In the Winter of 1837-1838, New York’s “Locofoco” or Equal Rights Party tidily collapsed back into Martin Van Buren’s Democratic Party. It was the first libertarian movement in American history, and they’d fought a two-year political war against Tammany Hall to control the state and national party. In most ways, they were successful. But actually, 1840 was their year—their chance to permanently change America. It might just be the most important election year ever, and 178 years later, I’d say it still is.
Comegna, “The Dupes of Hope, Forever:” The Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Movement, 1820s-1870s. (PhD Dissertation: University of Pittsburgh). 2016.
Curtis, James C. The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 1970.
Silbey, Joel. Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002.
Widmer, Edward. Martin Van Buren. New York: Times Books. 2005.
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: In the winter of 1837 to 1838, New York’s Locofoco, or Equal Rights Party, tidally collapsed back into Martin Van Buren’s Democratic Party. It was the first Libertarian movement in American history and they’d fought a two-year political war against Tammany Hall to control the state and national party. In most ways, they were successful.
[00:00:30] There were always those diehards who insisted on purity and perfection, but most Locofocos were willing to settle for good enough. Even in the depths of depression, when banks and paupers alike clamored for government relief, the Van Buren administration held fast to strict laissez-faire. This is usually where historians leave the story of Locofocoism, a weird footnote to Van Burenism.
They pop up for a bit in New York. They spout some crazy rhetoric about absolutely [00:01:00] free markets and absolutely sovereign individuals with equal rights. Then they disappear after voting for Van Buren and returning to his party. But in fact, the movement spread throughout the country, reaching from the farthest corners of rural New England to the mayor’s office in Montgomery, Alabama. Now, 1840 was their year, their chance to permanently change America. Many thought it might just be the most important election year ever, and 178 [00:01:30] years later, I’d say it still is.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
After the Equal Rights Party reabsorbed into Van Buren’s democracy, a discernible and distinct intellectual movement bearing the name Locofoco continued. Throughout the country from Vermont to Alabama, very real people identified with the work begun [00:02:00] philosophically and politically in New York City. For conservatives in both major parties, Locofoco remained a convenient and combustible catch-all word for fanatics and disorganizers nationwide.
While most Locofocos supported Van Buren in 1840, it was always an unstable alliance and new controversies easily shook the Democratic coalition. The president won over most urban Locofocos with his economic policies, but his administration disavowed American [00:02:30] participation in the Canadian Rebellions. Locofocos on the border no longer trusted him.
In Alburgh, Vermont, a small town on the northern border with Canada that juts into Lake Champlain at its most northern reach, the publication of a paper from the nearby town of Swanton caused a small panic in August 1839. The little town’s big uproar foreshadowed the raucous campaign season ahead.
Speaker 2: Locofoco, Swanton, [00:03:00] Vermont. Thursday, August 22, 1839.
For “The Locofoco.” The first number of the Locofoco has thrown Alburgh into great commotion. It was amusing to see the city worthies collected together in full chatter, like a flock of geese after a sunset. One would be inclined to ask who comprises this junto of city politicians in this place so famed in the annals of Canadian revolt, and why this little paper should arouse them inasmuch [00:03:30] as no reference is made to them.
The answer to one suffices for both questions. The junto consists of those who get their living out of the surrounding workies, those who get their bread and eatables by lying, soft-soaping, by peddling wind, rags, and politics, and who get their drink by rolling at ninepins. They are a kind of leech upon the farmers of Alburgh, who add nothing to the common stock but depend upon making the people support them for their wit.
They have a candidate [00:04:00] for the legislature, one of their own calling, a man who will and who has collected his clients’ debts and then turned around and fought to the end of the law in order to cheat him out of his money. ‘Tis the state’s attorney, who has recovered $200 or $300 in fines and costs for breaches of the license law and has never paid over to the county treasurer any part of the same, and who has moreover taken about $100 out of the county treasury to pay himself for collecting and pocketing the rest [00:04:30] of the county funds.
