In 1848 Americans joined the bulk of Europe in sparking a revolutionary movement which slowly burned into an abolition wildfire.

1848—The Springtime of Free Soil

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

1848 was probably the single year up to that point in history containing the most numerous and significant rebellions, revolutions, and reforms ever seen. All across Europe, decades and centuries worth of pent up rage from below boiled over into wave after wave of unrest and upheaval. During this unprecedented “Springtime of Peoples,” group after group sought independence, democratized power, and full on social revolution in successive and persistent waves. Most movements, of course, were unsuccessful and indeed positively helped reinforce the positions of various Old Regimes. Some did successfully liberalize, democratize, or revolutionize their governments and pushed history in simultaneously more liberal, more nationalistic, and more socialistic directions. Normally, the United States is left out of the story entirely and 1848 is left a largely European affair. But here, too, it was a revolutionary year—and though the radical reformers on this side of the Atlantic also failed in the short term, they sparked a slow‐​burning flame only later whipped into full conflagration.

Readers more immediately interested in the politics of the 1848 “Free Soil” election are encouraged to begin with our previous coverage of the Mexican‐​American War, the Polk Administration, and Van Buren’s decision to run as the antislavery third party candidate against Democrat Lewis Cass and Whig Zachary Taylor in ’48. (We will cover these events in greater depth throughout the course of the current series.)

During the course of the campaign (while European mobs barricaded the streets in their respective capitals), an Ohio minister named William Wilson published this blistering and ingenious little pamphlet, “The Great American Question.” As Wilson saw it, Americans in 1848 finally had the opportunity to make a great national test of the North and the South’s respective systems of government: Democracy and Doulocracy. To Wilson’s generation democracy required no clarification—it meant rule by the voting majority (always male, even in those states which allowed African Americans to vote) constrained by the constitutions formed by “the people” in convention. Doulocracy, though, that was and remains an unusual concept. But it was an apt moniker nonetheless. A doulocracy is a government ruled by slaves, and Wilson argues that in fact southerners lived in constant fear of their slaves and governed their societies accordingly. They even used the power of the national government to reach into northern homes and govern free men and women according to the whims of southern slaves who might, should they choose, take vengeance upon their masters. In the interest of expanding their system, planters used the national government to conquer vast territories from Mexico. Once flooded with slaves, the Southwest would become the next frontier for slave rebellion, runaways, conflicts over slavery’s legal status in the territories, and potential flashpoints calling for more federal protections for slavery. Wilson argues that the more Americans voted for politicians which aided and abetted slavery, the more they would be ruled by the South’s planter class and the whims of their millions of slaves. 1848 was the time to finally change that.

By William Wilson, A.M.

The Great American Question: Democracy vs Doulocracy, Or Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men & Free Speech Against the Extension and Domination of the Slaveholding Interest: A letter addressed to each freeman of the United States, with special reference to his duty at the approaching election.

Pastor of the Church of the Covenanters, And Chancellor of the Protestant University of the United States

“Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?” — Malachi.

“He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” -Moses.

“They traded the persons of men, and vessels of brass in thy [Tyre] market.” — Ezekiel

“The merchandise of [Babylon] wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and Slaves, and Souls of Men,” — John.

“He hath given the earth to the children of men.” — David.

“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” -Paul.

“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”- Messiah

“Forasmuch as I am myself a Man, I reckon nothing which affects or pertains to a Human Being foreign from, or uninteresting to me.” -Ovid.

“We hold these truths to be self‐​evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, etc.-Declaration of American Independence.

“We, the People of the United States, in order to establish justice, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” — Preamble to the Constitution of the U.S.

“Be it ordained, by the United States in Congress assembled, that the said territory, for the purposes of -extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws, and constitutions, are erected; of fixing and establishing those principles of basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments, which for ever hereafter shall be formed in said territory, etc. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in said territory.” etc.- Ordinance of 1787.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties.” -Milton.



