Candlelight Conspiracy

During a state convention in Utica on September 1836, 93 delegates unanimously adopted a resolution to officially establish the Equal Rights Party.

00:00/
Previous Episode
What's a Loco-Foco?
Next Episode
Rumps and Buffaloes

On 11 and 20 of January, 1836, the Equal Rights Democrats renounced all connections with Tammany and passed resolutions calling for ward me tings and delegate elections to a county convention.  Delegates assembled on 9 February in the Eighth Ward. Moses Jacques served as President and wrote the “Declaration of principles.” He was history embodied.  Moses’ father was a colonel in the New Jersey militia during the Revolution.

Further Readings/References:

Bridges, Amy. A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1984.

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.

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.

Anthony Comegna: In the Locofoco, or Equal Rights Movement’s, first year Tammany Hall and its press organs seemed almost happy that the anti-monopoly radicals that had plagued their party for so long were now gone. Following the candlelight nominating convention Tammany tried to carry on business as usual. They clamped down on officeholders, demanded partisan loyalty, slandered [00:00:30] disorganizers at every turn, and forced through the slate of bank Democrats. The regular democracy’s ticket was elected in a clean sweep and for a brief moment Tammany thought they had it all locked up. They thought they had successfully extinguished that Locofoco flame, the Tammany [00:00:49] could not have been more profoundly mistaken.
Welcome [00:01:00] to Liberty Chronicles a project of libertarianism.org I’m Anthony Comegna. America’s first identifiably libertarian movement was born in candlelight on 29th October 1835. That night radicals in the party stormed the nominating convention and tried to stage a coup. The radicals had [00:01:30] openly defied the Democratic Party’s standard operations and the next day almost every press in town trashed the defectors. Writing, about seven years later, party historian Fitzwilliam Birdsall was still raw at the level of hate heaped on his comrades. It was enough to make some men waiver and break while others insisted on doubling down.

Speaker 2: The history of the Locofoco or Equal Rights Party by Fitzwilliam Birdsall New York 1842. ” [00:02:00] The morning of 30th October 1835 was a joyous one to the readers of the Whig press in the city. Descriptions both grave and ridiculous were given of the scene of the previous evening in Tammany Hall and great were the exaltations over the divisions in the ranks of the democracy. The Courier and Enquirer took the lead in this labor of love and bedubbed the anti-monopolists with the name of Locofocos, but the Whig Press, true to its natural dislike of real democracy, [00:02:30] took sides with the monopolists at least so far as to abuse the friends of equal rights without stint or conscience.
On the other side, the New York Times, the cherished organ of the oldest and wisest of the monopoly democracy lifts up its voice in mingled tones of shame, chagrin, and denunciation. Thenceforward it soured its fountains of wrath, of bile, and bitterness for it undertook the herculean task of castigating the whole of the equal rights democracy that [00:03:00] the reader may be unable to form some idea of the glorious feats of this protégé of the 36 fathers its epithets are extracted leaving the imagination to supply the context, which was equally classic, moral, and instructive.
Dis-organizers, intruders, realtors, agrarians, workingmen’s faction, rowdies, odd and ends of extinct party, 11th hour Democrats, sweepings and remnants of all recent factions, renegade [00:03:30] anti-Masons, pests of party, bad factionists, family right men, noisy brawlers, political nuisances, Locofoco party, Carbonari, infidels, fledge spouters, resolution mongers, small fry of small politicians, small lights, fireflies of faction, unclean birds, jack-o’-lanterns who shine in an unhealthy atmosphere, noisy discontented politicians, scum of politics, knaves, [00:04:00] political cheats and swindlers, the Guy Fawkeses of politics. Such the language of the organ of the aristocracy of the democracy.
In fact, such contemptuous terms can only proceed from the sentiment of aristocracy. He cherishes the principle of equality has no ideas to generate such terms of contempt for his fellow men. Meanwhile the leaders of the monopoly democracy went energetically to work as there was no time to spare and the discipline of the party organization was [00:04:30] at once enforced. How the Democratic Republican party can suffer to nestle within its very midst a secret political society, a nursery of office seekers to dictate upon any matter of importance or declare who are or who are not the proper candidates of the party is truly astonishing.”

