Igniting Interest: Barnum’s Views on the Loco-Foco Party

Igniting Interest: Barnum’s Views on the Loco-Foco Party

As we have journeyed through our letter-reading odyssey, I’ve often felt that composing these blog posts from Barnum’s copybook was like weaving fabric, bringing together the threads of various tales and gradually seeing the stories, like patterns in woven cloth, emerge as my work progressed. For me, and I hope for you, too, as a reader, that’s been a large part of the fun, seeing the picture of Barnum’s early career come to life, assembled from these many details.  Mind you, our “cloth” was not a simple woven check that grew quickly with each pass of the shuttle in the loom.  That’s because this was an iterative process whereby we often went back to pick up story threads as we moved between one topic and another, while advancing the story as a whole.  So our cloth, I would say, has more of the character of a fancy brocade in which some threads, or stories, were left to “float” across the back of the fabric until it was their turn once again to be picked up and caught into the weave structure.  That’s how the patterns on the face of a brocade are formed.  This process takes patience because it is a more complex and slower than weaving a check, so I thank you for sticking with me at the weaver’s bench over the past eighteen months!

That said, not every letter found its way into a “pattern” or storyline.  The content of a few letters just didn’t fit with any of the topics we’ve been exploring, though of course this could not be known until nearing the end of the copybook.  As I’ve progressed through the copybook, these “stand-alone” letters have prompted the occasional hop-scotch on my part, jumping over a letter here and there, hoping there might be other related correspondence, or even a passage in another letter, that could fill out a new storyline.  There have been just a tiny handful skipped for this reason, with the exception of Barnum’s long letters to the Atlas, which I chose not to include in this series.  I thought I’d share one of the “stand-alone” letters this week.  It caught my attention because in it, Barnum explains a bit of early American history I’ve always found confusing, that is, the names of the early American political parties.  Opposing parties seemed to use the same names interchangeably without regard to how anyone would remember their party’s name from year to year.  Who was called what when?  Apparently the British also found the situation mystifying, and possibly quite annoying, back in the day.

In a letter written in March of 1846, Barnum gives us a Cliffs Notes version of the various party name changes, which he provided as context to relating the incident that led to the Loco-Foco Party’s unusual appellation.  Before we get to that, I will give you a little background on the Loco-Focos and suggest that if this topic sparks your interest (pun intended), you may wish to look at a little book dedicated to their history, published in 1842; it is available to read online.  (The incident Barnum describes in his letter begins on page 23 of the book.)

The party began as one of several factions of the Democratic Party in the mid-1830s and called themselves the Equal Rights Democracy.  They were strongly opposed to the government’s involvement in banking and to monopolies among other issues.  The group came to be called the Loco-Foco Party due to the incident Barnum relates, but the Democratic Party’s opposition, the Whigs, soon broadly applied the name, with pejorative intent, to the entire party.  The “original” Loco-Foco group (Equal Rights Democracy) was not long lived because in 1840, during President Martin Van Buren’s administration, they achieved one of their main goals, separating the government and banks, and so the faction began to dissolve.  For Barnum, all this was not news of the moment, it was recent history.  But the way by which the Equal Rights Democracy outmaneuvered the corrupt Democratic Party leaders of Tammany Hall in 1835 was a story worth repeating, involving exactly the kind of practical, down-to-earth cleverness that appealed to Barnum.  He must have enjoyed telling the tale to anyone who had not heard it.

On March 27th, Barnum wrote to John Stewart, Esq., from Egyptian Hall in London.  Stewart was located at No. 20 Niddry Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and presumably he was an editor or publisher of one of the city’s half dozen newspapers.  The main purpose of Barnum’s letter was to apologize for not having taken care of overseas shipping tasks he had promised to help with, though he assured Stewart that he would “attend to that business before the setting of another sun.”  Barnum’s assessment of his own time management skills is revealed in his statements to Stewart, viz.:

You will discover that I am a miserable agent when I inform you that I have not yet even written to Liverpool to learn whether your boxes were received—much less have I yet taken steps for shipping them to America.  The fact is, I can attend to my own legitimate business about as thoroughly as most men—but when that presses me, I have a sad habit of neglecting affairs in which I am more remotely interested.

With that out of the way, he next apologized for not having had “time to prepare an article fit for publication” though he gladly offered “the facts regarding the origin of our Loco-Foco party in America.” He hoped that “yourself or friend can lick it into shape for publication.” Perhaps Stewart and Barnum had met in January when Barnum was in Edinburgh, and mutually agreed that Barnum should submit an article; Stewart may have suggested something that would illuminate American life or politics to his Scottish readers.  Since Barnum did not hide his own political persuasions in the article, I should note that at this time in his life he was a staunch Jacksonian Democrat; then in the 1850s he became increasingly dissatisfied with the Democrats’ stance on a number of issues, and by 1860, with secession threatening the nation, he determined to switch his allegiance to the Republican Party.

Barnum prefaced his article by explaining that, “What are termed Lucifer matches here [in the UK]—are in America called Loco-Foco matches.”  (Loco-Foco was actually the name given to a patented brand of self-igniting cigars but soon came to refer to a new type of friction match that was safer than “Lucifers.”)  Barnum then set the stage for his story:

Some years since (I suppose about 1834 though my memory of dates is very treacherous) the liberal or Democratic party had been many years in power in the United State and especially in the State of New York—they were in power by very great majorities, and, like all parties or individuals under Heaven, when they suppose that they possess power which cannot be wrested from them, they began to abuse this power, and became in a great degree corrupt.

