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Nov 29, 2016

The Loco-Foco Movement: A Lost Chapter in the History of Liberalism, Part One

The Loco-Focos’ “life-long ‘War on Monopoly,’ resulted in a long series of events which in many ways diffused and democratized power throughout the populace.”

This column is drawn from a forthcoming presentation at the 2017 American Historical Association annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.

The Locofocos were liberal-republican, anti-corporate ideologues and political activists located throughout the United States from the 1820s to the 1870s. Their history has never truly been written.  The Locofoco movement began with the workingmen’s and Jacksonian movements in the late 1820s, and by 1835, New York City political conflict birthed the Loco-Foco Party.  The Loco-Focos battled Tammany Hall and fought for control over the Democratic Party, continuing the work of many from the days of the Workingmen’s Party.  Over the course of several decades following this formative period in New York, individuals and movements either self- or peer-identified as “locofoco” deeply influenced life in the United States and related corners of the world.  Ultimately, however, the locofocos most eager for reform and most convinced of the virtues of democracy and republicanism proved in many ways to be the “Dupes of Hope Forever”—a phrase from their ideological founder, William Leggett.  As they fought a political and (often) military war on “monopoly” and legal privilege, the locofocos transformed significant portions of the American institutional framework, allowing for much of the rapid industrialization and proliferation of corporations that characterized the late nineteenth-century economy.  The radical liberal ideas for which locofocos fought over the decades demanded the liberation of all individuals from legislation conferring artificial rights and privileges on the essentially aristocratic few.  This life-long “War on Monopoly,” resulted in a long series of events which in many ways diffused and democratized power throughout the populace. 

From general incorporation to antislavery, locofocos often claimed revolutionary successes. Yet, at every turn they were stymied, won only minor political victories, made mistakes, changed their minds entirely, or allowed themselves to be coopted.  Loco-Foco political activists generally won few, relatively minor elections and leapt at offers of swift reconciliation with the great political middle and conservative establishments like Tammany.  Historians portray the Workingmen as a faction of the wider Democracy, composed of anti-capitalist proto-New Dealers (the Schlesinger view) or petty capitalists attempting to clear the legal and economic path for their own social advancement (Dorfman’s view).  Historians like Walter Hugins insist that after forcing Tammany and the national administration in a more pleasing direction, locofocoism evaporated into nothingness while the Workingmen continued to be active either paving the way for the New Deal or modern capitalism.  Historians thus pronounce locofocoism dead as early as 1837. The Loco-Foco brand of radical classical liberalism is neither accorded an independent identity, nor a history of its own.1 Virtually every portrayal of the locofocos, therefore, is extraordinarily problematic, resting as each on them does on a sharply limited base of primary and secondary sources. Few historians have engaged locofocoism beyond the Equal Rights Party’s historian Fitzwilliam Byrdsall’s easily-accessible 1842 book and a scattering of letters or editorials from prominent locos.  Most scholars’ secondary sources trace back to two articles written by a single Progressive historian, William Trimble, in the early twentieth century.  The result has been an almost complete neglect of locofocoism as a subject of study.2 While Hugins’ work pioneered studying locofocoism as a movement, his methodology limited his conceptions of that very movement. In fact, locofocoism, the philosophy, greatly outgrew and outlived the Loco-Foco Party.  The radicals who relished in the label “loco-foco” bonded through anti-corporate thought and politics, which offered one of the most significant and lasting challenges to the emerging liberal-capitalist social order in Jacksonian America, though it has been largely dismissed, overlooked, or neglected, with few exceptions.

Locofocoism as an ideology included commitments to 1) Universal, equal, inalienable human rights based in self-ownership; 2) Revolutionary republicanism; 3) The efficacy of democracy in defending individuals’ rights, 4) A “Classical Liberal” or political class-conflict analysis; and 5) A philosophy and understanding of history which positioned the United States at the forefront of Humanity’s historical battles for Liberty against the tyrannical forces of Power. Regardless of how they applied these particular concepts to practical concerns, locofocos shared these fundamental ideas in common and we can trace the extent of the movement by following in tandem the biographies of individual locofocos and the transmission of their key ideas over time and space.  Over time and in varying contexts, locofocoism informed the actions of individuals who often came to contrary conclusions, some of which ruptured and split the movement.  The Locofoco Movement developed ad hoc, according to the needs of radicals and their allies over time and according to local context, sometimes spread across the land thickly (the ideologues), sometimes much more thinly (the pragmatists).  It included purist thinkers and artistic dreamers, practical politicians and compromising coalition-builders, revolutionaries-at-arms and sincere pacificists, grounded rationalists and spiritual romanticists.

