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

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  1,231 ratings  ·  47 reviews
Since its publication twenty-five years ago, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men has been recognized as a classic, an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the causes of the American Civil War. A key work in establishing political ideology as a major concern of modern American historians, it remains the only full-scale evaluation of the ideas of the early ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published April 20th 1995 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1971)
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Jun 30, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, us-civil-war
So many grotesque, Flannery O’Connor-ish names in this! Real people were helplessly christened, or intentionally styled themselves E. Rockwood Hoar, Abijah Mann, Hannibal Hamlin, Thurlow Weed, Orestes Brownson, Azariah Flagg, Galusha Grow, Ichabod Codding and, my personal and everlasting favorite, Godlove Orth. Say that in a seductive tone. Godlove. And when you step back, “Abraham Lincoln” is mighty strange too, that nineteenth century joining of an Old Testament patriarch or holy warrior to a ...more
Aaron Arnold
Feb 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2014, history
All the more impressive for having been initially released as a PhD dissertation, this is one of the most comprehensive and insightful treatments of a specific ideology that I've read. While it requires some fairly advanced knowledge of the issues of the antebellum political system (issues like the Wilmot Proviso, party factions like Barnburner Democrats, and key figures like Horace Greeley get dropped into the analysis with cursory to no effort made to explain their context), Foner manages to ...more
Jun 14, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Foner walks us through the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s. It makes for very interesting reading. I will list the interesting facts that I gleaned from it:

I am a cynic, and my interpretation is this. The north went to heroic lengths to assuage the south with the compromise of 1850, and the south thanked them with the Bleeding Kansas debacle and the Dred Scott ruling. The Democratic Party was functioning as a de facto regional power, blatantly subservient to the Slave Power. The
David Withun
Jan 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Important book.
Feb 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
The roots of the Civil War reach back to the birth of the nation. The Founders agreed to disagree on the issue of slavery in order to form a `more perfect Union.' By the 1860s the nation was at war with itself. Why did the South secede, and why did the North take up arms to prevent its secession? (316) In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, the first of Eric Foner's many influential books, he examines the two decades running up to the 1860 ...more
Robert Owen
In “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men”, Eric Foner discusses the various political and social constituencies that merged under the banner of “anti-slavery” to form the Republican party in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. The book is, in a sense, a companion to Eugene Genovese’s “The Political Economy of Slavery”, in which Genovese explains the extent to which ante-bellum southern society had embraced the institution of slavery as a unique, deeply held world-view, and how the ...more
Jay Perkins
Aug 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Eric Foner asks in the last chapter of this book: "The decision for civil war in 1860-61 can be resolved into two questions--why did the South secede, and why did the North refuse to let the South secede?" (pg. 316) Neither question can be fully developed unless one understands the rise of the Republican party in the late 1850s. This new party was not bound together by economic concerns that had so afflicted the nation in the 1830s and early 1840s. They were instead a coalition of diverse ...more
Josh Liller
This was assigned reading for my Civil War university class.

This book is a somewhat interesting, but not fun. This is the second book I have read by Foner (after "Reconstruction") and I found them similiar: good information but a slow read. I think he is simply a dry writer. He also doesn't present history chronologically which can make it difficult to relate all the parts correctly. This book is at times more political theory than history; I usually love to read history, but find political
Mike H
Apr 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Popular culture today often harbors severe oversimplifications of the antebellum period and the Civil War. Many tend to view the North as a united front of strictly anti-slavery “good guys” in opposition to a pro-slavery South. Historians often espouse less extreme simplifications as well, such as the economic conception of the war’s origins found in the works of Charles Beard, or views of the war’s commencement as solely outrage over the slavery issue. Eric Foner’s magnificent work, Free Soil, ...more
Jan 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Okay - so I want to say this is a "heavy" book, but it's not overly academic. I will say you have to be super-interested in the topic of 1840/50s American politics and slavery. If that is something you are interested - this is the book for you. It analyzes the nascent Republican Party's various views of slavery (the raison d'etre for the party's creations) -- I like that it dedicates chapters to the folks who made up the Party, e.g., radicals, conservative, ex-Democrats. It also looks at the ...more
Aug 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is not exactly light reading. This book explains the emergence of the Republican Party, its mid-19th Century idiology, and why the election of Lincoln as the first Republican president so threatened the South that it felt forced to secede, even before he was sworn in.

This isn't about the battles and generals of the Civil War. It stops when South Carolina decides to secede. You begin to understand how the diverse interests of the North coalesce around a single party. Not all the northerners
Dan Gorman
Nov 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-history
The language is dated now, but the argument holds up well. Foner shows in exhaustive detail the factions and arguments within the new Republican Party of the 1850s. By the Civil War, the Republican party, even with its Radical, moderate-to-conservative, and Democratic-Republican blocs, agreed on an economically activist government with tariffs, infrastructure, and homesteading in the West. Above all, a commitment to the end of slavery united the party, although Foner shows how this desire to end ...more
Tracie Sneed
Oct 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Not for everyone, but a must read in preparation in understanding the precursors to the Civil war.
Jan 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An exceptional outline; an interesting read if just to understand how ideology has changed in the passing decades and the ideological origins of free enterprise and its use in politics.
Yunis Esa
Nov 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
The many factors that lead to the panic
Christopher Richardson
Jan 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I highly recommend Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men. The book (originally published in 1970) goes beyond the North’s opposition to slavery as a moral imperative but delves into Northern ideology and how that shaped modern American and the modern Republican Party.