Anthony Comegna: With Tammany bearing down on the renegade faction and their rump nominees many of the original Locofoco conspirators slunk back to the Democrats regardless [00:05:00] the Locos managed 16% of the vote for Congress, they clearly held the balance of power. This boosted the case for those who wanted to establish a new party formalizing their conflict Tammany. They decided to await the December 1835 Democratic General Committee elections to see what Tammany would do. The elections came, a majority of monopoly Democrats were elected, separation was imminent.
On the 11th and 20th of January 1836 the Equal Rights [00:05:30] Democrats renounced all connections with Tammany and passed resolutions calling for ward meetings and delegate elections to a county convention. Delegates assembled on 9th February in the 8th ward, Moses Jakes served as president and wrote the declaration of principles. He was history embodied. Moses’ father was a colonel in the New Jersey militia during the Revolution. The elder Jakes so trusted his 10-year-old son that he employed the boy to carry military dispatches on horseback to General Washington. [00:06:00] Moses became the stuff of legend, the patriot boy of the Revolution. Birdsall flatly stated, they never had another visible leader among them.
Throughout the winter of 1835 to ‘36 the newly minted Equal Rights Party established a party structure including the election of officers, a finance committee, and a party constitution. Fitzwilliam Birdsall was chosen as the party’s recording Secretary which made him the party’s natural historian six years later. [00:06:30] Party meetings proceeded in egalitarian fashion with each man in attendance given an equal opportunity to express his views without prejudice. Freedom of expression in democratic organization became the great idols of the equal rights organization to the extent of religiosity. Advocates, like Birdsall, drew direct comparisons to the trials of early Christians. Locofocoism, like Christianity, was a moral and spiritual movement even more so than an attempt at political change. [00:07:00] Christ was born in some Middle Eastern manger and the Locofoco movement was born in New York’s Military and Civic Hotel.

Speaker 2: “Henceforth every Locofoco found himself on the broad platform of the quality of position as well as of rights, there being no preferred men to vamp up matters by authority and thus sink the individual citizen in his own eyes by imparting the character of irregularity to any of his political movements. This elevated him to his rightful position [00:07:30] so that independence of mind and freedom of debate followed as natural consequences.
Hence, there was no such thing as attempting to put a man down at a Locofoco meeting for each auditor felt that the rights of the speaker and his own rights as well as political position were the same and exactly equal, and as each man saw and knew that his rights were regarded as sacred, that he would be listened to by all he had strong inducements to think before he spoke. In short, Locofoco meetings [00:08:00] were the best of political schools and the old Military and Civic hotel was the arena for more discussion on principles, measures, and men than the headquarters of either the Whigs or monopoly Republicans, but it is due to those whose history this book professes to be that the old headquarters of the Equal Rights Democracy should be described.
The Military and Civic Hotel, formerly located on the southwest corner of Bowery and Broome Street, was a fine building of the olden time not quite two stories high [00:08:30] and it appeared to have a friendly leaning towards the adjoining house, probably of a long-standing. When you enter the door you would see that the hotel was one of the most un-ostentatious of hotels in the world for there was not the least appearance of aristocracy in the equipments of the bar, the unassuming landlord, or the guests to whom his services were devoted to.
But if you were desirous of seeing the temple of Locofocoism and would go up the stairs you would by ascending some six or eight steps find yourself at the door of [00:09:00] the sacred room. Two or four candles want to be stuck up round the room in tins attached to the walls and, in the early days of the Locofoco party, to candles graced the table until they were superseded by an embrowned lamp suspended from the ceiling, which sent up its column of rich smoke as if to indicate the aspiring fortunes of the Locofocos.
There was a platform large enough for a small table and three or four chairs to stand on and this humble enthronement for officers of meetings was the only aristocratic [00:09:30] or monarchic furnishment of the sanctorum. Yet it was here that pure democracy was preached and it was here that enthusiasm was enkindled for the glorious principle of equality of rights and often have the old window sashes in the time seasoned shrunken casements rattled front and rear in unison with the heartfelt applauses given in the great cause of human rights. The founder of Christianity was born in a manger and it is perfectly in character that the principles of Christian democracy should be proclaimed [00:10:00] in such humble places as The Military and Civic Hotel.
And now, gentle reader, you are requested to contemplate the glorious spectacle of a little bit of men contending against two great political parties for the sake of principles only. There was no prospect of success as a party, no chance of electing to office, and yet this little band performed the arduous labor, and incurred with heavy expense of two elections each year, which required the energy and means of the greatest parties [00:10:30] to sustain. But this little band felt and knew they had a just and righteous cause in their charge and many of them dis-interestedly devoted their best energies and most of them gave all they could spare from their scanty means for they were animated by a noble enthusiasm, which had its origin from a higher source than self-seeking office or profit. The difficulties they had to encounter, the sacrifices they had to make, and the slanders they had to bear from every point of the political [00:11:00] compass inspired them to higher virtue and to greater efforts.”

