1848 and Its Aftermath

1848 changed American politics forever, and early Libertarianism was at the center of it.

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1848 was a wild ride. That year the Free Soil Party tried to force Whigs and Democrats to take a stand on the issue of slavery in the territories. Once and for all, politicians would have to openly declare themselves either in favor of Free Soil for free society or Slave Territory, for the planters’ personal dominion.

Further Readings/References:

Johnson, Reinhard. The Liberty Party, 1840-1848: Antislavery Third-Party Politics in the United States. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University. 2009.

From historian Joel Silbey:

The Shrine of Party: Congressional Voting Behavior, 1841-1852. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1967.

Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002.

Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. 2009.

Music by Kai Engel

00:03 Anthony Comegna: 1848 was a wild ride. That year, called the springtime of peoples, about 50 revolts of varying scale and success tore across continental Europe. It was also the year a new spectre began haunting us all. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto and the first Marxist cadres entered the lists in favor of revolution. In America, 1848 saw the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that annexed half of Mexico, the annexation of Oregon to complete the Continental Project, the admission of Wisconsin as a new free state and, above all else, an election campaign like no other. That year the Free Soil Party tried to force Whigs and Democrats to take a stand on the issue of slavery in the territories. Once and for all, politicians would have to openly declare themselves either in favor of Free Soil for free society or Slave Territory, for the planters’ personal dominion.

01:06 Anthony Comegna: It was the first major attempt to politically limit the extent of slave-holding since the Missouri Compromise. And it was far more significant in principle. It set the stage for a collapsing second party system, first by stripping away enough Democrats to throw the election, then by exposing the great mass of Whigs as political opportunists and the tools of wealthy individuals. 1848 changed American politics forever, and early Libertarianism was at the center of it.

01:44 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

02:01 Anthony Comegna: Campaigning was very different then. Candidates wrote far more letters than they ever gave speeches and surrogates did most of the hard work for them. This was long before shameless whistle-stop tours where candidates voice their own desires to gain high office; they were still expected to hold their posts as a duty and a sort of burden. In reality, of course, they lusted after power like most other politicians, ancient or modern. True enough, Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren spent much of his time furiously writing to advisers around the country, endlessly coordinating lieutenants’ activities at the state level. But neither he nor Taylor nor Cass really did much campaigning for themselves. All of that happened in the editorial pages of your favorite party paper or through a local candidate’s or a surrogate’s speech on the stump.

02:50 Anthony Comegna: By the end of June 1848 nominations were all wrapped up and serious campaigning took place over the summer and into the fall. What began as a steady trickle of defections from the Democrats to the Free Soilers turned into a minor flood by mid-year. In September, one Whig paper provided readers a much-needed reminder of Free Soil’s actual roots.

03:16 Speaker 2: Trenton State Gazette, September 16th, 1848. The Free Soil Movement. When the Free Soil Movement emerged from the state of New York and began extending its influence more or less throughout the entire Union, many of our Whig friends became alarmed under the supposition that this new organization would detract principally from the Whigs’ strength. The result of the recent elections in the East must remove all such fears. In Vermont the Whigs have admirably preserved their strength while on the other hand, Locofocoism in that state has been reduced to a mere squad. In the state of Maine the Free Soil movement has resulted decidedly to the advantage of the Whigs, securing them at least a gain of one member of Congress and throwing the election of Governor upon the state legislature. In such states as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Iowa the Free Soil Movement, as evidenced in the recent charge of front in many of the newspapers of those states, is decidedly to the advantage of General Taylor.

04:23 Speaker 2: Scarcely a mail arrives but what adds to the list of seceders from Cass. In Illinois an electoral ticket has been formed and six out of the nine gentlemen who compose it are known to have been decided and influential Locofocos. In Wisconsin, four out of every five who have joined the Free Soil movement are conceded to be Locofocos. In Pennsylvania the leading and prominent men of the Van Buren party are nearly all men who have recently slipped the Cass collar. Stump speakers of the Free Soil Party in that state are Locofocos. Every man of them, these men are all of Allegany County. On the other hand, not a single conspicuous Whig of that district can be pointed to who favors the movement. The reason of this is obvious: The Whig party has long since decimated of its own idea men by the Liberty Movement, the Locofoco party are only now undergoing the same thinning process.

