Sketches of a Loco-fied Congress, 1837
“[The House] was excited at the novelty and boldness of his…doctrines…Gentlemen from the south…heard the high priest of revolution singing his war song.”
Within the halls of the 25th United States Congress (1837-1839), there lurked a curious sort of politician—the committed ideologue. They were widely considered chimerical monsters in the emerging world of Martin Van Buren’s Second Party System, itself quickly solidifying its grasp on American political life. Yet these new men, these predominantly locofoco ideologues, rode from New York to Washington on the back of Van Buren’s Democracy, having recently tamed the beast by successfully reviving Americans’ instinctive spirit of Jeffersonian populism and anti-state radicalism. From 1835-1837, New Yorkers favoring some of the strictest libertarian policies ever offered from a political organization gained the balance of power in state Democratic Party politics and thereby gained critical influence in the new administration and Congress. The new Congress elected the fairly locofoco (or “Equal Rights”) Democrat James K. Polk as Speaker of the House and Van Burenites controlled both chambers. While the union of radical and moderate Democratic forces ensured Van Buren’s election and (briefly) the ascendancy of his party, the introduction of locofoco ideologues to the political process forever changed American political life.
The United States Magazine & Democratic Review, in its very first issue (1837), indicated with clarity and precision the source of this irrevocable change: the ideologues refused to keep their ‘gentlemanly’ peace on the subject of slavery. The Democratic Review’s sketches of the new Congress first identify “the voluntary principle” as the cornerstone of republican life in America. Such a principle was virtually embodied by representatives Eli Moore and Churchill C. Cambreleng, both influential New York locofocos and “Equal Rights” Democrats, as well as former president John Quincy Adams. Though drawn from wildly different backgrounds and ideologies, locofocos like Moore and Churchill joined in antislavery coalition with whiggish anti-partisans like Adams to defend northern rights and liberties against the encroachments of southern legislators and their partisan creatures in the North—Creatures like Ogden Hoffman, the final sketch in the document. Hoffman was elected to Congress from New York as a locofoco, but his attachments to ideology crumbled under the weight of the Panic of 1837 and Whig attacks on the administration party.
Then, as now, not only did an “irate, tireless minority” often make the difference between good and bad policy, but its existence provided the means for a developing culture of dissent.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
“Glances at Congress. No. 1,” U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review, Vol. I, No. I: 68-81.
By A Reporter
And what is it that brings together this remarkable body of men; the representatives of so many various sections, soils, characters, and interests—what is that bond of union that keeps together this wonderful E pluribus Unum? It is not the external forms of institutions and the organized machinery of government. It is a voluntary principle, existing in the bosom of every individual, a common sentiment of general mutuality of the most important interests, the knowledge that the spirit of democratic republicanism embodied in our system, protecting rights and punishing wrongs, and in all other respects leaving every man free to pursue his own happiness in his own way, contains the true secret which the nations have been so long and toilsomely in search of, from which alone the greatest and happiest results of social life are to proceed. This is the true principle of cohesion, the anima or informing soul, which cement our union, all the parts exciting a reciprocal influence of attraction upon each other…
Distance and climate can have no influence upon this bond. It is wholly independent of them. There need be no fear of the effect of any possible extension of territory—though the representatives sent from the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, from the Isthmus of Darien and the far wild regions of the north of our continent, on the very verge of that uninhabitable region, domibus negata, which the icy powers of the Pole claim as all their own—should one day meet in common friendly conress at some central point, the focus of the civilization of the western world, where not yet has even the solitary smoke of its first pioneer begun to curl up its thin, white, wavering column from out of the dark and deep heart of the ancient forest. The farther and wider our principles extend themselves, with peaceful and undisputed sway, accompanied with no poisonous elements of wrong or violence, the better! The greater the number of the oppressed of other countries who come to seek shelter under the shadow of the broad wings of our eagle, bringing with them strong hands and honest hearts, and a voluntary desire to enjoy the benefits of the free institutions denied to them in the land of their birth, the better!—provided, as the essential condition of safety, that the local action of the central government over domestic concerns and partial interests be restricted proportionately to its diffusion over a more extended surface of territory…
Near to Mr. Wise sits a gentleman with an unhealthy complexion, and rather singular face—one of the most remarkable men of the body. His hair brushed back from his forehead, is long and curly; his eye is keen, stern, and intelligent; he generally dresses well, and his usual companion is a heavy ivory-headed cane. He appears to be a nervous man; one of those men of deep but quiet enthusiasm who never fail to make themselves both marked and felt, whenever they put forth the lumbering powers within them. This gentleman is Eli Moore, of the city of New York. He may be said to be peculiarly the representative of the mechanics of that city, at whose head he stands, as a prominent member of the Typographical Society, and lately president of his favorite Trades Union. Mr. Moore is a quiet, silent, reserved man; but beneath that apparent cold calmness blow feelings of an intense enthusiasm for the principles of democracy, and of a bitter strength against whatever he regards as tinged with an aristocratic tone. In chartered banks he recognizes the privileged superiority of a fortunate or favored few over the great mass of the community, analogous in spirit and moral effects to the iron feudal aristocracy of the olden time, and considers them the moral upas of the age. He was formerly a journeyman printer of New York; but, possessing talents and ambition, and an enthusiasm in a cause which can never fail to draw forth the sympathies and support of the mass of our people, he soon raised himself over the shoulders of other aspirants, and won a seat in Congress.
