Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Free Soil Party
Author:
Klammer, Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Organized at Buffalo, New York, on 9 August 1848, this political party was founded on the principle of opposing the extension of slavery into western territories. The Free Soil party was a significant force in American politics from 1848 until the birth of the Republican party in 1854 for the way in which it popularized antislavery sentiment and compelled the major parties to debate slavery as a national issue. Walt Whitman was an active member of the Free Soil party, representing his local party at the inaugural convention and editing a Free Soil newspaper.

Debate over the 1846 Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico, led to the fragmentation of both the Democratic and Whig parties. The New York Democratic Barnburners, of which Whitman was a member, broke away from the party and in June 1848 nominated Martin Van Buren for president, adopting a Wilmot platform. Simultaneously, Conscience Whigs bolted their party. These elements, together with members of the abolitionist Liberty party, overcame significant differences to unite as a new party at a national convention in Buffalo, choosing as their motto "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men" and nominating Van Buren for president. In contrast to abolitionists, who opposed slavery on moral grounds, most Free-Soilers opposed slavery because they felt that white laborers should not have to compete with—nor be "degraded" by—the presence of black slaves in the new territories. In fact, a plank to include black suffrage in the party platform was voted down. In representing antislavery as an issue of self-interest to whites, free-soilism made antislavery for the first time a viable political movement in the North.

Whitman served as one of fifteen Kings County delegates to the national convention in Buffalo and edited the Brooklyn Freeman, a short-lived Free Soil newspaper established in September 1848. The Freeman's 9 September debut issue made clear that Whitman opposed the extension of slavery because he cared about the opportunities for white labor in the new territories, and not because he sympathized with slaves.

In the 1848 elections the Free Soil party claimed a fair degree of success, with twelve members elected to Congress and many more to state legislatures. More important, the party had succeeded in making antislavery the central issue in national politics. Free-soilism was dealt a heavy blow, however, by the 1850 Compromise, which Whitman and other Free-Soilers decried as a surrender of antislavery principles in the face of disunionist threats. By 1854, with the country having achieved an uneasy truce over slavery, the disorganized remnants of the Free Soil party became absorbed into the newly formed Republican party.

Bibliography

Foner, Eric. Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.


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