During the painful Panic Winter of 1837, America’s first identifiably libertarian political party neared the end of its short life. After the February flour riots and facing nothing but dire circumstances, movement faithful gradually peeled away from the party.
Byrdsall, Fitzwilliam. The History of the Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Party: Its Movements, Conventions, and Proceedings with Short Characteristic Sketches of Its Prominent Men. New York: Burt Franklin. 1967.
Curtis, James C. The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 1970.
Hugins, Walter. Jacksonian Democracy and the Working Class: A Study of the New York Workingmen’s Movement, 1829-1837. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1960.
Lepler, Jessica M. The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013.
Roberts, Alasdair. America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2012.
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: During the painful panic winter of 1837, America’s first identifiably Libertarian political party neared the end of its short life. After the February flour riots and facing nothing but dire circumstances, movement faithful gradually peeled away from the party. Radicals called another park meeting for the 6th of March despite threats of military force, and the crowd was reportedly [00:00:30] even larger than the month before. Party historian Fitzwilliam Byrdsall said 30 to 40,000 people showed up. There was life left in this movement to be sure, but the politics of it all collapsed when depression closed in around the country.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. [00:01:00] At the March 6 park meeting, the massive of proto-libertarians, Loco-Focos, Equal Rights democrats, whatever you want to call them, they chose Alexander Ming Jr. as presiding officer and pamphleteer John H. Hunt to write up a report. Hunt’s report put theory and history in dialogue. It help provide ideology and inspiration for activists to push beyond [00:01:30] mere politics. Hunt wanted systematic thinking about why wheat prices were high.
In a truly free society, high prices could only be produced by scarcity, and scarcity only by bad seasons, war or other calamities, but there were no wars, plagues or famines in America at the time, and Hunt’s analysis targeted instead the rise of wage labor, capitalism, and the corporate interventionist state. In his 1842 movement history, [00:02:00] recording secretary Fitzwilliam Byrdsall reprinted the speech in full.
Speaker 1: The History of the Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Party by Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, New York, 1842. Report. If society were in its natural state, if each men were permitted to exercise untrammeled, those rights and powers with which the god of nature has endowed him, high prices could be produced only by a scarcity, and scarcity only by bad seasons, war [00:02:30] or other calamity or improvidence, but our people have not been at war. They have not been unusually wasteful or lazy. They have had but little sickness, save that heart sickness which must ever be felt by all who are conscious menials of speculators and drones, and even admitting that the season was as unfavorable as interested persons pretend.
There certainly has been no blight or mildew sufficiently destructive to cut off our coal mines or create a scarcity of lots and houses. [00:03:00] We must therefore look to other causes. As the true ones are plain and simple, we will state them in plain words. In perhaps all densely peopled countries, that earth from which everything must draw its subsistence is considered the exclusive property of a chosen few. Not one in 50 having a legal right to plant a fruit tree or a potato patch to keep his family from starving.
Those who are thus excluded from the common bounties of the great creator are consequently compelled either to return the glorious [00:03:30] gift of life or else to support it by selling their strength and skill, their only property, to the highest bidder. The price of strength and skill or labor is naturally governed by the relative number of those who are struggling to sell and those who wish to buy. In a new country where the possessors of strength and skill are greatly needed to erect mills and dwellings and to fit the wilderness for the cultivator of the ground, they enjoy nearly as much of the fruits of their laborers as their land owner, [00:04:00] and are esteemed according to their virtues, but the forest once subdued.
Their services become less needed while their numbers continually increase, and the land owners no longer eager competitors for the services of the laborers are surrounded and courted and flattered by miserable competitors for servitude. The strength and skill of the surplus poor is next directed to manufacturing and the mechanic arts, and a similar round is traveled on a new course. It is not long [00:04:30] since an expert artisan could earn the price of a barrel and a half to two barrels of flour per week, yet now we see before us only the prospect of being slaves so long as we are able to toil, and paupers when we can toil no more.
To make matters still worse, our own poor are forced to compete in every way with immense numbers of foreign poor, who have severed the ties of country and home hoping to acquire here by their industry and skill. That independence which their industry and skill could never buy [00:05:00] in the land of their fathers, but who find themselves doomed to share and to augment our evils. There was another great cause of high prices, so monstrous in its nature that we could hardly credit its existence where it not continually before us. We mean the curse of paper money. Gold and silver are produced from the earth by labor. They are, or ought to be, earned from the producer by labor.
