How the Abolitionist Grandfathers of Modern Libertarianism Won by Losing—and Lost by Winning

While Europe was in revolt, America had its own Free Soil revolution of 1848.


It started in January on the rim of the Mediterranean, in Sicily. A month later, Paris was at the barricades. Throughout 1848, no fewer than four dozen revolts cascaded across continental Europe. New ideas raced across the land: The rebels divided themselves between liberal internationalists, nationalists of varying stripes, and socialists. Most of the old regimes managed to survive, but only decrepit Spain, autocratic Russia, and frigid Scandinavia avoided any revolt at all.

It was a revolutionary year in the United States too, though we're usually left out of the story.

Our spark was lit in the brief period between the Sicilian and French revolts, when the Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This ended the Mexican War and formally seized more than half of Mexico, expanding the U.S. by more than 330 million acres. Southerners had formed a majority of the conquering army and its officer corps, and now the second sons of the great planters were itching for their chance to take some slaves out west and become the nabob labor-lords of those fresh new states-in-waiting. It was the poison pill that ultimately led to civil war.

In the shorter term, it led to the American rebellion of 1848. Unlike the uprisings in Europe, this one played out within the political system—at least temporarily.

For decades, Martin Van Buren had built and maintained the Jacksonian coalition—the alliance at the core of the antebellum Democratic Party—by promising Southerners that Northerners would stay out of their domestic affairs if Southerners would support "plain republicanism" for white men. This alliance was America's status quo, our Old Regime. And in 1848, the radicals of the Free Soil movement mounted a full-on assault both on the supposed rights of planters to their chattel and on a host of economic privileges held by well-connected businesses. By proclaiming that state-granted privileges of any sort were anti-democratic, anti-republican, corrupting, impoverishing, and morally unjustifiable, the Free Soilers set the intellectual and political conditions for a wholesale abolition revolution. The chief force holding back the wave of change was the duopoly held by the two major political parties, especially Van Buren's Democrats.

Who knew, then, that the very man who would blow up the system was Martin Van Buren himself?

Match: A Slow-Burning Locofoco Revolution

To understand the American rebellion of 1848, you first must look at the politics of the 1820s and '30s. Van Buren cut his political teeth then, using his cunning to build an alliance between Southern planters, Northern yeomen, and urban labor. After the election of 1828, he rode Andrew Jackson's coattails to high office. He became President Jackson's secretary of state and then vice president, and in 1836 he was elected president himself.

The Jackson circle's most famous crusade was the Bank War, a quest to shutter and kill the Second Bank of the United States. While it was not quite the same as a modern central bank, the Bank of the United States' job was to regulate the currency by expanding and contracting the national money supply. Jackson did not make much of the bank question until Henry Clay, the speaker of the House and one of the country's leading anti-Jackson men, decided to push a bill to renew the Bank's charter early, making it a campaign issue when he ran for president in 1832.

Jackson responded with a blast against the Bank, charging it with centralizing control of the economy in the hands of a privileged elite. With power over the banking system, well-connected persons could ensure that their own speculations paid a bundle, while the common man (who paid higher prices) and the small investor (unable to withstand market corrections) were left holding the bag. Effectively, the president said that such a system necessarily transferred wealth from the poor to the rich. Jackson vetoed the bill, and Clay lost his gambit and the election.

But Jackson and many of his top state-level supporters had another, rather different reason for opposing the Second Bank: It restrained the number of notes the state-chartered banks issued, and many of those state banks were run by Jacksonians. Remove those constraints, kill the national bank, shift the government Treasury into the state banks, and you open a credit bonanza that high-level Jacksonians could dole out to supporters. During his brief stint as governor of New York, Van Buren himself implemented the Safety Fund system—essentially a state bank bailout scheme. Beneath the veneer of Jacksonian democracy lurked a new class of exploitative political entrepreneurs: Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet," armies of Democratic state officials, and swarms of federal appointees scattered in key places across the Union.

Most Jacksonians followed in lockstep with the president, but a group of New York City radicals broke ranks and pioneered a different sort of politics. Two newspaper editors—the proto-progressive George Henry Evans and the proto-libertarian William Leggett—began arguing that the war on the Bank of the United States should extend to state-chartered banks as well. These, they said, were also unjust extensions of government-granted monopolistic privilege; killing only the great national monster would allow many smaller horrors to fructify and worsen.