Anthony Comegna: Locos selected William Leggett for the mayoralty in 1836. He declined because of ill health and duties to The Evening Post so the nod went to Alexander Ming Jr. Ming lost along with the rest but the Equal Rights Party still controlled the balance of power and even helped split the city Council between Whigs and Democrats. This moment of perceived success in city politics prompted the call for a state convention [00:11:30] in Utica held on 16 May 1836.
After more than a month and 16 meetings the county convention concluded its business and the presidential search committee promptly sent letters and copies of the party declaration of principles to Richard M Johnson and Martin Van Buren. The declaration of principles itself was a thorough expression of radical Republicanism in the mold of Jefferson and Payne updated with anti-corporate class theory. The Equal Rights Party demanded [00:12:00] that candidates approved the document. Richard M Johnson endorsed it and discussed his own politics at length. Van Buren’s letter somewhat tersely referred the Locos to his public record. He intimated that he would have more to say on the matters of money and banking but eager listeners would have to wait to hear them discussed any further. Disappointed with Van Buren’s equivocation the purest wing insisted on a Johnson/Van Buren ticket. Ultimately, the party decided to nominate no one for either [00:12:30] office and left each member to vote his conscience.
During the state convention at Utica in September 1836, 93 delegates unanimously adopted a resolution to efficiently establish a separate party organization, The Equal Rights Party, and cast a declaration of rights strikingly similar to the previous declaration of principles. Isaac S Smith of Erie County was selected the gubernatorial candidate and Robert Townsend Jr was chosen to run for lieutenant [00:13:00] governor.
Smith was an intelligent and respectable man raised by antinomian Quakers. His community ostracized him after he once refused to say grace at a boarding home. Robert Townsend’s birth and class also shaped much of the man. He was the product of an anonymous state senator and a prostitute born out of wedlock. The father deceived the mother and stuck her with single motherhood. The world treated Townsend much worse for being a bastard than he treated his father for actually being horrible. [00:13:30] Class, status, cast these were the things that protected the father, encouraged his bad behavior, and kept people like the illegitimate son or the outcast mother from causing any problems. He used the pain accrued through a lifetime of ostracism to fuel his passionate politics and activism. Robert Townsend Jr persevered and made a way for himself through apprenticeship. His testimony and tribulations brought the audience to tears [00:14:00] but he declined the nomination and Moses Jakes became the candidate for lieutenant governor.
The Utica convention lasted for three days and Fitzwilliam Birdsall claimed that a body of more intelligent men rarely, if ever, met. The atmosphere of the courthouse rippled with a hopeful reformist spirit. Two months later though in the general election bore mixed fruits. The Locos held the balance of power for sure but the only candidates they elected were jointly nominated by either Democrats or Whigs.
[00:14:30] Edward Curtis was elected to Congress through Locofoco and Whig votes but after arriving in Washington he quickly endorsed a new National Bank. He was reelected in 1838 and 1840 by fair means or foul Birdsall tells us. Ogden Hoffman also voted like a genuine Whig in Congress. Frederick Talmage was elected state senator and also settled in comfortably with the Whigs. Eli Moore and CC Kimberling were truest to the declaration [00:15:00] of principles. Moore failed his bid for reelection in 1838 but Kimberling continued to be the Locofoco favorite in Congress. He later served as Van Buren’s minister to Russia, he attended the 1848 Baltimore convention as a barn burning Van Buren delegate, he joined the free soil succession that year, and participated in the Reunion of New York Democrats behind Franklin Pierce in 1852. All stories in the later history of Locofocoism, we will cover in due time. [00:15:30] Assemblymen Robert Townsend Jr and Clinton Roosevelt were the next most significant success stories but both parties joint to squash their reelection hopes Townsend and Roosevelt proved it was possible to win office, fulfill your time, and come out of politics as principled as when you entered.
Principles could only carry the Locofocos so far. In 1837 the worst business panic in American history until the 1920s struck New York first [00:16:00] and worst. Poor harvests and crunched credit markets combined to produce a flour shortage that winter. Locofoco supplied liberal critiques of the corporate state to understand their suffering. A simple phrase from one park meeting banner put it simply, “As the currency expands the loaf contracts.” The Locofoco Party turned to the streets raising great park meetings and Town hall political conventions. Despite the intensely cold and extremely windy weather [00:16:30] a dense multitude of many thousands gathered to hear speeches and resolutions drafted by Alexander Ming Jr, which began in Revolutionary tenor.

