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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"Free Soil, Free Labor"

Updated: May 15, 2022

“No more Slave States, no Slave Territory, no nationalized Slavery, and no national legislation for the extradition of Slaves.”

Free Soil Party Platform, 1852

In 1818, Missouri wished to enter the Union as the first state west of the Mississippi River. It wanted to enter the Union as a slave state, but the country was already being divided over slavery with the emergence of a strong abolitionist movement. There was a concern about letting slavery expand into new territories. Ultimately, because of the split in the US Senate, Missouri's application was rejected. Two years later, Missouri tried once more to apply for statehood. At the same time, some wished for Maine, which was still part of Massachusetts, to enter the Union as a free state. The Southern states were more alarmed and feared that if both Missouri and Maine entered the Union as free states, then the balance of power in the Senate would tip in favor of the abolitionists. Thus Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Missouri would be a slave state, and Maine would become a free state, thereby maintaining the balance in the Senate. Furthermore, slavery was prohibited in any territory north of the 36th parallel.

The compromise held for nearly twenty-five years, but then the United States went to war with Mexico. The end of the Mexican war in 1848 thrust the issue of slavery's expansion back into the forefront of American politics. Both sides of the debate battled over the newly annexed territories. As early as 1846, when the conflict with Mexico was starting, Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced a bill known as the Wilmot Proviso. The bill sought to prohibit slavery in any new land acquired from Mexico due to the war. The Proviso was introduced several times. Despite passing in the House of Representatives each time, it eventually would fail in the Senate.

For the 1848 presidential election, both the Whig and Democratic parties nominated candidates that would not rule out further expansion of slavery into new territories. This upset the anti-slavery elements within each party, and they fled to join with the more radical abolitionists. They formed the Free Soil Party and nominated former President Martin Van Buren as their candidate. Their banner was "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and FreeMen." In their party platform, the Free Soilers denounced slavery and sought to abolish it in all Federal districts and territories. Yet, they stopped short of wanting to abolish slavery where it already existed, nor did they address the issues of fugitive slaves or racial inequality. The base of this loose coalition was limited to New York and New England.

Van Buren would lose the election, but the Free Soil party had the strongest showing of any third party to that date. Despite Van Buren and others leaving the party immediately after the election of 1848, the Free Soilers still had a presence in Congress. Men like Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, John P. Hale of New Hampshire, and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. These men would lead the opposition to the Compromise of 1850.

Stephen Douglas put forth the Compromise of 1850. It comprised five separate bills that sought to settle the question of slavery's expansion into the new territories ceded by Mexico. First, Texas gave up any claims on territory north and east of the Rio Grande in what is now the present-day state of New Mexico. For this, the Federal government assumed Texas's debt from when it was an independent republic. California was admitted as a free state, and the remaining territory would be organized into the New Mexico Territory and the Utah Territory. People within those territories would decide whether or not slavery would be allowed, the concept known as "popular sovereignty." Also included in the bills were stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and banning the slave trade in Washington, D.C. The compromise didn't really settle anything, and it engendered greater opposition from Free Soilers and radical abolitionists alike. John P. Hale was the Free Soil Party candidate for the presidency in 1852, but the party fared poorly, unable to match the successes of 1848.

Tensions mounted in 1854. Douglas wished to organize the Louisiana Purchase's remaining territory to encourage settlement and facilitate the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He and his supporters pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the long-standing compromise of 1820. The act introduced the notion of popular sovereignty to the two new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The backlash was immediate. Many northern Whigs, opposed to the act, left the party, and they joined with Free Soilers to merge with a newly established but broad base Republican Party.

Kansas became a battleground, a prelude to the greater Civil War on the horizon. Almost immediately, Free-Soilers poured into the territory from Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Iowa. Many were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, but a good number were white farmers who wanted the land but feared they would not be able to compete economically with the slave labor of the large plantations. With Kansas set to elect a territorial government in March 1855, pro-slavery supporters flooded in from western Missouri and stuffed ballot boxes enabling a pro-slavery legislature to be elected. Slavery opponents labeled it the "Bogus Legislature" and accused the other side of voter fraud. It meant little since the legislature enjoyed the support of President Franklin Pierce and who called the Free Soilers insurgents.