Their opposition to monopolistic privilege didn't stop at the banks. In those days, most businesses were not corporations; they were partnerships, sole proprietorships, cooperatives, or some other unincorporated, nonchartered form. To get the advantages bestowed by corporate status—to be an artificial person whose owners enjoyed limited liability and other legal benefits—one needed a specific grant from the state legislature, a process that created notorious opportunities for corruption. Evans and Leggett condemned the entire process as a medieval remnant of Old World government that was poisoning our democratic institutions.

From 1828 to 1835, the editors emerged as the city's leading radical intellectual figures. They built their anti-monopolist politics around the idea of universal equal rights, and they extended these claims to all men, regardless of class and race.

Their agitating came to a head in August 1835, when a mob in Charleston, South Carolina, burst into a post office, confiscated sacks of abolitionist mail, and burned them in the town square. The local postmaster, Alfred Huger, looked the other way and then asked for guidance from the Jackson administration. Postmaster General Amos Kendall—the main author of Jackson's Bank veto—refused to oppose the mob, initiating a de facto policy of mail censorship in the interest of a privileged planter elite. In this touchstone event, radical Northerners' fears of monopolies (including the government's monopoly on the post) merged with their developing fears of the slaveowners' power.

Leggett lashed out at this violation of Northerners' equal right to the national mail, denouncing both the mob and the Jackson administration. The abolitionists responded by sending Leggett a bundle of the same materials burned at Charleston. He threw himself into the reading and emerged a few months later as one of the country's foremost and fieriest abolitionists. He longed for a slave rebellion, and he advocated Northern secession years before William Lloyd Garrison embraced the idea. For Leggett, the state fed both the Money Power (concentrated and organized banking interests) and the Slave Power (concentrated and organized planter interests). Money nursed slavery and slavery produced more money, growing the ever-grasping state. The government's power to grant artificial privilege gave rise to entrenched financial and slaveholding classes with interests fundamentally antagonistic to the people at large.

The more Leggett applied his principles across the color line, the less comfortable the Democratic establishment was with him. The Washington Globe eventually read him out of the party, pronouncing him a disorganizer—someone who actively tries to break apart a party's power. In those days, loyalty to one's partisan affiliation was akin to loyalty to one's church.

But Leggett was not alone. His radical readers concluded that "plain republicanism" was merely a convenient cover for artificial—that is, state-created—privilege. Americans had replaced an aristocracy of blood with one of wealth and pull; partisanship and spoils became the new feudalism's reciprocal bonds of obligation. To counteract this monopolist force, Leggett's supporters throughout the city set about organizing. They plotted in secret and took a bit of advice from Evans: Use their numbers to storm the Democratic Party's upcoming nominating convention for a slew of citywide offices. Take control of the convention, and they could force their candidates into office, whether the monopolists liked it or not.

The radicals knew the conservatives would not give up their grip on the party easily, so they came prepared. Friction matches had only recently been invented, and people called them "locofocos"—a bastardization of the Italian words for "fire in motion." On the appointed evening, the anti-monopolists crammed themselves into Tammany Hall, packing the space to capacity and catching the leadership completely unaware. When the party regulars realized the game was up, they abandoned the meeting and shut off the gas lights, leaving the building and the rump gathering of radicals in darkness.

Then it happened. As the movement's first historian, Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, described it: "Locofoco matches are ignited, candles are lit, and they are held up by living and breathing chandeliers. It is a glorious illumination! There are loud and long plaudits and huzzas, such as Tammany never before echoed from its foundations."

The radicals passed a series of anti-monopoly resolutions, nominated their own slate of candidates by candlelight, and then, in Byrdsall's words, "marched up the Bowery, cheering their democratic fellow-citizens on the way." Finally, "after giving nine hearty cheers," the crowd melted back into the city, light by light.

The next day the partisan press dismissed the little revolution by calling the rebels the Locofoco Party, along with all sorts of other colorful insults, from "Renegade anti-Masons" to "Carbonari" to "Infidels" to "the Guy Fawkes[es] of politics." To the press, Locofoco was a name given in derision, spat at their enemies like venom. But for Leggett's little band, it was a badge of honor and a source of joy.

Friction: A Decade of Ups and Downs

For the next two years, the Locofoco Party—officially called the Equal Rights Party—fought the monopoly Democrats. They never won enough offices to take control themselves, but they controlled the balance of power in New York City, throwing elections from one party to another and forcing joint nominations (though, once elected, joint nominees usually promptly betrayed their locofoco supporters).

