Joined by leading expert Anthony Comenga from the Institute for Humane Studies, in this episode, we discuss the Locofoco movement. Active from 1820–1870, the Locofocos represent a radical version of classical liberalism that attacks corporate privileges and monopolistic laws. Though often forgotten, they are a unique voice in the history of classical liberalism.
0:00:04.1 Paul Meany: The period of 1820–1890 is arguably one of the most turbulent and transformative periods of world history up to that point. By 1820, Americans’ share of global wealth was about 2% of the world’s, but in 1870, this figure increased to nearly 9%. In this environment of prosperity, one radical group asked: Why had America become so wealthy and how do we keep it that way? They were called the Loco‐Focos, a diverse group of radicals, including purist thinkers and artistic dreamers, pragmatic politicians and compromising coalition builders, revolutionaries at arms and sincere pacifists, grounded rationalists and spiritual [0:00:36.9] ____.
0:00:38.9 Paul Meany: Today, this diverse and popular movement is largely forgotten. But if you’ve been a fan of libertarianism.org for a long time, you already know who will be telling you all about the Loco‐Focos today. I am joined today by the lovely Anthony Comegna, former editor of intellectual history at libertarianism.org, but he currently works as a programs manager for the Institute for Humane Studies. Anthony is uniquely suited to talk about the Loco‐Focos, because his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh is the first history of the Loco‐Foco movement, making the world’s leading expert, although he is very ready for the challenge if someone should try and steal that title from him.
0:01:09.2 Paul Meany: So Anthony, welcome.
0:01:10.7 Anthony Comegna: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I really, really appreciate the invitation, always glad to talk about my lovely Loco‐Focos.
0:01:19.1 Paul Meany: Yes, so first things first, most people have no idea who the Loco‐Focos are, so who are they, what do they believe and why should libertarians in particular care today?
0:01:28.8 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, well, my pitch to this audience in particular would be that the Loco‐Focos are really the first identifiable libertarian movement in American history. And I say that because, not because they used the word. It was around in Europe here and there. Some folks were using it, Perdone [0:01:47.4] ____ was using it, I suppose, at the time, but it was very rarely used, and it generally just meant someone who favors liberty. But the Loco‐Focos put together a full intellectual package that essentially is still libertarianism, we just lost the word Loco‐Foco throughout the course of the movement’s history and into the late 19th century. For a variety of reasons I’ve covered on libertarianism.org elsewhere, we lost the word to the mists of time, and people like Benjamin Tucker, then, in the 1870s, are looking for something to use, some term to use to identify themselves with this pre‐existing package of ideas, and he plucked “libertarian” from across the ocean, and it gradually caught more currency as the decades went on.
0:02:44.4 Paul Meany: And so what exactly did the Loco‐Focos believe, if you had to give a bullet‐point list of what they believe generally or what they’re arguing in favor of?
0:02:51.7 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, so the basic thrust of their movement from start to finish, it originated with a New York newspaper editor named William Leggett. He was a very, very sharp radical guy, and he had a short life, but his life‐long mission as an intellectual was to fight a twin‐war on monopoly. He wanted to fight a war against economic monopolies. Your standard banking monopolies at the time were the biggest institution that had monopolistic qualities to it, but also land monopolies in places like New York, which still had essentially an old feudal system of land tenure in place going way back to the first Dutch settlers and land grants there. All sorts of infrastructural monopolies were popular things at the time, but any corporation, to start any corporation with all the different benefits of the corporate form, you had to petition the legislature for a specific grant of incorporation.
0:03:58.9 Anthony Comegna: So literally, legislatures had taken on the old feudal powers of the king to dole out monopolistic powers and privileges to their special favored few, usually at court in the old days, but now in the halls of different state legislatures. That’s where all the corrupt wheeling and dealing went and that’s how different companies took shape the way that they did. Now, one of the big contributions of the Loco‐Focos in that economic war on monopoly was to democratize the corporate form, starting in New York in their 1846 constitution, which then became the model for the rest of the states in the union. They set up essentially a rubber stamp system of incorporation, so that you didn’t have to get a specific piece of legislation, you just had to go to the appropriate bureaucratic office, fill out the right paperwork, submit your articles of incorporation, and boom, you got a company.