05:24 Speaker 2: Besides this, Mr. Van Buren is a Locofoco who still has the sympathies of thousands of that party in his favor, while he has at the same time the hostility of the entire Whig party for his long continued and bitter opposition towards all their men and measures. Had any well-known Whig been nominated by the Buffalo Convention, the case would have been different. As it is, the effect of that nomination must, for the unalterable nature of things, draw its chief support from the Locofoco party.

06:01 Speaker 2: In view of these facts, and who can gainsay them, the Whigs have everything to hope for from the triangular warfare now waging. Every day adds to the chances of their success, and all that is necessary to ensure a sweeping victory is firmness and energy of action during the few remaining weeks that intervene between this and the 7th of November.

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06:33 Anthony Comegna: A month later, the same paper returned to the same well-worn message of alarm. Look here, Whigs and Liberty Party abolitionists, these so-called Free Soilers are a bunch of hypocrites led by demagogues. Until just a few months ago, the leaders of this new party were the truest and most devoted of Democrats, who dutifully lined up behind Polk when their real party demanded it, but now that they were factional outcasts, since the Barnburners lost the political war against the New York conservatives, called the Hunkers. Well, now they were all full of anti-slavery and other pious principles. Whig papers regularly noted something about this new Free Soil Party that historians have nearly forgotten. They were overwhelmingly Locofocos or early Libertarians. Yes, plenty of them were political opportunists too, but the important point for us here is not that every Locofoco was morally pure and ideologically consistent. Far from it. The key point is that the Free Soil Party was a proto-Libertarian organization.

07:42 Speaker 2: Trenton State Gazette, October 9, 1848. False friends of freedom. The Barnburners make great pretensions as opponents of the extension of slavery. Why did they constantly support the Mexican War, which was got up and carried through for the single purpose of extending slavery? And why was it that they never thought of coming out for Free Soil ‘til they imagined they could raise themselves to high offices thereby? There was more genuine love of freedom in one Southern Whig who resisted the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War than in the whole host of Barnburners. The Southern Whigs made sacrifices and opposed the popular feeling around them and went against the majority of their own people and their slavery notions in opposition to the acquisition of new slave territory, while these Barnburners in the North, although the Locofoco Party kicked and cuffed them about, clung to their skirts and could not be driven from their devotion to Polk and his war for slavery. Why is it only a few weeks ago that John Van Buren boasted that his father had supported Polk’s election and Polk’s administration through thick and thin? A pretty fellow that declaimed to be elected president on the grounds of his merit as an apostle of freedom and opponent of the extension of slavery.”

09:12 Anthony Comegna: The Van Buren Free Soil campaign was not a monolithically Locofoco or Libertarian party. The strong contingent of Conscience Whigs saw to that, but it was stocked with established and critical radical figures, like Frank Blair of Kentucky, and up-and-coming younger figures like Walt Whitman. Blair was an important publisher and sometime political advisor to Jackson, who set up a whole new paper for Van Buren, the Missouri Barnburner. Walt Whitman’s Free Soilism got him fired from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, so he set up his own short-lived Weekly Freeman. Across the North, dozens of other stories like theirs filled the pages of the Free Soil press. See, historians are not actually telling you the full truth of the past when they write a book. They’re telling you a particular story, their story about what happened, and that includes me, by the way. We tell our stories of the past, not the revealed word of History with a capital H.

10:08 Anthony Comegna: So, because historians do not care one bit about Libertarianism and its past, Libertarians might well have not existed, at least until the Koch brothers or Ron Paul came along or something. We forget that Locofocoism was ever a thing. We forget that these people were our own direct, ideological ancestors. We forget that they set up the country’s most important third party ever, and we forget that our movement has had moments and whole decades of profound impact on American life long before living memory. Let me bring us back to 1848 for more evidence in my story that most Free Soilers were in fact Locofocos or early Libertarians. Here’s a campaign speech by one of the era’s most astute and beloved observers and statesmen, Whig luminary Daniel Webster. Webster used no uncertain terms. He knew who these Free Soilers were. He knew what they’d been up to for the last decade and how they were connected to the old Equal Rights Party war on Tammany Hall that kicked off this whole factional power struggle in the democracy to begin with.

