- Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854
Jonathan Earle's new book contains much to admire. It is deeply researched, lucidly written, clearly and provocatively argued, and packed with new information. Earle is clearly an important new voice in the field of antebellum political history. I enthusiastically welcome his arrival, even though I am not entirely persuaded by his fine book.
Earle avers that for four decades political historians have exaggerated the racism and proslavery sentiments of antebellum Northern Democrats. Ideologically egalitarian antibanking, antiprivilege, and proproducer Jacksonians, he insists, were the first Northerners to attack slavery in the political arena in the 1830s. They invented the name and doctrines of the Free Soil party in the 1840s, constituted the backbone of that party's vote in 1848, and provided numerically decisive and ideologically determinative recruits for the Republican party, whose victory in 1860 provoked the Civil War and ultimately emancipation. The credit for destroying slavery in the United States, in sum, belongs to original Jacksonians, not their elitist Whig foes or feminized, evangelical abolitionists, who relied on moral suasion rather than brass-knuckled political combat to attack slavery and its extension. Little wonder, then, that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. himself blesses this effort with an effusive blurb.
Unlike abolitionists (and presumably Whigs), whose antislavery sentiments were spawned by evangelical Protestantism, Earle insists, Democrats' opposition to slavery derived from the same egalitarian resentment of power and privilege that engendered their hostility to banks, paper money, and corporations. For these men, the Slave Power succeeded the Money Power as the biggest danger in American political life. Thus the ideological core of Democrats' opposition to slavery and its expansion differed fundamentally from that of fellow travelers in the Northern antislavery movement and was essential in [End Page 96] turning the Free Soil movement and party into a winner that effected abolition. Nor, contrary to recent studies, were Jacksonian bigots interested only in stopping slavery's extension for the benefit of whites. They "opposed the perpetuation of slavery wherever it existed, rejected racist arguments justifying bondage, and insisted on the basic humanity of African Americans" (15).
Earle develops his argument by focusing on specific men to whom he accords pride of place in launching and mobilizing antislavery as a political movement. Sequential chapters are devoted to early Democratic dissidents in the 1830s, whom he credits with inventing the terms "free soil" and "Slave Power"; Martin Van Buren's New York allies, who created the Free Soil party; Pennsylvania's David Wilmot, whose famous Proviso formed that party's central plank; Hale of New Hampshire, the Free Democratic presidential candidate in 1852; Massachusetts's Marcus Morton; and the Ohioans Salmon P. Chase and Gamaliel Bailey, the only non-Democrat on his list. These sketches are followed by a chapter analyzing the Free Soil vote in 1848 and a brief conclusion extending his story to the formation of the Republican party.
Earle readily admits that not all Northern Jacksonians joined the antislavery cause, and he intrepidly seeks to explain why some did and others did not. The key variable appears to have been the kind of constituencies the antislavery Jacksonians represented. Aside from prolabor and rabidly antibanking editors in New York City and the Cincinnatian Chase, most hailed from economically underdeveloped rural areas that had not experienced the Market Revolution or the Second Great Awakening and that were overwhelmingly Democratic until the 1840s. In short, in terms of both belief systems and social backgrounds, antislavery Jacksonians differed from abolitionists and antislavery Whigs like Joshua Giddings, Seth Gates, and William Slade.
Earle's case about the uniqueness and importance of Jacksonians to political antislavery is implicitly comparative. Its biggest weakness is precisely Earle's failure to examine Whig beliefs and contributions at any length in order to develop the comparison. For example, what he says about supposedly unique Democratic antislavery ideas fully applies to Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, to name just two anti-Jacksonian Whigs. Whig congressmen, not...