The true reason why “The Locofoco” scares these citizens is they are guilty of many things which they wish concealed. They cannot bear to have a light shine upon their hearts in such a way as to expose them to the freemen. Many of our people are satisfied with seeing the set of political goal-catchers exposed to public view. The people of this town feel as if they ought to be represented by a man who is able and who dares to keep two pigs at a time, not [00:05:00] by a man who is independently poor, that they ought to have a man concerned with them in the soil and property for the security of which legislation becomes necessary.
The town has been represented by city loafers long enough, by such as live without any business or calling, not that poverty ought to be the least obstacle to office where a man is industrious and prudent and through misfortune become poor. But those like the present candidate and his predecessors who spend their time, day after [00:05:30] day, week after week, and year after year near taverns with city loafers, ninepin rollers, and chess players who a short time before elections pay great attention to the church, with long faces and rotten hearts.
We say if any part of the human family deserve to be shunned, despised, and kept from all offices, these are the characters. That we are blessed with the due proportion no man doubts who has ever visited the city. The town possesses many [00:06:00] intelligent, strong-minded, thrifty farmers and the wonder is that they have not killed off this nest of city despicables by voting them out of office before now.
Anthony Comegna: The editor devoted his final page of the paper specifically to the Alburgh community and its neighbors in Grand Isle County on the lake. The Swanton paper urged both Whigs and Democrats to attend an upcoming meeting at one Phelps Inn to make their own plans for war against the party leaders that many felt had overtaken [00:06:30] local politics. The Locofocos’ mission for Grand Isle County mirrored the Equal Rights Party’s conflict against Tammany conservatives.
The junto of city politicians should be turned out and replaced. The Locofocos supported the Democratic party because it saw the Whigs as a party of corporate interests, usurping powers from the people and granting them as exclusive legal privileges reserved to corporations, including governments. After all, Whig [00:07:00] politicians, their bankster friends, and corporate creatures never seemed to suffer the consequences of immoral behavior. A truly Republican government implied accountability and responsibility for individual agents.
“But in Vermont,” the editor wrote, “the cottage is sure to suffer for every corrupt act which passed in the palace at Montpelier. Institutionalized power tended to grow detached from the sovereign citizens and transform into an entrenched aristocracy whose [00:07:30] blunders harmed every peasant in the remote corners of our state.” The Locofocos’ solution to political and social evil was a restoration of popular Republicanism by new social and political combinations of common people.
When local Whig editors scoffed at The Locofoco,” saying he meant to make every man as poor as himself, the editor angrily lashed out against this sort of New England classicism, calling it “a horrible sentiment, an anti-Republican doctrine [00:08:00] which gnaws like a death worm at the root of American institutions.” The editor’s father told him when he was a boy, “Virtue alone should make a man respectable.”
This lesson was the only thing the father had to pass on to his son, but our Locofoco treasured it dearly. As for Whig principles, well, the Swanton Locofocos editor had a song for that.
Speaker 2: When men, who are honest and upright, talk [00:08:30] of their country’s wheel or woe, a Whig comes poffing main and might, blasting all with Locofoco. No matter ‘tis of what they talk, whether of nations, friend, or foe. Whigs freely use their common stock of reasoning. ‘Tis Locofoco. Tell them that men all equal are, at least by nature they are so. You make the wisest of them stare and say, “ ‘Tis all Locofoco.” Talk of their partial legislation. ‘Twill make their fiery faces glow. [00:09:00] Condemn their banking usurpation. Then comes their term, “Locofoco.”
If the poor man’s right we mention, the Whiggies caper to and fro and quickly call a bank convention to gabble o’er Locofoco. No matter what, ‘tis all the same. They’ll sure make as great ado. For want of reasons, loud exclaim “Loco, Loco, Locofoco!”
Anthony Comegna: The bipartisan backlash against American participation in the Canadian Rebellions animated [00:09:30] the contest in Vermont politics. The paper reported of a recent town meeting of the “real Democratic freemen of Swanton,” at which 75 individuals composed resolutions condemning leaders of both parties for their handling of the Canada affair. The Swanton radicals redoubled their support for Canadian Republicanism and the recent commotion in Alburgh no doubt arose from conservatives’ fears that this lust for armed rebellion could come back home with them.
