Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

Synopsis

Taking our understanding of political antislavery into largely unexplored terrain, Jonathan H. Earle counters conventional wisdom and standard historical interpretations that view the ascendance of free-soil ideas within the antislavery movement as an explicit retreat from the goals of emancipation or even as an essentially proslavery ideology. These claims, he notes, fail to explain free soil's real contributions to the antislavery cause: its incorporation of Jacksonian ideas about property and political equality and its transformation of a struggling crusade into a mass political movement. Democratic free soilers' views on race occupied a wide spectrum, but they were able to fashion new and vital arguments against slavery and its expansion based on the party's long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and hostility to centralized power. Linking their antislavery stance to a land-reform agenda that pressed for free land for poor settlers in addition to land free of slavery, Free Soil Democrats forced major political realignments in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Democratic politicians such as David Wilmot, Marcus Morton, John Parker Hale, and even former president Martin Van Buren were transformed into antislavery leaders. As Earle shows, these political changes at the local, state, and national levels greatly intensified the looming sectional crisis and paved the way for the Civil War.

Excerpt

The dinner table conversation at Masi's rooming house on Pennsylvania Avenue rarely, if ever, centered on the food. Politics was the main course on the evening of August 8, 1846, as it was most other nights when Congress was in session. Every one of the house's residents was a member of the 29th Congress, a northerner, and a Democrat. Yet on this sultry Saturday night, the penultimate night of the session, the housemates' conversation was particularly heated. At issue, each lawmaker believed, was whether millions of acres of western land would remain free (as it had been since 1821) or fall into the hands of slaveholders.

Earlier that day, President James K. Polk had submitted a message to both houses of Congress requesting $2 million to make peace with Mexico and to purchase California and New Mexico. To a growing number of the Democrats representing northern districts—for years the South's staunchest political allies—the president's request seemed the latest in a series of moves intended to increase slave territory (and the power of slaveholders) at their constituents' expense. This feeling was particularly intense for Democrats known as Barnburners, who believed slaveholders had been responsible for defeating their leader, Martin Van Buren, in 1840 and 1844; for capitulating on extending Oregon's northern boundary; and for carving out a new empire for slavery in Texas and the Southwest. the Barnburner Democrats in residence at Masi's and elsewhere on Capitol Hill seized on Polk's request as the moment to make their increasing opposition to new slave territory heard.

Uneasy with the prospect of dealing squarely with the controversial addition of new territory so late in the session, a group of northern representatives moved to kill the president's request by referring it to committee.

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