Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War With a New Introductory Essay

Review :

In "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men", Eric Foner discusses the various political and social constituencies that merged under the banner of "anti-slavery" to form the Republican party in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. The book is, in a sense, a companion to Eugene Genovese's "The Political Economy of Slavery", in which Genovese explains the extent to which ante-bellum southern society had embraced the institution of slavery as a unique, deeply held world-view, and how the preservation of slavery became an ideology so dear to them that they would sooner abandon the Union than part with it. In Foner's book, he essentially makes the same case about the anti-slavery worldview that emerged over the same period in the North. In essence, both Foner and Genovese resuscitate the Beardian theory of "irrepressible conflict" as the cause of the civil war, yet unlike Charles and Mary Beard, lay the source of that conflict squarely on competing worldviews over slavery.

While various groups united as Republicans under a banner of "anti-slavery", these various anti-slavery constituencies were each motivated by different, often competing, ideological impulses - only a minority of which actually held slavery to be wrong because blacks were equal to whites. On the far extreme were abolitionists for whom slavery was a moral wrong, and who held that its abolition was the only moral response to sin. On the opposite extreme were nativist Know-Nothings whose anti-immigrant fervor made them the natural enemies of the Democratic Party; a Party that, in the North, was strongly supported by recently arrived immigrants - in other words, the Know-Nothing anti-slavery position had nothing whatsoever to do with a sense of right or wrong with respect to slaves, but rather, was a poke in the eye at a political rival. Between these two poles were radical, moderate and conservative variants anti-slavery Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats, each of whom were wary of the consolidation of political power by the slave south, and further, saw slavery as antithetical to their free labor view of a democratic America. What is fascinating is that each of these constituencies united into a cohesive political party dedicated to anti-slavery while, at the same time, never abandoning their respective fundamental ideologies that had made them abolitionists, Whigs, Democrats or nativists in the first place. To quote Foner ".the fundamental achievement of the Republican party before the Civil was [was] the creation and articulation of an ideology which blended personal and sectional interest with morality so perfectly that it became the most potent political force in the nation."

I found this book fascinating, and highly recommend it. As I read, I found myself thinking about the political economy of my own time, and wondering whether there might not, indeed, be an opportunity to again "blend personal and sectional interest with morality" in a positive, constructive way that seems, at present, to escape everyone.


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