Last winter Mr. Moore made his debut. Gen. Waddy Thompson, of South Carolina, believing that he saw in the Trades Unionists and the mechanics of the north the two great moving forces of the abolition cause, made some very bitter remarks in the course of one of his peculiarly sarcastic speeches against those interests…The harshness of the charges rang discordantly on [Moore’s] ear, and produced a high degree of mental and bodily excitement. In vain he daily left his sick room, and tottered into the hall, to retort upon General Thompson. The floor at that time was forever occupied. It seemed to be a springing-board for honorable members. Never before had there been so many to speak. The subject (abolition petitions) had aroused all the passionate, philanthropic, and partizan feelings of the House; the storm raged day after day, and angry glances and fierce words were exchanged on all sides; crimination and recrimination was the order of the day. The Speaker was compelled to bow his head to the howling hurricane, and permit it to rage in its full fury. Every man seemed to grow into vast pyramidal altitude in his own mind; and speak he must, or the country would be ruined.
At length Mr. Moore obtained the eye of the Speaker. There was quite a sensation in the gallery on the announcement. The large white-headed cane stood up with its master. The New York delegation was excited. Mr. Moore’s reputation was high as a public speaker. I perceived at once that he was greatly enfeebled, but he seemed to nerve himself for his task. The House danced before his eves: he saw but one object—the Speaker, in his black morocco chair, with his steady and earnest eyes fixed upon him. He commenced. His voice was remarkably strong. He laid down his premises with singular clearness, but wide of the subject-matter under consideration in the House. He took a review of the history of past ages; brought back to the mental vision the days of the feudal system—the fortress, the tournament, the plume, the helm, the lance, the gilded spur. His speech seemed to glitter with all the gallant splendor and bravery of the olden chivalry. But then his lip curled with indignation, and his voice sunk into a tone of deploring eloquence, when he brought up the other side of the picture—the serfs, with the iron collars around their necks. He pointed to the debased, enslaved multitude; and passing to a general application of the illustration to our own times, he proclaimed, in a voice tremulous with emotion, his creed to be founded in the equality of man. On this theme he enlarged, with a thrilling power of eloquence rarely equalled in that house. The impetuous force with which his reply bore upon the assailant, who had thus drawn him out, will not soon be forgotten. Mr. Moore’s language was flowery and rhetorical: he possesses more genius than culture, and to one particular subject he seems to bend his thoughts entirely—that of the equality and rights of man. I understand that he has given himself up, of late, to deep application; and that when an occasion offers, he will splinter the lance of his cherished principles, against the system and mode of government as it is administered in detail.
I observed many among the auditors in the gallery who seemed to hang with rapture on his remarks. The whole house was excited at the novelty and boldness of his democratic doctrines, not less at the extraordinary manner in which he had turned aside from the current of debate, and struck fearlessly forward into a field to which few orators had before ventured to lead the attention of that body. I overheard some gentlemen from the south say, that they thought they heard the high priest of revolution singing his war song.
A bevy of members had gradually collected immediately behind the orator, whose voice still rang loud in the hall, in the midst of an impassioned passage. My eye was fixed upon him; I saw him grow paler than ever; till a deadly hue swept over his face; his hands were arrested in the air—he grasped at emptiness—a corpse seemed to stand with outstretched hands before the agitated crowd his eyes were closed—he tottered, and, amid the rush and exclamations of the whole house, fell back insensible into the arms of one of his friends. Mr. Moore was borne from the hall. His wife had been watching him with emotions that may be imagined from the gallery. The scene had been worked up into a catastrophe, and never before had I seen the House so agitated as on this occasion.
Mr. Moore has never finished that speech; indeed he has not spoken since in the hall; his health is very bad, and I am under the impression that his friends will not allow him to address the House. He cannot control himself when he is up, and the consequence is that he soon becomes exhausted….