He explained, “That party had always been the liberal party—while the party opposed to them whose legitimate name was the Federalist party, but who changed their name (like many other rogues) nearly every year, . . . was always found advocating the cause of the rich against the poor—the few against the many—the cause of especial rights and privileges—special Bank Charter and all monopolies which would serve the interests of the wealthy or the would be wealthy—to the detriment of the honest trader, farmer, or mechanic.”

The Federalist party, he tells us, was one year known as the “National Republicans,” but the next year as the National Democrats, and then as the National Democratic Republicans.  Then they went back to being the National Republicans, “and finally [became] the ‘Whigs,’ [who were] assimilated in some degree to the Tory Party of this country . . .”

View of Tammany Hall in New York City
View of Tammany Hall in New York City, 1830. This was the headquarters of the Democratic Party, and the location of an infamous incident in 1835 that Barnum described for Scottish newspaper readers. Lithograph print by George Hayward, now in the Wallach Division Picture Collection, NYPL. (Image courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collection.)

Barnum clarified the locus of the Democrats in the U.S., noting that “The great head quarters of the Democrats in New York, and indeed in America, was and is known as ‘Tammany Hall’ in the City of New York, and it was from this Hall (‘Tammany’ is an Indian name) that these leaders issued their edicts—in fact ‘Tammany’ was a name which charmed every lover of liberty.”

But the Democratic Party’s principles began to erode by the 1830s, and according to Barnum, “. . . the liberal party . . . also began to encourage monopolies and . . . sadly neglected that defence of equal rights and privileges which had formed the very essence and groundwork of these principles.”  He explained the circumstances as follows:

A certain set of “old hunkers” as we termed them, had long, long been the leaders of the Democratic Party, and had for many years met in caucus and made nominations for Governor & other State Officers for the State of New York, and these nominations were sent forth and always successfully supported by the entire party.  In fact General Jackson was first nominated by the Democratic leaders in New York for President of the United States, and so great was their influence at this time that the whole Democratic or liberal party of the Union would have voted to a man for any person whom this small “junto” would have nominated for the highest office in the gift of the people—President of the U. S. A.

With dissatisfaction building, “. . . at last the honest & intelligent portion of this party saw that the leaders were becoming degenerated—that they always nominated themselves and their own personal friends, and that they had established a principle of favoritism which would be ruinous to justice and totally destructive to that creed which advocates the greatest good of the greatest number.”  This is what led to the incident of October 29, 1835.  As Barnum explained it,

They therefore determined to oppose the farther dictation of these proud men, and a man named Job Haskell a dealer in coals & c. gave notice through the prints that on a certain night when these leaders were to meet at Tammany Hall to nominate certain officers of State, that it was necessary for those democrats opposed to an abuse of power & c. to also meet there and by their votes put to shame all farther attempts at favoritism & c.  They did meet accordingly, and the old hunkers finding themselves outvoted declared the meeting adjourned till the following evening at 7 oclock.  The radicals objected to this and attempted to re-organize the meeting, but the leaders ordered the gas to be turned off, and thus all were left in the dark and the meeting quietly dispersed.

Realizing that the Democrats had a secret scheme to get the votes for their nominees, the Equal Rights Democracy men came up with a plan to counter these efforts to obliterate their voices and votes.  As Barnum tells the story, “The object in . . . adjourning the meeting was for the leaders to fill the Hall on the following evening with the friends of the ‘old hunkers’ before the hour named, but the radicals were up to this dodge” and they quickly got word to their supporters.  The next evening, the “old hunkers” of the Democratic Party found themselves once again outnumbered, and quite obviously so.  “The radicals insisted on making the nominations, but the old party leaders, seeing that defeat was certain again, ordered the gas to be turned off, and in a moment all were again involved in darkness.”

“Political Chart of the United States”
This map or “Political Chart of the United States” shows the change in red and blue states as a result of the 1840 election. (Florida was a territory at this time so was not included in the election.) Unable to settle on one candidate, the Whigs put up four, but the single candidate of the Democratic Party, whom the Whigs dubbed the Loco-Foco Party, won the electoral college votes. Martin Van Buren was thus elected President of the United States. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Here’s where the story takes an unexpected turn.  Instead of the extinguished lights immediately terminating the meeting as the Democrats intended,

. . . the radicals were this time prepared against surprise, and in less than half a minute, five hundred of them had pulled each a candle and a box of Loco Foco matches from his pocket, and five hundred lighted candles were instantly held in triumph aloft by the hands of as many bold and unswerving friend to equal rights.  The radicals then nominated their candidates and the people ratified the nomination, for they were elected by glorious majorities.

Needless to say “the radicals were instantly dubbed the Loco Foco party, and for some months that name applied solely to the radicals.”  But the name soon came to refer to the whole party.  As Barnum put it to Stewart, “ . . . in less than a year all differences in the Democratic party were healed—but their common enemy the Federalists, alias the Whigs, still continue to apply the term Loco-Foco to the entire democratic party . . .”  Despite the intended insult, this was not an unwelcome name, Barnum remarked.

. . . in fact I myself in common with the whole party rejoice in the name and we apply it to ourselves, for now having adopted a name which was first used by our opponents to stigmatize us—we are no longer tormented by our enemies stealing our name and thus trying to mislead the people.  Our party were originally the Whigs of America, but it having been so long used to distinguish the Federalists we give up that title as lost—and now the name Whig is understood in America by all Democrats to mean—aristocrats & enemies of liberty.

That Barnum knew his version of this history would appeal to Stewart’s subscribers is suggested as he concluded his letter.  He offered his story to Stewart with the comments,

There, my dear sir, from this hasty sketch you may perhaps find sufficient to make out such an article as you desire–& I can only say that I am very much rejoiced to observe the rapid progress of education and liberal principles in Scotland—and indeed also in England (though the progress is not so rapid) and that I shall be but too happy at all times to hear from you.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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