0:04:55.1 Anthony Comegna: So now everybody could do it, and that’s one of the big factors contributing, I think, to that boom in economic productivity throughout the 19th century. But then the other important war on monopoly, and this is what I think makes them so special and direct precursors to modern libertarianism as a full package of ideas, William Leggett was also converted at one point in the mid‐1830s to abolitionism, and he became probably the most radical abolitionist, at least white abolitionist of his day, even more so than William Lloyd Garrison, and he saw it essentially as an extension of the same principles behind his war against economic monopolies. The planter class not only exercised disproportionate powers in the federal government because of their slaveholdings, things like the three‐fifths clause, but also just their power and control over their own local and state politics translated to disproportionate power in national politics. But even worse than that were the legal monopolies over the lives, labors and liberties of their slaves, millions of people who were held under legal title created entirely, created and maintained entirely by the state and force of law.
0:06:13.9 Anthony Comegna: And so if these economic monopolies and special powers and privileges were created purely by law and therefore had no basis in nature, neither did some planters’ pretensions to ownership over other human beings on account of their skin color. So Leggett also translated this into a war on slavery, and eventually the Loco‐Focos won both of those, at least in half‐hearted political compromising‐type ways, they did win both. They were the major force ultimately behind making abolition a major plank of the Republican platform and a major purpose of the Civil War.
0:06:58.5 Paul Meany: So I was going to ask you a question, when I was reading about the Loco‐Focos, one of the things that struck me most was the fact that they’re very pro‐free market, but they attack business a lot, and a lot of people today would be like, oh, if you’re libertarian, you have to be very pro‐big business, but they weren’t, they were anti‐aristocrat, anti‐privilege. And in this, they start talking a lot about class, and libertarians get really afraid of the word class, ’cause when you say class, a lot of times I would think of Karl Marx or something like that, but how do the Loco‐Focos contribute to this discussion about class, how it affects us today?
0:07:32.9 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, they had what we would call the classical liberal class conflict theory, and it’s what Karl Marx lifted, part of what he lifted from people like Adam Smith, because the classical liberal theory of class is that politics and political power ultimately creates different classes in society. It’s not about how much wealth you have access to, it’s about how much power you can wield over other people. And some classical liberals have a very narrow class conflict theory, where they think strictly political power is the genesis of different classes, and by classes, all we mean are factions with antagonistic interests that cannot be peacefully worked out, they are fundamentally antagonistic. And perhaps you could find some compromising way toward toward a peaceful settlement, but that is usually what we consider the process of politics, mediating those conflicts and differences.
0:08:32.8 Anthony Comegna: Well, if politics ends up creating more of those divisions and making them worse and more implacable and insoluble, then you have a bad political system. And if you’re an anarchist, which Leggett wasn’t, but he was pretty close to it, he saw very little role for government in society, if you’re an anarchist, you think, well, the only way to minimize class conflict completely is to get rid of political systems, that they directly give people monopolistic powers over one another. They said that essentially, if you have economic power, you might have greater access to political power, but it really is political power that fundamentally divides people. There’s no fundamental conflict between a rich person and a poor person; in fact, they’re set up to work together pretty well, ’cause they both usually need things the other one wants and they can peacefully trade.
0:09:22.4 Anthony Comegna: And there’s no conflict between them that’s necessary. Until, say, the rich person takes a lot of his money and goes to the state legislature and bribes them with all sorts of favors in order to get the exclusive rights to build a bridge or something like that to cross this river. Now everybody who ever wants to cross this river has to cross on his bridge, and that just makes his wealth all the more productive and it helps capture value from society all the more readily, if you already have wealth, if you can also then use political power. So libertarians should not be afraid of talking about class, it’s actually our idea more so than it is Karl Marx’s. He took it from us and because he didn’t understand economics at all, he totally ruined it, but we have a lot to revive there and we certainly shouldn’t cede conversations about class to people who are dead wrong about how it works.
0:10:22.4 Paul Meany: Yeah, one thing I thought about the Loco‐Focos that I found so interesting was they’re a faction in the Democrat Party, and I don’t know how many people would know this off the top of their heads, but the Democrats used to look very, very different back in the day, like Grover Cleveland looks very different to Joe Biden, he’s all about free markets and low taxes, and Joe Biden is a very different [0:10:38.9] ____ together. And so how did the Loco‐Focos kind of fit into the Democratic party, and how did they help influence it as a smaller faction?
0:10:48.5 Anthony Comegna: Well, they did not ever fit in terribly comfortably, and a lot of them were already related to third party politics from back in the 1828 campaign, where you had the first third party in American history, the Workingmen’s Party. It sprouted up in Philadelphia and other northern cities for that election year. And many of those people also were talking about the banking aristocracy, and they were a little more left‐wing, a little more proto‐Marxist than our Loco‐Focos, so that was its own uneasy coalition, but then years later when the other problems with the Jacksonian Democrats, they weren’t really called the Democratic Party until 1840, but the democracy was a common term, and that just simply meant Jackson’s party.
