Revolution in Utica and Buffalo

The Polk years began in a sort of uneasy truce between radicals and conservatives. 

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The Polk Administration was a strange time in the early history of American Libertarianism called Locofocoism. In many ways, it was the time of ultimate triumph. Polk was as committed to their economic program as anyone else on the national stage, including their champion, Martin Van Buren. He was a Republican nationalist and an expansionist, and so were many of the more hopeful and naive Locofocos. By 1844, Locofocoism was all over the country, from the shores of New England, through the mountains of New York, and out to the plains of Ohio and Wisconsin, right the way down, even in the South, to places like Montgomery, Alabama, and for at least a brief period, Polk was their man. Everything looked bright, but the peace within the democracy was uneasy at best. Then along came Polk’s war on Mexico, an unforgivable tragedy to some, and an insurmountable political disaster to most others. To set things aright, to protect the power and interests of the North’s free citizens, to expand the zone of liberty and Republicanism, in the face of both British and slave-holding aggression, Northern radicals rose up in political revolution.

Further Readings

Blue, Frederick. The Free Soilers, Third Party Politics, 1848-54. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 1973.

Earle, Jonathan. Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Mayfield, John. Rehearsal for Republicanism: Free Soil and the Politics of Antislavery. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press. 1980.

Rayback, Joseph G. Free Soil: The Election of 1848. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press. 1970.

George H. Smith, “The Liberty Party

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00:06 Anthony Comegna: The Polk Administration was a strange time in the early history of American Libertarianism called Locofocoism. In many ways, it was the time of ultimate triumph. Polk was as committed to their economic program as anyone else on the national stage, including their champion, Martin Van Buren. He was a Republican nationalist and an expansionist, and so were many of the more hopeful and naive Locofocos. By 1844, Locofocoism was all over the country, from the shores of New England, through the mountains of New York, and out to the plains of Ohio and Wisconsin, right the way down, even in the South, to places like Montgomery, Alabama, and for at least a brief period, Polk was their man. Everything looked bright, but the peace within the democracy was uneasy at best. Then along came Polk’s war on Mexico, an unforgivable tragedy to some, and an insurmountable political disaster to most others. To set things aright, to protect the power and interests of the North’s free citizens, to expand the zone of liberty and Republicanism, in the face of both British and slave-holding aggression, Northern radicals rose up in political revolution.

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01:26 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:42 Anthony Comegna: The Polk years began in a sort of uneasy truce between radicals and conservatives. For the moment, at least, before the war began in early 1846, everyone could more or less get along with business as usual. Polk first rocked the boat by supporting the New York conservatives called the Hunkers over Van Buren’s Locofoco faction called the Barnburners. He rained spoils on the Hunkers, and the Barnburners seethed with anger, but partisan loyalty held in Congress. Only the war and the slavery issue seriously disrupted the parties’ peace, and once that egg was cracked open, there was no putting it back together. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo added so much territory, that it virtually cursed the republic for generations to come.

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02:31 Anthony Comegna: Every time a new state was organized, every time a new constitution was submitted to Congress for approval, the issue would surely re-emerge. People at the time foresaw this pattern, this irrepressible conflict brewing as the war went on. It was exactly the reason Van Buren wanted to stay away from Texas in the first place. When Polk cooked up a war to steal half of Mexico, he also killed Van Buren’s Second Party System. It didn’t happen right away, but the treaty with Mexico inaugurated a new era in politics, the so-called Sectional Period, when local or state interests outweighed partisan politics.

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03:15 Anthony Comegna: From the beginning of the Mexican War through early 1848, approaching the next round of national party conventions, Van Buren Democrats peeled themselves from Polk’s party one by one. Newspapers dropped out of the fold, renouncing their attachments to a slaveholder’s party. It was not expansionism itself that they opposed. After all, many of them were angry with Polk, specifically because he compromised with the British on the Oregon border, but all of them were angry that the Democratic Party was apparently willing to totally sell out Northern interest to Southern slaveholders. In a speech to fellow Locofoco expansionists, New Yorker David Dudley Field declared that, “I am willing to see our victorious standard should be born to the Isthmus of Darien, or planted on the highest peak of the Polynesian islands, but the soil on which it advances must be free, as free as the untrammeled soil on which I stand.”

