A Forgotten Tenet of Antebellum Republicans

(July 11, 2018) The Republican Party first offered a presidential candidate in 1856 when it replaced the Free Soil Party, which had run candidates in 1848 and 1852. During the 1848 election Free Soilers adopted “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” as their campaign slogan. The meanings of the motto’s “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” components are readily discerned. The Party wanted to prohibit the extension of slavery onto the “soil” of the territories that had not yet been organized as states. “Free Labor” was a contra-term to “Slave Labor” and “Free Men” was self explanatory in the same context. But why “Free Speech?” Didn’t all political parties support the First Amendment?

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The emphasis on “Free Speech” reflected the Party’s opposition to a “Gag Rule” in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844, which automatically tabled petitions involving slavery. Abolitionists triggered adoption of the rule by flooding the House with numerous appeals to abolish slavery. Many petitioned Congress to free specifically-named slaves who lived in Southern states where slavery was legal and whom the petitioners had never met. Most congressmen—North and South—objected to the entreaties for two reasons. First, they did not believe Congress had the legal authority to act on them. Second, the large number of petitions impeded legislative attention to matters that could undeniably be addressed legally, which became increasingly important after the onset an economic depression in 1837.

Predictably, the Free Soil Party condemned the “Gag Rule” as a violation of the right to free speech. The Party similarly objected when mobs destroyed anti-slavery literature distributed by abolitionists in the Southern states. From his Boston-based Liberator newspaper abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “Where is the liberty of the press and of speech? Where is the spirit of our fathers? Where the immunities secured to us by our Bill of Rights?” Despite the Liberator’s  circulation of only 3,000, during one three year period Garrison and his allies flooded the slave states with over two million abolitionist documents.

Presently, however, too many modern historians apply a gag rule of their own to any discussion of the Civil War that fails to conform to the South-as-Evil-Twin interpretation. The narrative concludes that the war was a conflict between virtuous Northerners who wanted to free Southern slaves and white Southerners who wanted to maintain slavery. Consequently, statues to Confederate soldiers must be removed. There is no room for debate.

While such historians condemn the “censorship” caused by the mobs of antebellum Southerners that sometimes destroyed abolitionist literature sent into the slave states, they don’t see the irony in their own refusal to permit any discussion that fails to conform to the South-as-Evil-Twin narrative. The situation is at its worst in academia where most PhD students realize that they cannot earn their doctoral degrees—and thereby become employable—unless their work enlarges the mandatory narrative. There is no oxygen for the truth because, as Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”





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