Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

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

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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 Republican party. Now with a new introduction, Eric Foner puts his argument into the context of contemporary scholarship, reassessing the concept of free labor in the light of the last tweny-five years of writing on such issues as work, gender, economic change, and political thought. A significant reevaluation of the causes of the Civil War, Foner's study looks beyond the North's opposition to slavery and its emphasis upon preserving the Union to determine the broader grounds of its willingness to undertake a war against the South in 1861. Its search is for those social concepts the North accepted as vital to its way of life, and it finds these most clearly expressed in the ideology of the growing Republican party in the decade before the war's start. By a careful analysis of the attitudes of leading factions in the party's formation (northern Whigs, former Democrats, and political abolitionists) Foner is able to show what each contributed to Republican ideology. He also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in that ideology. This was the ideology that permeated the North in the period directly before the Civil War, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and led, almost immediately, to the Civil War itself. At the heart of the controversy over the extension of slavery, he argues, is the issue of whether the northern or southern form of society would take root in the West, whose development would determine determine the nation's destiny. In his new introductory essay, Foner presents a greatly altered view of the subject. Only entrepreneurs and farmers were actually "free men" in the sense used in the ideology of the period. Actually, by the time the Civil War was initiated, half the workers in the North were wage-earners, not independent workers. And this did not account for women and blacks, who had little freedom in choosing what work they did. He goes onto show that even after the Civil War these guarantees for "free soil, free labor, free men" did not really apply for most Americans, and especially not for blacks.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 368 pages
  • 129.54 x 203.2 x 22.86mm | 362.87g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • New edition
  • New edition
  • 0195013522
  • 9780195013528

Review Text

Columbia Professor Foner's sound and scholarly study is dedicated to the proposition that neither the "irrepressible conflict" school of Civil War historiography nor the revisionist "blundering generation" school has done justice to the role and the ideology of the Republican Party in assessing the causes and the nature of the North-South conflict. By dealing in broadly defined "ideologies," Foner is able to incorporate useful elements from both schools of thought: ideology includes the beliefs and perceptions about America's past, present, and future that set North and South on a collision course but also the hatreds and fears that fostered misunderstanding and political blundering. Essentially, however, Foner falls within the "irrepressible conflict" camp: secession was the only action consistent with the South's ideology (not developed in detail here); the Republican decision to maintain the Union was inherent in their ideology (dissected quite minutely in the body of the book). By positing that the Republican ideology incorporated the basic values of the Northern public and provided the moral consensus for Northern mobilization, Foner reduces Northern sentiment to Republican beliefs. His careful analysis of the growth of the Republican party and its political positions revolves around the central tenets of "free soil, free labor, and free men." Throughout he illuminates the diversity of views within the Party and its leadership and the distinctive ideological contributions of its different elements - radicals, former Democrats, and moderate and conservative Whigs. The ambivalent and contradictory Republican responses to the troublesome issues of race and nativism are examined in depth, and related to the Republicans' paramount faith in a society of small-scale capitalism. Unlike some other current reevaluators of the American past, Foner is not concerned exclusively with demonstrating the ubiquity of white racism; he is alert to the positive contributions as well as the moral limitations of political anti-slavery. Nonetheless, contemporary appeal may expand what would otherwise be a largely academic audience. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

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