columns

This is part of a series

Nov 30, 2016

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

“For at least two full generations, the Loco-Focos spread a radical anti-corporate republican ideology and made significant…marks on American…history.”

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

In 1844, William Cullen Bryant and a majority of loco-Young American intellectuals and artists remained committed to Van Buren and non-annexation, while Levi Slamm and the more militant, filibustering wing of locofocos accepted the nomination of Polk and embraced the expansion of American republicanism.  The annexationist locofocos and Young Americans easily combined a decade of filibustering in Canada and Rhode Island with the emerging sense of American nationalism coursing through the New York and New England cultural world.  This brief political coalition violently ruptured through the Polk years, however, in part because of Polk’s failure to fulfill the promises of Manifest Destiny and seize the full Oregon territory.  Despite this falling out, the Young American impulse to build a national culture remained a consistent link between Loco-Foco (soon Free Soiler) Democrats and expansionist Hunker Democrats.1

Historians have presented Free Soil ideology and politics from a variety of perspectives and methodological approaches, but largely fail to identify it as a locofoco phenomenon born primarily out of the efforts and ideas of ‘Equal Rights’ Democrats throughout the North.  Locofocos split between expansionists and anti-expansionists over the Texas issue, many of them joining the Democratic Party and its emerging Young America II politicians to support annexation and conquest.  This should not be construed as an argument that all Young America II actors were locofocos—far from it.  As with the personal cases of William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, and Catherine Maria Sedgwick, a great portion of American politics gradually broke with party regularity in the face of tremendous sectional interest in the territorial question.  The Wilmot Proviso in particular provided a strong and lasting example for Free Soil defectors and their Republican progeny.  The birth of the Free Soil Party was the first great example of this steady wave of political disruption and realignment.  Though the parties reasserted themselves through compromise in 1850 and Young America II politicians gained control of the Democratic Party, the territorial question once again captured the attentions of Young America I Whigs and Democrats.  The Republican Party arose as a fully sectional party in 1854-1856 and signaled a new party system.   In New York, this process followed a long prehistory of locofoco intellectual development, Young American cultural production, political and intellectual coalition with Workingmen and Anti-Renters to remake the state constitution in 1846, and often militant political activism throughout the geography of the continent spreading republicanism around the globe from the Empire State.2

As of 1848, Whigs like the moderate Abraham Lincoln withheld support from Van Buren thanks to “all his Locofocoism,” and the Free Soil coalition failed to attract the support Salmon Chase required for national victories.  The Barnburners behind Van Buren dominated the provisoist coalition as state Democratic parties divided along the territorial issue.  Van Buren himself hoped to use the Free Soil Party like the Equal Rights New Yorkers used their organization—to push the national party toward a more radical republican policy agenda, exercising enough political muscle to force a Whig victory and convince conservative Democrats to accept a more radical candidate in 1852.  Whigs and Liberty men scoffed at the Free Soil Party’s close associations with locofoco Democrats and the ex-president.  Like Lincoln, many remained suspicious of locofoco motives, policies, and political machinations.  The slavery issue, however, ultimately defeated these forces for disunity throughout the 1850s.  The loco wing of the Democracy helped found the Republican Party from 1854-1860 and many supported Lincoln in 1860 and throughout the war.  Meanwhile, old locos that stayed Democrats maintained the radical ideology in the Democratic Party.  By 1876, many ex-Democrat locofoco Republicans like William Cullen Bryant prepared themselves to vote for Democrat Samuel Tilden.  Tilden was a regular Democrat (like Van Buren, Polk, or Pierce) with locofoco ideas (like Van Buren, Polk, and Pierce), and many loco-Republicans abandoned the party of abolition to rejoin the party of popular government.

Despite their long history of victories, friendly presidents and vice presidents, impact on the major parties, and their demonstrable ability to affect change in American life, the radically anti-state locofocos gradually lost themselves in a sea of government interventions, corporate-state corruption, state consolidation and imperialism, and widespread intellectual and political support for the use of government power.  Virtually every victory achieved was forged through alliance with otherwise-regular Whigs and Democrats, resulting in a string of moderate reforms and tactical political adjustments to the locofoco message and philosophy.  They proved “The Dupes of Hope Forever,” and paved much of the way for the corporate-imperial modern state in America; consequently, the Loco-Focos deserve more of both the credit and blame for the modern American corporate-democratic nation-state than historians have yet recognized.

