Free Soil After Van Buren

The Loco-Focos were out there leading the young America cultural movement: integrating Whigish abolitionism, even when Van Buren had left them behind.

00:00/
Previous Episode
More Creative Historical Thinking
Next Episode
Van Buren - Friend or Foe? with Jeff Hummel

Whigs were happy to have the White House, but many of them, at least, could still see the trouble lying head at the inevitable contest of 1852. On the strength of surprisingly large margins, the Free Soilers actually had a serious seat at the table. The Loco-Focos were the ones out there leading the young America cultural movement, they were the ones integrating Whigish abolitionism, with Jacksonian anti-monopoly, even when Van Buren had left them behind.

What happened to the Free Soil Movement after Van Buren was elected? What was the Speakership Crisis of 1849? Were the Whigs more reliable allies than the Democrats? What were the Loco-Focos doing during this time of upheaval in Congress? What role did the Wilmot Proviso play in this time defined by factions?

Further Reading:

Blue, Frederick. The Free Soilers, Third Party Politics, 1848-54. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 1973.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.

Brooks, Corey M. Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2016.

Related Content:

1848 and Its Aftermath, Liberty Chronicles Episode

Van Buren’s Dirty Game, Liberty Chronicles Epsiode

Polk- What a Horrible President!, Liberty Chronicles Episode

[music]

00:12 Anthony Comegna: As the year 1849 opened in Ohio, the State was in chaos. During the campaign season, Northern voters who were well used to splitting themselves into two warring camps, now had to make room for a third party. Across the union, Regular Democrats reeled from their loss in the presidential campaign, and conservatives scrambled to regain control of their party and limit the influence of Van Buren’s Radical challengers. Whigs were happy to have the White House, but many of them, at least, could still see the trouble lying head at the inevitable contest of 1852. On the strength of surprisingly large margins, the Free Soilers actually had a serious seat at the table. They held the balance of power in several northern states, and through those legislatures into what Whigs called anarchy, that is, many state houses could no longer carry on business as usual, they could not elect speakers, could not pursue legislation, could not pass much of anything, really, without the Free Soilers say so.

[music]

01:26 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. Even with a relatively paltry 11% in Ohio, Free Soilers nearly controlled the state, since they held the balance of power between the two major parties. As the 1849 session opened, Democrats and Free Soilers fought over how to seat state representatives, and Liberty Party veteran Salmon Chase seized the moment to push repeal of the States racist black laws. Chase’s abolitionist long considered the black laws a necessary first step to transform their state from merely free into positively abolitionist.

02:11 Anthony Comegna: He had fought them for over a decade, and now his own political war in Ohio was finally producing some spoils. Chase forced factions of both major parties to join the repeal effort, and the worst of those laws constricting black liberties in Ohio died then and there, proof that the second party system might soon follow. Chase, meanwhile, left to join John P. Hale in the US Senates tiny, but very loud Free Soil delegation. Whigs looked on at the disarray in Columbus, with a mixture of disgust and fear. Disgust because Free Soilers were apparently jumping at chances to realign themselves with the Democratic Party, and fear because Van Buren strategy for retaking and remaking the democracy was apparently working. This week, we tell the story of Free Soil after the Van Buren campaign, so we can see how his dirty double gaming played out, how it helped kill the Loco-Foco movement, and pushed the United States closer to bloody civil war. Ohio Free Soilers did not enjoy their new political powers in isolation, in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont, regular Democrats and Free Soilers remained at open political war. New Hampshire Democrats slandered Free Soilers as a miserable faction of N-word Whigs, and the N-word party. Contests in the new Congress at Washington were just as ruckus.

03:43 Anthony Comegna: The new contingent of Free Soilers refused to vote for a compromise candidate to the speaker’s chair. Over the course of 63 ballots and 20 days, the Free Soilers prevented the houses organization and threw the whole body into chaos. Desperate to put the slavery issue to bed, party leaders resorted to every conceivable tactic, no matter how bizarre or unpopular. Andrew Johnson, the future president, suggested ditching the majority requirement and voting by plurality instead, which would lower the threshold, and allow the party to dictate a candidate. One member suggested putting the two leading candidates’ names in a box and randomly drawing a winner. Another member wanted secret ballots to hide responsibility from the public. Richard Meade of Virginia Democrat and William Duer, a New York whig, almost came to physical blows at one point in the debates. Meade’s colleagues physically held him back, but this sort of anger was there to stay. The next day, the house voted to stop debate and discussion returned to the best method of electing a speaker, one proposal suggested lowering the threshold by one vote on each successive vote, another suggested a two-person committee with one Democrat and one whig that would prepare a list of names and veto them one by one, until a single name was left.

