Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The First Free Soil Party: Land monopoly and slavery are "combinations of wealth against the liberties of the masses"

In the fall of 1846, New Yorkers would vote for governor, lieutenant governor and congressmen, in addition to state legislators. Anti-Renters were determined to make their influence felt. However, in doing so, as I mentioned in the last post, they had a basic tactical decision to make. They could try to work through the existing Democratic and Whig parties, or they could nominate their own candidates.

As it turned out, the Anti-Renters were disorganized and divided as to how to proceed. As a result, efforts to hold an early convention – at which they could nominate their own candidates and then press one or the other of the major parties to endorse them – failed. The Anti-Renters wound up assembling only on October 6, 1846, after both the Whigs and the Democrats had made their nominations.

The Anti-Renters found much to dislike about the gubernatorial nominees of both major parties – Silas Wright for the Democrats and John Young for the Whigs. Both had expressed support in principle for the Anti-Rent cause, but both also had substantial negatives. Wright, the incumbent governor, had declared three Anti-Rent counties in rebellion in 1845 and sent in armed forces to suppress the “Indians.” As a legislator, Young had refused to back a bill authorizing court challenges to the Patroons’ titles, a central demand of the Anti-Renters. “Thus,” Reeve Huston has observed, “the major candidates held exactly the same position on the leasehold controversy: both supported the tenants’ least controversial demands and wished to destroy the leasehold system, but opposed doing so on the anti-renters’ terms.”

Faced with two unpalatable choices, the delegates’ other option was to forge ahead and nominate their own gubernatorial candidate. Unfortunately, the probable choice, Ira Harris, announced that if he were selected he would decline the nomination. In the end, therefore, the delegates reluctantly selected Young and the other Whig nominees as the Anti-Rent candidates. “Immediately, 7 of the 36 delegates, all of them National Reformers or Barnburners, walked out.”

Sixteen days later, the bolters and other dissident Anti-Renters reassembled at Albany City Hall, this time joined by National Reformers and Liberty Party activists, who had been eyeing each other as potential allies. As Professor Huston explains:
Reformers in both camps saw such alliances as a way to expand the influence of their movements. Abolitionists like [Gerrit] Smith and [Calvin] Pepper were also convinced by the National Reformers’ contention that access to land was a natural right; they endorsed the NRA’s program as an essential part of their struggle for human liberation.

Jonathan H. Earle’s perspective is similar:
NRA anti-renters . . . found [new allies] among the state’s growing population of political abolitionists, including Gerrit Smith and William Chaplin. Smith, following a long correspondence with [George Henry] Evans, had come to believe that the eradication of land monopoly was a necessary first step to abolishing chattel slavery. Chaplin, the editor of the Albany Patriot, wished to move abolitionism beyond the Liberty Party’s “one idea” (abolition) and work for other reforms.

On October 22, 1846, this assembly of “land reformers, land-hungry farmers, and abolitionists forged their first political alliance” – a coalition they called the Free Soil party, “the first to use the name.” They nominated a National Reformer (Lewis Masquerier) for governor, an abolitionist (William Chaplin) for lieutenant governor, National Reformer and Anti-Rent editor Thomas Devyr for Congress, and two long-time anti-rent activists for the state legislature.

Perhaps more important for the future, the party platform sought to recognize the goals of the various groups participating in the coalition. Professor Huston characterizes it as follows:
[T]he platform . . . appealed to the anti-renters’ hopes of destroying both the leasehold system and the rule of professional politicians. At the same time, it sought to link these aims to broader land and labor reform. The delegates offered resolutions calling for the abrogation of all leasehold contracts, a homestead act, and an equalization of the rewards to labor.

Professor Earle adds that the “delegates labeled both land monopoly and slavery ‘combinations of wealth against the liberties of the masses.’”

Coming only twelve days before the election, the Free Soil nominations had no impact on the 1846 races. Young won the governorship handily. Reeve Huston reports, “The Free-Soil vote was so small that it was left out of the statewide tally; in Albany County, where support for the National Reformers was as strong as anywhere, the ticket garnered fewer than one hundred votes.”

As Professor Earle reminds us, however, the delegates had stumbled across a concept that would grow rapidly:
[T]he platform and resolutions presaged a larger political movement that would fare better in the near future. Linking the Free Soil parties of 1846 and the one christened in 1848 were commitments to two distinct yet complementary ideas: free homesteads on the public lands for needy settlers and hostility to the spread of slavery. What made 1848 so different from 1846 were two factors: the addition of thousands of square miles of territory to the United States as a result of the war with Mexico and a full-bore schism within the once mighty New York Democracy.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails