Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Revolt of the Locofocos

Having discussed recently the origins of the split between the Hunkers and the Barnburners, I thought I’d take a look at the beginnings of the Locofocos.

Sean Wilentz may be a nutjob when it comes to contemporary politics, but give the Devil his due: his generally disappointing The Rise of American Democracy contains the single most detailed and vivid description of the birth of the Locofocos that I have seen.

As with the Hunkers and Barnburners, Silver Greys, Hardshells and Softshells, the Locofocos sprang from the hothouse of New York politics. In the wake of Andrew Jackson’s War against the Second Bank of the United States, elements of the Democracy in a number of states likewise announced campaigns against banks and monopolies in their states. In New York in 1834, Tammany Hall “announced its opposition to all banks and monopolies” and elected “four antibank sympathizers for the state legislature.”

When the legislature met in January 1835, however, the Democratic-controlled legislature “began approving new bank charters to party insiders and their friends, calling it a ‘judicious’ form of attacking monopoly.” Radical antibank Democrats were furious, and a group of them, called the Equal Rights Democrats, plotted a revolt.

The revolt occurred on the evening of October 29, 1835. Democratic officials of the regular party met at the Wigwam, the Tammany Hall headquarters, “for the anticlimactic business of receiving pro-forma approval from the Democratic rank-and-file for a prearranged slate of candidates.” Since there was a “dense crowd” outside, party leaders, “with a list of conservative nominees, crept up the backstairs” to the meeting room.

When the meeting opened at 7:00 p.m., “the crowd poured in” and immediately displayed its angry mood. Speakers and banners denounced the leadership and its proposed slate as pro-monopolist.
The Equal Rights man Alexander Ming Jr. . . . clambered atop a table and motioned for silence, when suddenly the room went dark. One of the regular Democrats had escaped and switched off the gaslights, a time-honored Tammany method of stifling rebellion. But the Equal Rights insurgents had come prepared with primitive friction matches, popularly known as “Lucifers” or “loc focus.” Holding aloft fifty lit candles and now in total control of the room, they nominated their own ticket.

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