Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Free Soil: The Election of 1848. By JOSEPH

G. RAYBACK. (Lexington: University Press of

Kentucky, 1971. ix + 326p.; notes and index.



Rayback's purpose is to analyze the cam-

paign of 1848 from its origin in the early

days of Polk's administration to the election

of the Whig Zachary Taylor over Martin

Van Buren for the Free Soilers and Lewis

Cass for the Democrats. The author finds

that the presidential election of 1848 marked

the emergence of antislavery sentiment as a

determining political force, and that seces-

sions occurred in the ranks of both the Whig

and Democratic parties because of anti-

slavery opposition to the candidates and

platforms of the major parties. The seceders,

in turn, organized the Free Soil party, which

then drew up a platform opposing the ex-

tension of slavery to the territories.

The political contest began to take shape

early in the Polk administration when sev-

eral candidacies were privately launched.

The Mexican War, however, brought Zach-

ary Taylor forward, first as the "people's

candidate," and later as the choice of the

Whigs. After analyzing the returns, Rayback

concludes that Taylor's victory came largely

because of party loyalty and the appeal of

Taylor's military glory.

The Barnburner supporters of Martin Van

Buren are characterized as men of principle

dedicated to the prevention of the extension

of slavery, rather than as politicians who

follow the dictates of political expediency.

Thus, in effect, Rayback rejects the Free

Soiler George Julian's characterization of

the Barnburners as "the compromising and

trading elements." When the Barnburners

bolted the Democratic party after the state

convention refused to endorse the Wilmot

Proviso, they declared that they seceded be-

cause the Democratic platform, without the

Proviso, was a menace to free labor. Ray-

back states the Barnburners insisted that

their departure was taken on this ground

because the Proviso "appealed strongly to

the Democratic rank and file" that they

hoped to carry with them (p. 80). Even

though Rayback admits Van Buren had gone

to great lengths as the servant of the "slave

power" in the 1830's, he feels the former

President would have been faithful to the

Free Soil platform of 1848.

Although Rayback gives only one short

chapter to the Liberty Party, he recognizes

the dilemma the Liberty men faced in vot-

ing for Van Buren after-the withdrawal of

their own candidate, John P. Hale. The

Whigs and Democrats delighted in remind-

ing the Free Soilers of Van Buren's old

pledge to veto any bill abolishing slavery in

the District of Columbia, which he publicly

retracted in 1848, and the willingness of his

administration to permit the reenslavement

of the Amistad captives (pp. 230, 246). Van

Buren's record, therefore, caused much hesi-

tation among Liberty men in accepting the

Free Soil ticket in 1848.

The election revealed signs of the break-

ing up of the major parties. The problem

was slavery, and politics was becoming sec-

tionalized. The Whigs would soon be in

serious trouble, but the crisis for the Demo-

crats would be postponed. The returns

showed that the Democratic party was al-

ready in a state of division, but the impact

of the third party vote was not immediately

recognized because of the temporary recov-

ery of the Democrats in the elections of 1852

and 1856. Rayback's concluding thought is

that a solution to the problem of slavery in

the territories continued to be imperative,

and that the Nebraska bill of 1854, a Demo-

cratic solution applying the principle of

equality to the territory, was not acceptable.

Therefore, passions which had been awak-

ened in 1848 were re-aroused, resulting in

the ultimate split in the Democratic party,

the decline of the Whigs, and the creation

of "an enlarged Free Soil organization--the

Republican party" (p. 310).

The study is well edited and free of print-

ing mistakes. The Amistad captives, how-

ever, are called the "Amistead captives."

The author's style is lively and his research

is impressive. Rayback made extensive use