7.22. “FREE-SOIL” AND THE ELECTION OF 1848

Douglas had added the Chicago branch to his bill also for political, as well as economic reasons.  With the Presidential election of 1848 on the horizon, the issue of slavery was becoming the divisive political issue that would eventually tear the country apart. David Wilmot’s proposed proviso of August 8, 1846, of course, had gotten nowhere in the Southern-controlled Senate, but that had not stopped the country’s nascent abolitionists from pursuing their agenda, who began to use the support of the Proviso as a litmus test for political candidates.  This issue played directly into the hands of Martin Van Buren and his political machine, who, following his defeat by Calhoun’s machinations in the 1844 Democratic Convention, had been planning his last shot at the Presidency.  After Van Buren and his opponent in 1844, Lewis Cass, had agreed to back Polk as the compromise candidate,  Polk then had proceeded to throw salt into the party fissure by refusing to appoint any of Van Buren’s men to patronage positions during his entire term in office. Van Buren and his supporters (of which Ogden was the leader of the Chicago faction), after suffering eight years of humiliation, were determined to have their revenge and carried Van Buren’s support of the Proviso as its banner into the fray, as Cass, his opponent once again, was a member of the new “Young America” movement and a well-known advocate for the competing ideology of “Popular Sovereignty” that argued that Congress had no power to legislate on the slavery issue and, therefore, the issue was best resolved in the new territories that were approaching statehood by the vote of its citizens.

As Van Buren’s power base was still in upstate New York, he had launched his campaign in the fall of 1847 at the Democratic State convention in Syracuse.  Van Buren’s men, who supported the Proviso were nicknamed “Barnburners” by their opponents, after the fabled Dutch farmer who had burned his barn in order to rid it of rats, while those who opposed him and the Proviso in favor of Popular Sovereignty were called “Hunkers” by Van Buren’s men because they “hunkered” after the patronage jobs that government doled out. The Hunkers had the majority and thus, named the State ticket that the Barnburners refused to support and instead, named their own slate of candidates at a separate convention held a few weeks later in December.  The split of the Democrats in New York State did not portend well for the national party, that had scheduled its Presidential Convention for Baltimore to open on May 22, 1848.  The split within the Democratic Party grew beyond the Empire State as Chicago’s Van Buren supporters, led by William Ogden and Isaac Arnold, had staged a “Free-Soiler” mass meeting in support of the Wilmot Proviso on April 1, 1848, some two and a half months before Ogden began construction of the G&CU.  Both New York factions had sent delegations to the Baltimore convention, setting the spark that eventually resulted in Van Buren’s Barnburners leaving the convention that allowed Lewis Cass to be named the Democratic nominee.  The anti-slavery position of the “Free-soilers” began to attract similarly minded Whigs and Independents, who gathered in Buffalo in early August to form the “Free-Soil” Party, that nominated Van Buren as its Presidential candidate, and as its candidate for Vice President, Charles Francis Adams, the son of former President John Quincy Adams, with the slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men!”

The split of the Democratic vote allowed Whig Gen. Zachary Taylor to win the election and had also placed Stephen Douglas between a rock and a hard place, in that while he was an advocate of Popular Sovereignty, Chicago, led by Van Buren’s good friend Ogden, was a “Free-Soil” Democratic city. Ogden and Arnold launched Van Buren’s “Free-Soil” candidacy that they ran as a non-stop campaign in Chicago that eventually resulted in gaining a majority of the city’s votes for Van Buren.  In the same election that saw Taylor elected as President, Sen. Sidney Breese, who was supported by many of Chicago’s Democrats, was defeated for reelection to the Senate in the Illinois legislature by James Shields, for whom Douglas had personally stumped.  In addition to their differences over the IC bill, the reason for Douglas turning on Breese’s reelection effort was quite straightforward: with Breese removed from the Senate, his chair of the Senate Committee for Public Lands would be vacated and easily picked up by Douglas.  During Breese’s lameduck session in the winter of 1849, he was able to get his own IC bill passed in the Senate but ran into stiff opposition in the House (led by Rep. Wentworth and encouraged by Sen. Douglas) and returned to Illinois empty-handed. Douglas was just where he wanted to be: in charge of dolling out large amounts of free land that used to be the home of Native Americans.

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago. 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago. Chicago: Wilson & St. Clair, 1868.

Fergus Historical Series, No, 18. Chicago: Fergus, 1882.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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