11:18 Speaker 2: Washington Reporter, October 25, 1848. Old Rough and Ready, the man of the people for president. Speech of the Honorable Daniel Webster at Abington, October 9, 1848. Recent events have raised another question which has come to affect very materially the domestic government of the state of Massachusetts. A party has arisen and has been organized in this state, which calls itself the Free Soil Party. Now, I will not say these words, “Free Soil Party,” are stolen from anywhere, but the sentiment is possessed by a sort of petty larceny. Gentlemen who joined this Free Soil Party in the state of Massachusetts pretended they are better lovers of liberty, warmer and more consistent opponents of the slave power than these they leave behind them. I do not admit this. I do not think they can prove it. I think we are just as good anti-slavery men and Free Soil men as they are, although we do not set ourselves up by way of eminence and pre-eminence above our neighbors. Now, first, what is the history of this Free Soil Party? Some years ago, indeed before Mr. Van Buren’s election to the presidency or about that date, there was known to be a schism to some extent in the Great Democratic or Locofoco Party of New York. This schism increased by degrees and for many years Mr. Van Buren was acknowledged to be the general head of the party and was supported by both branches of this schism.

13:09 Speaker 2: In process of time, it grew wider, until Governor Silas Wright was a candidate for a second re-election to the office of Governor, when some of the party denominated the old Hunkers, either grew cold in his support or abstained from giving him any support. And by this time, the other branch of the party had adopted the name of Barnburners. This schism went on until it became an actual outbreak, a year-and-a-half or two years ago, a state of hostility between the two branches of the party. But this party, now called the Barnburners, existed as one branch of the Great Democratic Party of New York long before any question arose about the Wilmot Proviso or any opposition in that party to the progress of slavery or the extension of slave territory. And up to the time of the annexation of Texas, every member of both branches of the party in New York went straight forward and right ahead in supporting the annexation of Texas, slavery and all.

14:16 Speaker 2: But by this time, the efforts of the Whigs alone had raised a strong sentiment in the North against further annexation of slave territory. I say the Whigs alone, for nobody belonging to the other party, north or south, east or west, lifted a finger in that cause. Or if there were any, there were so few as to not be distinguishable in a mass until the Whigs of New England, Ohio and other middle states had accomplished a great excitement, a new feeling in the public mind. And then this position of the democracy of New York, now denominated the Barnburning Party, seized upon this state of excitement thus brought about by Whig effort, and attached this principle to their creed, to give them a pre-eminence over their rivals. That is the history of the Buffalo Convention.

15:08 Speaker 2: In its origin, it had no more to do with free principles than it had to do with the Masonic institution or anti-Masonic feeling of the community. It was a mere contest for power and predominance in the party in New York. And now, having grafted this very just sentiment upon their old creed and holding fast to all the rest of their 39 articles, they expect that the Whigs of Massachusetts will take service under them. That they will engage and enlist, I had almost said, to be subsidized, to maintain the predominance of one branch of the Democratic Party of New York over the other. For one, I propose to do no such thing. I do not like the service.

16:00 Anthony Comegna: In the final week of the campaign, Whigs worried that the Barnburners would blink, come election day. When it came down to it and all of those ex-Democrat Free Soilers really had to choose between their beloved democracy and their factional loyalty to Van Buren, most Locofocos would choose their party over their principles. Whigs were in a tricky spot. On the one hand, if the Barnburners got cold feet, it would mean a likely victory for Cass. And on the other, a Taylor victory would probably force a reformation of the democracy that could then seriously contest the midterms and the next presidential canvass.

16:42 Speaker 2: New Hampshire Sentinel, November 2nd, 1848. The Locofoco branch of the Free Soil sizzle in every state. But New York will shout the loudest for Van Buren up to the 7th, when they will quietly deposit their votes for Lewis Cass. In New York, the question is about the spoils and the democracy go to the death on that question.

