Free Soil and the Irrepressible Conflict
The expansion of slavery became the central issue in the national debate from the Mexican War to the outbreak of civil strife in 1861. It rapidly displaced the old debate between Whigs and Democrats over the expansion of the nation with the far more fateful conflict over which element within the nation would be entitled to expand. As they defined and forced the issue, Free Soilers saw it, not as a debate between two kinds of freedom, but rather an irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery. "The momentous questions of liberty and slavery," Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio declared in the House, "are now before the people of the nation."1 Only through the events of the 1850s would the irrepressible conflict mature, but the basic terms of the conflict achieved full formulation in the bitter contest over the fate of territories likely to be acquired from Mexico.
In four related ways the outlines of this irrepressible conflict can be clearly discerned. The political context in which the debate emerged was of massive import, for it heralded the disruption of the old Jeffersonian coalition of planters and plain republicans which Martin Van Buren had revived under Jackson. And, as many feared, a sundered Jefferson tended to civil conflict. Secondly, the plain