How the Abolitionist Grandfathers of Modern Libertarianism Won by Losing—and Lost by Winning

It started in January on the rim of the Mediterranean, in Sicily. A month later, Paris was at the barricades. Throughout 1848, no fewer than four dozen revolts cascaded across continental Europe. New ideas raced across the land: The rebels divided themselves between liberal internationalists, nationalists of varying stripes, and socialists. Most of the old regimes managed to survive, but only decrepit Spain, autocratic Russia, and frigid Scandinavia avoided any revolt at all.

It was a revolutionary year in the United States too, though we’re usually left out of the story.

Our spark was lit in the brief period between the Sicilian and French revolts, when the Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This ended the Mexican War and formally seized more than half of Mexico, expanding the U.S. by more than 330 million acres. Southerners had formed a majority of the conquering army and its officer corps, and now the second sons of the great planters were itching for their chance to take some slaves out west and become the nabob labor-lords of those fresh new states-in-waiting. It was the poison pill that ultimately led to civil war.

In the shorter term, it led to the American rebellion of 1848. Unlike the uprisings in Europe, this one played out within the political system—at least temporarily.

For decades, Martin Van Buren had built and maintained the Jacksonian coalition—the alliance at the core of the antebellum Democratic Party—by promising Southerners that Northerners would stay out of their domestic affairs if Southerners would support “plain republicanism” for white men. This alliance was America’s status quo, our Old Regime. And in 1848, the radicals of the Free Soil movement mounted a full-on assault both on the supposed rights of planters to their chattel and on a host of economic privileges held by well-connected businesses. By proclaiming that state-granted privileges of any sort were anti-democratic, anti-republican, corrupting, impoverishing, and morally unjustifiable, the Free Soilers set the intellectual and political conditions for a wholesale abolition revolution. The chief force holding back the wave of change was the duopoly held by the two major political parties, especially Van Buren’s Democrats.

Who knew, then,

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