0:11:38.6 Anthony Comegna: Jackson was most famous, for libertarians, at least, for his war against the Second Bank of the United States. But the problem with that was that Jackson, basically, and all of his toadies and cronies in the kitchen cabinet and in the state parties and things like that, they benefited directly from killing the Second Bank of the United States, because a lot of Jackson men were in charge of running the state banks. And the National Bank was actually a bit of a conservative check on the ability of state banks to just issue paper money like crazy to fund all of their local boondoggle projects. So you have all these Jackson men in charge of state banks that want to just go wild and reap the political rewards of printing tons of money, but they can’t ’cause this damn National Bank keeps holding them back and telling them they have to keep so much in reserve and all this stuff, and they just want to go wild, so kill the bank, get rid of it, Jackson, and then we can reap the rewards at the state level.
0:12:41.3 Anthony Comegna: And that’s what Jackson does, of course, but there are these people around William Leggett in New York who want to continue the project down to the state level: Let’s get rid of all of these state‐chartered monopolistic banks and have a private banking system. And Leggett even said we could have private currency and things would work fine, government doesn’t need to be involved in money or banking whatsoever, and everybody who wants to should be able to open their own bank. The National Coalition, the democracy, was not having this, but the real final straw was this event in Charleston, where it was the first direct mails campaign in 1835, a New York anti‐slavery society printed up a bunch of anti‐slavery pamphlets, and they were mailing them just to your average Southern citizen in the Charleston area.
0:13:31.8 Anthony Comegna: Well, when local Charlestonians heard about this abolitionist mail sitting in their post office, they broke into the post office, the mob seized the sacks of mail and burned them in the town square. And the local postmaster, Alfred Huger, just turned his head to the outside and ignored it, so did the Jackson administration and his postmaster General Amos Kendall, and Leggett was just disgusted by this because he saw it as a blatant violation of the people’s equal right to use the mail. So here they are turning the monopolistic power of government to suit the planter class in the South and pro‐slavery people in the South at the direct expense of the equal rights of these anti‐slavery activists in the North. And this is where he starts uniting the anti‐slavery idea with his pre‐existing anti‐monopoly idea. Well, the New York abolitionists send him the exact same pamphlets and he just spends as much time as he can studying abolitionism, and he emerges, like I said earlier, the most radical abolitionist in the country, perhaps.
0:14:44.4 Paul Meany: And how is he the most radical, though? How does he go above others, above and beyond?
0:14:49.3 Anthony Comegna: Well, for one thing, a couple of years before William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution a covenant with death and all of that, Leggett was saying that the North should secede from the Union because it would be easier to help slaves escape, and then the planters wouldn’t have the backing of the government to prop up their system. And it’s essentially what Jeff Rogers Hummel has argued in his book, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, that the police state provided by the Constitution was enough to keep slavery in business, as it were, against the constant threat of runaways. And Garrison gradually came to that position, so did Lysander Spooner earlier. The other radical thing about Leggett was that he was all… He basically, he understood the justice of violence on the part of slaves against masters and supported that.
0:15:42.1 Anthony Comegna: He thought it was perfectly just that they turn the whip on the masters and win their freedom violently, and he even wishes for it several times and says the battles of the revolutionary fathers against the British were as nothing compared to the life of a single slave here and what they have to endure in our system. And he gleefully looked toward the day when slaves would rise up and force their freedom on the master class. So he was definitely radical and that was too much for the Jacksonians to abide, so they publicly read him out of the party with the national newspaper, The Washington Globe, and he called it his excommunication, and that served as the basis for supporters of his and other radicals in New York City to say, okay, well, look, the Democratic Party clearly is not serious about this anti‐monopoly stuff, they’ll do it enough to get our votes, but then they have all of these policies that are totally contrary to it, and they’re just out for themselves.
0:16:52.5 Anthony Comegna: So that’s how you get the first Loco‐Foco party called the Equal Rights Party. And essentially, the project is like, let’s prove to Tammany Hall, the local headquarters of the Democratic Party, that we control the balance of power in the city, in the state and in the country, and if they want to win, then… If they want to beat the Whigs, then they need to not just court us, but they need to change. And they actually did accomplish that for a little bit with Martin Van Buren as President, at least they thought they did, but in the ensuing years, as I cover a lot on Liberty Chronicles, it was clear that certainly the Democrats might even be on board with a lot of this anti‐monopoly stuff, but they will not break ranks on slavery, and that became the great wedge that divided Loco‐Foco Democrats from mainline Democrats more and more and more, and eventually, like I said, they founded the Republican Party and put abolition at the forefront.
