What’s a Loco-Foco?

America’s first identifiably libertarian political movement began as a conspiracy to conquer Tammany Hall.

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The conspirators fully expected Tammany regulars would play whatever dirty tricks necessary to maintain control over the convention.  Each conspirator attended the meeting with pockets full of “Loco Foco” matches and candles. They were a new invention, friction candles ignited by striking the match tip against a surface. Locofoco supposedly entered the American lexicon as a bastardization of the Italian words for moving fire. And these people were definitely fireballs set into motion.

Further Readings/References:

Ashworth, John. “Agrarians & Aristocrats:” Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846. London: Royal Historical Society. 1983.

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.

Lause, Mark. Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2005.

Anthony Comegna.: America’s first identifiably libertarian political movement began as a conspiracy to conquer Tammany Hall. From 1832 to 1834, Jackson’s bank war temporarily reunified the vast coalition that won him the election of 1828. [00:00:30] Battles against the national bank brought together Democrats of all stripes in a single powerful cause. Even the prickly and radical working men.
William Legget’s people around the evening post were at home with Jackson during the bank war. By 1835, though, the Democratic Party in New York city again divided in discontent. William Legget’s evening post drove the debate and defined the conflict. His enemy was Tammany Hall, the gentleman’s club like organization that controlled [00:01:00] the local party’s official processes. Tammany conservatives, Legget called them the bank Democrats or monopoly Democrats. They opposed national banking but remained friends of state banking. The radicals stayed true to their working men’s roots opposed to all grants of monopolistic privilege and power. They aimed to follow up Jackson’s bank war with one of their own making to root out and destroy the smaller monsters, now that the largest was out [00:01:30] of the way.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
The radicals inside Tammany Hall chose William Legget’s twin concepts of anti-monopoly and equal rights as their main weapons. Like mushrooms sprouting from a fallen log, a new class of aristocratic [00:02:00] monopolists capitalists had used state power to sponge the life force of the working classes. To snuff out all these poisonous mushrooms, Legget’s men would have to challenge Jackson’s party. They would to have to first tackle Tammany Hall, conquer it, and force the democracy to continue the fight for equal rights wherever it might lead.
For years, conservative Democrats joined wigs in slandering William Legget as an agrarian, a utopian, an extremist who knew no compromise. [00:02:30] Even on simple matters like the tariff for banks, Legget was clearly crazy, unstable, unhinged, seized by fantasy and romance. In the end, it was abolitionism they could not abide. During the August 1835 mails controversy, Legget’s abolition turn allowed the conservative Democrats to draw a clear and dogmatic line of separation around him. A convenient excuse to embargo the radical evening post. [00:03:00] The Democrats made Legget into a martyr, but the radicals numbers were dwarfed by the monopoly dynasty, and most refused to even meet in secret until the excommunication of Legget was handed down.
To avoid scrutiny and detection, the conspirators elected secret delegations, which met at the Broadway House, Constitutional Hall, and the Bowery’s Military and Civic Hotel. Working men’s veteran, George Henry Evans, provided sage advice from his home in New Jersey, including a suggestion [00:03:30] that radical Democrats storm the 1835 nominating convention and overtake the proceedings on the usual Tammany conservatives.
One of the radicals and the first historian of their movement, Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, described the conspiracy’s early days.

Speaker 2: The History of The Loco-Foco, or Equal Rights Party, by Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, New York 1842.
“Consequently, the Republican Party became [00:04:00] divided within itself. On the one side were the Albany Argus and the New York Times, with those whom the latter affectionately styled, ‘the oldest and wisest of the party,’ together with the majority in each of the general, and in most the ward committees, and nearly all the office holders under the general state and city administrations. On the other side were the evening post and the man with the free trade, anti-monopoly, hard money men. But, as the latter division was as yet, [00:04:30] the smallest portion of the party, it had to exercise secrecy and caution in its first movements. The despotism of the Republican Party, with its aristocratic usages and organization, was so energetic and pervading in those days that it required both moral and physical courage to openly attack and establish dynasty of monopolies, With its [00:04:52] office holders and political committees. Besides, it was held as an indisputable truth that nothing could justify a disorganizer, [00:05:00] and he who attempted for any cause whatever to disturb the harmony of the party was a monster to be shunned and hated by every true Democrat.”

Anthony Comegna: “The conspirators fully expected Tammany regulars would play whatever dirty tricks necessary to maintain control over the convention. Each conspirator attended the meetings with pockets full of Loco-Foco matches and candles. They were a new invention. Friction candles ignited by striking a match tip against a surface. Loco-Foco supposedly entered [00:05:30] the American lexicon as a bastardization of the Italian words for moving fire. All these people were definitely fireballs set into motion.”