From the start, the Equal Rights Party was split between a narrow majority who simply wanted to force a reformation of the Democratic Party along anti-monopoly lines and a slight minority who remained committed to independent action. They were equally split over Van Buren. Some believed what he said about economic nonintervention and "plain republicanism." Others remained doubtful of his principles and alarmed by his penchant for compromise. By 1837, when Van Buren succeeded Jackson as president, he had won over enough locofocos with his economic platform (including William Leggett's plan for an Independent Treasury) that the Equal Rights Party collapsed. The locos were reabsorbed into the Democratic Party or splintered into political no-man's-land.

Most historians have left the story there. But the rebels did not disappear along with their third party, nor did they suddenly forget their principles. Many thought they had won. After all, Van Buren went to great pains to make overtures to their economic program, and he even appointed a dying William Leggett to a diplomatic post in Central America. But when Van Buren lost his re-election bid in 1840, the locofocos returned to their disorganizing ways.

There are more paths to revolution than electing a president or wrangling a majority in Congress. Some locofocos poured across the northern border to join an ill-fated Canadian rebellion against the British Empire. Others launched a domestic revolt in Rhode Island, trying both politically and militarily to install a more democratic and anti-monopolist government in that state. Locofocos hosted grand political feasts with radical speeches and endless clam chowder for crowds as small as a few hundred and as large as 25,000. They harassed and resisted sheriffs in New York's Anti-Rent War, a conflict in which tenants refused to pay feudal dues to aristocrats whose families had inherited colonial land grants. And in New York they revolutionized state government by working within the Democratic Party to elect reform candidates. The Evening Post called for a state constitutional convention years before it actually happened in 1846; it agitated for a slate of reforms, including many which actually took effect. They abolished the old feudal systems of land tenure and democratized the incorporation process, allowing all citizens to incorporate businesses essentially at will.

Still, the locofoco record was mixed. The Canadian rebellions failed; if anything, locofoco activities accelerated Canada's national centralization and the development of what became the Dominion system.

Rhode Island's "Dorr War" (named for its feckless political leader, Thomas Wilson Dorr) failed too, with the young men who composed Dorr's army fleeing at the first signs of battle.

New York's feudal land tenures were abolished, but this was done by transforming rent contracts into mortgages. The courts made landlords into creditors and renters into land-"owning" debtors better off in legal fiction than in reality.

And then there was the matter of corporate charters. The more radical locofoco position was to abolish them entirely, doing away with the idea that the state could create special legal entities with rights, privileges, and duties. Instead they passed a more moderate compromise: In 1846, New York adopted the practice of general incorporation, opening the corporate form to any business that met certain minimum capital requirements and filed the appropriate paperwork. This became the model that then spread across the Union, state by state. The number of newly incorporated companies exploded.

It was a much more fair system than the earlier medieval model, and it allowed a boom in productivity not seen to that point in world history. But it also contained the seeds of something ugly. If it was the state's job to create artificial persons, then (the argument went) the state should also regulate their behavior. Left to their own devices, corporations could become convenient ways to centralize wealth and power while insulating stockholders and executives from responsibility for corporate wrongdoing; the state that was making these artificial people would also claim the duty to keep them in line. The New York locofocos helped give us both modern business and modern regulation, for good and for ill.

In that case, the counterrevolution was contained within the revolutionary institutions themselves. We have lived with a fundamentally conservative settlement of Leggett's "war on monopoly" ever since. Democratizing artificial power and privilege turned out to be no substitute for abolishing it.

Worse, as they built their larger political movement and fought Leggett's twin wars against monopoly and slavery, far too many of the old locofocos let the second plank aside.

From their inception in 1835 to James K. Polk's election in 1844, locofocos' sense of radical mission helped contribute to the growing concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined for a special, unstoppable place in world history. Their version of Manifest Destiny had a libertarian bent to it: First in America, next in France, and then around the world, they believed, republics would replace aristocracies one by one. It wasn't that they identified with the rebels of 1848 so much as they thought of themselves as the leading edge, the vanguard in a global revolution. The Europeans were only just catching up (and good for them!). America's job was to set the example of a peaceful, prosperous republicanism.

Yet when they backed up these basically good ideas with political support for one candidate or another, the locofocos' good ideas sank beneath a tide of imperialism and racism. When Southern expansionists dumped Van Buren in 1844, locofocos—drunk on hazy, purple visions of global revolution—stepped in to provide the critical support that made Polk president. Their votes in New York helped ensure the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the spread of slavery in the West, and all the horrors that came with it, including a government apparently run for the benefit of a planter aristocracy.