0:18:00.5 Paul Meany: So why are the called the Loco‐Focos? Where does that come from? It’s a crazy name.
0:18:04.1 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, that’s probably the best story too. When Leggett got excommunicated from the party, it was fall of 1835, and there were a slate of nominating conventions coming up in preparation for actual elections the next year. These were local and state elections, I think, it might have been local and county elections first. But the plan was that all of the Leggettians in town, all the people who identified with William Leggett and his brand of radical anti‐monopoly, they started meeting in secret throughout the town and in these secret ward meetings, and they planned to storm the upcoming nominating convention at Tammany Hall, to show up in mass, way bigger than they ever did before, so they could shock the nominating convention and take over the process, and then nominate all true anti‐monopoly candidates.
0:19:10.3 Anthony Comegna: So that was the plan, but they kinda knew that Tammany wouldn’t put up with it if they could avoid it, so they figured Tammany would be doing all sorts of dirty tricks to help prevent any shenanigans from happening and taking their controlled convention away from them. So the radicals decide, okay, just in case, we’re going to fill our pockets up with matches, and friction matches had just been recently invented the last few years, and they were called popularly Loco‐Focos, it comes from two Italian words for fire in motion, and it’s the American bastardization of those Italian words, ’cause you would flick the match against the strip and it would light, thanks to the friction. So anyways, they figure dirty tricks are in the offing. But they pour into Tammany Hall on the appropriate night, late October 1835, I think it’s the 30th, and the Tammany Hall conservatives are just standing there, awestruck at how many people are pouring in through the doors, they can barely fit everybody into the hall.
0:20:18.2 Anthony Comegna: Everybody is pressed in there together, and the Tammany folks feebly start the meeting knowing that they’re just going to be shouted down, and immediately they’re shouted down, and the radicals want to put up their own candidate in the chair to run the meeting, and so there’s a floor fight for the chair. The Tammany people are clearly out‐voted and yet they refuse to vacate, they’re literally holding themselves in the chair while the radicals try to force them out and get their duly elected guy put in the chair. It’s just this ridiculous back and forth procession. And eventually, the Tammany people realize they’ve got to give up, so the conservatives leave Tammany Hall, they run out the back, and while they’re leaving, they turn off the gas lights throughout the building, so the building just goes pitch black. And that’s what they’d prepared for, though. So they go down to the basement and they break open boxes of candles and bring them upstairs, and one by one, they light their matches and light their candles, and they hold their rump convention by candlelight.
0:21:28.7 Anthony Comegna: And the next day, of course, they nominate a whole slate of radicals that Tammany is never going to go for. So the next day, the press, both the Whig and the conservative Jackson press, just slander these people, trash them in the harshest terms possible at the time, calling them everything like from agrarians, which essentially meant communists before many people were talking about communism, agrarians and Fannie Reitman and comparing them to Guy Fawkes, stuff like this. And one of the words that they used, sure enough, was the Loco‐Foco party. And that was supposed to be a term of derision, like calling them losers who couldn’t even have a real convention, and they had to try to muscle the party out of their normal proceedings and they’re a bunch of brawlers, that’s another thing they call them, the street brawlers of politics, and our Loco‐Focos took it as a badge of honor.
0:22:31.1 Paul Meany: So the Loco‐Focos weren’t like a normal political party, right? They weren’t writing memos and reports trying to convince people in a gingerly way, they’re aggressive with how they get the message across.
0:22:40.4 Anthony Comegna: Well, yeah, yeah, the thing is, they didn’t really want to be a major party. So technically they’re a third party, but they really had no interest in becoming the major party at all. To the extent that it was a political project, they wanted to force the Democratic Party into their position, and then they could happily dissolve, and that really is what happens, even though it was kind of a bitter fight, because some people still thought Van Buren and his new administration, they’re not really going to be our friends, they’ll happily ride our coattails to victory, but we need to keep the pressure up, essentially. So that’s what their organization was about, it was a pressure organization. I don’t really think we have analogs out there today, but maybe they’re more like a big lobbying organization where they’re out there in order to exert constant pressure on their favored party.
0:23:47.0 Paul Meany: Could you say that the Loco‐Focos are a bit like the Anti‐Corn Law League to an extent, with the same kind of strategy as a pressure group?
