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The Free-Soil Movement, Part 2


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The key issue around which the free-soil debate revolved was slavery. Specifically, the question was whether slavery would be extended into the territories that were expected to seek statehood.

Both anti-slavery farmers and slave-owners had been migrating into the territories for years. Each group was eager to acquire the political clout that came from having a state constitution that favored its position on slavery. If the new territories were admitted as “free” rather than “slave,” that would increase the representation of that position within the Senate, where a delicate balance prevailed. If the North came to dominate in the Senate, then it was not merely slavery that would come under attack. The tariffs favored by the industrial Yankees would severely damage the Southern agricultural economy. The South could not permit more free states into the Union.

When the United States acquired vast new territories as a result of the Mexican War (i.e., California and New Mexico), free-soilers became ever more fearful of the extension of slavery. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced the Wilmot Proviso into Congress, which sought to prohibit the westward spread of slaves. The failure of the Wilmot Proviso led to the establishment of the Free-Soil Party, which boasted the slogan, “Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.”

The party argued that all men had a natural right to land, which should be granted free of charge. Its presidential candidate (1848), Martin Van Buren, received 10 percent of the popular vote and the party elected one U.S. senator and more than a dozen congressmen. In the next election (1852), however, the Free-Soil Party’s popularity fell off steeply, although it managed to maintain enough of a presence in the House of Representatives to act as a swing vote.

The discovery of gold in California (1848), with a corresponding rush of settlers into the area, made the issue of extending slavery more pressing. Ten years later, gold would be discovered in Colorado and Nevada as well, thus ratcheting up the pressure. It is no exaggeration to say that miners opened up the West and built the raw communities that would evolve into permanent towns.

Before such areas could organize for admission into the Union, however, both the North and the South wanted to establish whether the applicants would be “free” or “slave” states. The debate was one of the bitterest in American history.

Textbooks refer to the temporary resolution of this debate as the Compromise of 1850, which was actually a series of acts passed by Congress in that year. Key provisions of the Compromise included: that California was admitted as a free state; that New Mexico and Utah were left to decide their status for themselves; and that Texas received a cash settlement to satisfy its claims to territory in New Mexico.

To pacify the South, the Compromise fortified laws against fugitive slaves. To soothe the North, the slave trade was abolished in D.C. though slavery itself was permitted.

The Compromise of 1850 may have postponed the Civil War by more than a decade but tensions over free-soil intensified in 1854. The territories that are currently Kansas and Nebraska would soon apply for statehood and widespread violence accompanied the question of whether they would be free or slave.

In the political scramble to prevent the bloody conflict from escalating into outright war, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. Settlers were permitted to carry slaves into those territories, which would then determine for themselves whether their state constitutions would be free or slave.

The ultimately unsuccessful Homestead Act of 1848 had resulted from a groundswell of free-soil support, including what was the largest petition drive in America to date. The signers of the petition were the natural constituency of a new political party — a party that strongly advocated free-soil and stood more firmly against Southern pressure.

In July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention to adopt a platform and to nominate candidates for state office in Michigan. Its 1860 platform opposed the extension of slavery into the territories but did not advocate interfering with states that already incorporated slavery. The first Republican presidential candidate (1856), John C. Frémont, ran under a familiar sounding slogan: “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont.” George Henry Evans also threw his influence and activism behind the new Party, traveling the countryside to promote its agenda.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the presidential candidate. Republicans pledged to support homesteading, to raise tariffs, and to prevent the extension of slavery. That same year, a homestead bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Shortly after the election of Lincoln to the office of president, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Other states followed suit and formed a separate nation, the Confederate States of America. In April 1861, Civil War erupted.

With Southern voices no longer heard in either the U.S. Congress or Senate, the Homestead Act of 1862 passed readily. It was sponsored by Galusha A. Grow, whom Evans had converted to free-soil. Evans himself was not present. He had died of pneumonia in 1856 while traveling through bitter winter storms in behalf of the Republican Party.

The Homestead Act has been called a cynical wartime measure. Undoubtedly, part of the impetus behind it was merely a desire on the part of Republicans to ensure continued support from the powerful free-soilers. Moreover, there is no question that the Republicans wished to seize a golden opportunity to have the issue of the extension of slavery settled de facto in their favor. Both motives lend credibility to the charge of cynicism.

But opportunistic politicians cannot be credited with passing the Homestead Act in anything but the proximate sense. The act was actually passed by decades of reform agitation and through the persistent working-class demand for land and economic independence, a demand based on natural rights and the American ideal of prospering through labor. Thus the Homestead Act was a mixture of the worst and the best within American politics. At once, it was a cynical and an idealistic measure.

Using the government as a means of translating the idealism into practice was problematic. At the same time as the Homestead Act was passed, the Lincoln administration oversaw the establishment of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, and a national banking system that issued greenbacks. These institutions, along with such actions as the suspension of habeas corpus, constituted an incredible growth of government power with a corresponding decrease in individual liberty.

Most significantly for the future of homesteading, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill (1862) to link the industrial East with the West by railroad. Public money was used to subsidize the effort and the participating railroad companies received gratis a square mile of public land for every mile of rail laid.

In this manner, an estimated 170 million acres were placed into the hands of businessmen who became land speculators. The government-business alliance gave rise to such fortunes as that of rail tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. It also served as a brake on homesteading by individuals.

Other factors contributed to the blunted impact of homesteading. A major factor was the inflexibility of legislation that defined a viable homestead as 160 acres. This estimate was based on “wet” farming practices in areas like Kentucky and Illinois.

The size requirement did not fit the arid West, which was far more suitable for large cattle ranches. Moreover, the post–Civil War government showed more favor to business concerns than to farmers and passed tariffs that protected Eastern industry at the expense of agriculture.

The carpet bagging postwar atmosphere also gave way to unethical banking practices that caused farm forfeitures and to farmers’ dependence on subsidized monopoly railroads for shipping. Thus, whatever idealism remained in the Homesteading Bill of 1862 was further diluted through politically motivated and rigid implementation.

It is a testimony to the power of grassroots populism that the homestead movement can be called a success, despite the fact that it never realized its potential. Between 1862 and 1890, more than 370,000 homestead applications were approved and, so, a huge transfer of public lands into private ownership was facilitated. It is a testimony to the unstoppable nature of a just demand that homesteading was able to survive as well as it did in the face of Democratic compromises, Republican opportunism, and the alliance of big business with government.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).