Title Reviewed:
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War

Author Reviewed:
Eric Foner

Robert G. Gunderson


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 373-375

Article Type:
Book Review

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Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. By Eric Foner. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. xii, 353. Notes, selected bibliography, index. $8.50.)

Although hardly the "significant re-evaluation of the causes of the Civil War" that the dust jacket advertises, this study nevertheless will command scholarly attention. It presents detailed kaleidoscopic views of the complicated Republican ideological scene, shifting deftly to adjust for change in time, geography, and attitude. Taking Radical spokesmen pretty much at their word, Foner concludes that Republican ideology did indeed rest upon the demand for "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men," just as the campaign banners said. All the various factions within the party are represented in the study, but a space emphasis goes to the Radicals, particularly to Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, Joshua R. Giddings, George W. Julian, Carl Schurz, Preston King, and Benjamin F. Butler. Representatives of Republican business interests get considerably less exposure. The index lists, for example, only seven references to Thurlow Weed, six to David Davis, five to Thomas Corwin, five to Thomas Ewing, three to Edward Bates, and two each to William M. Evarts and Caleb Blood Smith. As a result the party is made to seem less Whiggish than it was.

Foner argues, not too convincingly, that "ideology represents much more than the convenient rationalization of material interests" (p. 5). Using the phraseology of the once fashionable Gestalt psychologists, he asserts rather mystically that the Republican ideology was "more than merely the sum of its component parts" (p. 10). He criticizes "revisionists" for "denying altogether the urgency of the moral issue," but he admits that "to explain Republicans' actions on simple moral grounds is to miss the full richness of their ideology," which he characterizes as a "profoundly successful fusion of value and interests" (pp. 5, 10).

Foner is quick to defend Republican motivations. He claims it is "too simple" for Clifford S. Griffin to say that "Republican leaders speedily deserted temperance and anti-foreignism as soon as they realized that anti-slavery was even more popular" (p. 259). He complains that Leon Litwack, Eugene Berwanger, and Robert F. Durden "have carried a good point too far" in taking "the Republicans to task for racial prejudice within their ranks" (p. 333). His evidence in at least one instance is flimsy. He cites a hectic vote during the last days of the Peace Conference in February, 1861, to indicate that "a majority of the Republican party stood by the citizenship of the Negro on the eve of the Civil War" (p. 293). An examination of the circumstances reveals that the amendment in question was a parliamentary tactic designed to make the initial proposal so objectionable that it would be defeated.

Although not afraid to generalize, Foner sometimes generalizes unfairly. For example, he claims that "few historians would go as far as William Best Hesseltine" in concluding that "the Republicans" were "little more than an enlarged Whig party disguised in a new vocabulary" (p. 149). Yet Hesseltine carefully qualifies this statement in context, specifically excepting Massachusetts and indicating that this was the case in those states "where industry and commerce were supreme and where the financial centers of the land were located" (Lincoln and the War Governors, 1948, p. 18).

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men provides a lively, well docu- mented digest of what pre-Civil War politicians said. Foner's next book should put Republican words to the test of Republican deeds.

Indiana University, Bloomington Robert G. Gunderson

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.