Speaker 2: “The indications were now sufficiently plain that the Republican Party had become a monopoly aristocratic party. It became obligatory on the equal rights Democrats to stand by their great leading principle or to abandon it altogether. Accordingly, the ticket of the monopoly Republican Party was duly taken into consideration, [00:06:00] and, at meetings of the Equal Rights Democracy, it was concluded to strike off five of the candidates and substitute radicals in their stead. The memorable 29th of October, 1835, was drawing near. Yet, the encampments of the two democracies, that of monopoly and that of equal rights, appeared to be undisturbed.
But, where was he, the fearless knight errant of humanity? Where was William Legget, the herald of truth? [00:06:30] He had been beset on all sides until the overtasked man was exhausted by superhuman exertion, and he lay prostrate on the bed of disease. It seemed as if the sun was standing still in the political world. So deep and intent was the interest felt by the Friends of Equal Rights in behalf of the champion of the cause, that it through an aspect of solemnity over their councils, which, perhaps, induced more caution to their preparations and the more necessity for reliance on themselves in the approaching [00:07:00] contest. Even the scheme of going to the county meeting at Tammany Hall with Loco-Foco matches and candles, which in other circumstances would’ve excited merriment, was resolved on in serious earnestness of mind and somewhat of solemn mystery.”

Anthony Comegna: “Finally, on the evening of October 29, 1835, Tammany Hall hosted their convention, normally a tame, tightly controlled, affair. This evening was very different. Radicals rushed into Tammany filling the hall [00:07:30] to bursting. As people continued filtering in, the party regulars quickly scrambled to take the chair and control the meeting. Without taking a full vote, they installed their man. The radicals protested from the crowd. A floor fight was on. Both factions physically jostled for control of the chair.
In the fray of the convention, the emergent Loco-Focos found themselves their fire and their fury. The conservatives escaped through the back staircases declaring the convention closed without nominations and shut off the [00:08:00] gas lights, leaving Tammany Hall black as pitch. The demon spirit of monopoly seemed triumphant, but they were ready. The radicals lit their second class convention with second class illuminants, Loco-Foco matches from their pockets and candles from the basement. They breathed life and spirit into the movement. The crowd adopted the Equal Rights Ticket, as it was called, and passed a series of resolutions, and took to the streets to put their message before the people. The procession concluded [00:08:30] at the Military and Civic Hotel and the crowd melted back into quietude.”

Speaker 2: “The clock has just struck 7:00, and the doors of Tammany Hall are opening for the democracy. What mass of human beings rush forward in the room, yet they are late. For George D. Strong, president of a commercial bank, who came up the back stairs, has already nominated Isaac L. Varian, a bank director, who also ascended by the same way, for the chair. The latter is hastening towards it before the question [00:09:00] is heard by a fifth part of the crowd. Joel Curtis is nominated as the room is filling up. The loud, “Aye,” of the Equal Rights Democracy calls him to the chair. The honest working man approaches it. And now, begins the contest between monopoly and its opponents. There is a struggle of gladiators on the platform around the chair. The loudest vociferations are heard and Tammany trembles with intestine war. The contest, at length, becomes more furious. Men are struggling with each [00:09:30] other as if for empire, while the multitude in the body of the room are like the waves of a tempestuous sea.
But, who is he, that man of slender form and youthful appearance, The foremost in the struggle? ‘Equal Rights Men, your chief should be a man of stalwart frame. But, there is hope, for your cause is good and the indomitable spirit of equality is in that slender man.’ ‘Cheers for Ming!’ What? Is that office holder? He [00:10:00] who is always up with every rising of the people? He openly dares the majesty of monopoly, even in its temple. He disregards the tenure of his office for the elevating principle of equality of rights. It is so! He is, unconsciously, for the occasion and the time being, the natural hero of humanity. Striving with all his energy of character to place Joel Curtis in the chair as the representative of the massive. Unquestionably, it [00:10:30] is a contest for empire between man and monopoly. Behold, a broad banner is spread before the eyes of the vast assemblage and all can read its inscription, ‘Joel Curtis, the anti-monopolist chairman.’
The efforts of Issac L. Varian and the Monopoly Democracy are futile to obtain order or to read their ticket of nominations so as to be heard, or any decision had there on. But behold, there is the broadest banner of all, and it is greeting [00:11:00] with cheers. It is the whole of the anti-monopoly ticket for congress and the legislature, so that all can see and read where none can distinctly hear. The shouts of the Equal Rights Democracy are still more deafening, but heartfelt cheers are given to that banner, which declares for Leggett that times must change err we desert our post, the struggling is drawing towards a close. Isaac L. Varian believes the evidence presented to his senses. And, [00:11:30] in attempting to leave the chair to which he is forcibly held down by George D. Strong and a member of the common council since dead, he exclaims, ‘Let me get out, gentlemen! We are in the minority here.’ They held him fast.
But, there, the Chair is upset, and Isaac L. Varian is thrown from it. Instantly, Joel Curtis, the true hearted working man is in it, both by right and fact, while two banners speak to the democracy. [00:12:00] ‘Don’t adjourn, sustain the chair.’ There is clapping of hands and triumphant cheers. What can the discomfited do? They have done it. When they got downstairs, they turned off the gas. It is half past seven, and the darkness of midnight is in Tammany Hall. Nothing but the demon spirit of monopoly, in its war upon humanity, could’ve been wicked enough to involve such an excited throng in total darkness.
‘Let [00:12:30] there be light, and there is light.’ A host of firefly lights are in the room. Loco-Foco matches are ignited. Candles are lit. And, they are held up by living and breathing chandeliers. It is a glorious illumination. There are loud and long plaudettes and, such as Tammany never before echoed from its foundations. Reader, if this were not a victory over monopoly, a blow at least [00:13:00] was struck upon the hydra headed monster from which it never recovered.
After the adoption of the resolutions, a motion was carried that the meeting adjourn to the street in front of the hall and form a procession with their anti-monopoly banners, flags, etc. This was accordingly done, and some thousands of the meeting bearing torches, candles, etc. marched up the Bowery cheering their Democratic fellow citizens on the way and halted [00:13:30] in front of the Military and Civic Hotel, corner of Broom Street. And, after giving nine hearty cheers, adjourned to their respective homes.”