05:05 Anthony Comegna: The plan they eventually went with, was a six whig, six Democrat committee, evenly divided between northerners and southerners, who decided to hold four more ballots, the last of which would be decided by plurality. By this method, slave-holding Georgian Howell Cobb, won with 102 votes against his opponent’s 99. Cobb was later President of their provisional Confederate Congress. The speakership Crisis of 1849 was finally over, but the Free Soilers were never finished. For the next two weeks, and dozens more ballots, they held up even the election of a sergeant at arms, a clerk, and they even forced a stalemate for door keeper for God’s sake, presumably Congressmen, all had to open their own doors that session, because the house just gave up on that one and moved on.

06:00 Anthony Comegna: Whigs took advantage of these moments to remind Free Soilers that they had always been more reliable allies than the Democrats, who were overtly beholden to the slave power. Whig editors carefully noted that Van Buren’s barn burners were using Free Soil as a bargaining chip to regain control of these questionable state legislatures, and through them, the National Party.

06:27 Speaker 2: The Washington reporter, April 25th, 1849, for the reporter, Mr. Editors, I do not remember any political movement evincing more bare-faced inconsistency and unprincipled action, and it signalized the movement of the so-called Free Soil Party, in Connecticut, in the elections just closed in that state. This party, claiming to be devoted to the cause of Free Soil, that is for excluding slavery from the newly acquired territories, gave their entire support to the Loco-Foco party, and have thus enabled it to elect three out of four of the members of Congress. What makes the atrocity of this conduct is that The Loco-Foco Convention, which selected the candidates of their party, adopted a resolution deprecating the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso into any legislation for New Mexico and California. The Whigs in Connecticut, and indeed everywhere, are in favor of the restriction of slavery, yet with a full knowledge of this, the Free Soil Party, gave their support to those who are resisting the very principle they pretend to hold so sacred. I do not hesitate to believe that that party in the Eastern States at least, are what Garretson has said of them. Already the most corrupt party in existence, signed Sivas.

07:45 Anthony Comegna: Remember, the barn burners were the Radical, Loco-Foco, early libertarian faction of Democrats behind Van Buren in New York state politics. The name is fastened to the New Yorkers, but these Loco-Foco barn burning Free Soilers were everywhere, and they were a majority of the party. If they were willing to abandon Free Soil principles for political spoils, then what was really left of this revolutionary new organization? Someone would have to stand firm on principles to actually sort out the territories stolen from Mexico during the war. For their own part, whig editors said, that even if it meant the death of their party, they would stand on popular sovereignty, which was President Taylor’s chosen method of compromise. If partisan hacks like Van Buren or Lewis Cass, or whoever would represent the Democrats in 1852, if they would not put their country’s proper business above personal power struggles, then they will have asked for the Civil War, and they would be responsible when American Republicanism died.

08:54 Speaker 2: The Brattleboro, Vermont Semi-weekly eagle, May 10th, 1849 position of parties. A correspondent of The Patriot advocates, the coalition of the Loco-Focos and Free Soilers on the Free Soil platform. There is some point and principle in this, in a coalition of opposing parties upon no distinctive grounds, there is no principle at all, except the Ignoble spoils principle. We hailed this position is one that is at least respectable. If it is a proposition for the Loco-Focos to abandon their Loco-Foco notions, to sever from their southern task masters and their northern dull-faced leaders and organized the new, as a mirror anti-slavery party. If, however, it is a mere ruse to convert Free Soil men to Loco-Foco-ism to demolish them by sinking them beneath the flood of Loco-Foco-ism, it is quite another thing, but suppose the first course taken, suppose the Free Soilers and Locos are to surrender all the old principles which they have quarreled about, are to know nothing but slavery, to do nothing but resist it. How can the two parties, there will be only two of course, when the Locos all go over to the Free Soilers, make up an issue on slavery when both are agreed on that subject? How long content without a bone of contention? Not long surely. The end will be a re-organization on old party grounds, a swallowing up of Free Soil-ism as a distinct party, a re-division between the old Whig policy, and the old Loco-Foco policy.

10:28 Speaker 2: We are ready for that, and for party transmigrations of Locos and Free Soilers that are to lead to that. But the corresponded of The Patriot endeavors to make an issue with the Whigs on the slavery question. He quotes the Journal of Commerce, to prove that the cabinet is opposed to the Wilmot Proviso, and argues that the Whig party must fraternize with the Cabinet and with Southern Whigs. Ergo, slavery will prove its bond of union or it will go to pieces in the storm which is coming. Perhaps so, and perhaps not so. We venture to guess that the writer will prove both a bad logician and a false prophet. The great body of the Whig party of the South is sounder and more reliable against the extension of slavery than are some of the very Loco-Focos, who are now ready to strike hands with the Free Soil men. As to the Whigs of the North, it will be time enough to doubt them when they show signs of playing false. They have supported General Taylor on his pledge against the veto, he has reiterated that pledge in the inaugural, and even the slavocratic Journal of Commerce, declares that he will not veto the Wilmot Proviso.

