Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.
Death from yellow fever complications claimed journalist William Leggett at the tender age of 38, days before he would have assumed his first political office. President Martin Van Buren had just named Leggett US ambassador to Guatemala. In the early 19th century, as temptations were rising to divert Americans’ constitutional framework toward bigger government, Leggett (to borrow a phrase from 20th-century journalist William F. Buckley) stood athwart history yelling, “Stop!”
Leggett’s fame is inextricably intertwined with the term Locofoco. Here’s the story.
Imagine a political movement that says it’s committed to “equal rights” — and means it. Not just equality in a few cherry-picked rights but all human rights, including the most maligned: property rights. Imagine a movement whose raison d’être is to oppose any and all special privileges from government for anybody.
When it comes to political parties, most of them in recent American history like to say they’re for equal rights. But surely the first lesson of politics is this: what the major parties say and do are two different things.
In American history, no such group has ever been as colorful and as thorough in its understanding of equal rights as one that flashed briefly across the political skies in the 1830s and ‘40s. They were called “Locofocos.” If I had been around back then, I would have proudly joined their illustrious ranks.
The Locofocos were a faction of the Democratic Party of President Andrew Jackson, concentrated mostly in the Northeast and New York in particular, but with notoriety and influence well beyond the region. Formally called the Equal Rights Party, they derived their better-known sobriquet from a peculiar event on October 29, 1835.
Democrats in New York City were scrapping over how far to extend Jackson’s war against the federally chartered national bank at a convention controlled by the city’s dominant political machine, Tammany Hall. (Jackson had killed the bank in 1832 by vetoing its renewal.) When the more conservative officialdom of the convention expelled the radical William Leggett, editor of the Evening Post, they faced a full-scale revolt by a sizable and boisterous rump. The conservatives walked out, plunging the meeting room into darkness as they left by turning off the gas lights. The radicals continued to meet by the light of candles they lit with matches called loco focos — Spanish for “crazy lights.”
With the Tammany conservatives gone and the room once again illuminated, the Locofocos passed a plethora of resolutions. They condemned the national bank as an unconstitutional tool of special interests and an engine of paper-money inflation. They assailed all monopolies, by which they meant firms that received some sort of privilege or immunity granted by state or federal governments. They endorsed a “strict construction” of the Constitution and demanded an end to all laws that “directly or indirectly infringe the free exercise of equal rights.” They saw themselves as the true heirs of Jefferson, unabashed advocates of laissez-faire and of minimal government confined to securing equal rights for all and dispensing special privileges for none.
The Locofocos saw themselves as the true heirs of Jefferson, unabashed advocates of laissez-faire and of minimal government.
Three months later, in January 1836, the Locofocos held a convention to devise a platform and to endorse candidates to run against the Tammany machine for city office in April. They still considered themselves Democrats: rather than bolt and form a distinct opposition party, they hoped to steer the party of Jefferson and Jackson to a radical reaffirmation of its principled roots.
“We utterly disclaim any intention or design of instituting any new party, but declare ourselves the original Democratic party,” they announced.
The “Declaration of Principles” the Locofocos passed at that January gathering is a stirring appeal to the bedrock concept of rights, as evidenced by these excerpts:
- “The true foundation of Republican Government is the equal rights of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.”
- “The rightful power of all legislation is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us.”
- “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all the law should enforce on him.”
- “The idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society, we give up any natural right.”
The convention pronounced “hostility to any and all monopolies by legislation,” “unqualified and uncompromising hostility to paper money as a circulating medium, because gold and silver are the only safe and constitutional currency,” and “hostility to the dangerous and unconstitutional creation of vested rights by legislation.”
From affirmative action to business subsidies, today’s Congress and state legislatures routinely bestow advantages on this or that group at the expense of others. The Locofoco condemnation of such special privilege couldn’t be clearer:
We ask that our legislators will legislate for the whole people and not for favored portions of our fellow-citizens, thereby creating distinct aristocratic little communities within the great community. It is by such partial and unjust legislation that the productive classes of society are … not equally protected and respected as the other classes of mankind.