The man who has earned a portion of these metals by honest labor harms no one by [00:05:30] selling them for labor to others. No man nor commination can buy Christian means collect the sufficiency of these metals to enable him to engross the food or fuel or houses of a nation, but a league band of paper promised coworkers exert absolutely control over the whole wealth of a country. They can print off the nominal value of our whole wheat crop in a few minutes. As they draw a compound interest on all the debts they owe, the more they owe, [00:06:00] the greater their income, and the more absolute their power.
Whereas the banking system of the states of the union and more especially the safety fund bank commination of the State of New York is a Hydra-headed monster preying on the useful classes of this community, impoverishing the great body of the people, defeating the proper exercise of their rights and liberties, subverting the constitution of the United States and the vital principles of Democratic-Republican government.
Therefore, [00:06:30] we declare it as our solemn belief that the bank oligarchy is the worst that ever existed upon the face of the earth because it is founded on avarice, the basis of all human passions, and the one of all others that has the least regard for the benign precepts of religion or the happiness of the human race.
Anthony Comegna: Meanwhile, Loco-Focos were still battling Tammany over policy and political supremacy in the Democratic Party. When conservative [00:07:00] democrats failed to appoint Loco-Foco assembly man Clinton Roosevelt to the chairmanship of the state bank investigation committee, supporters published a letter in his defense. The new chairman suspected that Roosevelt himself was the author and antagonist, and they determine to prove it. The committee then ordered Moses Jakes and Levi Slamm to appear in Albany to discuss the matter. Both were major Loco-Foco activists, officers in the Equal Rights Party, and public leaders at the Ruckus Park meetings.
[00:07:30] Even if they committed no crime, they were valuable targets in the ongoing party wars. Jakes and Slamm demanded that the legislature defray their expenses. Outraged at their response, the committee pronounced them in contempt of the summons. The men were arrested, imprisoned at Albany, and questioned. On the 8th of March, they offered a statement of protest to be read into the record, but several members shouted them down saying the Loco-Focos impugned the honor and dignity of the house. [00:08:00] When Moses Jakes personally spoke to the house of assembly, he denied any charges of ambition or agrarianism, getting up mobs and corrupting men’s thoughts for political gain.
Such, he said, has been the fate of all reformers in all ages and in all countries. Then he promptly compared himself to Jesus Christ. The New York State Assembly played the Roman Empire. He concluded with a brief family history. Jakes’ ancestors settled in New Jersey about 1640, survivors of a long line of Huguenots [00:08:30] and patriots stock the family tree ever since. Byrdsall said that he gave the members the best lesson they ever received in American Constitutional Democracy, vulgarly called Locofocoism. Byrdsall concluded his narrative of the kangaroo court by revealing that it was he who wrote the petition and not Jakes, not Slamm, nor certainly Clinton Roosevelt.
Back in New York City, Loco-Foco meetings roared in support of the persecuted brethren. Loco’s passed resolutions [00:09:00] condemning the house and even composed a song of support. The party defiantly nominated Jakes for mayor in the upcoming elections and Slamm continued his role as a popularizer of Loco-Foco ideas. For his part, Fitzwilliam Byrdsall resented Slamm a great deal and considered him an opportunist, a self-aggrandizer, even a demagogue. Slamm exploited populists and romantics within the Loco-Foco coalition, and he swayed with the winds of popularity.
He was more or [00:09:30] less your typical Jacksonian era political operative, but by this point in his life he was tethered to radical politics for good. When Byrdsall wrote his history in 1842, Slamm was the primary advocate of Locofocoism in New York City and helped shape the movement through the next decade sometimes for the better, but more often for the worst. On April 3rd, 1827, Seth Luther, Levi Slamm and John Hunt hosted another great park meeting steeped [00:10:00] in the language of class division and conflict. Hunt’s resolutions compared modern social conflict with clashes between rulers and ruled throughout the ages.