For at least two full generations, the Loco-Focos spread a radical anti-corporate republican ideology and made significant and under examined marks on American intellectual and cultural history.  Politically, however, their movement’s success demanded compromise and moderation, tending to produce the exact opposite of loco ideals—the interventionist, centralized, bureaucratic modern state so beloved by Hamilton, Clay-Lincoln Whigs, and professional historians.  “The Dupes of Hope Forever,” indeed, the Loco-Focos’ own urge to actively, and often aggressively shape their world differed little in substance from the Whig’s urge to stimulate growth and transportation through state support, the slavemaster’s urge to push slaves to maximize output, or the bank capitalist’s scheme to exploit limited liability for a chance at a speculative pay day.  In many ways, historians bear no responsibility for neglecting the history of the Loco-Focos.  Loco activists themselves, in fact, were often so eager to change History that they ignored or modulated their own moral philosophy and political economy, repeatedly relegating their movement to a minor story in the epic of American statism and corporate-industrialism.

Locofocoism and locofoco activists both proliferated during the period which was perhaps the most transformative and turbulent in all of world history up to that point.  Life for countless hundreds of millions around the globe transformed in dramatic ways during the nineteenth century, especially the period ca. 1820-1890, the lifespan of most of those who identified as “locofocos.” During this period, population and wealth in the Anglo-American world absolutely exploded and drove much of the growth in the rest of the world for the next century.  In 1820, the US population was just under ten million, but by 1870 over forty million Americans crowded into cities and frontier towns.  GDP increased almost eight times.   The annual growth rate was an astonishing 4.2%.  In 1820, Americans’ share of global wealth was a mere 1.8%, but by the 1870s this figure quintupled to 8.9%.  The ever-eager, ever-hopeful locofocos looked out upon the increasingly free, increasingly wealthy, increasingly productive, healthy, and educated world with energy and optimism.  American prosperity drove global prosperity, helping to lift people everywhere out of stagnant feudal existences chained to the earth with the weight of history.  While they fought what they viewed as the most dangerous threats to liberty and prosperity, they rarely abandoned the fight and maintained their hopeful vision of primarily peaceful, voluntary, republican reform limited neither in time nor space.3

Table 1:  US Population, 1770-1880
(Source:  Van Beck Hall, Course Materials Packet)

 

Table 2:  US GDP, 1700-1870
(Source:  Maddison, The World Economy)

 

Table 3:  GDP (US, Western Europe, World), 1700-1870.
(Source:  Maddison, The World Economy)

 

Table 4:  Share of Global Wealth, 1600-1870
(Source:  Maddison, The World Economy)

 

Few Loco-Focos better represented or helped more to cause the very changes that transformed the world during the nineteenth century than the ideologically-thin Samuel Jones Tilden.  Born on 9 February, 1814, Tilden lived until 4 August 1886.  His lifetime and career encapsulate much of what Dierdre McCloskey has called the most important question in the social sciences:  Why did wealth increase so rapidly in the nineteenth-century?  Through Tilden, and the Loco-Focos, I hope to offer some conclusions in the search for an answer.  Tilden was an influential Democrat from his earliest days. As a young law student in New York City, he read Leggett and other radicals, later translating their ideas into action on Tammany Hall’s Democratic-Republican Young Men’s General Committee.  By the time of his death, many considered him “the greatest political strategist of his time.”  In 1844, Tilden pressed Silas Wright to overcome the Democracy’s slight against Van Buren, run for governor, and support Polk’s victory by driving Van Burenites to the polls.  He wrote for the Evening Post and Democratic Review. He followed Van Buren in his Free Soil rebellion of 1848 but remained a dutiful Democrat throughout the remainder of his life.  During the campaign of 1860, Tilden watched his ideologically-thick locofoco brethren at the Evening Post in horror as they marched gladly toward the destruction of their country.  He wrote, “I would not have the responsibility of Bryant and Bigelow for all the wealth in the Subtreasury.  If you have your way, civil war will divide this country and you will see blood running like water in the streets of this city.”  After the election and secession winter, however, Tilden begrudgingly accepted a certain degree of war to maintain the integrity of the Constitution.4

