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COLUMN: Free Soil Party traces its beginnings to Utica

Lou Parrotta, Sentinel columnist
Posted 6/4/22

Prior to the start of the American Civil War, numerous attempts to satisfactorily deal with the question of slavery for both the North and the South occurred. There were several compromises made …

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COLUMN: Free Soil Party traces its beginnings to Utica


Prior to the start of the American Civil War, numerous attempts to satisfactorily deal with the question of slavery for both the North and the South occurred. There were several compromises made between pro-slavery states and anti-slavery states, among these were the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. One of the lesser-known attempts to appease both sides of the issue came from by Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania in 1846.

Wilmot’s proposal, made as the United States was ending its war with Mexico over the disputed territory of Texas, would ban the extension of slavery into any land acquired by the United States from Mexico due to winning the war. This would allow slavery to remain where it existed, yet not extend into other areas. The proposal was defeated in Congress and Texas became a slave state. A group of northern Democrats was not happy with the defeat of the Proviso, and the national Democratic Party began to fracture as a result.

With the coming of the 1848 presidential election, there was a question on whether incumbent President James K. Polk intended to seek re-election or not. By this time, the New York Democratic Party split into two factions, the Barnburners and the Hunkers. The Barnburners were in favor of the Wilmot Proviso and anti-Polk. The Hunkers wanted to do whatever they could to keep the party united and attain office. The leaders of the Barnburners included former New York State Governor Silas Wright and New York State Attorney General John Van Buren, son of former President Martin Van Buren. When Wright unexpectedly passed away on August 27, 1847, the Barnburners lost their best hope to take on Polk for the Democratic nomination, but they did not give up the mission on the state level. That October, in Herkimer, Rep. David Wilmot spoke to 4,000 citizens about the need to defeat the Whig Party (the other major political party of the era) at the polls in the state elections in November. The Whigs won anyway, and the Democrat Party split even further apart.

In February 1848 in Utica, there was a meeting to select delegates to attend the national party’s convention in Baltimore in May. In April, a group of Barnburners anonymously released the so-called “Barnburner Manifesto” that demanded, among other things, that only Barnburners be seated as the rightful delegates at the Baltimore convention. When the convention opened, both factions showed up, and the national party tried to act as peacemaker and seat them both. The Barnburners, unaccepting of the compromise, walked out of the convention. When President Polk decided not to seek re-election, the party settled on Michigan Senator Lewis Cass as its nominee.

Furious at what happened in Baltimore, the Barnburners called for a convention in Utica for June, and while there they decided to form a third party based on the enactment of the Wilmot Proviso. While not officially named the Free Soil Party yet, the group nominated former President Martin Van Buren (one of the anonymous writers of the “Barnburner Manifesto” with future 1876 Democratic Party presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden) to be this new party’s presidential nominee with Senator Henry Dodge of Wisconsin as the vice presidential candidate. Van Buren had to be convinced to run under this new party’s moniker with future Civil War Major General Benjamin Butler urging him to accept the nomination by convincing him he needed to “keep (the) evils of slavery out of the territories.” President Polk was less than enthused about the developments in Utica saying, “This is the most dangerous attempt to organize geographical parties upon the slave question.”

In August, the Barnburners travelled from Utica west to Buffalo where 20,000 people gathered to cement the newly formed and now-named Free Soil Party. At this gathering, an official vote occurred, and Van Buren defeated New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale for the nomination 244-181. Senator Dodge ultimately decided against running for the vice presidency, so Massachusetts politician Charles Francis Adams was nominated instead for the post. (Adams was the son of former President John Quincy Adams and grandson of former President John Adams. He also had cousins in Utica at this time).

When President Polk heard about the nomination of Van Buren, he called Van Buren “… the most fallen man I have ever known. (His) course is selfish, unpatriotic, and wholly inexcusable.” In addition, former Vice President John C. Calhoun, whom Van Buren followed as Vice President under former President Andrew Jackson for Jackson’s second term said, “(He is) bold, unscrupulous, vindictive and a demagogue.” Van Buren’s standing in the national Democratic Party plummeted due to his desire not to extend slavery into the territories acquired from Mexico after the war.

The November election’s outcome was very close. Whig nominee General Zachary Taylor received 47.28% of the popular vote and 163 electoral votes. Democrat Lewis Cass received 42.49% of the popular vote and 127 electoral votes. Free Soiler Van Buren finished third with 10.12% of the popular vote but received no electoral ones. Interestingly, another third party, the Liberty Party, ran noted Utican and Abolitionist Gerrit Smith for president, but he garnered just .09% of the popular vote. The rest of the votes went to marginal individuals who received .01% of the popular vote.

The Free Soil Party ran on the ideas of “Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.” The party only lasted six years; eventually having its platform absorbed by the new Republican Party that adopted the anti-slavery position went it formed in 1854. Utica can take pride in knowing that in its city, the beginning of a real political party that wanted to end slavery began.

NOTE — Lou Parrotta’s column, sponsored by the Bank of Utica, will appear on the first Saturday of each month.


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