Struck a chord among northerners opposed to the

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struck a chord among northerners opposed to the expansion of slavery, andhe polled some 300,000 votes, 14 percent of the northern total. Victory in1848 went to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, a hero of the MexicanWar and a Louisiana sugar planter. But the fact that a former president andthe son of another abandoned their parties to run on a Free Soil platformshowed that antislavery sentiment had spread far beyond abolitionistranks. “Antislavery,” commented Senator William H. Seward of New York,“is at length a respectable element in politics.”T H EF R E ES O I LA P P E A LThe Free Soil position had a popular appeal in the North that far exceededthe abolitionists’ demand for immediate emancipation and equal rights forblacks. While Congress possessed no constitutional power to abolish slav-ery within a state, well-known precedents existed for keeping territories(areas that had not yet entered the Union as states) free from slavery.Congress had done this in 1787 in the Northwest Ordinance and again inthe Missouri Compromise of 1820–1821. Many northerners had longresented what they considered southern domination of the federal govern-ment. The idea of preventing the creation of new slave states appealed tothose who favored policies, such as the protective tariff and governmentaid to internal improvements, that the majority of southern political lead-ers opposed.For thousands of northerners, moreover, the ability to move to the newwestern territories held out the promise of economic betterment. Thedepression of the early 1840s had reinforced the traditional equation ofland ownership with economic freedom. The labor movement promotedaccess to western land as a way of combating unemployment and lowwages in the East. “Freedom of the soil,” declared George Henry Evans, theWhy did the expansion of slavery become the most divisive political issue in the 1840s and 1850s?5 0 7
editor of a pro-labor newspaper, offered the only alternative to permanenteconomic dependence for American workers.Such views merged easily with opposition to the expansion of slavery. Ifslave plantations were to occupy the fertile lands of the West, northernmigration would be effectively blocked. The term “free soil” had a doublemeaning. The Free Soil platform of 1848 called both for barring slaveryfrom western territories and for the federal government to provide freehomesteads to settlers in the new territories. Unlike abolitionism, the “freesoil” idea also appealed to the racism so widespread in northern society.Wilmot himself insisted that his controversial Proviso was motivated notby “morbid sympathy for the slaves” but to advance “the cause and rightsof the free white man,” in part by preventing him from having to competewith “black labor.”To white southerners, the idea of barring slavery from territory acquiredfrom Mexico seemed a violation of their equal rights as members of theUnion. Southerners had fought and died to win these territories; surelythey had a right to share in the fruits of victory. To single out slavery as the

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