Locofocos

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Cartoon celebrating 1840 defeat of Locofocoism

The Locofocos were a faction of the Democratic Party that existed from 1835 until the mid-1840s. The faction was originally named the Equal Rights Party, and was created in New York City as a protest against that city’s regular Democratic organization (“Tammany Hall”). It contained a mixture of anti-Tammany Democrats and labor union veterans of the Working Men's Party. They were vigorous advocates of laissez-faire and opponents of monopoly. Their leading intellectual was editorial writer William Leggett.

The term “Locofoco” derives from “locofoco, a kind of friction match”, the name of which match itself probably derives from “locomotive + Italian fuoco, foco fire, from Latin focus hearth”.[1] It originated when a group of New York Jacksonians used such matches to light candles to continue a political meeting after Tammany men tried to break up the meeting by turning off the gaslights.[2]

The Locofocos were involved in the Flour Riot of 1837.

In the 1840 election, the term “Locofoco” was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic President Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory.

In general, Locofocos supported Andrew Jackson and Van Buren, and were for free trade, greater circulation of specie, legal protections for labor unions and against paper money, financial speculation, and state banks. Among the prominent members of the faction were William Leggett, William Cullen Bryant, Alexander Ming, Jr., John Commerford, Levi D. Slamm, Henry K. Smith, Isaac S. Smith, Moses Jacques, Gorham Parks, and Walt Whitman (then a newspaper editor).

Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the Locofocos: “The new race is stiff, heady, and rebellious; they are fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.”[3]

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Notes
Bibliography
  • Byrdsall, Fitzwilliam. The History of the Loco-foco, Or Equal Rights Party (1842)
  • Degler, Carl. "The Locofocos: Urban ‘Agrarians’". Journal of Economic History 16 (1956): 322–33. online at JSTOR
  • Garraty, John A. The American Nation. (New York: Longman, 1998)
  • Greenberg, Joshua R. Advocating The Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 190-205.
  • Jenkins, John Stilwell. History of the Political Parties in the State of New-York (Suburn, NY: Alden & Markham, 1846)
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1953 [1945]) For a description of where the Locofocos got their name, see Chapter XV.
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005)

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