How to fix this mess? The Canadian and Rhode Island models had failed miserably. So the old locos returned to the New York model: balance-of-power politics and radical institutional reform.

And that brings us back to 1848.

Heat: Van Buren's Double Game

You might think of counterrevolutionaries as fuddy-duddies wedded to the past, scrambling to retain their status in the face of change. But conservatives can adapt and learn. They too can modulate their demands, meet the challenges of new conditions, and reassert their views. They can revive and reinstitutionalize what came before. Once the radicals have been cleansed and order restored, they can build their hierarchies into something stronger than they were. From time to time, reactionaries may even look like revolutionaries.

The revolution tends to be lightning fast, inspired by sunbursts of radical activity; the counterrevolution proceeds at a variety of paces, according to context and capacity. In Europe, revolutions were clustered early in the year 1848: Sicily in January, followed by France in February, which then triggered revolts in Baden and Tuscany later that month. In March, the powder keg exploded. Revolts erupted in minor states—Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Saxony, Hannover, Lombardy, Venetia, Denmark—and in the great powers of Prussia and Austria. Moldavia and Wallachia followed in April. The counterrevolution moved more slowly; the pace quickened only after the French crackdown during the June Days.

But in America, the late summer and early fall were still election season. Our rebels were New York's "Barnburner" faction. They acquired their name when the party's conservatives (called the "Hunkers") attacked the locofoco alliance with Rhode Island's Dorr Warriors, claiming they were burning the barn in order to clear out a few rats. The Barnburners were New York's disorganizing faction, unafraid of destroying the party if it didn't serve their Equal Rights principles. But as the election of 1848 approached and they joined hands with members of the abolitionist Liberty Party, the coalition adopted a new form: the Free Soil Party.

The Free Soilers' opponents in the election of 1848 were Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, a general hot out of the Mexican War, and Democratic candidate Lewis Cass, a senator from Michigan. The Whigs were rehashing an old standby in Jacksonian politicking: Toss up a respected veteran and see what happens. Democrats called him General Mum because he refused to speak explicitly about the status of slavery in the territories; the Whigs ran him with conflicting policies, peddling one program in the North and a different one in the South. But the Free Soilers fully expected this Louisiana slaveholder to side with his class. Meanwhile, Cass ran on "popular sovereignty," an attempt to kick the slavery can to "the people" by having the territories vote on whether they wanted slavery in their states-to-be.

Van Buren secured the Free Soil nomination because he stood the best chance of actually winning the presidency by preventing a majority in the Electoral College and forcing the vote into Congress. Hardcore anti-slavery Free Soilers were deeply displeased—they knew who they were dealing with. Van Buren would convince you he's on your side, only to ride your support into power and do what he liked with it. He was a counterrevolutionary playacting as a radical to steer the movement and control its outcome. Meet the new party's boss, same as the old party's boss.

Whigs were incensed. Here was Van Buren and these Barnburners suddenly full of regret for their support of Polk, his party, his war, and the slaveholding empire he'd conquered with their votes in 1844. The Trenton State Gazette was caustic: "Why was it that they never thought of coming out for Free Soil 'til they imagined they could raise themselves to high offices thereby?"

Few understood the political situation better than Daniel Webster, the arch-Whig senator from Massachusetts. Speaking a few weeks from Election Day, he gave his own history of the movement: "This [Free Soil] party, now called the Barnburners, existed as one branch of the Great Democratic Party of New York long before any question arose about…the progress of slavery or the extension of slave territory. And up to the time of the annexation of Texas, every member of both branches of the party in New York went straight forward and right ahead in supporting the annexation of Texas, slavery and all. But by this time, the efforts of the Whigs alone had raised a strong sentiment in the North against further annexation of slave territory….And then this position of the [Barnburners]…seized upon this state of excitement thus brought about by Whig effort, and attached this principle to their creed, to give them a pre-eminence over their rivals." The Free Soil revolt, he concluded, "was a mere contest for power and predominance in the party in New York."