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04:11 Anthony Comegna: But there were other interests involved in this growing coalition of dissident Northerners. The biggest contingent was certainly coming from the New York Barnburners, or Locofocos, and then from the circle of abolitionists around Senator John P Hale in New Hampshire. But out of Ohio, the state’s Liberty Party leader, Salmon Chase, saw his moment to construct what he called, “A great Wilmot Proviso League of anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs.” You’ll recall from last week that the Wilmot Proviso was a proposed amendment to the Mexican War Funding Bill, that would forbid slavery from any conquered territories. It passed the House on a sectional vote, and failed in the sectionally-balanced Senate. Chase hoped that a movement based on the Proviso would be the strongest vehicle possible for anti-slavery policy. With enough support, a Proviso Party could upset several Northern races, and throw the election to the House of Representatives, or even gain the majority in the Electoral College. Chase was a long-time player in abolitionist politics by 1847 though, and he well knew that a Proviso League was impossible, so long as Barnburners and other Locofocos across the country stayed loyal to the Democratic Party. By late 1847, speeches like one by New York Congressman and Locofoco, Bradford Wood, convinced Chase that a coalition with the leading Locos of New York was now a real possibility.

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05:43 Speaker 2: New Hampshire Sentinel, 25th of November, 1847: “Bradford R Wood, member of the last Congress from Albany, New York, and a member of the Locofoco Party, made a speech at the meeting of the Barnburners in Albany, which is thus reported.”

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06:01 Speaker : “He alluded to the abuse which had been heaped upon him by the advocates of slavery, for the early and determined stand, which he had taken in favor of freedom. He proceeded to say that, ‘There was a game afoot to sell the electoral vote of New York to the highest bidder, by the men who struck down the lamented Silas Wright, and then whined over his grave. They wished to sell the North to the South, and hoped to receive their reward. Those thus anxious to betray the North, proclaim this movement for freedom premature.’ But he denied that it could be premature to move in a just cause, to protest against cursing free soil with slavery. ‘These premature Democrats have no opinion upon this question, but the South speaks right out. They are united and triumphantly say to us, ‘The South has no traitors.’ ‘But,’ said Mr W, ‘The North has, and the South wants to buy these traitors.’ “

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07:08 Speaker : “He took a hasty glance of slavery as it exists, referred to the fact that there were but 250,000 slaveholders in the Union, and these 250,000, backed up by the influence and power of the general government, were seeking to rule the 20 millions of freemen. He denounced this kind of democracy, where the minority sought to trample upon the rights and contend the opinions of the majority. He had no desire to exclude the South from the soil to be conquered, but he would insist that those at the South who wished to immigrate to that acquired territory, must do so upon the same footing with the white man of the North. There should be no special privileges given to any one class.”

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07:57 Speaker : “Nor did he fear a dissolution of the Union in the event of the adoption of the Wilmot Proviso. ‘The 250,000 at the South would never dissolve the union. If the attempt was ever made, it would be made by the doe faces of the North, who were ready to sell their God and their country for power. The great West and Northwest will never sanction a dissolution of the Union, nor will New York. Freemen, however, to silence the threat of dissolution, will never submit to the dictation of 250,000 slaveholders and their doe-faced allies. On this question, the people are coming, and woe, woe to him, who shall try to impede their course.’ Mr W sat down amid vociferous applause and cheers.”

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08:54 Anthony Comegna: As the 1848 campaign year opened, most Northern Democrats supported the compromised policy called popular sovereignty. This doctrine would let voters in the territories decide for themselves, by popular vote, whether to be a slave or a free state. Hardliners in the South followed Calhoun, as they were quite used to doing. They railed against popular sovereignty as inconsistent with the rights of slaveholders. Southern blood and treasure was poured out like water during the Mexican War, and now Northerners were trying to exclude them from the prize. Democratic politicians then had to tread a fine line, between their voter’s preferences and their political allies’ demand for compromise. The Whig Party faced similar problems, though their own factional divide between Cotton Whigs and Conscience Whigs, was far less pronounced than the Hunker-Barnburner war in New York. When the Democratic Party gathered in Baltimore for their national convention on May 22nd, the Whig Boston daily Atlas was among the many newspapers with correspondents in the field, eager to gather intel for the campaign. The Atlas was especially interested in the divisions between Locofocos at the convention.

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10:06 Anthony Comegna: The battle in New York between Barnburners and Hunkers spilled into the national convention, when two delegations claimed the right to represent the state. The convention agreed to sit both, but granted only the Hunkers the right to vote for nominations, leading Barnburner sympathizers like Hannibal Hamlin of Maine to declare the move out of order. Hamlin, you may recall from history class, was later Vice President under Lincoln. But the Barnburners did leave their mark on the proceedings. Before the balloting for President, the anti-slavery faction rose, as a single body, and exited the hall. In the end, the democracy nominated Jackson Secretary of War, and current Senator from Michigan, Lewis Cass, who the Atlas claimed was being repaid for his partisan sycophancy through the Polk years.