[00:10:00] Or maybe something more mundane, more domestic, was happening here. “The Locofoco” recalled a long list of state officials and their corruption scandals, charging that the true reason his paper scared them was that it threatened to expose their decades of dirty dealings to the light of democracy. Locofocos around the country continued to believe that a virtuous Republican revolution really could destroy the web of corporate legislation that bound Americans into the new, emerging [00:10:30] social hierarchy.
At the other end of the country, the Locofoco movement assumed a very different practical, local form and function. Perez Coleman was Montgomery, Alabama, lawyer, a member of the local Democratic club, and the editor-publisher of “The Locofoco.” As editor, he promoted a pro-slavery nationalist version of Locofocoism, very different than but certainly related to William Leggett’s own version.
Coleman believed that Martin [00:11:00] Van Buren best represented his block of political opinion and his paper mixed the key elements of equal rights and anti-privilege with a host of pro-slavery preconceptions. “The Locofoco,” then, was a short-run campaign paper designed to expose William Henry Harrison and his Whig managers as crypto-Abolitionists and to elevate Van Buren as the natural choice for southern voters.
Montgomery and the surrounding area of Alabama was a hotbed of southern Whiggery. Coleman [00:11:30] wrote from unfriendly territory, boosting Van Buren, lauding his principles of ‘98. Van Buren’s major credential was his laissez-faire policy record, including opposition to internal improvements projects, a national bank, and protective tariffs, along with an attitude of non-interference in southern slavery.
More importantly, Coleman called Harrison “a would-be aristocrat with contempt for common people.” The Montgomery “Locofoco” offered poor whites [00:12:00] an opportunity to explain slavery as a legal right recognized by the people’s government. A tax on the institution, therefore, undermined southern democracy itself. Now in the election campaign, the Whigs were apparently active supports of slave rebellions. Coleman reported on Harrison fairs all over the country, some of which were attended by slaves, convinced the old general meant to give them their freedom.
In Baltimore County, Maryland, on October 12, 1840, African- [00:12:30] Americans with flags and banners marched up and down a public road, shouting Harrison slogans, singing Harrison campaign songs, and insulting Van Buren. The black activists bore arms, as well as banners. The whites confiscated the weapons after a hard scuffle. “We are no alarmists,” Coleman assured his readers. He said he’d “never been one to scaremonger on the possibilities of slave revolt.” But Abolitionists and corporatist Whigs were now joining forces for the [00:13:00] presidential election of 1840.
The combination invoked what Coleman called “a demon-like spirit, coursing through American life, uprooting societies, and ignoring traditional rights of citizens.” When Coleman identified the Whigs with examples of African-American politicking, he helped pro-slavery Locofocos advance a radical economic and decentralist agenda while protecting the common white man’s sense of racial supremacy.
For “The [00:13:30] Locofoco,” the campaign was the most important battle in the war between aristocracy and equal rights since 1800. To Democrats gathering for dinner and politics at the Talladega Battlefield on the 14th of October, the key phrase remained: “Equal rights to all, exclusive privileges to none.” Democrats in Alabama invited women to sit in the audience of political events and condemned the Whigs’ increasingly clever uses of Democratic campaign methods, messaging, [00:14:00] and propagandizing to voters.
This was the famous log cabin and hard cider campaign, where the Whigs learned to act like Democrats, that is, demagogues. They played up Harrison’s record as a war hero, the life he’d spent doing the manly work of taming the frontier. Whigs trotted out live raccoons before crowds, their party’s answer to the Democrats’ donkey, and flooded the country with campaign literature, including this wonderful little paper figure of Van Buren dressed up as an aristocrat [00:14:30] with a golden goblet of champagne. You pull the tab and you can turn him into an angry drunk, who mocks you for liking hard cider.
Coleman warned Democrats to avoid falling into the Whig trap. They were actually Federalists adopting Democratic political tactics. If the Whigs won, corporations and wealthy would-be monopolists could use the levers of power to influence the public, exploit the people, and usurp the rights and powers of freemen. Perhaps [00:15:00] without any serious challenges ever again.
Speaker 2: “The Locofoco.” Montgomery, Alabama. Tuesday, November 3rd, 1840.
