A short lived but interesting political party that coalesced out of the belief that the expansion of slavery into the Western territories was a very bad idea. This was partially inspired by the Wilmot Proviso.

One important thing to note about this party is that they were not implicitly against slavery as a moral crime but more as bad economic policy. The slogan was "Free soil, free speech, free labor, free men." They were largely supported by people who would benefit economically from the freezing of slave labor in the new territories.

The first nominee on the Free-Soil ticket was Martin Van Buren. The practical effect of their bid was that it weakened the Democrats and gave the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor the push he needed to get elected. The one coup for the Free-Soilers was holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

The life span of the Free-Soil Party was only about six years and it came unraveled in the end with members bickering about the morality of slavery and duty to the Southern states to keep things as they were. Eventually many of the Free-Soilers formed the Republican Party which considered slavery morally wrong as well and were much more influential in legislation limited slavery.

The antislavery impulse in the 1840’s was not easily squelched. Wilmot had raised a standard to which a broad collation could rally. People who shied away from abolitionism could readily endorse the exclusion of slavery form the territories. The Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise supplied honored precedents. By doing so, moreover, one could strike a blow for liberty without caring about slavery itself, or about the slaves. One might simply want free soil for whit farmers, while keeping the unwelcome blacks far way in the South, where they belonged. Free soil, therefore, rather than abolition, became the rallying point—and also the name of a new party.

Three major groups entered the free soil-soil coalition: rebellious Democrats, antislavery Whigs, and members of the Liberty party, which dated from 1840. Disaffection among the Democrats centered in New York, where the “ Barnburners” squared off against the pro-administration “Hunkers” in a factional dispute that had as much to do with personal ambitions as with local politics. Each group gave each other its name, the one for its alleged purpose to rule or ruin like the farmer who burned his barn to get rid of the rats, the other for hankering or “hunkering” after office.

As their conflict grew, however, the Barnburners seized on the free-soil issue as a means of winning support. When the Democratic convention voted to divide the state’s votes between contesting delegations, they bolted the party and named Van Buren as their candidate for president on a free-soil platform. Other Wilmot Democrats, including Wilmot himself, joined the revolt. Among the Whigs, revolt centered in Massachusetts where a group of “Conscience” Whigs battled the “Cotton” Whigs. The latter, according the Charles Sumner, belonged to a coalition of northern businessmen and southern planters, “the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Conscience Whigs rejected the slaveholder, Taylor. The third group in the coalition, the abolitionist Liberty party, had already nominated Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire for president.

In August these groups—Barnburners, Conscience Whigs, and Liberty party followers—organized the Free Soil party in a convention at Buffalo. Its presidential nomination went to Martin Van Buren, while the vice-presidential nomination went to Charles Francis Adams, a Conscience Whig. The old Jacksonian and the son of John Quincy Adams made strange bedfellows indeed! The Liberty party was rewarded with a platform plank that pledged the government to abolish slavery whenever such action became constitutional, but the party’s main principle was the Wilmot proviso, and it entered the campaign with the catchy slogan of “free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.”

Its impact on the election was mixed. The Free Soilers split the Democratic vote enough to throw New York to Taylor, and the Whig vote enough to Ohio to Lewis Cass, but Van Buren’s total of 291,000 votes was far below the popular totals of 1,361,000 for Taylor and 1,222,000 for Cass. Taylor won with 163 to 127 electoral votes, and both major parties retained a national following. Taylor took eight slave states and seven free; Cass just the opposite, seven slave and eight free.

An important footnote in American political history, the Free Soil Party was the first major party to declare abolitionism on their platform, and their message eventually became the driving force behind the Lincoln Republicans.


The party was formed as a reaction to the increasing disinterest towards the future of slavery in America shown by Congress and the Presidency. In 1844, as talk of annexing Texas became a central point in the United States, abolitionists feared that the territory might enter the Union divided up into as many as six states, with presumably all of them allowing slavery. To combat this, the small Liberty Party was created, and through their support the "popular sovereignty" Presidential campaign of Henry Clay was defeated by James K. Polk.

By early 1848, the rising slavery/anti-slavery debate had reached a major boiling point. In the Presidential election, the Whigs nominated war hero Zachary Taylor, a slaveowner with no particular view on the debate, while the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, the governor of Michigan and a stated supporter of the popular sovereignty doctrine. These nominations led several members within the party to rescind their affiliation and attempt to form a new party, out of conscience, stubbornness, and ambition. These so-called "Conscience Whigs" and "Barnburners" (so named because their opponents in New York felt they were like a farmer burning the barn to get rid of the rats) decided the time for peaceful abolitionist societies and media was over: they needed to get organized.


From August 7 to August 9, Salmon P. Chase, John Hale, Horace Greeley, and other free-soilers convened in Buffalo, New York and drew up the platform for their new party. The party's goal was to unite the free-soil movements across the States into a national effort. The major tenet of the platform was the idea that slavery would not be expanded to the new territories, thereby creating a permanent area of "free soil." This platform was eloquently expressed in the Wilmot proviso, written by disenfranchised Democrat Charles Wilmot. (Note that this platform was based on economic policy, rather than any particular morality. Most free soilers felt that slave labor was destroying competition for growth.) This platform was unanimously approved by members of the convention, including former Democrat president Martin Van Buren, who was named the party's nominee for President, with van Buren's rival John Quincy Adams' grandson Charles Francis Adams being named Vice Presidential candidate.

The party ran on a catchy slogan encompassing their major point: "Free soil, free speech, free labor, free men." Newspapers and established government officials decried and derided the group, calling them hypocrites for joining a single-issue party when they did not agree on many of the other issues. Nevertheless, in November, van Buren received some 300,000 votes - 10% of the election totals! This third party interference also watered down Cass' vote in New York enough to give Taylor the electoral victory, and the Presidency. The party also managed to get 16 Congressmen elected, primarily in New York and Connecticut.

Decline and Fall

The Compromise of 1850 brought about radical opposition from the Free Soil Party. Its provisions concerning fugitive slaves and its foregone conclusion about expanding slavery westward was met with harsh resistance. A few members of the Free Soil Party turned to criminal action, most notably John Brown and his Kansas raids. The Party tried to convert this activism into political sway - their 1852 platform was the first to include total abolitionism - but that year's elections showed a party in decline as the subtler governmental methods of dealing with slavery and abolitionism were growing less viable by the day.

In 1854, the party officially disbanded, with most of its members defecting to the newly reformed Republican Party, who had added total abolitionism to its platform. It would be six years before the Party would enter the White House, and it would be Abraham Lincoln's election that led to the secession of most of the Southern states and eventually the Civil War.

Amazingly, there is a Free Soil Party still in existence today! Luckily for them, they have shifted their idealism from the defunct practice of slavery to the still debatable tenets of environmentalism, sustainable development, and socially screened capitalism. Their website can be found at http://www.freesoil.org/ and appears to be a cross between liberal ideals of equality and civil rights and libertarian economic policy.


  • http://www.multied.com/elections/1848.html
  • http://gi.grolier.com/presidents/ea/side/freesoil.html
  • http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Quad/6460/dir/848frso.html

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