Our attention is now attracted to a ray of light that glitters on the apex of a bald and noble head, located on the left of the House, in the neighbourhood of the Speaker’s chair. It proceeds from that wonderful man who in his person combines the agitator, poet, philosopher, statesman, critic, and orator—John Quincy Adams…What must be his thoughts as he ponders upon the past, in which he has played a part so conspicuous? We look at him and mark his cold and tearful eye, his stern and abstracted gaze, and conjure up phantoms of other scenes. We see him amid his festive and splendid halls ten years back, standing stiff and awkward, and shaking a tall military-looking man by the hand, in whose honor the gala was given, to commemorate the most splendid of Americas victories. We see him again, years afterwards, the bitter foe of the same military chieftain, and the competitor with him for the highest gift of a free people. We look upon a more than king, who has filled every department of honor in his native laud, still at his post; he who was the President of millions, now the representative of forty odd thousand, quarrelling about trifles or advocating high principles. To-day growling and sneering at the House with an abolition petition in his trembling hand, and anon lording it over the passions, and lashing the members into the wildest state of enthusiasm by his indignant and emphatic eloquence. Alone, unspoken to, unconsulted, never consulting with others, he sits apart, wrapped in his reveries; and with his finger resting on his nose, he permits his mind to move like a gigantic pendulum, stirring up the hours of the past and disturbing those of the hidden future; or probably he is writing…He looks enfeebled, but yet he is never tired; worn out, but ever ready for combat; melancholy, but let a witty thing fall from any member, and that old man’s face is wreathed in smiles; he appears passive, but woe to the unfortunate member that hazards an arrow at him; the eagle is not swifter in his flight than Mr. Adams; with his agitated finger quivering in sarcastic gesticulation, he seizes upon his foe, and, amid the amusement of the House, rarely fails to take a signal vengeance…
His manner of speaking is peculiar; he rises abruptly, his face reddens, and, in a moment throwing himself into the attitude of a veteran gladiator, he prepares for the attack then he becomes full of gesticulation, his body sways to and fro—self-command seems almost lost—his head is bent forward in his earnestness till it sometimes nearly touches the desk; his voice frequently breaks, but he pursues his subject through all its bearings; nothing daunts him the House may ring with the cries of order—order!—unmoved—contemptuous—he stands amid the tempest, and, like an oak that knows its gnarled and knotted strength, stretches his arm forth and defies the blast.
Opposite to Mr. Adams, on the right of the Hon. Speaker, sits a small man, who is engaged in the perusal of a huge mass of documents; occasionally he applies a double quizzing glass to his eye, raises his head and gazes earnestly around the hall. He is bald on the crown of the head, his forehead broad and high, and more striking than the lower part of his face. This gentleman is the Hon. C. C. Cambreleng, of New York, chairman of the committee of ways and means, and by his political opponents styled the leader of the Administration Party in the House…
He seldom converses with the other members, scarcely ever leaves his seat, but busies himself in the examination of papers; nor does he appear to pay the slightest attention to debate, and yet he never permits one word to escape; and should anything be said peculiarly unpleasant, from a political opponent, he is up, ready for a retort. Mr. Cambreleng’s manner of elocution is sometimes a little inflated, but he is remarkably fluent, and his language is always chaste and appropriate. He is one of the ablest and most efficient members of the house; his consistency in an honest democratic creed of politics, his boldness and clear-sightedness, have placed him in a commanding position before the country. A statesman’s real calibre for talent, importance, and future prospects, may, in general, be safely measured by the amount of abuse of which his opponents think him worthy. Judged by this rule, the Hon. C. C. C…is certainly stamped at once as one of the most formidable men of his party in the House, and before the country.
Dressed in a full suit of black, with a black silk bosom, light hair, and sunny face, the Hon. Ogden Hoffman, of New York city, has risen to address his maiden speech to the House. Mark with what graceful emphasis he delivers himself;—how musical his voice, though without much compass;—how apposite his gestures! A crowd has gathered around him; he evidently makes a sensation. He is bitterly opposed to the administration, and gives utterance to his sentiments with peculiar eloquence…The last time I had heard Mr. Ogden Hoffman speak was in New York, on the occasion of the great democratic victory of the election of General Jackson and Mr. Van Buren, of whom he had been an ardent supporter, not quite one little lustre ago. I shall never forget the brilliancy and force of his eloquence at that period on that theme. However, the theme and the side are, it is to be presumed, immaterial to so ingenious a young lawyer. He was one of those ‘weaker vessels’ who fell away from the truth during the panic period—that time that tried men’s souls. In the city of New York, the tempest ran so high, and superior powers of clamor gave the bank cause such an apparent advantage, that many considered the democratic party there prostrated forever, and lost no time in being “off w’ the old love” and “on wi’ the new.” Among these, Mr. Ogden Hoffman was perhaps the most conspicuous, as he doubtless considered himself one of the most sincere and patriotic. It is a pity, however, that such fine talents must hereafter be paralyzed by such a position. It can never be possible for him to exert any great moral force, whether in or out of Congress, in opposition to Mr. Van Buren’s administration. The ghosts of his not yet forgotten sentiments and speeches (all murdered by that one ruthless blow, the removal of the deposites,) must rise up too often in judgment before him, when on the eve of any intended exertion, with the depressing omen—
Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!