Remember, Monday next will be the day to elect presidential electors in this state. On that day, you will be called upon to say whether the government of this Union is henceforwards to be administered according to the principles [00:15:30] of ‘98 and the doctrines of Jefferson, or the doctrines of Federalism as first promulgated by Hamilton, practiced by the elder and the younger Adams, and advocated by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, General Harrison, and every survivor of the Hartford Convention.
In case the first should continue, our liberties are safe, our rights secure, and the domestic institutions of the south will remain unmolested. If the last should be adopted, our Constitution will be [00:16:00] little better than waste paper, affording but little protection to the liberty of individuals or the rights of the south.
Remember, Republicans, the distinction between the two parties that will be developed by the carrying out of either of the above principles, the Democratic party, professing the principles of ‘98 and avowing the doctrines of Jefferson, are in favor of equal rights to all. They are opposed to all monopolies, all exclusive privileges, or any system that may have a tendency [00:16:30] to vest power in any one portion of the country to the injury of the other, or to any particular set of men to the injury of the rest, while the Federal Whig party avow the principle of exclusive privileges in all its various forms.
First, they are in favor of establishing a national bank, which is an exclusive privilege to the moneyed capitalists of the country who may be disposed to take stock in such an institution, to take the public money collected from the people, to lend [00:17:00] it out, and to put the profits arising therefrom into their own pockets.
Next, they are in favor of a protective tariff, which is nothing but an exclusive privilege to that portion of our citizens who are engaged in manufactures to derive a profit from the laborers of the agriculturalists. Again, they are in favor of the system of internal improvements by the general government, which is nothing but an exclusive privilege to the north, east, and northwest.
For sad [00:17:30] experience tells us that of all the public money that has been spent by the general government, 9/10 have been dissipated in these portions of the Union, which comparatively speaking scarcely a dollar has been spent in the south at a time, too, when about 3/5 of the public revenues of the country were paid by the south.
Can any southern, then, for a moment, hesitate as to which party he ought to support? Remember, Republicans, that your party at their last convention at Baltimore [00:18:00] openly, publicly, and before the world avowed these doctrines and pledged themselves to these measures without any hesitation or concealment, and that their candidate nominated to carry out these principles and affect these measures is Martin Van Buren.
The year 1840, like the year 1800, will be a remarkable epoch in the history of this republic. Now, as 40 years ago, the question is to be tried whether man is [00:18:30] capable of self-government or whether the cunning and designing few can humbug and deceive the simple and unsuspecting many. Now, as 40 years ago, the question is to be tried whether the characteristic feature of our government shall be in adherence to equal rights or whether exclusive privileges shall be the order of the day.
Now, as 40 years ago, is to be tried the question whether the doctrine of strict construction taught by Jefferson or [00:19:00] the general welfare doctrine of the Federalists of the past and present day is to be the rule in interpreting the Constitution. Now, in 1840, is to be tried an old question with the new mark upon its face, whether state rights are to be respected or whether the minority must yield to the violations of the Constitution maintained and carried out by the majority, for instance, if applied in the case of abolition.
Whoever votes this year in favor [00:19:30] of Democratic principles may yet live to tell it with pride and pleasure to his children. Whoever votes in favor of the Federal principles of the Webster party will regret it as long as he lives. One vote more, then, for your country, though it be the last. One vote more for the doctrine of equal rights. One vote more against bank monopoly and exclusive privileges. One vote more or you who are now free may live to see your children slaves to the money [00:20:00] power of this land.
Anthony Comegna: The Democrats lost the presidential election of 1840 and Whigs swept into control of the national government. Locofoco democrats like Perez Coleman or the filibuster-friendly border Locos in Vermont once again did not abandon their ideas, their social lives, political alliances, all because of a series of poor election results. Coleman himself was elected mayor of Montgomery [00:20:30] from 1842 to ‘46.
Significant setbacks aside, Locofocoism only grew in importance and spread geographically in the decade after the Equal Rights Party’s death. 1840 may have been the most important election year ever. Both parties were now simply vast, vote-wrangling machines whose major purpose was to keep people who already had power in power. If Locofoco radicals wanted [00:21:00] to continue pressing their agenda, they would once again have to return to decidedly irregular, disorganizing methods.
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