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10:58 Speaker : Boston daily Atlas, editorial correspondence of The Atlas, Baltimore, May 25th, 1848: Locofoco Convention, fourth day, the New York contestants’ nomination of Cass and Butler.

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11:16 Speaker 3: “The long agony is over. The nominations are made. Lewis Cass is repaid for all his cringing and sycophancy, his twistings and his twinings, by the nomination of the convention. He is to bear the standard of a spurious democracy in the present campaign. No one could have been nominated more satisfactory to the Whig Party. It will bring them together as one man, and we shall go into the campaign with the prestige of victory inscribed on all our banners. We meet the issues; we throw down the gauntlet. And though we now may have different opinions as to who should be our leader, yet we are united in our opposition to Lewis Cass, and we will be united upon the candidate of the Philadelphia Convention. Whigs of Massachusetts, of New England, of the nation, we call upon you to unite in opposition to the nomination made this day, and to prevent, as you have the power to do, the continuation of the Polk dynasty for another four years, by preventing the election to the presidential office of its most abject and subservient tool, Lewis Cass.”

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12:50 Speaker : “I now proceed to give a brief sketch of the proceedings of the convention today. The first matter in the orders of the day was the New York case. An amendment was passed last evening, giving the two sets of delegates from New York the right to seats in the convention. The first question this morning, therefore, was the adoption of the resolution as thus amended, and it was finally adopted by a vote of 133 yeas to 118 nays. As soon as this vote was announced, Mr Hannigan of Indiana, who has led the Cass forces through the present struggle, arose and offered a resolution, giving to the Hunkers the exclusive right to cast the vote of the state. This was a little too unblushing for even a Locofoco Convention, under the circumstances, to swallow. The greatest excitement prevailed.”

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13:54 Speaker : “Mr Hamlin of Maine said it was out of order; others said it was in order. It was finally moved to lay it on the table. Before taking the question, Senator Dickinson of New York arose and obtained leave to read a protest of the Hunker delegates, against the action of the convention in admitting the Barnburner delegates to seats, and thus placing them on an equality with the Hunkers. A long parley ensued amid much confusion about points of order, about a hundred of which questions have been raised since the convention met, chiefly by congressmen who took the occasion to exhibit their knowledge of parliamentary law.”

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14:40 Speaker : “During their squabble, one of the Pennsylvania delegates arose with a bouquet of red and white roses in his hand, and said it had been given him by a Democratic lady, with the request that it might be handed over to the New York delegates, just previous to which, however, the Barnburners arose and left the convention. The bouquet was handed to the Hunkers, but they refused to receive it. It was understood on all sides as a claptrap attempt to induce the Yorkers to vote for Buchanan. It however, would not do, and was refused with contempt.”

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15:21 Speaker : “A number of other speeches were made by delegates full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The most interesting part of the proceedings, however, was the protest of the Barnburners, which was read by one of their body. The Barnburners left the convention before the balloting for President began and were absent for about two hours. About two o’clock, they came in a body and resumed their seats. No one was apprised of the decision they had come to. Great interest, therefore, was felt to know what they would say. The State of New York was called, and Mr Smith, the same gentleman who presented, in chief, their case yesterday, arose, and very cooly and deliberately proceeded to the platform, and read their protest. It is a paper of great ability; it will soon be published. It repudiates the proceedings of the convention and breathes defiance to its nominees. The Barnburners will not support them. After the protest was read, the delegates left their seats and went out of the hall, shaking the dust of Cassism from their feet. The breach, therefore, in New York, cannot be healed. The management, trimming in cowardice of the convention, in failing to meet the question and deciding which of the lists were entitled to seats, have failed to produce ought but pity and contempt from the Barnburners. Very little else was done.”

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17:11 Anthony Comegna: On the convention’s last day, the mood and tone suffered, and it wasn’t just our Whig reporter who felt it. The whole party knew they were in for a more serious fight than the one against the Whig candidate, whoever that would be. The Barnburners were surely not going quietly, and already, plans were underway to start up a third party movement with Chase’s abolitionists in New England, or Conscience Whigs. If some great national figure could be found to lead these diverse elements, it would surely threaten the coalition that narrowly elected Polk and definitely kill the Cass campaign.

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17:52 Speaker : Locofoco Convention, fifth day, the closing scenes.

