Eric's Reviews > Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men by Eric Foner
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Jun 30, 2010

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bookshelves: history, us-civil-war
Read in July, 2010

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 humble Anglo-Saxon surname (the houses were of logs, the shirts of homespun fiber, but the English was of the finest weave, the product of meager, roughly-printed, but essentially Olympian Bard-and-Bible libraries, little windowsills of classics). I, Macabeeus Bradley, do solemnly swear…


This book is dryly titled and written but it tells a thrilling story: the radicalization of a people. Foner details the slow fusion of Northern antislavery constituencies into an effective organization, the Republican Party. The party’s “fundamental achievement” in the pre-war years was

the creation and articulation of an ideology which blended personal and sectional interest with morality so perfectly that it became the most potent political force in the nation.


Grant’s Personal Memoirs, a superb command history of the war, is also, upon reflection, a testament of the working of that “potent political force” among the sentimentally but not yet politically antislavery North. Grant was one of the millions who had for years subordinated their discomfort with slavery to national unity and party harmony, but who were drawn to the Republicans as they began to see that unity and harmony would mean little if slaveholders dominated the government and polluted the vast Western reaches with an institution whose political economy and social system were radically repugnant to their own idea of America’s future. Grant, a border state resident with slaveholding in-laws (and who briefly owned a slave himself), went from voting Democratic in 1856, to forestall secession, to supporting Lincoln in 1860, and acting as drillmaster to the Republicans’ torchlight-parading semi-militia, the “Wide Awakes.”

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It fits Grant’s modest style that in memoirs written as a former president and commander of a conquering host he should figure as the cautious Everyman, a latecomer to revolution, a mote of the diverse mass mobilized under the Republican banner. There were the radicals, whose strident moralism and belief in an actively anti-slavery federal government had kept them wandering in the wilderness of third party schemes since the 1840s; the moderates, with Lincoln the typical specimen, a motley of ex-Whigs and disaffected Democrats who abhorred slavery but had believed in the possibility of sectional compromise until the Kansas-Nebraska controversy revealed southern interests profoundly contemptuous of the democratic process and bent on expansion into the west; and the conservatives from southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, Grant’s prewar milieu, areas marked by the racism of emigrants from the slave states—and then the Old Line Whigs and former Know-Nothings in the east who in last minutes before their absorption had sought to defuse the national obsession with slavery and unite the sections through immigrant bashing and a war on liquor.


That’s quite a mixed bag. And who knows what difficulties they would have had governing in peacetime, without the unifier of war. Still, Republican control of the national government was a repudiation of the southern way of life as a basis for America’s development, and a pronouncement of doom upon slavery, however long emancipation took. Interference with slavery in the states where it already existed wasn’t even on the table, but, Foner says, that didn’t—couldn’t—mollify the slave-owners, for “to agree to the containment of slavery, the South would have had to abandon its whole ideology, which had come to view the institution as a positive good, the basis of an enlightened form of social organization.” The abolitionist Elizur Wright prophesied, “Woe to the slave power under a Republican President if it strikes the first blow,” and I’ve always thought the Secessionists pretty stupid for shooting first, a treason which opened the way to what they most feared, emancipation by executive fiat, and which radicalized the strongly unionist Republican conservatives and Northern Democrats—who had opposed anti-slavery agitation as disunity. But Foner’s analysis of the expansionism and religiosity, of the giddily prospective imperial designs inherent in both free soil and slave power ideology made vivid the passions involved, made it understandable that the slaveholders would seek to redress a political reverse by other means, in war. Grant called secession "plainly suicidal"--which is something to think about.


The rebels wagered and lost, but were invited into American nostalgia. As Rebecca Solnit wrote about the tamed Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, those America vanquishes are consoled with incorporation into the national myth. The Indians and the Rebels figure as the Noble Foes whose scrappy, individualistic valor resisted a phalanx of federal robots, whose Simpler Way of Life the urbanized, debt-ridden wage slaves fantasize about in darkened theaters. My girlfriend’s brother-in-law is an officer in the Marines. We drink and he tells his stories. One of his men, not white, and a very recent immigrant, just got a tattoo—a bulldog waving the Confederate battle flag, the stars-and-bars. Questioned, this drone of the leviathan state, of the empire whose consolidation required the defeat of the South, admitted he wasn’t entirely sure what the flag meant, but knew it was tough-looking, the sign of a rebel.


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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Buck (new)

Buck Godlove Orth is excellent, but I still say Goodluck Jonathan is the most delightful name ever.


Eric A smooth looking cat, as well.

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message 3: by Kent (new)

Kent Interesting review. I find it amusing that Grant's wife owned slaves until the 13th amendment, however...


Eric And Grant pushed colonization schemes during his presidency, was still pushing Santo Domingo as a black homeland as he wrote his memoirs. Foner is very good on the pervasiveness and strength of Northern racism and caste feeling. He is able to impart an almost topographical sense of the mental space that separated political anti-slavery, even in its radical forms, from the idea of a multi-racial democracy. That mental space is so vast as to make the failure of Reconstruction seem almost a foregone conclusion.


message 5: by Paula (new)

Paula I read this review by way of Steve Harris and enjoyed it quite a lot. Very thoughtful. Thanks.


Eric Thanks Paula, glad you liked it!


message 7: by Don Incognito (new)

Don Incognito Does Foner's political ideology significantly influence this book?


message 8: by Eric (last edited Aug 06, 2011 11:51AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eric Not much. He stays focused on the 1840s and 50s, and does not stray into wider discussions (unlike, say, Edmund Wilson, who in Patriotic Gore takes the early Republicans to task for rallying the nation against the South's oligarchy of planters while at the same time clearing a way for the North's coming oligarchy of industrialists and financiers). The book is Foner's dissertation, which probably explains the chaste focus. It was written in the late 60s and published in 1970, and, had it not been academic, would have been well positioned to remark upon the GOP's ironic transformation into a party reliant on Southern whites and race-baiting campaigns.


message 9: by Don Incognito (last edited Aug 06, 2011 11:58AM) (new)

Don Incognito Thanks, that answered my question. Whether he had anything more interesting to say than accuse the GOP of racism yadda yadda is more or less what I wondered. I'll keep this on my Goodreads shelf.


message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will This is a good review. The side tour through Grant's Memoirs provides interesting context. I found it interesting that Lincoln prevailed in 1860 by being nobody's first choice and everybody's second choice, in a fractious party.


message 11: by Eric (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eric Thanks Will! Fractious is right -- so many unlikely bedfellows! This is a great book for political junkies.


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