Brash, bold, and ahead of their time, the Loco Focos, like the switch match they were named after, burned briefly and brightly on the New York political scene during the 1830s. On March 6, 1837, they rallied 30,000 people to City Hall Park to bring down the banking system, and they nearly succeeded.
The Loco Focos formed in 1836 as an anti-Tammany wing of the Democratic Party. The story goes that when Tammany members tried to disrupt one of their meetings by shutting off the gaslights, the crowd lit their loco foco matches and carried on by candlelight. Prominent members included Walt Whitman, then a newspaper editor, and William Cullen Bryant, whose statue sits in the park that bears his name
The Loco Focos are difficult to classify under modern political terms, but they resemble the Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party coalition that pundits hypothesized about in 2011. They were strong supporters of what would later be called labor rights, as well as abolition. At the same time, they were for unfettered free trade and small government. These goals faced a common enemy: the collusion of the banking system and state power. They simply didn’t trust government not to be captured by financial interests. Ralph Waldo Emerson summarized their views: “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.”
They first ran candidates in the 1836 elections, but the Democratic machine deftly coopted the issue of banking regulation to pull sufficient supporters away from their third party challenge. As the economic conditions worsened in early 1837, however, the Loco Focos found audiences more receptive. Their party members were believed to be some of the main agitators behind the Great Flour Riot of 1837, which we’ve covered here.
A month after the Flour Riot, the Loco Focos organized a rally in City Hall Park to denounce the banks. Speakers urged New Yorkers to cash their banknotes, an early version of “move your money,” in order to “thus make these soulless corporate extortioners pay their debts to the people as promptly as they compel payment from the people.”
This angry call to action appeared to work. Throughout the spring, crowds flooded banks demanding their money, and the militia had to be called in to quell restive mobs gathered on Wall Street. Meanwhile, the banks started to feel the pinch of withdrawals, and by May 10, every single bank in the city had stopped returning gold and silver. This would be illegal, but for a state law that the banks pushed through during the financial crisis, which pretty much proved the Loco Focos’ point about bank/government collusion.
The city came to a standstill, as business couldn’t carry on without hard currency. Writer Philip Hone lamented, “The volcano has burst and overwhelmed New York.” The run on the banks had turned into a full-blown Depression, spreading through the entire northeast, then the rest of the country. The Depression lasted for years, one of the worst in American history.
Witnessing the popular sentiment behind the anti-bank movement, the Democratic Party reached out and incorporated much of the Loco Focos’ platform into their own. By 1840 the Loco Focos no longer were a separate political factor. Like many high energy, short-lived movements, the legacy of the Loco Focos lived on through the activists it produced, many of whom became leaders in the early union organizing movement, especially after their steadfast belief in worker rights met with the ideas espoused by a new thinker on the political scene, Karl Marx.
So too do the Loco Focos live on through the tactic of hitting the banks where it hurts. During the Great Recession, several groups, including one led by Zephyr Teachout, made moving money out of the big multinational banks a key activist measure against the power of the financial industry.