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18:00 Speaker : “The end has come. The great Democratic National Convention has adjourned and become one of the things that were. The convention met this morning at the usual hour. Nearly one half of the members had left the city, and those who were present did not fill more than half the seats. It was a cold, cheerless body. No enthusiasm, no mark of confidence, either in the strength of their candidate or the justice of their principles was exhibited. Little other business was transacted and the convention adjourned without delay. Thus has passed away a convention, the like of which we have never before seen. Whatever may be the result at the polls, of one thing I am certain, that the convention which has just separated has no confidence that they will succeed. The nominations have fallen stillborn, not only on the convention, but upon the people of this city. Very little is said in relation to them. The nomination of General Butler is to give some degree of popularity to Cass, but it will not do. There is nothing that can give popularity to such a nomination. The wire pullers, the politicians, the expectants of office and spoils will work and advocate its election. They will not carry the people with them. Their machinations, however, must be met with corresponding efforts on the part of the people. From this day until the contest is decided, let every well wisher of his country labor to defeat a man whose election would be a national curse.”

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20:15 Anthony Comegna: The Whig Party held its own national convention in Philadelphia on June 7. In true Whig Party fashion, they nominated General Zachary Taylor, whose best asset was his nonexistent and totally malleable record on matters of public policy. The Democrats derided him as yet another pathetic attempt by the Whigs to run a general for office on different platforms for different voters. In the North, they told people Old Zach was all for popular sovereignty, and in the South, he was decidedly for the equal rights of slaveholders. He was one himself after all, and he would not let their sacrifices in the late war go unrewarded. A small but important cohort of Conscience Whigs could perhaps tolerate much from their party, but a slave-holding double-talker like Taylor was too much. They too had a problem on their hands.

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21:10 Anthony Comegna: Finally, the stage was set for the Barnburner Revolution, and the great Wilmot Proviso Coalition gained the entire country’s attention. On June 22nd, Proviso men, Van Buren Barnburners, Conscience Whigs, Locofocos, and radicals of all sorts gathered in convention at Buffalo. It was a blisteringly hot summer, but still between 20 and 40,000 activists and politicians crowded into town. Buffalo played host to perhaps the most important third party meeting in American history. And a quick survey of attendees shows why. Salmon Chase was there, of course, one of the prime architects of this whole affair, and later, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and a Supreme Court Justice. Charles Francis Adams attended, a member of the famous Boston clan and an important figure in his own right. Walt Whitman was there, as a Locofoco representative for Brooklyn, and Frederick Douglass was on the scene reporting for his readers.

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22:09 Anthony Comegna: Every single Northern state had a delegation present, and even the border slave states, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, sent representation. And even though the abolitionist Liberty Party Convention had already proclaimed its candidate, Senator John P Hale of New Hampshire, the Liberty men dissolved themselves into the larger convention. This great new Free Soil Party, made up of these diverse anti-slavery factions, adopted a slogan now famous as the cornerstone philosophy of Lincoln’s Republican Party, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men.” The presidential nomination was contested. The more hardcore anti-slavery delegates wanted John Hale, but in the end, most realized their best chance for victory was with the biggest star they could find, without a doubt, in many minds, that was Martin Van Buren, with the Conscience Whig, Charles Francis Adams, as the veep.

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23:07 Anthony Comegna: Van Buren was really the natural choice. After all, the vast majority of Free Soilers were, until recently, Barnburning Democrats, his core constituency and his fiercest defenders. Van Buren played the reluctant candidate, but a great number of observers saw what he was up to. He believed Lewis Cass was the man who spoiled his nomination in 1844, by convincing delegates that Polk was the right choice for the party. He also believed that Northern Democrats would no longer stand idly by, while their party was run exclusively for the benefit of slaveholders and their partisan allies. For the dual cause of personal vengeance and electoral security for his base, Van Buren accepted the nomination and set about spoiling the race for Cass.

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24:00 Anthony Comegna: Whigs were ecstatic, thrilled at the crack-up in their enemy ranks, but the Barnburners were even more excited. One Van Buren paper, the New York Sun, echoed the same sentiments radicals felt all across the North: “There is a remarkable revolution going on in our political world. The star of the radical democracy is, therefore, completely in the ascendant in New York, while deserted Hunkerism is left to play the counterfeit of a party which no longer exists.” The Sun concluded that, “The Van Buren Party is now the real Democratic Party.” In 1848, the Free Soil Party did something no American third party has done before or since. It killed the party system and rose to major party status. Sure, it would take a few more years, a few more electoral shifts, but the Van Buren Free Soil campaign was an absolutely necessary precursor to Lincoln’s own election in 1860.

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25:12 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.

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