impulse in the 1840’s was not easily squelched
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.