17:12 Anthony Comegna: For the first time in American electoral history, voters could now read the results of the election quickly. Before Morse’s magnetic telegraph, it would take weeks for results to filter in from faraway states. Editors would painstakingly keep tabulations as accurately as possible. And eventually, everyone would know the winner. Sometimes, it would take a month or more. But everything was different now. Taylor won with about 47% of the popular vote to Lewis Cass’ 42.5%; 163 electoral votes to 127. But the shocking thing, of course, was the Free Soil count. Van Buren took almost 300,000 votes or 10% without having appeared on most Southern ballots. His greatest number of votes came from New York and the Barnburners, well over 100,000 of them. His best margins were in New York, Vermont, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, where he scored over a quarter of the vote in each.

18:11 Anthony Comegna: Free Soil was strong enough to throw the vote in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin. Some went for Cass, but most went to Taylor. He was elected in effect with Locofoco protest votes for Van Buren. We know this because Free Soil Democrats out-voted Free Soil Whigs and Liberty men in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, while Free Soil Whigs provided most of the party’s votes in New Hampshire alone. Across the west, Democrats and Whigs evenly divided their Free Soil votes. Even if you discount the Barnburner phenomenon in New York as a factional struggle rather than a representation of Free Soil ideology, most Free Soil votes in other states also came from Locofoco ex-Democrats.

19:04 Anthony Comegna: But historians have not bothered to write a history of the Locofoco movement, so they have failed to recognize what we now know about our own history, that Locofocoism was the heart of Free Soil. We also know that by 1860 most Free Soilers, whatever party they originally came from, were now Republicans. Historian Joel Silby has recently argued that Free Soil was America’s great contribution to the revolutions of 1848. It was the first time any sort of major political outlet dedicated to some sort of anti-slavery platform had ever existed. Yes, there was the Liberty Party before the Free Soil Party, but they were always a super minority. Free Soil was categorically different in political terms. Van Buren may not have gotten any electoral votes, but there were now nine Free Soil representatives in the Democrat-led House, plus two senators, John P. Hale of New Hampshire, who once called himself an Independent Democrat, and Salmon Chase of Ohio, one of Free Soil’s founders and a Liberty Party veteran.

20:11 Anthony Comegna: It was a small contingent and as immediate victories go, it was minor at best, but in time that year’s radical implications became clearer and clearer. Free Soil was the radical Americans’ attempt at social and political revolution, and though the real revolution did not take shape until 1861 to ‘65, 1848 was the first major step. Locofocos of The Jacksonian in sectional periods shared philosophical commitments to anti-monopoly, laissez-faire economics and ethics of equal individual rights and a revolutionary Republican political order. The Free Soil revolution of 1848 determined that a significant portion of the Locofoco philosophy would be put into practice, but it also ensured that the radicals’ greatest victories would be appropriated by stronger politicians and bigger coalitions. By 1860 Free Soil had exercised a great enough impact that a non-Free Soiler, Abraham Lincoln, was elected with a Free Soil platform on the strength of Locofoco Free Soil votes. Lincoln’s Republican Party was never a Locofoco organization, though Locofocos participated in the long pre-history of his winning coalition and significantly influenced that new party from its birth.

21:44 Anthony Comegna: We will follow the story of Locofocos the rest of the way through in due time, right up to the Civil War, through Reconstruction and into the late 19th century, when those with Locofoco ideas no longer had the term Locofoco in use to describe themselves. We will see yet another period of dirty deal-making and betrayal from politicians, we’ll encounter new crusades, political and military, against the slave power, new political parties and a new party system. We’ll see the death of Locofoco as a word in common use and the dissipation of anything like a Locofoco identity. And we’ll see a new generation of heroes whose names might be more familiar to you, people like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker. By the 1860s and ’70s, what few Tuckers there were left out there no longer had the word Locofoco to describe themselves. They opted for a strange European import instead: Libertarian.

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22:58 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.