Samuel Tilden’s most important political and ideological contributions read as a series of locofoco-inspired reformist goals, pursued through democratic means, with highly compromised, though ostensibly highly successful results. In the New York State Assembly in 1846, Tilden helped end the Anti-Rent War by arguing that feudal tenures could be converted to mortgages.  In this way, New York converted renters into landholders and patroons into creditors.  He chaired the New York Democratic Party throughout the late 1860s and was elected Governor in 1874.  Tilden’s greatest achievement as executive was the purge of the Tweed Ring in New York City.  Making good on his reformist promises, Tilden’s justice department dismantled the infamous graft network and then turned on the lesser-known “Canal Ring.”  To Tilden, the accomplishment “was something more than a moral revolt—it was a demonstration of the triumph of democracy,” the “thin” ideologue’s way to successfully reform society.  In his own way, Tilden offered a Democratic alternative to the corrupt Republican “second state,” an alternative itself rooted in the long histories of locofocoism and its own antecedents.  Samuel Tilden never became the nineteenth president, but his Young America I penchant for peaceful, democratic reform carried the day and perhaps averted another civil war in 1876.  Locofoco reformers like Tilden helped clear much of the institutional and philosophical clutter preventing the kind of economic growth witnessed in the later part of the nineteenth-century, both in his work as a corporate lawyer and tireless fighter against corruption and as a later advisor on matters of corporate law and monetary policy to president Cleveland.  “Tilden’s idealism was rooted in realism,” writes biographer Alexander Flick, and “In America’s list of illustrious sons, as time submerges the lesser lights, Tilden will survive in public esteem as one of the great builders of civilization.”5

Historians’ attempts to explain the “Big Question” of nineteenth-century economic growth have indicated a number of leading causes, one of which is of particular importance to the history of the Loco-Foco movement.  Dierdre McCloskey (2010) and Joel Mokyr (2009) argue that ideas and attitudes toward experimentation, innovation, and change explain the most significant transformations in the past several centuries.  Rather than structural, institutional, and materialist explanations of the “Big Question,” McCloskey and Mokyr isolate the Anglo-Dutch (including Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States) respect for bourgeois cultural values and Enlightenment natural philosophy as the primary causes of the modern world.  People’s beliefs about the world informed their actions and even shaped institutions over time, allowing for the proliferation of a liberal, bourgeois culture and fabulous economic growth. McCloskey places even keener emphasis on the generative importance of ideas.  Ideas—abstract notions about cause and effect, notions which literally order our lives—“enriched us,” she argues, and “A big change in the common opinion about markets and innovation….caused the Industrial Revolution, and then the modern world.”  Neither the exploitation of labor, the unstoppable progressive force of technology, nor religious or economic causes effectively explain the transformation of the pre-modern into the modern world.  McCloskey argues that only a change in particular ideas about human dignity, virtue, and innovation could cause such immense upheaval.  In McCloskey’s rendition, Holland, Britain, and America fostered a centuries-long “Bourgeois Revaluation,” ca. 1600s-1800s, during which the familiar bundle of liberal values became dominant, disempowering the state’s ability to constrain the bourgeois virtues and innovation.  Ideas and moral values (like our locofocoism) preceded institutional, structural reflections of those ideas and values (like the democratized corporation, universal citizenship, or antislavery).  McCloskey distinguishes between dignity and liberty, stating that “dignity is a sociological factor, liberty an economic one.  Dignity concerns the opinion that others have of the shopkeeper.  Liberty concerns the laws that constrain him.”  Loco-Focos, over the decades of their movement and through their often life-long attachment to their causes and radical communities, constituted an important and overlooked component in this process.  Like Tilden, they combined obvious imperfections with spirited pursuits of both dignity and liberty for “the common man,” Homo democraticus.6

Throughout their long history of political machinations and activism, “thick” locofocos gradually lost their identities as such in pursuit of related causes, like Fanny Green’s Spiritualism or Abram D. Smith’s states’ rights abolitionism, and a swiftly-transforming world.  By the later nineteenth-century, the Loco-Foco movement ceased to exist, dissipated in a complex web of compromised ideas, policy positions, and priorities.  In large part as a result of their decades of ideologically-thin thought and activism, locofocos lost their world to the shifting visage of modern industrialism, globalizing political and cultural life, and a never-ending train of opportunities to utilize new wealth and technology to improve the lives of average people from the bottom up.  Loco-Focos, now bereft of their once-distinct ideological class identities, granted too powerful a start to the “second state,” to do much more than constrain Leviathan’s gradual, though steady development and moderate the growth of American corporate-statism and imperialism—yet to the “Dupes of Hope Forever,” the future appeared brilliant on the horizon.  Americans continued their individual quests to define themselves and their country, solving the existential crisis of Jacksonian America, though locofocoism never again commanded the recognition, importance, and relevance it once had.7