A few observations:

1. Lots of political scientists/ and historians like to suggest that the Republican and Democratic parties “switched” places after the various alignments (1932 and 1964). This book masterfully shows
Oct 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A peculiarity of the way Americans study the politics of the antebellum era is the overwhelming focus placed on the South, both in popular culture and among professional historians. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Foner's graduate dissertation and first book, warns that we assume this point of view at our peril. From the party’s founding in 1854 through its rise to power in 1860, the ideology that undergirded Republicans’ success was neither foreordained nor inevitable. Rather, Foner argues, ...more
In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Eric Foner puts forth a compelling argument chronicling the coalescence of the Republican party under the ideology of free labor. Before reading this book, I was largely unaware of the disparate elements that came together to form the Republican party prior to the Civil War, and the complex maneuverings on major issues that had to be done in order to create one party out of these groups with their different interests, emphases, and views regarding the future ...more
Susan Barsy
Jul 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a book about how the Republican Party was formed in the 1850s in the wake of the failure of the popular Whig Party, which fell apart soon after its nominee was elected to the presidency, leaving 'the Democracy' with a temporary monopoly on political power. This was a period of third-party movements which was also witnessing a rise in anti-slavery activism, but none of these movements was making inroads in terms of becoming a major new national party.

Foner tells the story of how
Sep 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One of the best histories I've ever read, full stop. Reveals a tremendous amount of nuance and gritty reality about a process that has often been elided over in tellings of the coming of the Civil War: the formation of the Republican Party and the development of an effective anti-slavery agenda. Foner shows how antislavery, an ideology extolling the virtues of free labor, hatred of Southern Slave Power, and, most interestingly, an imperialistic desire to spread American virtues (particularly ...more
Oct 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is clear and convincing. By introducing (or perhaps restoring) the concept of ideology (worldview or belief system), Eric Foner is able to use primary sources to reconstruct how the Republican Party constructed their platform and ideology as part presentation and part projection of the way they think American society should be. With Free Labor as their key uniting ideal, they are able to side-step rhetorically the issue of slavery while still supporting it politically. Republicans were ...more
Jun 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
i already knew eric foner was a noted historian, so i found myself most excited to read this when it was assigned in a history class. foner maps out the formation of the republican party in the decades leading up to the civil war, how it was the perfect combination of everyone who wasn't in big business in the nroth and who wasn't a planter in the south. the sturcture is very easy, whether because foner is that good, or the republican party's makeup is that obvious, but it is by no means a read ...more
Kevin Gardner
Nov 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this book very much. This like many other books helps to put into perspective how slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War. It provides context of the social philosophies that contributed to disunion. This book helps people today understand how those in the North emphasized free labor praising freedom, independence and a hard work ethic. Those seen as dependent on others were perceived as proof of personal shortcomings and moral weakness. Slavery violated this Northern belief ...more
Jason Townsend
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
I found that this book confounded many of the prevailing stereotypes that modern liberals seem to have about the early Republican party. I was certainly pleased to learn all this as a Republican myself. I was more impressed however, with the author's even handed treatment of his subject.

Here, the Republicans' diverse views on slavery and their racism isn't glossed over or ignored. This makes for a better, and more informative book, and with this one the author did a nice job.

In short: This is
Apr 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent, detailed, and tightly focused account of the rise of the Republican Party. Organized around particular issues (e.g. Republicans and nativism, Republicans and race, moderate v radical Republicans, etc.), Foner examines a variety of influences on party thought, policy, and ideology. This organization also makes it an especially useful book for students.

I highly recommend this text to anyone interested in the intellectual and political milieu of Lincoln or the antislavery
Dec 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Very impressive study of Republican ideology in the antebellum era, with particular attention to the formation of the party. As a result, Foner highlights the many fissures and seams in the party right up until the war. This book is extremely useful for examining the rationale behind the federal government's actions when South Carolina seceded. It was the next logical progression, as determined by their ideology, much like how secession for the South was when Lincoln was elected president and ...more
Nov 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
This is both more and less than it appears. It's really a history of intra=party disputes on the importance of slavery in the Republican Party in the late-1850s. It's a pretty good history. But it's mostly about political disagreement than about ideology. So there's not a real deep and sustained engagement with ideas -- just their relative popularity and unpopularity and related strategic considerations.
Jan 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Eric Foner will never waste your time. Each work he produces is of excellent quality. What is even more impressive is that this book was originally his dissertation. Foner explains why white people cared about slavery aside from the moral argument, which did not resonate with many whites. Many were more concerned with the dignity of labor and how slavery would depress the economy. This book is a standard for anyone wanting to understand antislavery and Republican ideology in the 1850s.
May 03, 2011 added it
Shelves: maybe-sometime
Did not get the chance to read more than the intro, conclusion and various bits scattered about between. I would like to buckle down and read this whole thing though, I just do not have time at the moment. Lots of insight here into the years leading up to the Civil War, and what the Democrats were really thinking and what the Republicans were really thinking. Much more nuanced story than simply pro vs. anti slavery, racist vs. non-racist.
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Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the ...more