The history of third party movements in this country is strewn with failure, futility, and frustration. Yet often they set the stage for great change to come. That was certainly true of the first important third party, the Free Soilers born on August 9, 1848 at an outdoor convention in Buffalo, New York’s Court House Park.
The party arose from the bitter debate about the status of territories recently obtained by conquest in the Mexican War. Southern zealot wanted the whole territory including parts of Texas, New Mexico (including the future Arizona), California, and parts of the future states of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada open to slavery without reservation. Northern states had enough power in Congress to block that.
Northern Democrats, always seeking accommodation, officially advanced the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty—letting the citizens of the new territories decide their status by popular election.
This outraged anti-slavery Northern Whigs and a minority of Democrats centered on Up State New York. These factions endorsed the Wilmot Proviso an 1846 proposed rider to an appropriation bill for the costs of negotiating a peace with Mexico. The Proviso would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico. Although it was defeated, advocates hoped to resurrect it in some form.
In the run up to the 1848 Presidential Race the Whigs, always an unstable coalition of former anti-Jacksonians, side-stepped the issue in their platform but nominated war hero Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana plantation and slave owner who was presumed to be sympathetic to the extension of slavery. Although it later turned out that Taylor was not, outraged anti-slavery Whigs centered in Massachusetts and New England began to look for alternatives.
Meanwhile the Democrats nominated Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, the leading proponent of Popular Sovereignty leading to a similar crisis among anti-slavery elements of that party.
Things came to a head earlier in 1847 at the New York State Democratic Convention where the majority refused to endorse the Wilmot Proviso. Almost half of the members of the convention, the so-called Barn Burners centered in heavily anti-slavery Up State, walked out. But they did not entirely abandon the party until Cass’s nomination.
A meeting was called in Utica at which it was decided to invite anti-slavery Whigs and members of the tiny abolitionist Liberty Party to join the Buffalo Convention and form a new party.
Although the meeting was engineered by the Barn Burners and supporters of the old Albany Regency, the nation’s first state-wide political machine put together by Martin Van Buren in the late 1820’s, the leading strategists at the convention became Ohio’s Salmon B, Chase, a Whig and erstwhile maverick Democratic Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire. Since his election to the Senate by a surprise coalition of minority Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats in the New Hampshire legislature in 1847, Hale had quickly established himself as the most voracious opponent of slavery in the Senate. His experience led him to have faith in the possibilities of a fusion of the anti-slavery factions of the two established parties.
Although the Free Soilers were above all a party devoted to stemming the expansion of slavery, they were not quite the single issue party often portrayed in history. Their platform adopted planks shrewdly designed to appeal to former partisans of the older parties. On the one hand they endorsed Federal spending on internal improvements, a cause dear to Henry Clay Whigs and Westerners and on the other supported opposition to protective tariffs, long a cornerstone of Democratic platforms. They also advanced a proposal for disposing of government land in the west by homesteading.
Still, their party platform proclaimed, “...we inscribe on our banner, ‘Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men,’ and under it we will fight on and fight ever, until a triumphant victory shall reward our exertions."
The convention turned for the head of its national to former President Van Buren, who had been ousted after one term by the Whigs and William Henry Harrison who had aped the populism of Andrew Jackson and had smeared him, unfairly, as an elitist fop. The aging former Red Fox of the Kinderhook was a shrewd politician and saw a possibility of a comeback, or at least a vindication of his tarnished reputation. But Van Buren had been strangely mum on the subject of slavery in national office, understandable as Jackson’s Secretary of State, second Vice President, and protégée. As president he maneuvered for the annexation of Texas, which was bitterly opposed by slavery opponents.
But Van Buren announced he had always been an opponent of slavery’s expansion in his heart. And hoping that a ticket led by a former President would give them instant respectability, the convention went along.
For Vice President the convention turned to a familiar family name—Adams. Charles Francis Adams was the son and grandson of Presidents. His father, John Quincy Adams was lionized by Massachusetts Whigs as Old Man Eloquent for his long post-presidential service in the House of Representatives as an outspoken anti-slavery man. The studious young Adams was supposed to garner support among the Boston elite.
The new party gained some important support, notably from intellectuals like educator Horace Mann, who had filled John Quincy Adams’s House seat after his death, journalist and editor Richard Henry Dana, Jr.; Charles Sumner leader of Boston’s Conscience Whigs and future Senator; and poet/editor William Cullen Bryant of New York City; the Quaker Hoosier John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman who became a Brooklyn party leader and editor of the Brooklyn Freeman, a party newspaper.
The Free Soilers also ran candidates for Congress and for several state legislatures.
The party was careful to pitch itself as moderate. It did not attack slavery as a fundamental evil or advocate for its abolition where it was in force. Instead it argued that the extension of slavery was a threat to Free Labor and that blocking expansion would eventually cause it to “wither away” even in the Deep South. That drew the scorn of Abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison who charged that it was “white manism.” Still, a lot of moderate slavery opponents were drawn to the party.
During the campaign it became apparent that things were not working out as hoped and planned. Of course the party had no hope in the South, but that region was split between Democrats supporting Cass, and Whigs in the corner of slave holding Taylor. But Van Buren could not shake the elitist reputation so successfully hung on him damaging his appeal to northern voters, particularly in the big cities. Worse, New England Whigs deeply distrusted him as Jackson’s former crony. Many held their noses and voted for Taylor or sat on their hands in the election.
When the votes were counted the ticket of Van Buren and Adams got a respectable 291,501 votes and 10.1% of popular votes cast for a distant third place. They failed to get a single electoral vote and were probably the margin of difference that gave the close race between Taylor and Cass to the old general.
On the bright side, the party won seats in Congress and enough state legislative seats so that in combination with liberal Democrats and anti-slavery Whigs they were able to elect candidates like Sumner to the Senate. Although a small minority in both houses, the Free Soilers in Congress became an important voice in the national debate.
After the Compromise of 1850 most Democrats drifted back to their old party. But a stalwart few remained steadfastly with the Free Soilers.
In the election of 1852 the Party offered John P. Hale for President and Representative George Julian of Indiana for Vice President. The ticket garnered half of the popular votes won by Van Buren and just over 5% of the total.
After Northern outrage against the Kansas Nebraska Act, most remaining Free Soilers followed leaders like Salmon P. Chase into becoming an important part, maybe even the backbone, of the new Republican Party, which in the four short years between its nominations of John C. Frémont in 1856 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860 became the first and only third party ever to achieve major party status.