The right of free discussion, as it is inalienable to men, is happily secured by Constitutional Law to every citizen of the United States. Of course, the use which is made of it ought to be at once decorous, and for the promotion of the private and the public welfare. With this object in view, and under a sense of this obligation, it is to be exercised upon the present occasion.

The Author of the brief and hasty hints contained in the following pages, upon a subject which might well command and occupy several volumes, conceives that he owes it to himself to state, that he does not view the GREAT QUESTION which is now pending before the independent freemen of our country, nor write in relation to it, as a partizan. He has ever believed, and acted in correspondence therewith, that party ought to be held in abeyance to principle: and this conviction does not diminish, but increase, by the progress of time, and by the acquisition of experience. His intimate and cherished friends have always been found, indifferently, in both of the two great parties of Democrats and Whigs, which have formerly divided our citizens; and even now, when these parties are rapidly undergoing the process of decomposition and dissolution, he numbers among their remains, notwithstanding they are still clinging to, and battling for, DOULOCRACY, individuals, not a few, who are objects of his esteem and regard, as well as in the swelling ranks of the redeemed, and renovated, and living DEMOCRACY of our age. “Principles, and not men;” and “men as the representatives, and in order to the success, of principles,” have been, and still are, his governing maxims. So, he thinks, it ought to be with all. This the present crisis emphatically demands.

…If any section of our land continues to prosper, or the integrity of the Union be preserved of the extension of slavery to Territories now free of the evil; and by the marked rebuke, through the medium of the polls, of the spirit which would, at this day, set up the unhallowed and unconstitutional claim: for, by a different course of action, we should incur the wrath of God Almighty, from whom all national, as well as individual prosperity and happiness emanate.

This Question being now, in the providence of God, distinctly before the American People, so simplified, and so separated from every other issue as that he who runs may read, and he who reads may understand, viz.: “SHALL LIBERTY OR SLAVERY, DEMOCRACY OR DOULOCRACY, TRIUMPH IN REPUBLICAN AMERICA?” is about to be answered by every Freeman at the approaching election, according to the vote he deposits in the ballot‐​box. And we much mistake the spirit and sense of our citizens, as well as their lively regard for Liberty, and jealousy of everything which would even seem to interfere with it, if they do not speak, in tones of thunder, in favor of the former, and against every aspirant after office, from the highest to the lowest, who is a professed Doulocrat, or who is uncommitted upon this Great Question, which overshadows and completely absorbs every other topic of difference at present existing among us, This Patriotism expects and requires. “He that is not for us, is against us.”

The author deems it proper also to state, that…there are no special relations subsisting between him and Mr. Van Buren; neither have they held any correspondence upon the great topic which causes at present such an unusual commotion throughout our country. He has never been one of his active supporters; although he has always been compelled to hold him in high estimation, both as a Man, and as a Statesman. Viewing him now as raised up by the Supreme Ruler of nations, to perform an important service for his country, and his age he has spoken of him, not only without panegyric or exaggeration, but much within the limits of what he conceives to be the truth: partly, because he judged it not to be necessary; would be unsuitable to the occasion and its exigencies. And with regard to the other distinguished candidates, he would not desire to pluck a laurel from their brows. But, however worthy they may be as men, and in their own place, they are not fit for the Presidency, in this critical juncture of our national affairs.

Farther, and finally, he would state, that, in thus undertaking to show his opinion upon this the greatest Question of our history, since we became a nation, he has had prominently in view the promotion of the glory of his God, and the good of his fellow‐​men‐​especially of the American people. For his mind is deeply impressed with the conviction, that upon the decision of this Great Question in such a manner as to prevent the extension of slavery, our future prosperity, peace, happiness and honor, if not our very existence as a united people, depend. Thus believing, he has spoken. And his earnest desire is to contribute something which may induce Freemen, of all parties, so to forget, at least for the moment, their personalities, prejudices, and minor, although they may regard them important, differences, as to stand up, and act unitedly, shoulder to shoulder, for their country and freedom, in this the hour of their peril. When the house is on fire, it is no time to contend about culinary matters; or about the manner in which the duties of the domestic economy were formally discharged, or shall be discharged in the future; or about the persons of men, or the views which they may have entertained of these. The action then demanded, is the joint efforts of all for the extinction of the flames. This being accomplished, subordinate matters may be adjusted afterwards. The application of this will be obvious to all. And with these observations, he cheerfully commits the work to the blessing of God, and to the unbiased attention of American Citizens.