Free Soilers held a convention in July but were heavily split over race between the more radical moral abolitionists and those who were less inclined to compete with black labor. They were torn between rejecting the territorial government, boycotting future elections, and advocating the use of violence. The Free State Party was formed in the Fall and despite the differences among members, the anti-slave coalition created their own territorial legislature and drafted an anti-slavery constitution. The so-called Topeka Constitution outlawed both slavery and the settlement of free African-Americans in the territory. The constitution passed by referendum in December 1855. The Free State Party had not been reluctant to use extralegal and paramilitary means to drum up support. Violence broke out across the territory between "bushwhackers" or pro-slavery groups and "jayhawkers" or anti-slavery groups.

To counter the Free State Party, proslavery sympathizers organized the "Law and Order Party." They used the increase in violence as justification for suppressing the Free Soil movement within the territory. Over the winter of 1855-1856, a man from Missouri killed a Free-State settler over a disputed land claim. Though the Missouri man fled back across the border, Free-Staters sought vigilante justice by terrorizing residents and burning houses. The dead man's brother was arrested, but he was rescued by a party of armed Free-Staters. The man was brought back Lawrence, a settlement of New England abolitionists.

The territorial governor called out the militia and soon the town was surrounded by proslavery forces. The residents held out during the brief siege, and the governor finally disbanded the militia. Later in the Spring, local authorities tried again to make arrests, but once again failed. The posse that had been recruited was released from duty, but they remained in Lawrence. They proceeded to ransack the town doing damage to the hotel and the newspaper offices. Free-State and Republican newspapers dubbed the attack the "Sack of Lawrence." John Brown, a Free-State settler and who would go on to lead the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, was leading a band of men to assist the town. On May 24, 1856, once he heard they were too late to be of much help, Brown led his party on an ambush of proslavery settlers along the Pottawatomie Creek and killed five men. This "massacre" along with the pro-slavery raid on Lawrence, Kansas, precipitated the period known as "Bleeding Kansas."

After this, more radical elements took control of the Free State Party. They abandoned the Topeka Constitution and replaced it with the Leavenworth Constitution. This time there was no distinction between whites and blacks and included terms for black suffrage. Before becoming a state, the US Senate needed to approve the constitution, which they failed to do. But the Free Staters gained control of the original and officially recognized legislature in the Fall of 1858. By the Spring of 1859, they proposed a less radical constitution. This Wyandotte Constitution prohibited slavery but still limited the rights of free blacks and no mention of black suffrage. In the end, it meant Kansas would ultimately enter the Union as a free state. The US Senate ratified the Wyandotte Constitution, and Kansas became a state in January 1861, but by then, several southern states had already seceded.

In 1856, the fledgling Republican Party put forth their first presidential candidate. John C. Fremont had built a reputation as a noted western explorer and as military governor of California during the war with Mexico. He became the victim of a controversy that led to his court-martial. He had been a senator when California entered the Union in 1850. At first, the Democrats approached him, but he announced his support for the Free Soilers in Kansas and his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law. Recognizing Fremont's popular appeal and needing a fresh face to represent the party, the Republicans wooed Fremont into their camp. The Republican campaign targeted the Democratic Party's continued support of slavery. The campaign slogan was "Free Soil, Free Men, and Fremont." The Democrats, who were much better organized, countered with a campaign of rumors and innuendo against Fremont accusing him of being Catholic and willing to lead a slave insurrection. Fremont would lose the election. He came in second to Democrat James Buchannan in what was a three-way race. (Millard Fillmore ran as the candidate for the nativist American, or Know-Nothing, Party).

After the troubles in Kansas, more northern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. Members of the Free State Party in Kansas also merged with the expanding base of Republicans in 1859. For the 1860 presidential election, the Republicans turned to Abraham Lincoln as their standard-bearer. Lincoln went on to win the election, the benefactor of a fatal split among the old Whig Party. Even before he was inaugurated, the southern states seceded, and the nation would go on to fight a civil war that was to end the question of slavery. The question that the Missouri compromise failed to settle as far back as 1820.


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