During the economic crisis of the 1850s and early 1860s that made northerners’ individual and household independence seem more precarious, men like Thomas Webster gave voice to their ideology and tried to protect their interest. In doing so, they embraced both caution and speculation not only to end slaveholders’ grip on the nation’s political economy but also to benefit from slave emancipation. Their cautious hedges proved risky, and led to profound soul-searching in political and cultural debates among northern devotees of free labor. By 1860, the financial uncertainty borne of the Panic of 1857 and the secession crisis forced Webster to look for patronage from Republican allies to access a new capital stream. It was through the work of middlemen like Webster—as much as through the efforts of abolitionists, Republican politicians, Union soldiers, and enslaved people—that slavery ended and free labor’s promise for workers was unmade during the Civil War Era. Webster represented the speculative—many said the fraudulent—impulses and activities in an economy founded on the fact that having capital meant having power. That capital would make these northerners more independent in a competitive market, and their speculations would shape the contours of war and emancipation.
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