk’s request and then approved the entire bill by a vote of 85–80. In the Senate, which was evenly split along sectional lines, Southerners extended debate on the legislation until Congress adjourned without voting the bill.
The Free Soil Party
Congressional failure to adopt the Wilmot Proviso was a landmark event in American history. Previously, American voters expressed their political views along major party lines in a two-party system. Opinions about the Wilmot Proviso, however, split members of both major parties of the time—Democrats and Whigs—along sectional lines, pitting northerners against southerners. The sectional split spurred some northern members of both parties to abandon their affiliations and form a new political party opposed to the extension of slavery in the American West.
On August 9, 1848, roughly 20,000 people answered the call to attend the National Free Soil Convention, in Buffalo, New York. The convention 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.
Delegates attended from all the northern states and three southern states and border states (Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia).
Noted Americans who attended the convention were civil-rights activist and former slave Frederick Douglass, journalist and poet Walt Whitman, and abolitionist leader Joshua Giddings of Ashtabula, Ohio.
Following two days of oration and strategy meetings, delegates announced the formation of a new political party, calling themselves the Free Soil Party, founded on the principles of “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.”
Aside from the public proceedings of the convention, 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.
Hoping to attract broad support from American voters, the party’s 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. Specifically, the platform endorsed the Wilmot Proviso and demanded that the federal government “relieve itself of all responsibility for the existence and continuance of slavery” by abolishing 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.
Unlike the single-issue Liberty Party, the Free Soil platform endorsed other political viewpoints that appealed to moderate voters, including 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 Free Soil convention selected former president Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate for the upcoming presidential election. His running-mate was 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.
Van Buren’s nomination was not universally popular among abolitionists because of his pro-southern positions when he served as the eighth U.S. president from 1837 to 1841. Although his choice may have cost the Free Soil Party some abolitionist votes in the 1848 election, the ticket was never a serious threat to the Whigs or Democrats.
When the votes were tabulated, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor won the popular vote and defeated Democrat Lewis Cass in the Electoral College tally 163 to 127. Van Buren and Adams garnered 10.1% of the popular vote (291,501), but they received no electoral votes. Still, 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.
Despite Van Buren’s poor showing in the presidential election, the Ohio General Assembly elected 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. On the House side, the Democrats held a slim six-vote majority, making the nine Free Soil Representatives elected in 1848 a force to be reckoned with.
The Compromise of 1850 briefly eased some of the sectional tensions dividing the United States. As a result, some moderate Democrats and Whigs returned to their former parties.
During the mid-term elections in 1850, Free Soilers picked up another seat in the U.S. Senate when the Massachusetts legislature elected Charles Sumner; however, they lost four seats in the House.
In 1852, Free Soilers nominated John Hale as their presidential candidate and George Washington Julian of Indiana as his vice-presidential running-mate. Running on a platform that demanded the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, Hale and Julian received only 4.91% of the popular vote and no electoral votes.
End of the Free Soil Party
On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed legislation officially entitled “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas.” More commonly known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the bill revoked much of the Compromise of 1850 and opened the door to the extension of slavery in the West by enabling the residents of Kansas and Nebraska to vote to decide if they would enter the Union as free or slave states.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act rejuvenated opposition to the extension of slavery, incited acts of lawlessness in Kansas, and reshaped the political landscape in America. Once again, disaffected Whigs and Democrats left their political parties in search of alternatives. By 1854, they merged with members of the Free Soil Party and the Liberty Party to form the Republican Party. The merger marked the beginning of the end of the Free Soil Party. During the 34th Congress (March 4, 1855, to March 4, 1857), there were no Free Soilers in the House of Representatives and five holdover senators in the U.S. Senate.
By 1856, the new Republican Party grew to the extent that their nominee, John C. Frémont, finished second in the U.S. presidential election. Frémont’s campaign slogan of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, Frémont,” clearly mirrored the Free Soil rallying cry of 1848. Although Frémont failed to win the presidency, Republican voters elected ninety delegates to the House of Representatives and twenty new faces to the U.S. Senate.
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.