A key component of Northern thinking emphasized a free labor and producer ethic, which extolled the virtues of free, independent, and propertied working men. Dependency was eschewed as evidence of personal shortcoming. But the institution of slavery violated that ethic in every way. Not only were slaves not free, but also Southern aristocratic society degraded free labor. To be a free laborer in the South was to be a member of a lower class. These diametrically opposed views of labor were the basis of an ongoing controversy dating from the Missouri Compromise over the issue of permitting slavery in newly obtained territories or newly admitted states. The Northern and Republican position was one of "free soil," for free laborers.
Though not emphasizing the chronological history of the Republican Party, the author traces the assimilation into the party of members or adherents of the Abolitionists, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, the Know-Nothings, and the so-called radical Republicans. A good sampling of the pronouncements of the leading Northern political figures of the era as well as the positions of key newspaper publishers is quite illuminating. It is a mild criticism of the book that the author, in following the historical trail, at times provides insufficient background on historical events that he refers to such as the Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Lecompton controversy, etc.
Certainly much of the rise of the Republican Party was due to a concern of Northern Whigs and Democrats that the political process in Washington was being dominated by a southern Slave Power. That Slave Power was seen as a force intent on expanding the geographical reach of slavery. Every attempt at expansion of slave territory drove more and more people to the ranks of the parties that became the Republican Party. The author is keen to point out that while anti-slavery was a moral crusade on the part of some Republicans, for most the prevention of the Slave Power in expanding its reach and the preservation and expansion of Northern society superceded any moral imperative to emancipate slaves.
It is not the author's intent to directly list the causes of the Civil War, yet it would be difficult to deny the relevance of this book in answering those questions. But the author does address some claims of causation. While not denying that protective tariffs were controversial issues, he downplays their overall significance. For one, many leading Republicans were free traders, not protectionists. Republicanism was not simply warmed over Whiggery intent on protecting industry. In fact, many Republicans had a distrust of emerging corporations. In addition, he gives little credence to suggestions that the Civil War represents either a failure of political compromise or political incompetence.
The author amply demonstrates that the election of President Lincoln in 1860 constituted a culminating point for both the North and the South. Clearly, the Republicans had emerged as a voice for a Northern society that was based on entrepreneuralism, free labor, progress, and expansion. For the South, the election of Republicans was seen as a dire threat to a way of life wholly different than that of the North. No longer the foremost power in Washington, Southerners had grave misgivings concerning the designs of Republicans on dismantling their society. And neither the Democrats who had stared down John Calhoun in the Nullification Crisis or the Republicans with a Whig background of Henry Clay's Americanism were about to simply let the South secede.
According to the author there was "the conviction that North and South represented two social systems whose values, interests, and future prospects were in sharp, perhaps mortal, conflict with one another." And for those who would downplay the essential role of slavery in the impending conflict, the author quotes another historian as indicating that "By 1860, slavery had become the symbol and carrier of all sectional differences and conflicts."
In an introduction twenty-five years after the original, the author acknowledges that the ideology of free labor was already fraying by 1860. In the first place, by that point more than half of all men were wage earners and not independent workers. Secondly, the Republican fiction that both capital and labor had similar interests was belied by the greater power of capital to make the employment relationship hardly free. But those realities rose to the front after the Civil War as industrialism really expanded.
For those who would have wanted a bigger and more comprehensive book, there is merit in that. The book is somewhat narrowly focused. That is not to deny that the capturing of Republican ideology is not a significant contribution. But Southern reactions as the Republican Party was growing would have been interesting. But this book should be on the list of anyone wanting to understand the Civil War era.