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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The “Loco-Focos” of 1835

By William Graham Sumner (1840–1910)

[Andrew Jackson as a Public Man. 1882.]

A FACTION arose in New York City in 1834–35, which called itself the “equal rights party,” or the “Jeffersonian anti-monopolists.” The organization of the Tammany Hall democrats, under Van Buren and the regency, had become rigid and tyrannical. The equal rights faction revolted, and declared that Tammany was aristocratic. They represented a new upheaval of democracy. They took literally the dogmas which had been taught them, just as the original Jackson men had done ten years before, only that now, to them, the Jackson party seated in power seemed to have drifted away from the pure principles of democracy, just as Monroe had once appeared to the Jackson men to have done. The equal rights men wanted “to return to the Jeffersonian fountain” again, and make some new deductions. They revived and extended the old doctrines which Duane, of the “Aurora,” taught at the beginning of the century in his “Politics for Farmers,” and similar pamphlets. In general the doctrines and propositions might be described as an attempt to apply the procedure of a township democracy to a great state. The equal rights men held meetings at first secretly, at four different places, and not more than two successive times at the same place. They were, in a party point of view, conspirators, rebels—“disorganizes,” in short; and they were plotting the highest crime known to the political code in which they had been educated, and which they accepted. Their platform was: No distinction between men save merit; gold and silver the only legitimate and proper circulating medium; no perpetuities or monopolies; strict construction of the Constitution; no bank charters by States (because banks of issue favor gambling, and are “calculated to build up and strengthen in our country the odious distribution of wealth and power against merits and equal rights”); approval of Jackson’s administration; election of President by direct popular vote. They favored the doctrine of instructions. They also advocated free trade and direct taxes. They had some very sincere and pure-minded men among them, a large number of overheated brains, and a still larger number of demagogues, who were seeking to organize the faction as a means of making themselves so valuable that the regular managers would buy them. The equal rights men gained strength so rapidly that, on the 29th of October, 1835, they were able to offer battle to the old faction at a primary meeting in Tammany Hall for the nomination of a congressman and other officers. The “regular” party entered the hall by the back entrance, and organized the meeting before the doors were opened. The anti-monopolists poured in, nominated a chairman and elected him, ignoring the previous organization. The question of “equal rights” between the two chairmen was then settled in the old original method which has prevailed ever since there has been life on earth. The equal rights men dispossessed the other faction, and so proved the justice of their principles. The non-equal rights party then left the hall, but they “caused” the equal rights men “to be subjected to a deprivation of the right” to light by turning out the gas. The equal rights men were thus forced to test that theory of natural rights which affirms that said rights are only the chance to have good things, if one can get them. In spite of their dogma of the equality of all men, which would make a prudent man no better than a careless one, and a man with capital no better than one without capital, the equal rights men had foreseen the emergency, and had provided themselves with capital in the shape of candles and loco-foco matches. They thus established their right to light, against nature and against their enemies. They duly adopted their platform, nominated a ticket, and adjourned. The regular leaders met elsewhere, nominated the ticket which they had previously prepared, and dispensed, for that occasion, with the ornamental and ceremonious formality of a primary meeting to nominate it.

On the next day the “Courier and Enquirer” dubbed the equal rights party the loco-focos, and the name clung to them. Hammond quotes a correspondent who correctly declared that “the workingmen’s party and the equal rights party have operated as causes, producing effects that will shape the course of the two great parties of the United States, and consequently the destinies of this great republic.” The faction, at least in its better elements, evidently had convictions and a programme. It continued to grow. The “Evening Post” became its organ. That paper quarrelled with the administration on Kendall’s order about the mails, and was thereupon formally read out of the party by the “Globe.” The loco-focos ceased to be a revolting faction. They acquired belligerent rights. The faction, however, in its internal economy ran the course of all factions. It went to extremes, and then began to split up. In January, 1836, it declared its independence of the Democratic-Republican party. This alienated all who hated the party tyranny, but who wanted reform in the party. The faction declared itself opposed to all acts of incorporation, and held that all such acts were repealable. It declared that representative institutions were only a practical convenience, and that legislatures could not create vested rights. Then it went on to adopt a platform of “equality of position, as well as of rights.”

In October, 1836, Tammany made overtures to the equal rights men for a reunion, in preparation for the Presidential election. Some of the loco-focos wanted to unite; others refused. The latter were the men of conviction; the former were the traders. The former called the latter “rumps”; the latter called the former “buffaloes.” Only one stage now remained to complete the old and oft-repeated drama of faction. A man named Slamm, a blatant ignoramus, who, to his great joy, had been arrested by order of the Assembly of New York for contempt and breach of privilege, and who had profited to the utmost by this incident to make a long “argument” against the “privilege” of an American Legislature, and to pose as a martyr to equal rights, secured his own election to the position of secretary of the equal rights party. He then secured a vote that no constitutional election could be held unless called by the secretary. He never would call one. There were those who thought that he sold out the party.

Thus the faction perished ignominiously, but it was not without reason that its name passed, a little later, to the whole Jackson–Van Buren party; i.e., to the radical anti-paper currency, not simply anti–United States Bank, wing of the national Democratic party. The equal rights men maintained impracticable doctrines of civil authority and fantastic dogmas about equality, but when these were stripped away there remained in their platform sound doctrines and imperishable ideas. They first put the Democratic party on the platform which for five or six years it had been trying to find. When it did find that platform it was most true to itself, and it contributed most to the welfare of the country. To-day the Democratic party is, by tradition, a party of hard money, free trade, the non-interference theory of government, and no special legislation. If that tradition be traced up to its source, it will lead back, not to the Jackson party of 1829, but to the loco-focos of 1835.