Speaker 1: The world has always abounded with men, who rather than toil to produce the wealth necessary to their subsistence, have contrived to strip others of the fruits of their labor either by violence and bloodshed or by swaggering pretensions to exclusive privileges. [00:10:30] It is, however, chiefly by this ladder mode of robbery that the working classes of modern times are kept in debasement and poverty. Aristocrats have discovered that charters are safer weapons than swords, and that can’t, falsehood and hypocrisy serve all the purposes of a highwayman’s pistol while they leave their victims alive and fit for future exactions.
Thus, have the producers of wealth been kept for ages in subjection to a wicked confederacy whose interest it has been to sow strife [00:11:00] and descension among them, lest they should united and redress their wrongs to paralyze their intellect, lest their own pompous pretension should become objects of ridicule and derision, and to subvert the moral sense of mankind lest themselves should become objects of universal execration. It was the curse of such an aristocracy that drove our fathers to the savage wilds of a distant continent.
It was the hope of releasing us, their descendants, from such a thralldom that supported them [00:11:30] during the terrible struggle of the revolution when they boldly advanced against the meridians of injustice, leaving the bloody tracks of their unclad feet upon the frozen ground. Our fathers performed their duties well, but we have neglected ours and hence, our suffering. We have suffered our political power to fall into the hands of men who fatten on the diseases of the body politic.
Anthony Comegna: The resolutions finally called upon working people to combine their strength, reject violence, and assert their power [00:12:00] through the democratic system. Moses Jakes received about 12% in the spring 1837 elections. Loco-Focos again held the balance of power between Tammany’s 39 and the Whig’s 49%. Democrats lost the city government in a clean sweep and Tammany was furious, but still the Locos organized, combined and held their meetings. The New York City bank runs during the panic of 1837 began on May 7th. [00:12:30] The banks had far over extended themselves over the years and now could not pay liabilities in specie. Counters closed and depositors were turned away.
Bankers and officials feared mob violence of the sort during the flour riots. After three tense days, the bank suspended specie payments entirely. In the state legislature, the same banking committee that interrogated and even jailed Moses Jakes and Levi Slamm was charged with investigating the health of every bank in the state. Astoundingly, [00:13:00] they determined that each and everyone was sound and well or ably conducted. The financial calamities of May 1837 provided the public a thorough demonstration that the much extolled credit system was in reality a system of debt. Clearly the whole system was a fabrication, a tissue of lies and cascading crimes.
The panic of 1837 deeply wounded Loco-Focos in their daily lives, pushing ever larger numbers to [00:13:30] voice their anger at park meetings or abandon the fight. At a 5th of June meeting, members called for another state convention at Utica and a park meeting to address the high price of flour. On the 24th of June 1837, the largest concourse ever assembled in the City of New York gathered at City Hall. Combination, manly virtue, and an unbendable political will could effectively meet the power of the banks. The final check on the power, influence and destructive capacity of [00:14:00] the banking aristocracy was simply to let credit alone.
Throughout the summer of 1837, democratic president Martin Van Buren proved to be this very sort of noninterventionist and it appeared to many that Locofocoism had taken Washington. While Loco-Foco influence at the national level has reach its greatest point, the Equal Rights Party organization was incapable of matching it. The 1837 state convention at Utica suffered because [00:14:30] the central committee of correspondence did not announce the date to other committees around the state. Then the Utica Democrat published the wrong date. Most counties had no representation at the convention, which was absorbed in drafting a new party constitution that defined their movement.
In Fitzwilliam Byrdsall’s mind, Locofocoism was no different than Christianity. It was Christian Democracy, a mix of the golden rule and the Kantian moral imperative. He defined [00:15:00] Locofocoism simply as those acts which are naturally, politically, and morally right which maybe done by all without injury to any. The party constitution demanded reform after reform, equal laws, the abolition of corporate charters, the protection of justly acquired property, the abolition of exemption laws, prison and justice reform, including abolishing the death penalty, debtor’s prison and prison labor for state or private profits.
