Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil"

Having posted several quibbles concerning minor inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Jonathan H. Earle’s Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854, I thought I should make sure that the record is clear: this is an eye-opening book.

The growth of the anti-slavery (or more properly anti-slavery extension) movement in the north in the decades before the Civil War is generally thought of as a Whiggish phenomenon. Whiggish types, absorbing via the Second Great Awakening the evangelical morality that also gave rise to the temperance campaign, increasingly came to regard slavery as a sin and moral blot on the body of the Republic. Yes, there may have been a few oddball Democrats who saw the light and ultimately tagged along, but for the most part northern Democrats seemed to be amoral at best: Lewis Cass inventing popular sovereignty, Franklin Pierce, Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan generally toadying to the south and the southern wing of their party.

Professor Earle sets out to correct this misimpression. In fact, a number of Democrats led the way in identifying slavery and the slave power as enemies. One of the delights of the book lies in meeting and getting to know previously unknown or indistinct political figures: Thomas Morris of Ohio and Preston King of New York (both of whom I have discussed before); John P. Hale, who unexpectedly precipitated a dramatic political realignment in New Hampshire, previously the “South Carolina of the North”; Marcus Morton of Massachusetts; and even David Wilmot, otherwise a vague figure who in most narratives mysteriously appears out of nowhere, only to disappear again into the mist.

More importantly, Professor Earle explores why there seems to have been a correlation between radical, hard-money, anti-Bank Democrats and opposition to the expansion of slavery. One key, he argues, was the tendency of radical democrats to perceive conspiratorial coalitions of interests that threatened to dominate yeoman farmers and urban proletariat: manufacturers who clamored for high tariffs, monopolistic corporations that shielded capitalists from ordinary rules of individual liability, and most famously the Monster Bank.

With a little squinting, Professor Earle suggests, slaveholders could look a lot like an aristocratic special interest. In an earlier post, I quoted from an 1839 speech by Senator Thomas Morris (Dem – Ohio), in which he not only drew the parallel but argued that the Bank Power and the Slave Power had joined forces:
But all will not do; these two powers must now be united; an amalgamation of the black power of the South with the white power of the North must take place, as either, separately, cannot succeed in the destruction of the liberty of speech and the press and the right of petition. Let me tell gentlemen that both united will never succeed. As I said on a former day, God forbid that they should ever rule this country. I have seen this billing and cooing between these different interests for some time past; I informed my private friends . . . that these powers were forming a union to overthrow the present [Van Buren] Administration . . ..

* * *

[T]he assertion has gone forth that we have twelve hundred millions of slave property at the South; and can any man so close his understanding here as not plainly to perceive tht the power of this vast amount of property at the South is now uniting itself to the banking power of the North, in order to govern the destinies of this country? Six hundred millions of banking capital is to be brought into this coalition, and the slave power and the bank power are thus to unite in order to break down the present Administration. There can be no mistake, as I believe, in this matter. The aristocracy of the North, who, by the power of a corrupt banking system, and the aristocracy of the South, by the power of the slave system, both fattening upon the labor of others, are now about to unite in order to make the reign of each perpetual. Is there an independent American to be found who will become the recreant slave to such an unholy combination? Is this another compromise to barter the liberties of the country for personal aggrandizement? “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Almost ten years later, Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot spoke in similar terms:
“The gallant and true men who fought the battle of popular rights against privilege and monopoly – who aided in crushing the monster bank, and wresting from the grasp of eastern capital the hard earnings of labor, will never fight the battles of slavery propagandism” [Wilmot declared]. Again investing the rhetoric of antislavery with an older brand derived from the pen of William Leggett, Wilmot insisted that since southern capital had “a thousand millions of dollars invested in slaves,” the current struggle, like the bank war in the 1830s, was best viewed as one between “capital and labor.”

But what seems to given urgency to the threat presented by the Slave Power was the concept of Free Soil, which Professor Earle asserts is the crucial and overlooked component of the “free soil, free labor, free men” trilogy. Free Soil was not, Professor Earle argues, simply a “synonym for [the] more developed concept of free labor, an ideology . . . closely linked with the rise of capitalism in the North. . . . [M]any Free Soilers . . . came from remote rural areas or radical labor backgrounds and felt nothing but contempt for Whiggish free-labor views.”

The term originally referred to land reform: “the free distribution of the public lands to poor settlers, in the form of inalienable homesteads.” Although containing slavery was an incidental benefit, the scheme also enhanced democracy (more of those Jeffersonian yeoman farmers), reduced unemployment and raised wages, and attacked privileged land monopolists and speculators.

In time, however, “the Free Soil ideology [evolved] from a program for land reform to a bulwark against slavery expansion.” It was precisely the elusiveness of the phrase that made Free Soil so politically potent:
During the 1840s and 1850s, homesteads became unalterably fused with the issue of slavery expansion . . .. This link underscored Free Soil’s rhetorical elusiveness and ambiguity. The potent term was appropriated by a host of other groups, movements, and political parties, including the Free Soil Party and, later, the Republicans. No matter who appropriated it, however, Free Soil always potentially implied the double meaning . . .: land free of charge and at the same time free of slavery. Free Soil managed to speak directly to the anxieties of poor or vulnerable northern whites, creating a new source of support for limiting slavery’s expansion.

The radical Democratic critique of slavery was thus very different from the moral and religious foundations of abolitionism and abolition-based political organizations such as the Liberty Party. The emphasis on Free Soil and the Slave Power also focused the political debate squarely on the territories.

The genius of the Free Soil and Republican parties was to incorporate the double meaning of Free Soil – and its radical Democratic message – into their platforms. By doing so they were able to broaden their base to include large numbers of Democrats who became convinced that their former party had become “a tool of the slaveholding oligarchy.” These Democrats, moreover, often came from hardscrabble rural districts that had consistently resisted the lure of the Whigs -- areas such as New York's "Passed-Over District" and the Wilmot District of Pennsylvania. It is no accident that in 1862 the Republican Party produced the Homestead Act as well as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Quibbles and all, Professor Earle's book is excellent. Highly recommended.

About the illustration:
An election-year satire favoring Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren in the 1848 presidential contest. A long-legged John Van Buren carries his father piggyback through Salt River, heading toward the White House on the far shore. "Matty" says, "Thanks to your long legs, John, I believe that I shall pass over this Jordan dry shod." The younger Van Buren assures his father, "Hold on Dad & I'll put you through." Meanwhile, abolitionist editor Horace Greeley and candidates Taylor and Clay are having a more difficult time fording the river. Clay is immersed head first, leaving only his legs visible. Taylor is neck-deep in the water. Greeley yells to Kentucky Whig leader Cassius M. Clay, seated on the near bank, "Help, Cassius, or I Sink." Clay replies, "Can't come there, Horace, I risked my life in Mexico, & I don't like to do it again." (Cassius Clay was a hero of the recent Mexican War).

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