0:23:53.1 Anthony Comegna: Yes, and in fact, I don’t know exactly. This is one of the things I would love to see more research on, because there are some direct transatlantic connections there. I mean, William Cullen Bryant, who owned Leggett’s Paper, The Evening Post and hired Leggett for his position, Bryant went on to… He lived a long, an important life in this kind of radical politicking, and again, he’s one of the important people, he becomes a Republican and an abolitionist during the war and helps accomplish abolition, but he was traveling to visit Cobden and Bright and company and give speeches in Manchester and stuff at the invitation of the Anti‐Corn Law League in the 1840s. And I would not at all be surprised if there were very clear and direct links between those two organizations in the way that they were styled and run and the purposes that they served and everything. It’s just simply not work that people can do, because again, nobody’s really written about the Loco‐Focos, you don’t have a source you can go to that helps you get any background on these people or help position them within these kinds of discussions across the ocean, you know what I mean, and the different literatures that have been built up around them.
0:25:14.8 Paul Meany: So why have the Loco‐Focos been forgotten, why are you the lone advocate of the Loco‐Focos when they’re so radical and interesting and pertinent to today?
0:25:22.6 Anthony Comegna: Well, they disappeared and the word fell out of use, ultimately because they were successful. And that’s a strange thing, but they were successful in a political way too, and the effect of that was that because this was primarily an intellectual and social movement, it was about ideas, it was about equality, it was about producing real results for people, not about as we just mentioned, it was not about setting up a real rival party to control the national political process, it was not about that. And so when they won their important political victories, guess who took credit? The political class and the big political parties who got the radical legislation passed through. So the Democratic Party took victory on the New York Constitution and democratizing corporations. The Republican Party, especially people like Lincoln, took the credit for abolition.
0:26:23.6 Anthony Comegna: And all the other things in between, generally where they won their biggest victories, it was the political parties that could claim it and run with it and popularize themselves on that basis moving forward. And so year after year after year, especially after the Civil War, the word just simply falls out of use. And in fact, some of the more sad articles I quoted in my dissertation and in Liberty Chronicles about this are some of the last newspaper articles you’ll see talking about the Loco‐Focos, and they basically… There’s one where it says… These are all weird terms from the past, it’s somebody calling for democratic unity, and he’s like, it’s time for the gold Democrats and silver Democrats to come together, and we can let these terms gold and silver Democrats fade away into the past, like Mugwumps and half‐breeds and Free Soilers and Loco‐Focos and know‐nothings, and it’s like just part of a weird list of old things that don’t matter anymore.
0:27:30.7 Paul Meany: Last but not least, if you could revive William Leggett, bring him to the modern world today and show him the current situation, what do you think you would say? What would be biggest problem facing America and what would his remedy be?
0:27:44.0 Anthony Comegna: God, it’s a really good question. I would hope that he’d be very disappointed in how democratizing corporations has worked out, because I am a firm left libertarian, as you know, and I have the same problems with corporations that he had back in the day. I think it’s essentially a series of legal rights, powers and privileges that wouldn’t necessarily exist in a private regime. And the main thing is something like limited liability or the level of corruption and crime that corporate entities, from charter townships all the way up to giant multinational corporations and everywhere in between, political power is still used to excuse so many crimes. And I think he would just be aghast that instead of opening up the economic potential of the average person and allowing them to engage in business life and enrich humanity through their ingenuity, instead of that, we basically have chambers of commerce everywhere, and small businessmen get, small business people get paraded to, and then every election cycle and then swiftly betrayed and stuff like that.
0:29:20.1 Anthony Comegna: It’s just… I think he would be really disappointed that our politics have not fundamentally changed. He might even be surprised that given that it hasn’t changed, he might be surprised that we haven’t done anything really to change it. So why haven’t we changed our fundamental legal code at all? Why are we still using… He might be shocked, frankly, shocked that we’re still using the same Constitution, and it’s like the oldest written Constitution in the world at this point, why? Doesn’t that make us the most conservative country in the world, in some important sense, at least? And that’s not what this is all about. I think he’d also just be disgusted that race relations are still as bad as they are and that people haven’t improved their moral character to just trounce the whole race problem in the dust like 150 years ago.
0:30:19.7 Paul Meany: Thanks [0:30:19.7] ____ for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast, and if you did, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Portraits of Liberty is written and hosted by me, Paul Meany, and produced by Landry Ayres. You can also visit libertarianism.org to find more shows like this. I hope to see you next time.