By the fall of 1837, [00:15:30] both Tammany Hall Democrats and the Loco-Focos loved Van Buren’s administration so much that reunion was now a real possibility. At a 24th of October general meeting of the Equal Rights Party, some members moved to support a single democratic ticket. Tammany nominated five Loco-Foco candidates for assembly and the Equal Rights Party leaders requested resignations from candidates not on Tammany’s ticket. Job Haskell refused igniting a battle between Unionists and Separatists. [00:16:00] A vote of 71 Unionists against 22 Separatists confirm Byrdsall’s worst fears that these pledge makers became the most violent and shameless of pledge breakers.
Reunionist sentiments sent attendance at Loco-Foco meetings plummeting and Tammany adopted a Declaration of Principles, essentially the same as the Locos. The Equal Rights Party then split between the Unionist majority, called Buffaloes, and a minority of Separatists, the Rumps. [00:16:30] Byrdsall described the conflict as particularly bitter, violent and nasty. Charges of corruption and other mixed motives flew the bandon and factions refused to even meet in the same room. The Rumps nominated their own ticket for local offices. Job Haskell received the greatest number of votes, a mere 371. Byrdsall mourned.
Mr. Slamm was chosen to be the executioner of the final act by those who conspired for the purpose. Slamm was [00:17:00] the new recording secretary with constitutional duties to call meetings, and he refused to do until most all Loco-Focos filtered back to Tammany and the Democratic Party. The Separate Party died, but Tammany still failed to win back the assembly in November. After the reunion, they gained back seven of the 12 percentage points lost in the schism. A crucial 5% of the electorate remained independent and Locofocoism survived. [00:17:30] The Loco-Foco movement did not die with the Equal Rights Party, and this show will continue their story all the way through.
For the moment, they had shown enough strength to be feared if not property respected. In the short term, defectors gained office and influence, but the workingman Loco-Foco war against Tammany was more than a mere factional battle over the party leadership in New York City. In the long term, the new alliance lasted a decade and created [00:18:00] a revolutionary new state constitution for New York. The coalition ruptured only from the powerful influence of the slavery and territorial issues.
Wistful over the political losses of his cause and the decay of Loco-Foco camaraderie, Fitzwilliam Byrdsall mourned the emptiness of the Military and Civic Hotel, that old secret meeting place of the original Loco conspirators.
Speaker 1: Gradually, the Loco-Focos of both [00:18:30] sections became merged in the Democratic-Republican Party, and they brought not only their new fangled notions with them, but also their significant designation as a party. The glory of the Military and Civic Hotel departed with the Loco-Focos. There were no more meetings held there by those enthusiasts and no enthusiastic cheers resounding within its walls, neither was there anymore transparencies with tourist mottos and inscriptions to adorn the venerable casements. The [00:19:00] old mansion became deserted and cheerless for there was only one Loco-Foco, Robert Hogben, who made it his hunt as usual.
He was the last of the political covenanters and the only one who went there regularly month after the month on the evenings appointed by the constitution for the meetings of the faithful, and he would bide there solitary and alone until 10 o’clock. The hope within him that the Loco-Focos would gather themselves together in the Babylon of their captivity [00:19:30] in order to direct their steps back again to the renewal of their venerable temple, but they never returned. The old Military and Civic Hotel fell into decay and at length was pulled down. Poor Hogben saw it lying prostrate in its last ruins and he turned away and wept, but Locofocoism did not die.
It lives forever in Christian democracy, that democracy, which while it concedes to the majority [00:20:00] the powers of government, does not allow to it the right to do wrong, but restrains it by constitutions drawn from the paramount love of God and the principles of Christianity.
Anthony Comegna: Byrdsall published his history of the Equal Rights Party in 1842 perhaps in part inspired to do so by the latest awakening of Loco-Foco activists, the Dorr war in Rhode Island. Between his time as recording secretary and his time as movement historian, [00:20:30] Byrdsall saw Locofocoism go nationwide. Radicals all over the country read William like it. They followed the ERP’s war on Tammany. They conspired together in their own local cabals. They sought revolution, civil war, a class war to end all class wars. Loco-Focos almost bathed Rhode Island in blood and they elected a president of the Republic of Canada. They added stars to the [00:21:00] flag and dreamed of America’s libertarian manifest destiny.
They fancied themselves the world’s liberators, and suffered their own martyrdoms in Tasmanian prison camps. Though we have forgotten them almost completely, the Loco-Focos transformed America. Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please [00:21:30] rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on the Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.