In Europe, from June 1848 through August 1849, the old regimes rolled back the revolutions. Watching their world burn, the political scientist Kurt Weyland writes, European "operatives learned from earlier mistakes, designed a fairly coherent plan for outmaneuvering their adversaries, and enacted this program in a savvy way, taking advantage of opportunities and avoiding risks." To be sure, "the unexpected outbreak…plunged government officials and their advisers into an abyss of confusion and disarray." Conservatives' "orderly world cracked wide open," and "political hierarchy suddenly faced a fundamental challenge; deep uncertainty engulfed the future." Yet the counterrevolution rolled on and the conservatives persevered.

So it went in America too. Van Buren never intended to really win the election of 1848—merely to bring the Democratic Party back under his influence. As one Southern Democratic paper put it, "Van Buren is an abolitionist, a Barnburner, an [agrarian], a communist, a socialist, anything to any man who will help him to embarrass the Democratic party."

Come Election Day (with votes now reported with lightning speed, thanks to the telegraph), Van Buren took just under 300,000 ballots, or just over 10 percent. About 41 percent of his total came from New York—the Barnburners' base—where he garnered more than a quarter of the state's support. His highest percentages were in Vermont (29 percent) and Massachusetts (28.5 percent), but he also polled exceptionally well across the Northwest. Van Buren's results closely track the future Republican vote in both 1856 and 1860. Though he did not win any electors, his support was enough to flip the election to Taylor.

More importantly, there was now a small Free Soil contingent in Congress, and it intended to remake national policy by rooting out the evil of slavery bit by bit. In Europe, Weyland reports, "Leaders of the popular sectors had risen quickly 'out of nowhere' during the March upheaval, and many soon faded away again. They were often young, came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and had not enjoyed advanced education. Therefore, they could neither draw on nor accumulate political experience and could not match reactionaries in their understanding of the power structure." But in America, Free Soil senators and representatives included such experienced political veterans as Ohio's Salmon Chase and New Hampshire's John P. Hale. They were skilled, charismatic, committed, and widely supported.

From the day after the election through 1852, Martin Van Buren prosecuted his personal counterrevolution, aiming to regain his faction's power and status in the Democratic Party. From Vermont, the Brattleboro Semi-Weekly Eagle prognosticated that the party's "southern task masters" would dole out sufficient spoils to re-purchase the North's loyalties, re-establishing Van Buren's ancient gentleman's agreement to leave anti-monopoly and anti-slavery as separate political questions. For most Whigs as well as most Democrats, that was far preferable to fighting with each other over the rights of slaves.

The Brattleboro editor drove the point home: "The whole plan is to form Slavocratic coalitions in the South and pretended Free Soil ones in the north, and both to operate against the administration."

Flame: The Locofocos' Libertarian Legacy

Van Buren expected the Free Soilers to be dutifully reabsorbed into his party. He disavowed further disorganizing efforts; for president in 1852, he now supported "a northern man with southern principles," Franklin Pierce. But the Free Soil movement had taken on a life of its own.

There's no telling exactly what percentage of the Free Soilers went with Van Buren back to the Democrats, but we do know that in 1852, the Free Soil candidate again flipped the election results in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio. It was not enough to save the disastrous Whig campaign, but it signaled that the Free Soilers were here to stay. From 1852 to 1856, the Whig Party evaporated and dispersed, making conditions right for a new coalition.

The representatives and senators elected under the Free Soil banner constantly made their presence felt. They periodically denied the clean election of a House speaker, they stood in the way of every single procedural vote that was supposed to allow business as usual, and they even managed to delay the election of House doorkeeper so long that the office went vacant. Their stubborn obstructionism meant that their issues never left the public discourse.

The Free Soilers joined with their old Whig enemies to form the new Republican Party. Though the ex-Whigs were the GOP's majority, the contingent of ex-Democrats was sufficiently numerous and noisy to keep the Whigs from enacting wholesale corporatist government during the Civil War. They also helped ensure the end of chattel slavery. For this, they deserve credit, recognition, and memory.

But just as their fight against government privilege stopped short of the full abolition of state-made corporations, their fight against the planters did not fully abolish involuntary servitude. The 13th Amendment included an exception for forced labor "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted"; private slaveholding was now illegal, but the state could still wield the same power. Millions of de facto slaves produce goods in state prisons, "duly convicted" of one crime or another.

The long, slow-burning revolution of the locofocos and Free Soilers aimed to create a continent free of aristocracy in all its forms. They accomplished astonishing victories, and we can learn from them even today. But if we pick up their matches and try to complete their revolution, we should understand that political compromise can get us only so far. Abolition is the true way forward.