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

by Eric Foner

Paperback, 1995




Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.


Presents a significant reevaluation of the causes of the Civil War.

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According to Foner, the germinal ideology of the Republican Party was a combination of the Free Soil antagonism toward Slave “Civilization” on cultural and economic grounds, combined with the threat of an aggressive “Slave power.” (p. 309) He contrasts it with the abolitionist-humanitarian “appeal to morality alone.” Also: anti-slavery was “the main focus of [Republican] political appeal” to voters, and “one of the few policies which united all Republican factions.” (p. 304)

Foner presumes a very well-informed reader. I had to do some supplementary reading on a few topics to keep my head from spinning. To wit, I needed to review the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Dred Scott (1857), the Lecompton controversy (1857), and the origin and program of the Know-Nothings.

The new preface by Foner is arresting with its diachronic discussion of Slaves, Wage Slaves, and Slave Wages, reflecting the development and validation of wage labor. The value structure moves dialectically from leisured:working::free:servile (Traditional/Southern) to working:captive::free:slave (Free Labor/Northern)--and later, work:leisure::production:consumption (industrial). He also observes the exclusion of women from “labor” in political ideology, even as they were demonstrably at work, as an effect of the “separate spheres” concept developed in the 19th century. And because the “domestic sphere” was seen as dissociated from “work,” “relations with servants were generally understood as problems in morality and discipline rather than labor relations.” (p. xxxi)
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