Historian Edward Widmer’s study of the Young America movement is the most significant of recent additions to the literature of locofocoism. Widmer separates Young America into two distinct movements with only loose bonds connecting them.  Young America I was composed of artists, intellectuals, activists, and reformers many of whom were inspired by and active participants in the Loco-Foco movement.  They derived their social and political philosophies from the great classical liberals, radicals like Thomas Paine and William Leggett (the founder of locofocoism), and they united behind an almost mystical faith in America’s world-historical destiny.  Locofocoism provided cast and character to Young America I and provided the intellectual and moral basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny.  Writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, John L. O’Sullivan, and William Cullen Bryant can comfortably be classified as locofocos, along with a slew of editors, publicists, publishers, critics, journalists, and artists across the country. This massive and influential cohort of locofoco-influenced figures, with John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review leading the charge, produced a national culture distinct from European antecedents.  The Loco-Foco and Young America movements developed in tandem, each deeply affecting and influencing the other.3  Historians’ treatments of locofocos have prized their political activism without according their movement a life beyond mere politics, virtually erasing the movement from the record. Walt Whitman once declared that the era we now comfortably assign to Jackson in fact belonged to William Leggett.4 The “Age of Democracy,” I would like to suggest, could almost as well be known as the “Age of Locofocoism.” 

The movement survived reunion with Tammany in the mid-1830s only to lose military contests in Canada (1837-1839) and Rhode Island (1842). In the Canadian rebellions, locofoco revolutionaries calling themselves “Patriots” and “Brother Hunters” fought against the world’s most powerful government of the day, the global icon of the Money Power, the preeminent monarchical, aristocratic, corporation-mongering organization on the globe:  imperial Britain.  Equal rights and anti-monopoly were the cornerstones of locofoco thought, and British rule in Canada was based on an incestuous system of aristocratic land monopoly and class legislation, preventing the development of the provinces and stifling economic growth.  Canadian radical Reformers were steeped in locofoco thought and leaders like Mackenzie even dabbled in Loco social circles while exiled in New York City.  Throughout the 1830s, American locofocos and Canadian radicals exchanged ideas and fused their movements together.  Locofoco filibustering in Canada continued the dissemination of radicalism throughout the Old Northwest during the secret meetings of Brother Hunters and in the pages of the Patriot press.  These Loco-Romantic revolutionaries shaped and contoured the minds of Young America I.  The “Patriot War” was consistent with a powerful strain of loco philosophy, part of the Loco-Foco political movement, and an attempt at republican revolution.  When seen in this light, it becomes a single battle in the developing war between locofoco Young Americans and the vestiges of feudal, privilege-based corporatism in the world of the Market Revolution.  With the dissolution of the rebellion, the Canadian Reformers moved toward national union to oppose British domination, and Americans turned their militant gazes elsewhere.5

In Rhode Island, radical locofocos and Young Americans like George Bancroft, Levi Slamm, John L. O’Sullivan, and his childhood friend Thomas W. Dorr moved against that state’s constitution, a British charter literally unchanged since 1663.  Like his fellow Young American locos, Thomas Dorr was an early and vigorous advocate of global republicanism and William Leggett’s locofocoism, though this point is little-known and less emphasized in histories of the Dorr Rebellion.  As early as 1833, his radical vision included anti-corporate banking reform, prison and education reforms, constitutional reform in Rhode Island, and—several years later—abolition and equal rights for African Americans.  Throughout the 1830s, Dorr was an anti-Jackson Whig, though the rise and fall of the Equal Rights Party captivating Dorr’s attentions and his political imagination. The mails controversy of 1835 prompted Dorr’s full conversion to abolitionism.  Like Leggett, he saw the Slave Power and Money Power as not unconnected.  Both utilized artificial rights, granted purely by the State and unrecognized by the laws of nature.  In September 1839, Levi Slamm’s New York Democratic Republican New Era advocated a new state constitution in Rhode Island.  Slamm argued that the national Constitution guaranteed republican forms of government in the states, and Rhode Island no longer qualified as a republic because the colonial landholding requirement excluded most of the white male population from enjoying the suffrage.  The “corporate charter” of King Charles II, therefore, should be removed.  Dorr, notes historian Erik Chaput, “was an ardent believer in the paper’s radical agenda.”6

