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The Free-Soil Movement, Part 1

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In 1837, in order to encourage a westward migration of the poor and unemployed from the industrial East, the journalist Horace Greeley proclaimed, “Go West, young man, go forth into the Country.”

The vast public lands in the West were seen as a safety valve for the increasing labor unrest of Eastern cities. Twenty-five years later, in 1862, a Congress embroiled in Civil War would pass the Homestead Act and thus open up public land in the West to private ownership. Essentially, any adult citizen or adult who had filed for citizenship could claim title to 160 acres of federal public land after farming it for a defined period and paying nominal fees.

The Homestead Act was the culmination of decades of bitter controversy and constant agitation over free-soil. Few issues in American history illustrate so clearly the power of a grassroots movement that expresses the will of common people.

If one man can be deemed responsible for the impact of the homestead movement, that man was George Henry Evans (1805–1856). In his essay “George Henry Evans and the Origins of American Individualist-Anarchism,” historian Ken Gregg Jr. described the success of the free-soil movement:

When Evans began his crusade in 1829, he had the support of his friends and only a few newspapers … in New York. By 1850, his efforts had sown their seed. Of the over 2,000 papers that were published in the United States, at least 600 of these supported land reform. By the time of Evans’ death on Feb. 2, 1856, the National Reform Association [founded by Evans] was a force to be reckoned with.

Ultimately, however, the homesteading movement serves not only as an inspiring example of grassroots activism but also as a caution against the pitfalls attendant to using government to promote liberty.

George Henry Evans seemed uniquely suited to champion a grassroots movement. Born to working-class parents in England, as a teenager he emigrated to America where he apprenticed to a printing shop in Ithaca, New York.

Thus, Evans established himself in a trade well-known for expressing reform views. He became a political radical as a result of the intense upheaval of the 1819 depression and the years of general economic misery that followed. In this reaction, he was not alone. In the 1820s, for the first time in American history, economically ravaged working people began to organize into separate political parties that expressed their own goals.

The populist issues championed by the “Workies” included universal male suffrage, public education, protection from debt, and the limitation of working hours. However, the one issue that dominated was homesteading, or “free-soil.”

In 1828, the Philadelphia Workers’ Party — in which Josiah Warren (the father of individualist anarchism) was active — won 20 local offices. In 1829, in New York City, a carpenter became the first candidate of the Workingmen’s Party and was elected as an assemblyman.

Also in 1829, Evans established the Working Man’s Advocate (1829–1845), which served as the organ of the Workingmen’s Party. It was the first labor newspaper in America. In the early 1830s, the New York party split into two factions — one under the influence of the communistic Thomas Skidmore, the other under the more moderate communitarian Robert Dale Owen, whom Evans and many contemporary libertarians admired.

Through the Working Man’s Advocate (WMA), Evans’s voice assumed real power. In his “Working Men’s Declaration of Independence” (1829), published in the WMA, Evans gave a sense of the wider platform of labor reform. He wrote, “We hold these truths to be self evident …”

Among the self-evident truths were: The levying of taxes was “based on erroneous principles” and oppressed the working class; jury and military duty unjustly fell more heavily upon workers; laws favoring corporations exploited workers; and the current laws on credit exploited them.

Evans declared that working people should adopt all constitutional means to achieve equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of his positions were less than libertarian, however. For example, he advocated public schools and a “transitional” state guardianship of children. Fortunately, in the one area upon which he focused, Evans took a generally libertarian approach: namely, free-soil.

Specifically, what was his approach? In one of the several periodicals he published, The Radical, Evans later wrote (April 1841),

Land is not the product of labor; property is any thing produced by labor. Therefore, I say, land is not property. A monopoly of land deprives some of their just and natural means of acquiring property; with equal rights (including the right of land) guaranteed, an accumulation of property in the hands of individuals could not prevent others from acquiring property, as it now can; nor do I think there could be any excessive accumulation as there now is.

Evans believed that title to land could be validly acquired only through applying labor (e.g., cultivation) or adding improvements (e.g., a house) to it. The early British classical liberal John Locke argued similarly for the ownership of property based upon “mixing your labor with the land.” Since it was not possible to separate labor or improvements from the land itself, this formed the justification for land ownership.

