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Cartoon celebrating defeat of Locofocoism, 1840

The Locofocos (also Loco Focos or Loco-focos) were a faction of the Democratic Party in American politics that existed from 1835 until the mid-1840s.


The faction, originally named the Equal Rights Party, was created in New York City as a protest against that city's regular Democratic organization, Tammany Hall. It contained a mixture of anti-Tammany Democrats and labor union veterans of the Working Men's Party, the latter of which had existed from 1828 to 1830.[1] They were vigorous advocates of laissez-faire and opponents of monopoly. Their leading intellectual was editorial writer William Leggett.

The name Locofoco derived from "locofoco, a kind of friction match". It originated when a group of Jacksonians used such matches to light candles to continue a political meeting after Tammany men tried to break up the meeting by turning off the gaslights.[2]

The Locofocos were involved in the Flour Riot of 1837. In February 1837, the Locofocos held a mass meeting in City Hall Park (New York City) to protest the rising cost of living. When the assembled crowd learned that flour had been hoarded at warehouses on the Lower East Side, hundreds rushed to the warehouses resulting in the arrest of 53 people. The New York State Assembly blamed the Locofocos for the unrest and opened an investigation into them.[3]

The Locofocos never controlled the party nationally and declined after 1840, when the federal government passed the Independent Treasury Act. This assured them that the government would not resume its involvement in banking, which had been a key aim of the faction.[4] In the 1840 election, the term Locofoco was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic President Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory.

In general, Locofocos supported Andrew Jackson and Van Buren, and were for free trade, greater circulation of specie, legal protections for labor unions and against paper money, financial speculation, and state banks. Among the prominent members of the faction were William Leggett, William Cullen Bryant, Alexander Ming Jr., John Commerford, Levi D. Slamm, Abram D. Smith, Henry K. Smith, Isaac S. Smith, Moses Jacques, Gorham Parks, and Walt Whitman (then a newspaper editor).

Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the Locofocos: "The new race is stiff, heady, and rebellious; they are fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost all laws."[5]


William Lyon Mackenzie[edit]

Locofocoism influenced Canadian politics through William Lyon Mackenzie. Mackenzie, an influential newspaper publisher and parliamentarian, became sympathetic to the Locofocs after meeting Andrew Jackson in 1829.[6][7] Frustrated by Tory control of Canadian politics, Mackenzie led the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion and proclaimed a short-lived "Republic of Canada" during the Patriot War with help from American militias.[7] Locofoco Abram Smith and many others would become active in American Hunter’s Lodges dedicated to ending British rule in Canada.

Mackenzie was imprisoned for violating the Neutrality Act during the Patriot War, but pressure from sympathetic Locofocos and others forced President Martin Van Buren to pardon Mackenzie in 1840.[8] William Lyon Mackenzie later became an American citizen and Locofoco politician before returning to Canada.[9]

Origin of name[edit]

The name Loco-foco was originally used by John Marck for a self-igniting cigar, which he had patented in April 1834.[10][11] Marck, an immigrant, invented his name from a combination of the Latin prefix loco-, which as part of the word locomotive had recently entered general public use, and was usually misinterpreted to mean "self", and a misspelling of the Italian word fuoco for "fire".[11] Therefore, Marck's name for his product was originally meant in the sense of "self-firing". It appears that Marck's term was quickly genericized to mean any self-igniting match, and it was this usage from which the faction derived its name.

The Whigs quickly seized upon the name, applying an alternate derivation of Loco Foco, from the combination of the Spanish word loco, meaning mad or crack-brained, and foco, from "focus" or fuego meaning "fire".[12] Their meaning then was that the faction and later the entire Democratic party, was the "focus of folly".[13] The use of Locofoco as a derogatory name for the Democratic party continued well into the 1850s, even following the dissolution of the Whig Party and the formation of the Republican Party by former urban Workingmen Locofocos, anti-slavery Know Nothings, Free Soilers, Conscience Whigs, and Temperance Whigs.[14][15][16]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Fleshies recorded "Locofoco Motherfucker" on Kill The Dreamer's Dream (2001), which interpreted contemporary politics by reference to the locofoco movement.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Byrdsall, Fitzwilliam (1842). The History of the Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Party. New York: Clement & Packard. pp. 13–14. Loco Foco.
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica History & Society: Locofoco Party
  3. ^ Lause, Mark (2018). Long Road to Harpers Ferry. London: Pluto Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 9781786803252.
  4. ^ "Locofoco Party". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  5. ^ Kauffman, Bill (20 April 2009). "The Republic Strikes Back". The American Conservative. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
  6. ^ MacKay, R. A. (1937). "The Political Ideas of William Lyon Mackenzie". The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. 3 (1): 1–22. doi:10.2307/136825. ISSN 0315-4890. JSTOR 136825.
  7. ^ a b Bonthius, Andrew (2003). "The Patriot War of 1837-1838: Locofocoism with a Gun?". Labour / Le Travail. 52: 9–43. doi:10.2307/25149383. ISSN 0700-3862. JSTOR 25149383. S2CID 142863197.
  8. ^ Sewell, John (October 2002). Mackenzie: A Political Biography. James Lorimer Limited. ISBN 978-1-55028-767-7.
  9. ^ Gates, Lilian F. (1996-07-25). After the Rebellion: The later years of William Lyon Mackenzie. Dundurn. ISBN 978-1-55488-069-0.
  10. ^ Jones, Thomas P, ed. (November 1834). "American Patents". Journal of the Franklin Institute. XIV (5). Pennsylvania: 329.
  11. ^ a b Bartlett, John Russell (1859). A Dictionary of Americanisms (2nd ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. pp. 252–3. John Marck self igniting cigar.
  12. ^ "loco-foco". Etymonline. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  13. ^ "Loco Foco". Caroll Free Press. Carrollton, Ohio. 22 April 1836. Retrieved 27 August 2015.
  14. ^ Howe, Daniel Walker (2007). What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford University Press. pp. 545-546. ISBN 9780195392432.
  15. ^ Gienapp, William E (1987). The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. Oxford University Press. pp. 16–66, 93–109, 435–439. ISBN 0-19-504100-3.
  16. ^ Maisel, L. Sandy; Brewer, Mark D. (2008). Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process (5th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-0742547643.
  17. ^ "Johnny NoMoniker on Outsight Radio Hours". archive.org. Retrieved 9 September 2019. the idea of that song is basically contrasting … the idea of reactionary movements before labor organized really into the unions we have today, reactionary movements of the 19th Century, with today

Further reading[edit]

  • Degler, Carl (1956). "The Locofocos: Urban 'Agrarians'". Journal of Economic History. 16 (3): 322–33. doi:10.1017/s0022050700059222. JSTOR 2114593. S2CID 154090227.
  • Greenberg, Joshua R. Advocating The Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800–1840 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 190–205.
  • Hofstadter, Richard (1943). "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy". Political Science Quarterly. 58 (4): 581–594. doi:10.2307/2144949. JSTOR 2144949.
  • Jenkins, John Stilwell. History of the Political Parties in the State of New-York (Suburn, NY: Alden & Markham, 1846)
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953 [1945]) For a description of where the Locofocos got their name, see Chapter XV.
  • Trimble, William (1921). "The social philosophy of the Loco-Foco democracy". American Journal of Sociology. 26 (6): 705–715. doi:10.1086/213247. JSTOR 2764332. S2CID 143836640.
  • White, Lawrence H (1986). "William Leggett: Jacksonian editorialist as classical liberal political economist". History of Political Economy. 18 (2): 307–324. doi:10.1215/00182702-18-2-307.
  • Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (1984).
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005).

External links[edit]