11:34 Speaker 2: The Wilmot Proviso may not be… We think, cannot be a cabinet measure. Still, were the opinions of each of the advisers of the President to be taken, four out of seven would, undoubtedly, be for it. General Taylor’s aloud purpose is to leave the matter to Congress, and of course, never to make it a cabinet question. The Whigs, north and south, concur in that policy as the wisest, as leaving the representatives of the people free to act out the popular will. Being thus free, slavery is neither a bond of Union or a bone of contention in the Whig camp. Being thus free, it follows sure as day-to-night that of California and New Mexico do not settle this question the Wilmot Proviso will be carried in the next Congress unless prevented by Northern Loco-Focos. There can be no issue between the Whigs and the Locos of the north on this question, unless the Locos play false, then the Whigs will stand on the right side and be sustained by the people of the North. Loco-Foco and other politicians who are accustomed to look upon their President or their candidate as the exponent of their creed, do not understand this freedom of the Whig party. They do not seem to have learned that the Whigs are at liberty to vote as they please on this matter. Without asking General Taylor, and without forfeiting his respect or the respect of other Whigs.

12:54 Speaker 2: And so, they do not see what they will see if the trial comes, that the Whigs of the North can and will be true on this question. They have no motive to be otherwise. Executive patronage is not to sway them. The President has settled that point by the appointment of Sundry proviso amend already. Party policy is not to prevent. The policy of the Whig party is to leave the representatives of the people free. This is the old-fashioned freedom of the representative, the old-fashioned responsibility of the representative, not to his president, or his party, but to his constituents. The Whig Party may possibly go to pieces on such a policy, but if it does, good old Republicanism goes down with them, and the people will rue the day that permitted such a wreck, signed Vermont Watchman.

13:39 Anthony Comegna: Now, one key thing to remember here, when dealing with documents from the period, is that by the mid-1840s, Whigs were regularly calling all Democrats Loco-Focos. On the one hand, this makes our task much more complicated, because we have to carefully distinguish between partisan political machinery being called Loco-Foco, and Radicals operating within that system who were Loco-Focos. Most of the time on this show, we use Loco-Foco to refer to individuals with Radical ideas, that closely align with modern libertarianism, but documents from the mid-40s often use it as a slur word for all Democrats. Our Loco-Focos and their Loco-Focos are not necessarily the same people, and this does make it more difficult to do libertarian history, but it also speaks to the political and intellectual power that these Loco-Focos exercised. They were the ones out there leading the Young America cultural movement, they were the ones integrating Whigish abolitionism, with Jacksonian anti-monopoly. They were the ones leading revolutionary movements from Canada and Rhode Island to the 1848 campaign itself. And now, our truly Radical Loco-Focos were the ones who remained with the Free Soil Party, even when their barn burning Chieftain, Martin Van Buren, abandoned them.

15:09 Speaker 2: Brattleboro Semi-Weekly Eagle, June 25th, 1849. The double game, the game of coalition of late, attempted in the northern states was cooked up in Washington by the Loco-Foco leaders, and is but a part of a plan cunningly devised to overturn the president administration and bring the Loco-Focos into power again, the game is double. The whole plan is to form Salvocratic coalitions in the South and pretended Free Soil ones in the north, and both to operate against the administration. The slavocrats have devised it, they are parties to it, and if they do not make the northern Loco-Focos their tools to do Salvocratic work as usual, they will be mistaken. Thus, Virginia has been curate against the administration expressly on Salvocratic grounds, and thus, in the pending elections in Tennessee, Kentucky, and other slave states. The Loco-Foco cry is that the administration is opposed to slavery. At the same moment, the opponents of the administration in Vermont raised precisely the opposite cry. The object of both is the same, their means of obtaining it are contradictory. This fact must be kept in full view, if you would correctly understand the coalition, disgraceful as such political trickery is, it is just exactly the game of Loco-Focoism in 1849, Signed Watchman.