Dorr and his supporters resolved to reform their state and organized a “People’s Convention” to draft a “People’s Constitution” in 1841. Voters throughout the state (including a majority of landholders) approved the document, but the “Charter” or “Algerine” regime refused to recognize the result. Rhode Island existed with dueling governments through mid-1842, until Dorr’s movement almost farcically dissolved and the Charter regime successfully submitted its own reform constitution to voters later that year. Though defeated in the field and in public opinion, Dorrites continued to fight for their cause. The main vehicle for popular networking and activism was, by far, the clam bake, and the most important activists were, by far, the various Ladies Societies and regional locofocos.  Throughout New England, women activists hosted clam bakes as fundraisers for the victims of Algerine oppression and political fairs spreading locofocoism.  They constitute an important, though largely forgotten, impetus to the electoral victory of James K. Polk, by facilitating the electorate’s embrace of an expansionist, Loco-Romantic foreign policy.  From 1842 to 1844, many tens of thousands of New Englanders shucked their way through radical political speeches and walked away utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. The peaceful revolutionaries that drove clam baking activism mixed the antagonistic concepts of republican liberty and democratic power and, therefore, traded one for the other. By 1844, locofocos, Young Americans, and Dorrites all seemed more willing than usual to sacrifice republican principles for political support and the accumulation of American power. The results—Polk’s election and the Mexican War—shattered the locofoco coalition, splintering loco factions across the electorate and dividing the major parties along antislavery and proslavery lines.

Locofocoism characterized radically anti-corporate, anti-privilege, pro-republican activists from Vermont to Alabama well into the 1840s.  The loco political coalition joined the effort to elect Polk after the Dorr War and Van Buren’s defeat at the 1844 nominating convention.  With the rise of Polk, a generation of expansionist, racist, yet bona fide locofoco partisan Democrats like Samuel Tilden, Fernando Wood, and Franklin Pierce utilized locofoco activism and ideology in a new, modernist packaging to refashion the Democratic Party.  The aggressive Young American expansionists that propelled Stephen Douglas into stardom were radically different than the Young American Leggettians Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, but the content and course of locofocoism throughout the 1840s established both Young Americas.  The locofoco ideologues populating Young America I provided many of the radical ideas from which Young America II politicians picked and chose in exchange for moments of political support from a unified Democracy. 

Their locofocoism prompted a host of New York radicals to found and join the National Reform Association.  George Henry Evans, John Windt, and the ex-Chartist Thomas Ainge Devyr founded the National Reform Association in John Windt’s print shop on 8 March, 1844 with the goals of driving and coordinating a variety of socio-economic and political reforms.  Loco-Foco Democrats and Evansite “Young Americans” shared the same physical spaces in New York City, including meeting halls and park meeting grounds; they shared much of the same audience, and very similar worldviews.  For the most part, the Evansite labor movement operated distinctly from the Loco-Foco Movement, the politico-literary Young America, and the Dorr War, but a slew of important individuals, shared ideas, and political tactics linked them all through the 1840s.  The Anti-Rent crusade in the great manor counties to nullify landlord titles and renegotiate leaseholds often crossed paths with locofocos and many involved counted themselves ideological allies with the radicals in New York City.  The depression-era atmosphere of the early 1840s exacerbated left-wing reformist coalitions and New York’s radical democrats of all affiliations joined together under locofoco principles to battle the ascendant Whiggery.  One Anti-Renter meeting advertised itself as “A Meeting of the friends of Equal Rights,” John Evans named his anti-rent Columbia County newspaper the Equal Rights Advocate, the 1844 Anti-Renter state convention styled itself the “Equal Rights Convention,” and both factions of New York radicals pursued anti-privilege, anti-monopoly courses. Many Evansite land reformers supported Texas annexation as a means of obtaining land for white settlers and shared Young America I hopes in the expansion of the American republic.  Others, like Barnabas Bates, an original member of the Equal Rights Party, remained actively opposed to the slave trade and domestic slavery—often accompanied by mob violence directed against him.7

The most significant outcome of the combined forces of the Workingmen’s movement, locofocoism, the Anti-Rent War, and Young America in New York was the 1846 constitution.  While they existed with independent lives as independent movements, the Locofoco and Anti-Rent movements intersected in the effort to reform the state constitution, long a pet project of locos like William Cullen Bryant and Fitzwilliam Byrdsall.  The Evening Post called for the formation of county-level organizations and a State Association for Constitutional Reform in 1843, including state meetings in New York City and Albany in August and November 1843, respectively, and county-level meetings throughout the year.  Theodore Sedgwick, speaking in support of the plan, urged his fellow New Yorkers to avoid the disastrous example of the Dorr War, a farce which should not be “reenact[ed] on the theater of New York.”8

