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Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. By Eric Foner. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xxxix, 317).

The years leading up to the American Civil War have been a source of ardent debate for historians. Being able to add clarity to the convoluted labyrinth of Civil War historiography is no small task for any writer. Historian Eric Foner, however, is an exception to that rule. In his book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men Foner effectively provides simple but convincing evidence that adds a new perspective to the critical formative years of the Republican Party, just prior to the commencement of the Civil War. Foner attempts to portray the division between North and South as more than a simple disagreement over political issues, but rather as a passionate and tangible battle between rival moral standards.

Foner’s prose successfully resurrects the underlying tensions that shaped Republican ideology. Foner suggests that the Republican Party eventually grew to see their world dividing into two distinct societies: one agrarian and oppressive, the other industrial and libertarian. As the idea of free labor gained notoriety in the North for being a noble endeavor, slavery was receiving greater condemnation for its barbarity. Foner alludes to this fact when he writes, “If the free labor outlook gave Republicans a model of the good society, it also provided them with a yardstick for judging other social systems, and by this standard, slave society was found woefully wanting” (Pp. 40).

The book’s main strength comes from the author’s analysis of the ideology of free labor. Foner’s opening chapters are almost exclusively dedicated to the Republican Party’s advancement and development of the free labor doctrine. As the economy of the North grew to embrace this new policy on labor, more and more people began to see its benefits. This ideology was then woven into the Republican agenda, which strove to convince the masses of the superiority of a free labor economy. “The economic superiority of free to slave labor became a major argument of the Republicans in their attempt to win northern votes” (Pp. 43). Foner adds further credence to his argument by mentioning the numerous reporters that traveled to the Deep South to bring to light the inferiority of the Southern slave economy (Pp. 46-49). By relating stories of slave oppression, the plight of the poor whites, and the dilapidated nature of Southern infrastructure, the press was able to convince its readers that the economy of the South was morally unacceptable. Northern obsession with free labor, combined with a strong abhorrence of the slave economy, gave Republican politics a strong advantage that propelled their agenda forward.

The development of free labor ideology is a reoccurring theme in this book. Foner uses it to demonstrate just how powerful of a dichotomy there was between the North and South in terms of economics. Foner points out that the Northern economic standard evolved into a moral one, which was in constant conflict with slavery. Foner makes mention that the apparent upward social mobility of the North was of paramount significance, and was one of the primary problems with Southern slavery. “The plight of the poor whites [in the South] was compounded, as Republicans saw it, by their lack of opportunity to rise in the social scale” (Pp. 47). Foner does not neglect the perspective of the South, however, which maintained that, “there must be a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgeries of life” (Pp. 66). Clearly the economic divisions depicted by Foner had evolved into much more than a simple dispute, and had in fact become a passionate moral conflict.

The ideology of free labor is not the only issue addressed in this book. Foner also gives a lot of attention to the historical development of the Republican Party. In the middle and end parts of his book, he stresses the fact that Republicans were forced to incorporate a large conglomeration of politically diverse groups into their fold. Foner makes it clear that the Republican integration of abolitionists, ex-Whigs, ex-Democrats, and others was a slow process that required adaptation and compromise. The radically charged viewpoints of many within the party (Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens to name only a couple) required time to adapt to the more conservative perspectives within the party. As Foner claims, there existed a large number of conservatives that were not as charged over the slavery issue as the radicals (Pp. 187).

One of the best aspects of Foner’s inquiry into the development of the Republican Party comes from his chapter on Salmon Chase. In it, Foner demonstrates how Chase was able to effectively weave slavery into a political issue. By doing so, abolitionists and other radicals rallied around the idea, creating an agenda of zero tolerance. As different factions came together under the banner of the Republican Party, slavery became its main political issue. Foner adds credibility to this argument by effectively demonstrating how the conservative elements within the party began to see slavery as an assault to their ideology of free labor. By doing so, Foner reveals how those less interested in the slavery issue were persuaded to believe that slavery presented a legitimate threat to their way of life.

The appeal of this work should thus be seen from the perspective of Civil War historiography. As a result of his research, Foner has provided us with an additional way of understanding the events that led to the Civil War. By effectively exposing the importance of free labor ideology in the North, and its introduction and evolution in the Republican Party, the reader is able to gain a sense of the moral dilemma that existed between North and South. Foner’s insight into the various political factions that made up the Republican Party provide a rich and sophisticated view of the events that drove the North to strongly oppose the South. Though written from a predominantly Northern perspective, this book gives brilliant insight into the origins of the Civil War.

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