Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party                   Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.



The years prior to the American Civil War have been debated by historians for decades. It is no small job for historians to add clarity to the intricate Civil War warren of historiography. Eric Foner’s book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free men, with prodigious research and with insightful judgment, provides simple but substantial evidence that adds a new viewpoint to the precarious formative years of the Republican Party just prior to the beginning of the Civil War. It is Foner’s belief that the division between the North and South was more than a small disagreement over political issues, but rather a battle between conflicting moral standards.

Eric Foner was born in New York City. His mother was a high school art teacher, and his father, a historian, actively supported the Spanish Republic against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. His father also supported the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African Americans.

Professor Foner received his B.A. at Columbia University and was originally majoring in physics until, during his junior year, he took a seminar from James P. Shenton on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Not surprisingly, he graduated summa cum laude as a history major. He received his doctoral degree at Columbia under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. Foner currently is the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He specializes in nineteenth-century American history, the American Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. He has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and has appeared in historical documentaries on PBS and The History Channel.

Foner is one of only two people that have served as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. He also won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize in the same year, which only a handful of people have done. Foner’s publications have focused on the connections between intellectual, political and social history, and American race relations. He is the author of numerous books, some of which are Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy, and The Reader’s Companion to American History. He wrote a survey textbook of American history, Give Me Liberty! An American History and a companion volume of documents, Voices of Freedom. Eric Foner has also been the co-curator with Olivia Mahoney for two prize-winning exhibitions on American history: A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, and America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.

Essentially, Foner is concerned with the worldview or ideology of the Republican Party during this time. Republicans believed that the North and the South represented two distinct social orders. To Republicans, the North held the promise of growing economic and social opportunities, even for those persons aspiring to become a part of the middle-class. The free labor outlook was the essence of the Republicans. It held high the sanctity of the laboring man and that there should be no ambiguities between industrialism and a free-flowing social order. The South then was seen as the exact opposite of this free labor ideal. Republicans did disagree on what exactly the South’s worst crime was, whether it was the institution of slavery or just the presence of the African American, but regardless the South embodied a society mired in monetary decadence, a static social order and crippled by class strictures. “Political anti-slavery was not merely a negative doctrine, an attack on southern slavery and the society built upon it; it was an affirmation of the social system of the North—a dynamic, expanding capitalist society, whose achievements and destiny was almost wholly the result of the dignity and opportunities which it offered the average laboring man.” (p. 11)

Free-labor ideology, however, was only one part of the Republicans worldview. They were a group comprised of variable backgrounds and political visions. Though Republicans shared a moral distaste of slavery and the South’s slave-based society, they also opposed to the area’s political importance within the country because they feared the Southern political influence on the free-labor system in the North. Foner explains that Republicans shared a profound commitment to the Union and with the exception of a few radicals, they supported the racist practices which were predominant throughout the nation. Despite this racism, Foner states that Republicans were on top of the issue for the period and that by the time war broke out, they were committed to seeing that the fundamental civil rights of African Americans deserved legal protection.

Significant to Foner’s study, in his first two chapters are where he develops the Republicans’ judgments about northern society versus southern society. He builds on the deductions of numerous writers including William R. Taylor, who emphasizes that Republicans took great pride in northern culture. The North had unlimited economic potential and productivity, combined with its democratic institutions, and hard-working working free laborers. “As for the Republicans, whatever their differences on specific political issues and strategies, they were united in their devotion to the mores and values of northern society, and in their conviction of the superiority of the North’s civilization to that of the South.” (p. 71)

Foner explains, with an enormous quantity of citations, that the free labor inducement was enough to bring ex-Whigs, ex-Democrats, nativists, immigrants, radicals, conservatives, moderates, and even racists and egalitarians made Republicanism a positive arena to form allegiances against the threat of the South. Foner stresses that, for the most part, the northerner’s fears were well founded. Republicans were known to let their passions rule at times, but in reality, their concerns reflected the social and political reality. Here, Foner addresses the Republican views regarding what should happen for the African American people in America’s future. Republicans drew people to their cause in such dramatic numbers because they did, in fact, focus on a broad spectrum of issues. “The Republicans saw their anti-slavery program as one part of a world-wide movement from absolutism to democracy, aristocracy to equality, backwardness to modernity, and their conviction that the struggle in the United States had international implications did much to strengthen their resolve.” (p. 72)

Professor Foner tries to dissect and interpret the Republican Party’s agenda. Not only did they wish to oppose the growing political and geographical influence of slavery, but also to abolish the institution itself in the South. Foner argues that by nineteenth century standards, the Republicans were very radical for the time. Many wanted a complete eradication of slavery. However, Foner believes that the consensus by some, that the Party was readily receptive to radical positions, is still open for debate. Politicians who were radically against slavery, like Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and Edward Wade, had difficulty matching their beliefs with party policy. Other abolitionists who joined the Republicans, like Frederick Douglass, Henry B. Stanton, Gamaliel Bailey, Joshua Leavitt, and Salmon P. Chase, found it hard to reconcile their beliefs and moderate their doctrines, but were able to compromise their political associations to be able to keep their places in party activities. Foner explains that these compromises allowed the Republicans continued evolution, while effectively entwining slavery into a political issue. Nevertheless, Foner discloses that the party may have been driven to develop an image that would appeal to both moderate and conservative anti-abolitionist voters all while trying to mute the more radical voices present.

In essence, Foner adeptly evidences that putting slavery on the political agenda, pulled the conservative elements within the party to see slavery as an assault to their ideology of free labor. In doing this, the Republicans who were less interested in the slavery issue were influenced to believe that it was a genuine danger to their way of life.

In 1995 a new introduction by the author was added to Free Soil, Free Labor, Free men. Twenty-five years after its original publication, Foner admits that having re-read his book he can see that he took the free labor ideology as a given. He admits to making little effort to “trace its ideological origins, social roots, or evolution over time.” (p. ix) Free labor was also presented as a single concept without the variables that different Americans would have imbued it with. Foner still believes that nineteenth century historians, no matter the “contradictions and ambiguities, blind spots and exclusions,” (p. xxxix) still offer valuable insights.

Having been written from a predominately Northern perspective, Foner’s extensive study has provided additional viewpoints to better understand the events that led up to the Civil War. The importance of free labor in the North and the evolution of the Republican Party are articulately rendered here and the reader gains a new appreciation of the dilemma the North faced when so strongly opposing the South. Foner has successfully written a book about the role of ideology in America’s past and it sits in the company with some of the best works on the antebellum past. New perspectives and sources continue to unearth themselves, and though the author admits he would have chosen to present certain areas differently, it is still a valuable read, and even after so many years in print, an insightful and intelligent book.

If you enjoyed this review and would like to buy the book, please support my site and use the link below to make your purchase. Thank you!