What Was the Free Soil Party? - Definition & Beliefs

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

This lesson will teach you about the Free Soil Party, a political party that once existed in the United States. You'll learn about the party's beliefs and how it gave voice to anti-slavery forces pre-Civil War.

Definition

Republicans. Democrats. When it comes to the presidency or most public offices, the winner is always one of the two. Do third parties matter at all? People usually think of third parties as just spoilers for one of the two parties. Actually, third parties can speak about issues that the two parties aren't addressing. In time, one of the major parties may adopt the third party's issues as their own. That's what happened with the Free Soil Party. The Free Soil Party was a minor political party that opposed the expansion of slavery into territories the United States had gained as a result of the Mexican-American War.

The Slavery Issue

In the 1840s, the two main political parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. At the time, the country was strongly split on how to deal with slavery. Things got worse after the Mexican-American War, when the United States gained new territory in the southwest from Mexico. Supporters of slavery wanted to extend slavery into the new territories, while opponents wanted to keep slavery out. However, neither political party wanted to take a strong stand on slavery. For the upcoming 1848 presidential election, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, a candidate sympathetic to slaveholders. Meanwhile, the Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder with unclear political loyalties. Slavery opponents disapproved of Taylor because he owned slaves. Anti-slavery voices seemed shut out of the election.

Territories Gained From Mexican American War (In White)
Territories Gained From Mexican American War

Creation of the Party

Frustrated anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats, as well as representatives from outside the parties, came together in Buffalo, New York, to hold their own party convention. The anti-slavery Democrats were called the 'Barnburners' and had backed former president Martin Van Buren against Cass. The Whigs, angered that their party wouldn't take a strong stand against slavery, were called 'Conscience' Whigs. Both groups were joined by members of the Liberty Party, a third party that had dissolved. Together, they created the Free Soil Party and nominated Van Buren for president.

Free Soil Party Banner Showing Presidential Ticket
Free Soil Party Banner

Beliefs of the Party

In Buffalo, the party adopted a slogan, ''Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.'' As part of its platform, the new party opposed bringing slavery into the new territories. However, the party's stand was not based in opposing slavery on moral grounds, but in keeping out Southern slaveholders so that they would not compete with ordinary workers that wished to move out West. The party's stand drew support from small farmers, mill workers, and village merchants. The party also backed free lands for people that actually settled in the territories and called for improving harbors and rivers.

Although the Free Soil Party did not condemn slavery as a moral evil, and while many of its members did not support equal rights for African Americans, the party still drew support from abolitionists, people who wanted to abolish slavery. Many observers, however, did not view the party favorably. They looked at the party as just a discontented faction of Van Buren loyalists who sought to drain votes from the two parties and who had no real desire to oppose slavery.

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