Cincinnati, September 13th, 1848.


DEAR SIR: Allow me, as your friend and fellow‐​citizen, with all freedom, and sincerity, and earnestness, to confer with you in relation to the momentous issues now before the American People, and to your duty with regard to it at the approaching Presidential election.

In doing so, under a sense of duty to God, our country, to our age, and to our world, I shall, as one who must give account at that Judgement Seat from which there lies no appeal, and who no personal feeling to gratify, nor selfish object to accomplish, studiously avoid speaking evil of any party or man; and endeavor to treat this grave Question, at once with brevity, and with the veracity, the dignity, and the solemnity, which are its own, and which it rightfully claims from all who consider or attempt to answer it.

You are already aware, and, I doubt not, that you cherish the feelings of a patriot upon the subject, that the greatest Crisis in our national history has come upon us, which must be met by our citizens at the polls in the course of a few weeks; and which if met and decided in a manner worthy of freemen, will be the occasion of permanent and unutterable advantage to every section and interest of our beloved country, and through her, to the world at large: but which if met and decided either with neutrality, or direct or indirect subservience to the empire of Slavery, or Doulocracy, will entail upon our Republic, and her Territories, a lasting and deep curse and disgrace; as well as do much to realize the fears of the friends, and the wishes of the enemies, of free government, and of our happy and distinguished nation, to the extremities of our globe. Your influence and your vote, at such a time, may save or destroy. Give them cheerfully, I conjure you, irrespective of the trammels of party, as a Man, a Freeman, and a Christian, according to the dictates of the law of Nature, of Humanity, of Constitution, and of the God of Nations.

As to how this crisis has reached us, you need not, I am persuaded, to be informed. It is generally admitted that it has been hastened and matured by the zeal and aggression of our Southern brethren, who have recently become distinguished as the propagandists of slavery, by the power, and under the banner of the government, of Republican America. Here all may concur, the according to my judgement, whatever may be their views of the old parties which are now dissolved, or of the measures of the present or past administrations. Vast territories are annexed to the empire, as the result of negotiation with Great Britain, and of the war with Mexico. Oregon has been always free. The others come to us free of slavery—even the Popish and unenlightened government of Mexico, having, in accordance with the spirit of the age, abolished it a considerable time before their cession. Over these extended and free domains our doulocrats would have the General Government to extend the empire of slavery; or at least to take the ground, that the ordinance of 1787, excluding slavery from the North‐​Western territory, was unconstitutional, and to do nothing toward its prohibition from our possessions along the shores of the Pacific. The claim arouses the nation; and the exciting question is now to be decided at the polls. Doulocracy, 1 under which this land has too long been injured and disgraced,- that is, the government of servants or slaves, - the 250,00 slaveholders being governed, through the medium of their fears, their avarice, and their ambition, by their slaves, and they controlling the Republic by the influence of party‐​spirit, and by threats of secession from the Union if they should not be allowed to rule,- had so impregnated the old parties of Whigs and Democrats, and was so politic and overbearing, that she dictated her own terms to Baltimore and Philadelphia Conventions; and had nominated, as candidates for the Presidency, in the persons of General Cass and Taylor, such as would undoubtedly give the whole influence of their high office in favor of the views and the interests of the Doulocrats. Justly indignant at this, the freemen to sink or swim in the Ark of Liberty, and on the side of the Constitution, and the acts of our fathers under it, assembled in that ever‐​memorable convention at Buffalo; and united, as one man, and with religious and enlightened enthusiasm, in nominating for your suffrage two distinguished civilians, Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, as the representatives of Liberty and Freemen, in opposition to the modern pretensions and the insufferable aggressions of Doulocracy and Doulocrats. These candidates, planted upon a platform of principles which commends itself to the cordial approbation of every intelligent citizen, stand fully and publicly pledged to employ the influence of their stations, if elected, against the extension of slavery; while leaving it as it exists in several states, to be regulated by themselves, as long as they may find themselves able to bear its crushing weight, and its blighting calamity. This is noble ground. The men who have, in existing circumstances, assumed it, are moral heroes. You, my friend, will cordially sustain them. The unfurling of the banner of a regenerated Democracy, is hailed by our citizens with peculiar delight, who amazingly rally around it. The old parties are shattered, as if smitten by “the little stone cut out of the mountain without hands.”

