A vigorous look at anti-slavery's roots

Third parties have rarely fared well in American politics.

The Free Soil Party of the pre-Civil War days, for example, had at its height a handful of congressional representatives and served primarily as a spoiler between the two major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. Still, the Free Soilers were a key precursor to the Republican Party, which came into its own with the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, supplanting the Whigs.

In his study of Free Soil politics from 1824 to 1854, Jonathan H. Earle, a history professor at the University of Kansas, examines the role of former Jacksonian Democrats — with their egalitarian, anti-big-money-power rhetoric, embodied in the 1829-1837 presidency of Andrew Jackson — in the creation of the Free Soil ideology.

Earle — whose brother, Geoff, is a reporter for The Hill — writes well and avoids academic jargon. But Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil is clearly designed for a scholarly audience that has read countless other books on the Jacksonian and antebellum eras and can follow the arguments made by generations of historians, including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., author of the landmark 1945 volume The Age of Jackson.

Earle enters that ongoing debate with vigor, contending that Democrats played an important role in forming Free Soil concepts. “While there remains little doubt that Schlesinger overstated the Jacksonians’ protoliberalism, his most recent critics, by making white supremacy and proslavery the underpinnings of Jacksonian political thought, have distorted the history of both Jacksonianism and the antislavery movement,” Earle argues. “This book examines how Democratic veterans of the antibank and antimonopoly battles of the 1830s fashioned their own arguments against slavery and its extension.”

Much of the book delves into how the Free Soil movement developed in various states, including New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and the impact the Democrats had on the new party.

“Free Soil Democrats went beyond simple hostility to the Slave Power and its pretenses, linking their antislavery opposition to a land reform agenda that pressed for free land for poor settlers, in addition to land free of slavery,” Earle writes.

He painstakingly documents the political lives of various intriguing political characters caught up in the ferment of the era.
One such figure was the poet and newspaper editor Walt Whitman, who pops up throughout the book. Whitman was a delegate — “one of the most enthusiastic,” Earle writes — at the Free Soilers’ 1848 convention, a high-water mark for the party, at which former Democrats and former Whigs joined together in Buffalo.

Another key figure was Rep. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who served as a Democrat from 1845 to ’51 and later was elected as a Republican senator, serving from 1861 to ’63. Wilmot was the author of the Wilmot Proviso, a controversial amendment introduced in 1846 that would have banned slavery from territory obtained by the United States in the Mexican War.

The amendment was approved in the House, but the Senate did not include it in its version of the legislation. However, the proviso’s ideas became part of the Free Soil platform in 1848.

Although a thorough grounding in 19th century American historiography would be helpful in truly appreciating Earle’s book, it is certainly still worthwhile for a general reader with an interest in U.S. political history.