The Loco-Foco movement as such ceased to exist with men and women like Frances Whipple, Abram D. Smith, William Cullen Bryant, Samuel J. Tilden, Walt Whitman, and John Bigelow.  Their deaths, scattered throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, marked a full turning in the very process of generational change that birthed their movement when each was young.  By the turn of the century, “locofoco” was a word signaling antique curiosity.  In the mundane sense, it meant a friction-ignited match.  Its usage as a political or philosophical designation, however, speaks to the long-term success of political means in advancing an anti-political theory of society.  “Locofoco” virtually disappeared from common usage in the 1870s-1890s, with occasional references to monetary policy dredging up old divides within the New York Democracy.  In November 1900, the New York Journal urged Democrats to forget old differences and renew the righteous battle against the Republicans:  “This civil war has lasted long enough.  The time has come for Democrats to get together…Gold Democrats and Silver Democrats, like Locofocos and Barnburners, have become merely antiquarian names.  They have no present or future political significance.”  In 1905, recalling the Forty-Seventh Congress (1881-1883), former Speaker of the House General J. Warren Keifer commented that the “old animosities” that plagued his speakership “are silent now and the words ‘stalwart’ and ‘half breed’ are become almost as hazy and in need of definition to the new generation as ‘locofoco’ and ‘know-nothing.’”  The Loco-Focos were lumped with the Bucktails, the Anti-Masons, the Free Soilers, Liberty Party, Hardshells, Softshells, Doughfaces, Fire-eaters, the Mugwumps, and the Half-Breeds as oddities of a distant and very different past, one which perhaps still affected the present and future, but decidedly did not define them.  Loco-Focos democratized and generalized the corporation, rendered the banking system all but separate from the government, participated in massive territorial annexations for the Republic, and helped to abolish the worst of all monopolies in American life, the ownership of one human being by another; yet, locofocoism died rather quietly, having accomplished much, leaving future generations to fight their own battles for Liberty against Power.8


  1. Widmer, Young America, 155-184; Brown, William Cullen Bryant, 18-31, 145; Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression:  Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837, Ithaca (NY):  Cornell University Press, 2012, 85-136.
  2. Joel Silbey, The Shrine of Party:   Congressional Voting Behavior, 1841-1852, Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967, vii-viii, 22, 27, 54, 63, 90-97; Mark Berger, The Revolution in the New York Party Systems, 1840-1860, Port Washington, NY:  Kennikat Press, 1973, 1-4, 5-16, 17-23, 32-42; Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy, 215-224.
  3. Angus Maddison, The World Economy:  A Millennial Perspective, OECD Publications:  Paris, 2001, 28, 241, 261-263.
  4. Alexander Flick, Samuel Jones Tilden:  A Study in Political Sagacity, Westport (CN):  Greenwood Press, 1939, v-vi, 1, 11, 22, 33, 44, 62, 64-5, 72-3, 103-4, 113, 125, 137; Dierdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity:  Why Economic Can’t Explain the Modern World, Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2010, 6.
  5. Flick, Samuel Jones Tilden, 230, 262, 294-5, 330, 333, 475, 486-9, 534 ; David Quigley, Second Founding:  New York City, Reconstruction, and the Making of American Democracy, New York:  Hill and Wang, 2004; Roy Morris Jr., Fraud of the Century:  Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876, New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2003; Paul Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Election, Indianapolis:  The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1906.
  6. Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy:  An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850, New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2009, 1-9; McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity, xi-xiii, 1-19, 245.
  7. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Philadelphia:  David McKay, 1900; Wilentz, Chants Democratic, vii-ix, 3-19.
  8. Baltimore, MD Sun, “Get Together,” 10 November 1900; Philadelphia, PA Inqiurer, “American Political Parties,” 4 June 1900; “Loco-Foco Politicians; How About Them?” 16 January 1906; Dallas, TX Morning News, “The Tale of Tammany,” 1 November 1896; New Orleans, LA The Daily Picayune, “Factional Nicknames:  Some of the Products of American Political Contests,” 9 August 1896; Grand Forks, ND Grand Forks Daily Herald, “When Keifer Was Speaker,” 5 December 1905; Macon, GA Macon Daily Telegraph, “Caught on the Win,” 13 April 1907; Portland, OR Morning Oregonian, “Origins of Political Slang Are Diverse,” 18 September 1910; Fort Wayne, IN The Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, “Questions and Answers,” 11 August 1920.

This is part of a series