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  • Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854
  • Matthew Warshauer (bio)
Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854. By Jonathan H. Earle. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 282. Cloth, $59.95; paper, $22.50.)

Jonathan H. Earle has written an important and overdue history of the Free Soil Party's Democratic origins. The terms "Free Soil," "Free Labor," and "Free Men" are familiar to historians today primarily because of Eric Foner's work of the same name, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970). It has been thirty-five years since the publication of that influential volume, [End Page 507] and during those years it has stood as our basic understanding of the Free Soil Party. It makes good sense, then, that one of Foner's former students should offer historians another vantage point from which to consider Free Soilers. Yet rather than carrying readers into the ideological origins of the Republican Party, Earle takes us farther back, to the earliest days of the antislavery extension party, noting that "because 'free soil' is one of antebellum America's most elusive terms, one of this study's ambitions is to clarify its origins and meanings" (13). He finds that many of the most important leaders came from steadfast Jacksonian Democratic roots.

Men such as William Leggett, Thomas Morris, and David Wilmot, to name a few, were thoroughgoing, hard-money Democrats. They fought the monopolies and banks that made up the Money Power and argued against special privilege and aristocracy. They were also opposed to slavery early on and ultimately transferred their antiaristocratic ideals into a focused and effective attack on the Slave Power, another form of elitist rule. "Democratic dissidents, reasonably satisfied that Jackson and his administration had the Money Power on the run," writes Earle, "discovered that another enemy—slavery—had risen in its place." Thomas Morris argued to the Senate that "the slave power of the South and the banking power of the North, are now uniting to rule this country" (7–8). Thus it was the early opposition to slavery of staunch Democrats that fit snugly within their already fixed hatred of economic power that forged early Free Soil ideology. Earle is careful to point out that these men were not radical abolitionists. They wedded their attack on slavery with traditional Democratic beliefs, such as land reform and principles of political democracy: "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. The resulting union between radical Jacksonianism and the antislavery movement . . . is far more important than historians have allowed" (5).

The apparent anomaly of Earle's argument is that Free Soil opposition to further western extension of slavery and their focus on the Slave Power, both of which were major components of the later Republican Party, had solidly Democratic origins. The Democratic Party was, after all, the proponent of Gag Laws and the banning of abolitionist tracts from the mail. Earle acknowledges, "The Democratic Party leadership generally treated antislavery Jacksonians as heretics and often banished [End Page 508] them from the party." Morris and other early Free Soil "dissident" Democrats, however, "claimed that the proslavery leadership had abandoned true Jacksonian principles, not the dissidents themselves" (6–7). Earle thus focuses the book, which is well written and flows nicely, on the various early Free Soil thinkers and the regions from which they came (Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania). His method is a sort of mini-biography of each man, showing his solid Democratic beliefs and his denunciations of slavery that helped to forge the Free Soil Party of the 1840s. The flip side of the Free Soil and later Republican Party rise is, of course, the slow and steady dismantling of the original Democratic Party.

One of the key questions that Earle raises early on is why some Democrats who held "the same principles and hostilities to centralized power in any form become Free Soilers while others did not...


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