  1. The term Doulocracy signifies, the government of servants, or, as the South, and the apologists of slavery translate the word of slaves…It is most directly opposed to Democracy, which signifies, the government of the people…The former is not found in our English dictionaries, because, until lately, and in our own free country, no people ever professed, or were willing, to be under the government of slaves, properly so denominated; and, therefore, there was no use for the word. It will be seen, however, from this, that it is as pure English as the latter, and as directly derived from the Greek language, the common origin of both.

    Our national government is democratic‐ a Representative Democracy. Of this, slavery is the direct and inexorable antagonist. For it would be easy to conceive, and as proper to speak, of white black, or of holy sin, as of democratic slavery! They cannot both long co‐​exist upon the same soil; but the one must conquer and annihilate the other. It was merely tolerated within the States where it existed, as a domestic institution, and the foreign traffic in it forever abolished under the penalties of piracy, from and after the year 1808, under the notion of a hereditary evil entailed upon those involved in it by past generations, who had very erroneous conceptions of the principles of civil and religious liberty, and by the British government, which it was evidently expected by our worthy fathers would soon die out or be abolished, through the progress of society, and the influence of our free institutions, when the Constitution of the United States was adopted, and in that very remarkable instrument. Contrary to this just and enlightened expectation, however, this sore evil has been rapidly on the increase ever since that day, in the Southern section of the Union, while the States lying North of Mason and Dixon’s line have spontaneously abolished it: and the slaveholders, or doulocrats, although but a small fraction of the population, have governed the country, by the tame and shameful acquiescence and connivance of the Free States, and have actually furnished our Presidents, all but twelve years, up from the foundation of the Federal Government: and they now, having grown insolent and audacious by the power which they have thus been allowed, not from their own special merits, but exclusively form the sufferance of their brethren, seem disposed to claim this as a matter of right, and to make submission to their will, in this respect, an indispensable condition of the continuance of the Union. Hence the nomination of Cass and Taylor at her dictation, by the late National Conventions of Baltimore and Philadelphia, on the avowed ground of “Availability” or expediency alone; because the South would vote for no candidate who was not bound to slavery, either by his own pledge, as the former, or by the guarantee furnished by his residence within her geographical boundaries, the infected district, and his being personally deeply involved in the sin and misery of practical slave‐​holding, as the latter. Opposed to this stand Van Buren and Adams, the nominees of Freedom. Old parties and issues are now out of the question. Liberty and Slavery, or Democracy and Doulocracy, are really the only combatants, and must continue to be so until the question is finally decided which of them shall reign on this continent. Every man among us is, therefore, either a democrat, discharging nobly the duties of a freeman under the banner of Van Buren and Adams, in this campaign, or a doulocrat, doing service ignobly under the banner of Cass or Taylor. There is truly no other alternative. This invests the contents with peculiar importance, dignity and grandeur. And as, perhaps, there never was a case in which names were more emphatically things, it appears to me that it would eminently prevent confusion, simplify, and set the only issue now before the public mind in a clear and impressive light, as well as secure other fair and if the only parties at present existing were habitually designated by the friends of Free Soil, as Democrats and Doulocrats. And the state of the question being actually as it is here represented, it is desirable that the whole North would speedily wheel round into the lines of Freedom‐ which it is also most reasonable to expect that she will,- for her own honor, the good of the whole country in general, and particularly for the salvation of the South herself.