Anthony Comegna: “There were no illusions about whether the Democratic Party was now friend of foe. The morning after the convention, the radicals were branded Loco-Focos by the anti-Jacksonian, James Watson Web and James Gordon Bennett in the Courier and Enquirer. The term was supposed to be disparaging to the outsiders, a slur to marginalize [00:14:00] them, like conspiracy theorists or snowflake today. But, they took it as a badge of honor, a marker of purity and principle.
The Loco-Foco movement was now an actual thing with a life of its own, a set of libertarian principles, and a founding legend. And, at the moment, he was most needed, William Leggett’s chronic illness rendered him bedridden. His duties at the post fell to a gentile Massachusets lawyer and close friend of the ailing Leggett, later, editor of his political writings, [00:14:30] Theodore Sedgwick. His editorials guided the radicals through their political battles, and his evening posts helped assure that their movement did not live and die with the Equal Rights Party, or even William Leggett.
Sedgwick continued pushing the bank war at the state level. He believed any state power over money meant that nothing could escape the influence of government policy. Literally, everything about human life, certainly in a place like America at least, everything became subject to state direction [00:15:00] and discretion. Americans would end up little better off than Chinese peasants or African American slaves. Beginning with Leggett’s conversion to abolitionism and his excommunication from the Democratic Party, the post became a font of antislavery within a planter’s party. When South Carolina Senator Pickens asserted that the Declaration of Independence was historically naïve and that only societies removed from history could endorse Jefferson’s universal equal rights.
[00:15:30] Sedgwick said that the Southerners ideas were too much even for the most bigoted English Tory. The most servile French royalist, the most degraded Russian serf. Pickens’s main problem should alarm all Americans. Ultimately, the Planters held white working people in as much contempt as their black slaves. Sedgwick exposed Pickens’s real gripe with Northern society, that that working classes of the free states should never have been emancipated. Southerners [00:16:00] hated Republicanism and individual liberty, because those ideas threatened the slave regime, the Planters artificial rights, his bottom line, and possibly his own wretched little life. Their hatred and suspicion of free people was not contained by race, and whiteness will not protect you in the end. When Southerners and their northern allies implemented the gag rule in 1836 that banned any mention of antislavery petitions in the House, The post [00:16:30] joined former president, John Quincy Adams, in a war against it.
The proposed annexation of Texas sparked the most important debate over slavery that engaged the attention of New York radicals during that important year, 1836. Sedgwick began his commentaries on the Texan Revolution by noting the important role Freedman could play in repelling Mexican armies. Texan’s most significant move toward independence could well be liberating and arming their slaves. Texas could not survive without [00:17:00] emancipation, that is unless offered significant help from Americans and their slaveholder’s government.
Sedgwick favored Jackson and VanBuren’s policy of rejecting annexation until Mexico and Texas resolve their differences, a way to avoid war and disorder between the sections. But, he saw expansionists poised to seize a vast amount of slave territory, and bolster the slave power in the national government. It was a moment with the potential to swiftly [00:17:30] and significantly shift political and economic power between the Planter class and the northern working man.
The post, in a way, went even further by championing equal rights for African Americans throughout the North, including male suffrage, and even undermining the very concept of race. Following Leggett, the evening post did not politically align itself with the Loco-Foco Party, though it continued to advertise their meetings and encourage [00:18:00] readers to push Tammany to nominate Loco friendly candidates. One letter to the editor argued that, ‘If the mechanics wish to carry out their principles, let them unite and combine to elect men to office who are in favor of equal rights. They have only to say they will do it, and they can do it. Let them rally around the Loco-Foco flag, that name which the aristocracy has given us in derision, just as the British christened us, ‘Yankee Doodles.”
[00:18:30] After conservatives like Webb and Bennet attached the label Loco-Foco to the radicals, the word was used as a broad smear for decades. Whenever conservatives were scared of libertarian victories, they frightened people by describing the secret horrids of horrifying disruptive, fire breathing, political monsters that lurked in urban polling places. But, once activists took Leggett’s firs and put it in motion, no one could contain it or predict its path.”
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