[music]

[pause]

16:40 Anthony Comegna: In popular terms, the most important Free Soilers were also both Van Burens. The former president, of course, but also his son John, who is one of New York’s most important stump speakers for Free Soil. In fact, it was John Van Buren who boldly proclaimed at the 1848 buffalo convention that the National Democratic Party was dissolved. But with each local and state election cycle during the Taylor administration, Hunker Democrats sufficiently bribed their barn burner counterparts. Within fifteen months of his convention speech, John Van Buren and his father’s supporters jointly nominated candidates with the Democratic Party, reshuffling themselves back into the fold. Given the Van Buren’s political situation in New York, it was a sensible move. A whole slew of partisan battles in contests, dividing hunker and barn burner interests only recently wrapped up. There was the Anti-Rent War and the State Constitutional Convention of 1846, which did resolve a great number of these traditional policy disputes in favor of our Radicals. The Polk administration ended, and Whigs now controlled patronage appointments, so democratic factions had no reason to fight over office. The Free Soil Party, meanwhile, had made its point by denying a democratic victory in winning the balance of power in many states, and finally, there was no longer a clear national leader for the Democratic Party.

18:11 Anthony Comegna: The time was ripe to drop the hammer of Van Buren’s double game: Rejoined the party at the moment it needed him and his supporters the most. Stealing momentum from the hunkers, and controlling the democracy once again.

18:27 Speaker 2: The Columbus, Ohio State Journal July 11, 1849. Political Progressives. While the Free Soil Party, in the state of Ohio, in emulation of its kindred in other states of the union, is rapidly losing its identity and sinking into the arms of Loco-Focoism. The great principle upon which it was sought to be based. Having fallen into other and more congenial hands is rapidly progressing to its final triumph. Constructed from materials drawn from the two older parties, the Free Soil Party borrowed its principle from the Whigs, and its organization and party discipline from the Loco-Focos, and already in this early day of its existence, the affinity of organization has become stronger than that of principle, and the merger of the free and the Loco-Foco democracies into one mass is a process so natural that it might have been foreseen by any political philosopher who took the trouble to exercise his power’s oppressions. In the disintegration that is going on, the Whigs will receive back those of the numbers that went out from them, whose attachment for principle is stronger than their fondness for political ascendancy.

19:36 Speaker 2: Well, the Loco-focos themselves in a state of progression, which not merely repudiates the principles which they professed a year ago but adopts their opposites, will receive those whose dreams of ambition led them into a third party movement, in the hope to destroy and dissolve old organizations and to build up a new party with themselves, the recognized heads of its movements, and lords of its ascendant. A year ago, the Whig party of Ohio stood precisely where it now stands, the firm advocate of all its ancient principles, the adversary of the extension of slavery, the Resolute opponent of everything that looked towards a dissolution of the Union, whether instigated by the ultra-pro-slavery feeling of the south, or the Radical abolitionism of the north, it stood the sole defender of the constitution of the state against the active aggression of one party, and the passive abandonment of the other, and presented the only safeguard against a desperate faction, which sought, even at the expense of a civil war, to seize the power and overthrow the government, and it is here that Loco-Focoism and new lights Free Soilism meets upon common ground and discover a bond of affinity which is fast merging them into one body.

20:49 Speaker 2: What, to them, is the piece of the state? What is prosperity?

20:52 Speaker 2: That ambition, which was too strong for the integrity of angels. That love of power, which once in Heaven, was the cause of rebellion, may find an arena in Humbug ridden Ohio, for its wild cat enterprises. It’s most mischievous machinations.

21:10 Anthony Comegna: But this self-seeking, pragmatic desire for partisan reunion in the democracy was only temporary. A momentary mask laid over the more deeply rooted ideological differences remaining between the sections free and slave holding. By 1850, the increasingly populated western territories clamored for territorial organizations, and statehood in California. In his 1850 annual address, President Taylor suggested that Congress divide the territory into two immediately admitted states, California and New Mexico, allowing the residents to handle the slavery issue as they will. Taylor hoped to avoid the explosive slavery issue by speedily bypassing any national debate. Free Soilers and Northern Whigs bristled when Taylor dumped the Wilmot Proviso. Many Northern Whigs, after all, ran Taylor as a proviso man, and promised that he would carry through. Dull face Northern Democrats came out for popular sovereignty in all new states. Southern Democrats fought Taylor’s proposal and both of these factions of Northern Democrats.

22:23 Anthony Comegna: They argued, instead, that any admission of new free states threatened the balance of the senate, and the future security of slavery. The force of Southern rhetoric pushed Southern Whigs toward more hardline sectionalism, while the influence of Free Soil votes strengthened Northern Whigs’ resolve in favor of the proviso. Even as barn burners returned to the regular democracy, the rump of hardcore Free Soilers wasn’t going anywhere, and they stood right in the way of an easy compromise.

[music]

[pause]

23:09 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.

[music]