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Free-Soil Party

Timeframe: 1848 - 1854

The Free soil party, a political party organized in 1848 on a platform opposing the extension of slavery, was rooted in the growing conflict between proslavery and antislavery forces in the United States. The conflict was intensified by the acquisition of new territories from Mexico and the ensuing argument whether or not slavery would be permitted into those territories. The party evolved from antislavery and otherwise discontented elements in the Democratic and Whig parties. It was eclipsed in the early 1850's by the new Republican Party, which incorporated free soil goals.

Free soil became a political movement and slogan in the 1840's. Abolitionists in the North had already stirred antislavery sentiment, and government plans for annexing Texas created fears that this territory might enter the Union cut up into as many as six slave states. These fears were reflected in the Wilmot Proviso of 1846. The achievement of the small abolitionist Liberty party in defeating Henry Clay's presidential aspirations in 1844 demonstrated that political abolitionism could be effective.

The refusal of the two parties, Whig and Democrat, to endorse principles of the provio convinced the opposition groups of the need for a new party. The major groups involved in the organization of the Free Soil party at a convention in Buffalo, New York, were the abolitionist Liberty Party, the antislavery Whigs, and a radical faction of the New York Democrats, the Barnburners, who had broken with the state party when it came under control of the conservative Hunkers.

Led by Salmon P. Chase and John P. Hale, free-soilers, abolitionists, and others convened in Buffalo, N.Y., in August 1848 to set up a broadly based party. Among those present were discontented New York Democrats known as Barnburners," headed by former President Martin van Buren, who became the convention's presidential nominee.

The Free soil convention nominated Martin van Buren and Charles Francis Adams as candidates for president and vice-president, respectively, adopting a platform opposed to the extension of slavery and calling for a homestead law and a tariff for revenue only. The slogan of the party ws "free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men." Van Buren polled 291,616 votes in November; more important, the Free Soil party elected fourteen congressmen and two senators. The Compromise of 1850 created more ardent free-soilers, who were outraged by its fugitive slave provision and were generally fearful of the expansion of slavery westward. Such increasing partisanship, however, did not help the Free Soil party itself. Hale, its presidential candidate in 1852, polled only 156,297 votes.

By 1854 the crisis over slavery in the territories had reached proportions beyond the resources of the party, and free-soilers flocked to the Republican party. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the duel over whether Kansas was to be a free or a slave state turned the North irrevocably toward free soil. Finally, the Dred Scott Case of 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that slavery could not be constitutionally restricted to the Southern states, made abolitionists out of most free-soilers and laid the ground for a final confrontation with the slaveholders. Louis Filler Antioch College

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