The new document minimized “sectarian influence,” guaranteed “liberty of conscience,” made virtually all judges and state offices elected “including the canal commissioners and state prison inspectors,” and rejected common law as “repugnant to this constitution.”  By far the most significant contribution of the Loco-Focos to the 1846 constitution was the treatment of the relationship between corporations and the state.  The constitution abolished government weights and measures offices while retaining the authority of setting standards and repealed “the traditional special chartering system for all but municipal corporations,” which gave constitutional support to the New York Free Banking Act, another loco-inspired legislation.  Finally, the constitution forbade the legislature from sanctioning bank suspensions of specie payments to noteholders, who were now constitutionally guaranteed “preference over all other creditors in case of insolvency, and stockholders were made individually liable to the extent of their holdings for all corporation debts and liabilities.”  By 1848, the Free Soil movement virtually absorbed the National Reformers and land reformer Young Americans.  Though locofocoism has seldom been indicated as a movement worthy of its own study, linking many of the otherwise disparate stories of reform throughout the period discussed here, the locofoco Free Soil movement clearly became the senior partner among reformists.  Reformism “came very near to being entirely swallowed by the Free Soil Party.”  By the time of the Civil War, those associated with the old NRA favored the conflict as a “War for Free Labor,” as much as antislavery locofocos considered it a cleansing of America’s moral slate.9 Locos wove together the microcosmic battles at the Windmill in Upper Canada, the Providence Arsenal, Chapachet Hill, and the Alamo into a macrocosmic cataclysm.  Many locofocos later found it perfectly natural to add Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox Court House to the evolving list of the contests between the aristocracy and the Democracy, ‘Mushrooms and Men.’


  1. For a selection of important treatments of the New York Workingmen’s Party and the early labor movement in New York generally, see:  Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy:  New York as A Test Case, (New York:  Athanaeum), 1965; Mark Berger, The Revolution in the New York Party Systems, 1840-1860, (Port Washington, NY:  Kennikat Press), 1973; Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic:  Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press), 1984;  Louis Hartz  The Liberal Tradition in Hartz, Louis.  The Liberal Tradition in America:  An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.  1955.America:  An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution,  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc,  1955; Hartz, “Seth Luther:  The Story of a Working-Class Rebel,” The New England Quarterly, 13, No. 3 (Sep. 1940):  401-418; Sean Wilentz,  Chants Democratic:  New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1768-1850,  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1984; Sean Wilentz,  The Rise of American Democracy:  Jefferson to Lincoln,  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company,  2005; Mark Lause,  Young America:  Land, Labor, and the Republican Community,  Chicago:  University of Illinois Press,  2005; Sidney Lens,  Radicalism in America:  Great Rebels and the Causes for Which They Fought from 1620 to the Present,  New York:  Thomas Crowley, Co.  1969; Staughton Lynd,  Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism,  New York:  Pantheon Books,  1968; Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars:  Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century, (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press), 1997.
  2. Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy, 3-7.
  3. Widmer, Young America.  This is not in the least an exhaustive list, and indeed there are many intellectuals addressed within these pages that Widmer does not consider.  A cohesive study of loco-Young America would assuredly include historians like Catharine Williams and Frances Greene.  Many other studies have investigated the intellectual connections between Young American artists.  See also:  Peter Bellis, Writing Revolution:  Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau, (Athens, GA:  The University of Georgia Press), 2003; Charlene Avallone, “Catharine Sedgwick and the Circles of New York,” Legacy 23, No. 2 (2006):  115-131; Charles H. Brown, William Cullen Bryant, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 1971; Linda Ferber, ed.  Kindred Spirits:  Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, (New York:  Brooklyn Museum), 2007; Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale:  The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.), 1956; Jerome Mushkat, Fernando Wood:  A Political Biography, (Kent, OH:  The Kent State University Press), 1990.
  4. Welter, The Mind of America:  1820-1860, 10.
  5. Ryerson, Unequal Union.
  6. Erik Chaput, The People’s Martyr:  Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion, (Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas Press, 2013), 5, 47, 51-2.  For information on Bancroft in particular, see:  Lilian Handlin, George Bancroft, The Intellectual as Democrat, (New York:  Harper & Row), 1984 and Anonymous, “The Merits of Thomas W. Dorr and George Bancroft, as They are Politically Connected,” Second Edition, (Boston:  John H. Eastburn), 1844; Conley, Democracy in Decline, 269-289.
  7. Lause, Young America, 9-20, 24, 94, 125; Jonathan Glickstein, Concepts of Free Labor in Antebellum America, New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1991, 23-25, “Chapter 3:  Division of Labor and Mechanization in Factories:  Pressures to Redefine Intelligent Manual Labor,” “Chapter 4:  Drudge Work:  Menial Services, Dirty Work, the Death Trades, and the Case of the British Climbing Boys,” and “Chapter 5:  The Technological and Fourierist Solutions to Drudge Work;” Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy, 81-111; Reeve Huston, Land and Freedom:  Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000, 109, 111, 164; Edward P. Cheney, The Anti-Rent Agitation in the State of New York, 1839-1846, Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania, 1887, 42; McCurdy, The Anti-Rent Era, xiii, 20-21, 106, 124-125, 126.
  8. McCurdy, The Anti-Rent Era, xiii, 20-21, 106, 124-125, 126, 162-181, 222, 266-269.
  9. Ibid.; Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy, 216-218.

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