In considering the practical aspects of land ownership, Evans, along with many other land reformers, estimated that 160 acres could supply the needs of a family. It was also the size of a farm that a family could be reasonably expected to use and occupy. And, as long as the farm was being used, Evans advocated the inalienability of land tenure, that is, it could not be seized for payment of debt.

Even as free-soil captured the imagination of working-class Easterners, further division in the Workingmen’s Party blunted its influence. By the 1832 election, most members had distanced themselves from the party and voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson.

The Workies hoped that the anti-monopoly stance of Jackson and the Democratic Party would result in the removal of privileges for business, especially for banks. Their hopes were dashed. The situation was particularly bad in New York City, where the “Tammany Democrats” were renowned for corruption.

As the 1836 election drew near, Workies and a radical anti-Jackson faction within the Democrats determined to seize control of the Democratic nominating convention. On October 19, 1835, the protesters attended a meeting in Tammany Hall and shouted down the nominees.

Before they could organize a counter-meeting the Democratic leadership turned off the gaslights and everyone sat in darkness. That is, until protesters lit the new-fangled self-igniting matches, brand-named Loco-Focos, and continued the meeting by candlelight. (The anti-Jacksonian Democrats, who later formed the Equal Rights Party, became known as Loco-Focos.)

The radicals nominated their own slate of officeseekers, who ran against the regular Democratic candidates in New York City, receiving a significant minority portion of the vote.

When the Panic of 1837 resulted in the unemployment of an estimated 30 percent of American workers, the labor movement was devastated. Poverty-stricken, Evans moved to a farm in New Jersey, from which he published The Radical, aimed largely at the land and labor reformers he had left behind. Thus, he kept the reform community connected.

In 1844, he returned to the metropolis, with a renewed conviction that grassroots action — particularly in the form of electoral politics — could achieve free-soil goals. He revived the WMA and formed the National Reform Association in order to focus on the concerns of Workies on the local, state, and national level.

Evans immediately began a public inquiry into the cause of the misery of the working man. A report published in the WMA (July 1844) rendered his conclusions. He wrote,

We are the inhabitants of a country which, for boundless extent of territory, fertility of soil, and exhaustless resources of mineral wealth, stands unequalled by any nation, either of ancient or modern times…. And, yet, we allow those elements to lie dormant, that labor which ought to be employed in calling forth the fruitfulness of Nature is to be found seeking employment in the barren lanes of a city, of course, seeking it in vain.

The report denied the authority of Congress either to withhold land from citizens or to grant it to well-connected speculators. Such privileged speculators, he claimed, “lay our children under tribute to their children.” They practice “a cruel and cowardly fraud upon posterity.” His solution? To “establish the right of the people to the soil; to be used by them in their own day, and transmitted … to their posterity.”

Thereafter, Evans used the free-soil issue to gain a foothold in national politics by promoting the homesteading ideal. One of National Reform’s slogans became “Vote yourself a farm.”

In the 1848-49 session of Congress, reformers managed to get a Homestead Bill onto the floor but it was ultimately killed. Free-soilers simply encountered too much opposition from the pro-slavery South, which correctly viewed the bill as an attack on its “peculiar institution.”

Moreover, the extension of slavery into territories that were expected to apply for statehood raised questions of the balance of power within the Senate. New states would be either free or slave: the South believed its political survival depended on those states’ being the latter.

Disillusioned by being constantly blocked by Southern voices, members of National Reform began drifting into the wider anti-slavery movement. This anti-slavery stance should not be confused with a pro-black-rights attitude. Many free-soilers merely wished to keep slaves (or free blacks, for that matter) out of new states.

As a group, free-soilers were not necessarily pro-black. In the Working Man’s Advocate, Evans had a telling exchange with the anti-slavery Gerrit Smith. Although he had been an early and vocal advocate of abolitionism, Evans now stated (1844),

I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my views as to the manner of abolishing negro slavery. I see now clearly, I think, that to give the landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age, although he is in a favorable climate. If the southern form of slavery existed at the north, I should say the black would be a great loser in such a change.

For many free-soilers, the anti-slavery movement was merely a powerful voice that advanced their goal: the homesteading of the West by yeoman farmers. Like most successful grassroots movements, free-soil focused on one issue around which it forged alliances.

Discouraged by the de facto dissolution of National Reform, Evans returned to his farm in New Jersey. But the free-soil issue would soon be galvanized by a newly emerging political force in America — the Republican Party.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).