The Free-Soil Party developed in part from a political rivalry in New York State. The Democratic Party there consisted of contending factions: the Barnburners, who were strongly opposed to slavery, and the Hunkers, who were neutral or supportive of slavery.
In the Election of 1844, both national parties were impacted by the nagging slavery issue. Southern Democratic forces managed to engineer the nomination of proslavery James K. Polk, denying the nod to former president Martin Van Buren, who was moderately antislavery. The Whigs nominated Henry Clay, who changed his stand on supporting the annexation of Texas during the campaign. James G. Birney headed the third party ticket for the Liberty Party and took enough votes from Clay-especially in New York State-to enable a Polk victory.
In the Election of 1848, Van Buren was passed over again by the Democrats, so he and antislavery forces from the Democratic (such as the Barnburners), Whig and Liberty parties formed the Free-Soil Party. At a convention in Buffalo, New Yorkon August 9, 1848, more than 10,000 men from all the northern states and thee border states met in a huge tent in a city park. The resulting Free Soil Party was built on a coalition of four elements: the previous Liberty Party, Free-Soil Democrats, Barnburners, and Conscience Whigs. The convention adopted a platform that called for:
- Opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories
- Support for national internal improvement programs
- Support for moderate tariffs designed for revenue only
- Support for the enactment of a homestead law.
In addition, the party supported cheap postage, free lands for actual settlers, the abolition of unnecessary offices and salaries, and improvements for rivers and harbors.
Van Buren and his running mate, Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts, ran on the slogan “free soil, free speech
, free labor, and free men” and took enough votes from the Democratic candidate to ensure victory for Whig Zachary Taylor
. The party garnered 291,263 votes nationally and elected 9 members to the House of Representatives, which gave them the balance of power in the 31st Congress. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire, elected as the first anti-slavery senator in 1846, was joined by Salmon P. Chase of Ohio.
In the election of 1850, the party gained another seat in the Senate but lost four congressmen.
In the Election of 1852
the Free-Soilers nominated Hale of New Hampshire for president, along with George W. Julian for Vice-President. It was believed at the time that the slavery issue had been settled by the Compromise of 1850
, so many elements of the party had reverted to their previous allegiances. The ticket drew only about five percent of the popular vote nationwide and no electoral votes.
The failure to ever win a single electoral vote, plus the deepening crisis highlighted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act
(1854), ended the Free-Soilers` hopes. Many of its members moved on to the new Republican Party
as their best hope to prevent the extension of slavery into the territories.
One of the founders of the Free-Soil Party was Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast