Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Barnburners: Fons et Origo

Herbert D.A. Donovan identifies 1842 as a key year in the developing divisions within the Democratic Party in New York.

During the last gubernatorial term of Democrat William Learned Marcy (who left office on December 31, 1838) and particularly during the administration of his successor, Whig William Henry Seward (who assumed office January 1, 1839), the state debt mushroomed. Conservative Democrats and Whigs sponsored ambitious canal projects while refusing to lay taxes to pay for them, maintaining that the income generated from the projects would ultimately pay off the debt.

As previously discussed, by 1842 the state was an economic disaster area. The Radicals finally gained enough support to pass the Stop and Tax Act of 1842, aided by more conservative Democrats “who consented to it only on the ground of temporary necessity.” The Radicals then beat back attempts by Conservatives to undermine the Act through the passage of bills that would have authorized work on specific projects.
“[T]he proceedings of the Democratic members of the [New York] Senate [in which Conservatives proposed to fund projects and Radicals thwarted them] . . . are worthy of particular notice, because they afforded the first public demonstration in our state legislature of the difference of opinion between that portion of the Democratic party called the Barnburners or radicals, and those that were afterwards called conservatives, or ‘Hunkers.’” From this time forward, the Radicals had a concrete platform on which they could stand together and seek to dominate the will of the party.


Thus it may be seen that the ramifications of the canal question were the ultimate source of division, the “fons et origo” from which sprang the dissentions in the Democratic party at that period.

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