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Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner

By 1970, there was a need for a historical study that would do more than deal with “political anti-slavery in the most cursory fashion” (1). Additionally, there were no modern studies of either the Liberty or Free Soil parties. And while the origins of the Republican Party had been investigated, scholars had not only neglected key players, such as Salmon P. Chase and Gideon Welles, but “scores of secondary figures,” too (1). In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, distinguished nineteenth century historian Eric Foner makes a substantial contribution to this field by providing a comprehensive analysis of the Republican Party’s pre-war ideology, specifically focusing on how it developed and by whom it was most influenced. Advocating the “irrepressible conflict” school of American Civil War historiography, Foner claims Secession—and the protracted four-year struggle that ensued—was both a logical and inevitable result of the Republican Party’s victory in the 1860 presidential election.1 Contrary to popular perception, however, not all Northerners in the 1850s were Republicans, nor did all members of the GOP believe that slavery was a moral wrong. Foner presents the pre-war Republican Party as a diverse group of men divided by region and lifestyle as much as by a vast array of different, sometimes competing, interests, moral/religious beliefs, national origins, and previous political affiliations, united only by a broad, sometimes ambiguous, Republican ideology.

Foner identifies three interdependent, mutually reinforcing doctrines that constituted Republican ideology: Free soil, free labor, and free men, all of which were threatened by the “Slave Power.” The idea of the Slave Power, first made popular by Senator Thomas Morris of Ohio, held that “the original policy of the government had been subverted and the Constitution violated for the extension of slavery, and the establishment of [its own] political supremacy” (87). In contrast to the Slave Power stood the ideal of “free soil,” which recognized the vast expanse of land in “the West” as an effective barrier against slavery’s extension, a “safety-valve” for the increasing urban ills of a stagnant economy, and as the necessary conduit for continued northern social mobility (58, 28, 20). Similarly, “free labor” was essential for the North’s “dynamic, expanding, capitalistic society, whose achievements and destiny were almost wholly the result of the dignity and opportunities which it offered the average laboring man” (11). Despite the best efforts of the “radicals,” however, the Republican concept of “free men” did not call for the immediate and unconditional emancipation of the slaves. There were a significant number of northern men led by Salmon P. Chase committed to slavery’s abolition, but believed, unlike William Lloyd Garrison and co., their interests would be better served through the political process. Chase and his followers cited support from the founders’ own words in the Fifth Amendment—which barred Congress from depriving any “person” of “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law—that they believed was intended “to prevent the national government from sanctioning slavery anywhere within its exclusive jurisdiction” (76). Nevertheless, Foner contends “political antislavery was not merely a negative doctrine, an attack on southern slavery and the society built upon it,” but was an ideology of affirmation that extolled the virtues of the North’s superior social system (11).

In short, Foner’s scholarship is exemplary. His opening chapter reveals an intimate knowledge of the field’s secondary literature and its historical gaps, as well as where his contribution fits into the subject’s fiercely debated historiography. Skillfully providing the reader with the project’s conceptual framework, Foner’s discussion of ideology is both detailed and relevant. Furthermore, Foner’s primary document research encompasses a extensive number of manuscripts, published collections of writings, speeches, letters, government documents, newspapers and periodicals, contemporary speeches, convention proceedings, books and pamphlets, autobiographies, memoirs, and reminiscences.



Despite its being the classic study on pre-war Republican ideology, Foner’s work does assume a certain degree of prior knowledge about Antebellum American politics, especially the Second Party System. Nevertheless, his ability to identify, distinguish, and explain the different strands, traditions, and influences on Republican ideology is nothing short of outstanding. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War is recommended reading for all students interested in how Americans could fight a bloody war against each other just two generations after they fought a bloody war to establish their own nation.



1 Charles A. Beard and Arthur C. Cole first put the “irrepressible conflict” idea forth in the 1930s. Foner argues that the Civil War was both a logical and inevitable result of Lincoln’s election in 1860 on page 316.


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