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Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

By Eric Foner

To suggest that the Northern war effort was inextricably tied to the antislavery cause does not mean that the Civil War was a  struggle between Northern saints and Southern sinners. In reality, most Northern whites were opposed to abolition in 1861, hated blacks throughout the conflict and were largely driven to fight by the abstract cause of Union until the surrender at Appomattox. In emphasizing the racism and Unionism of Northern soldiers, however, we often overlook the fact that antislavery sentiment was elemental to the dominant values and interests of men above the Mason-Dixon line. In other words, one could violently oppose abolition and still despise the institution of slavery.Eric Foner, in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, was one of the first scholars to show how antislavery and anti-black views coexisted in the Northern mind, leading many to denounce slavery without accepting African Americans as social equals or endorsing emancipation.

Foner explores Free Labor ideology as a set of beliefs that promised each man the right to earn the fruits of his labor, move up the social ladder and become his own boss, often through the ownership of land.This gospel of progress especially appealed to small farmers and workingmen, and Abraham Lincoln’s rise from humble beginnings in a log cabin to professional and financial success in Springfield embodies the “rags to riches” dream embedded in Free Labor ideology. A cynic might point out that Lincoln used the log cabin imagery for political gain and that the lives of many working Northerners did not resemble Lincoln’s success story.It is hardly surprising that the reality of Northern life did not live up to the ideal model. The point, as Foner explains, is not to condemn Northern society for its shortcomings, but to see how Free Labor ideology defined the North’s vision of what constituted a good and moral society. To do so is not to argue that the North was superior to the South. Rather, Foner wants us to see Free Labor ideology as a lens to better understand how Northerners defined themselves in opposition to the slave society of the South.

The ideas of Free Labor unified a diverse group of Northerners that included former Whigs, Free-Soilers, Democrats and abolitionists into a powerful political party—the Republicans. Foner shows how the Republicans rallied people to their cause by warning of a dangerous “slave power” of wealthy planters who ruled over a backward and repressive society below the Mason-Dixon line.Their condemnations of the slave power had little to do with the treatment of individual slaves and everything to do with the plight of the Southern yeomen farmers, whose life, they believed, was degraded by the institution of slavery because it closed off opportunity and mobility.If slavery were extended into the territories, Republicans warned that a Southern slave society, with its economic and political power residing in the hands of a few rich planters, would be replicated, and the average white man would lose the promise of social mobility and political freedom.The Republicans’ grim view of slave expansion was not a political ploy, but a sincere plea that resonated in Northern society. A small farmer in Indiana or a mechanic in Pittsburgh could become an enemy of slavery, believing that his future, his family’s future and his nation’s future resided in the territories, where land offered all white men a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor and become independent landowners.

Foner’s brilliant analysis of Free Labor ideology is essential to understanding the motivation of Northern soldiers and their gradual acceptance of emancipation as a war aim.The rank-and-file of Union armies embraced this change in part because their minds had been awakened to the antislavery cause long before Fort Sumter. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men is an indispensable book about the coming of the Civil War, and it serves as a powerful reminder that the motivations of historical figures are complex and often contradictory. It is unfortunate that modern readers are quick to see contradictions in the past and charge hypocrisy, thus keeping us from appreciating the vital moral ground that Northern soldiers claimed in a cause that they believed was inseparably linked to both Union and antislavery.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.