Speaker 2: “Preamble: when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the many to declare hostility against the rapacity of the few who willfully impoverish and oppress them. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind demands that those grievances should be recited, which impel the great body of [00:17:00] the people to speak the sentiments and energetic language dictated by the first law of nature, self-preservation. Whereas then it is self evident that with a sufficiency of provisions and the necessaries of life in our country we are nevertheless at this period in the midst of famine and threatened with the continuance of the same.
Every article of necessity bread stuffs, flesh meats, fuel and house rents are at exorbitant rates and an increase is demanded beyond the means [00:17:30] of the working and youthful classes of the community. Conspiracies, combinations, and speculations have been fostered until an unnatural state of things exists jeopardizing human life itself, the liberties, independence, and happiness of the people. But before remedies can be devised for evils, which afflict the body politic the root from which those evils emanate must be laid bare. The voice of the people emphatically declares and facts demonstrate that our monstrous [00:18:00] banking system is the prime original cause of the present state of things. Banks have fostered extravagant speculations in real estate and consequently the enormous increase of rents. Their extraordinary issues and accommodations have enabled forestallers to buy up and hoard up all the provisions in the land and consequently to extort any price their horrible avarice demands.”

Anthony Comegna: The meeting resolution separated the classes based on access [00:18:30] to state power. In the oppressor class were members of government and the private entities, which benefited from their influence over the state apparatus. The other class included those oppressed by the state in virtually and every way, the great mass of the people. The flour shortage resulted from the distorting effects of government influence on the money supply and commodity prices including protecting reckless lenders who now suspended specie payments. The resolutions concluded with a call for [00:19:00] the people’s veto of suspension privileges, they petitioned the legislature to relieve them of what the resolutions called that curse of modern times and modern legislation, the paper money system.
At the end of official business a number of people joined the crowd in the park and an unknown man mounted the stage to incite a riot. Presiding officer Moses Jakes apparently interposed himself and removed the man from the stage, but not before about a thousand people separated from the crowd [00:19:30] to destroy Eli Hart’s retail outlet including the theft of 500 barrels of flour and 1000 bushels of wheat. Police eventually arrested 53 rioters none of whom were identified as Locofocos. The party presses cast about for an enemy to persecute. Ming was the only one that could be got at Birdsall stated and he was immediately replaced in his post at the collector ship of the Port of New York. Conservatives contended that Locofocos still bore the burden [00:20:00] of the flour riots for having dared to call the meeting in the first place. The panic in the flour riots did not kill Locofocoism, far from it, but they did signal impending doom for a separate equal rights party.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty [00:20:30] Chronicles please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles visit libertarianism.org.