William Leggett, whose expulsion from the October gathering by the Tammany Democrats sparked the Locofocos into being, was the intellectual linchpin of the whole movement. After a short stint editing a literary magazine called the Critic, he was hired as assistant to famed poet and editor William Cullen Bryant at the New York Evening Post in 1829. Declaring “no taste” for politics at first, he quickly became enamored of Bryant’s philosophy of liberty.
He emerged as an eloquent agitator in the pages of the Post, especially in 1834 when he took full charge of its editorial pages while Bryant vacationed in Europe. Leggett struck a chord with the politically unconnected and with many working men and women hit hard by the inflation of the national bank.
In the state of New York at the time, profit-making businesses could not incorporate without special dispensation from the legislature. This meant, as historian Richard Hofstadter explained in a 1943 article, that “men whose capital or influence was too small to win charters from the lawmakers were barred from such profitable lines of corporate enterprise as bridges, railroads, turnpikes and ferries, as well as banks.”
Leggett railed against such privilege: “The bargaining and trucking away of chartered privileges is the whole business of our lawmakers.” His remedy was “a fair field and no favor,” free-market competition unfettered by favor-granting politicians. He and his Locofoco followers were not anti-wealth or anti-bank, but they were vociferously opposed to any unequal application of the law. To Leggett and the Locofocos, the goddess of justice really was blindfolded. His relentless rebukes of what we would call today “crony capitalism” are well represented in this excerpt from an 1834 editorial:
Governments have no right to interfere with the pursuits of individuals, as guaranteed by those general laws, by offering encouragements and granting privileges to any particular class of industry, or any select bodies of men, inasmuch as all classes of industry and all men are equally important to the general welfare, and equally entitled to protection.
The Locofocos won some local elections in the late 1830s and exerted enough influence to see many of their ideas embraced by no less than Martin Van Buren when he ran successfully for president in 1836. By the middle of Van Buren’s single term, the Locofoco notions of equal rights and an evenhanded policy of a small federal government were reestablished as core principles of the Democratic Party. There they would persist for more than half a century after Leggett’s death, through the last great Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, in the 1880s and 1890s. Sadly, those essentially libertarian roots have long since been abandoned by the party of Jefferson and Jackson.
Upon Leggett’s untimely death in 1839, poet William Cullen Bryant penned an eloquent obituary in which he wrote, in part, the following tribute:
As a political writer, Mr. Leggett attained, within a brief period, a high rank and an extensive and enviable reputation. He wrote with great fluency and extraordinary vigor; he saw the strong points of a question at a glance, and had the skill to place them before his readers with a force, clearness and amplitude of statement rarely to be found in the writings of any journalist that ever lived. When he became warmed with his subject, which was not unfrequently the case, his discussions had all the stirring power of extemporaneous eloquence.
His fine endowments he wielded for worthy purposes. He espoused the cause of the largest liberty and the most comprehensive equality of rights among the human race, and warred against those principles which inculcate distrust of the people, and those schemes of legislation which tend to create an artificial inequality in the conditions of men. He was wholly free — and, in this respect his example ought to be held up to journalists as a model to contemplate and copy — he was wholly free from the besetting sin of their profession, a mercenary and time-serving disposition. He was a sincere lover and follower of truth, and never allowed any of those specious reasons for inconsistency, which disguise themselves under the name of expediency, to seduce him for a moment from the support of the opinions which he deemed right, and the measures which he was convinced were just. What he would not yield to the dictates of interest he was still less disposed to yield to the suggestions of fear.
We sorrow that such a man, so clear-sighted, strong minded and magnanimous has passed away, and that his aid is no more to be given in the conflict which truth and liberty maintain with their numerous and powerful enemies.
If you’re unhappy that today’s political parties give lip service to equal rights as they busy themselves carving up what’s yours and passing out the pieces, don’t blame me. I’m a Locofoco and a fan of William Leggett.
For further information, see:
- A Collection of the Political Writings of William Leggett from Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty
- The Flight from Reality: The Democratic Illusion by Clarence B. Carson
- Book review: Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy by William Leggett