I recently came across the term “locofoco” (or “loco-foco”), and curious as I tend to be, set out to discover if there was anything historically significant which might be shaped into a Monday-Musing sort of article. My first question was, “what the heck is a Locofoco?”. As it turns out I found myself relating the term to the current political fray.
In the nineteenth century the term was connected to the Democratic Party – a name the Whig Party pinned on their opposition. The term “loco-foco” first made an appearance as a novelty item when John Marck invented a self-lighting cigar. A patent for the “self-igniting”cigar was granted on April 16, 1834, although it was never referred to as “loco-foco” in Marck’s patent application or journal notices.
The cigar had a match component at its end, and according to Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms the term “loco-foco” was derived from the word “locomotive”. Locomotive “was then rather new as applied to an engine on a railroad, and the common notion as, that it meant self-moving; hence as these cigars were self-firing, this queer name was coined.”1 “Foco”, although spelled differently, may have been the Italian word (“fuoco”) for fire. The term came to be associated with a particular kind of match as well – Lucifer or locofoco matches.
The following year the name was applied to the Democratic Party after a division arose amongst the party faithful when Gideon Lee was nominated as a Democratic candidate for Congress by a faction calling itself the Equal Rights Party. Lee’s supporters expected opposition from New York’s Tammany Hall who, of course, had their own candidates.
A ruckus ensued between the two factions and in the middle of it all the meeting hall’s gas lights were extinguished. Apparently the Equal Rights Party had anticipated such a ploy to shut down the opposition and came prepared with loco-foco matches and candles. In a matter of moments the room was illuminated once again. One newspaper, reporting on the incident, referred to them as “locofocos”.
The Locofocos were anti-monopolists and took a laissez-faire stance when it came to free enterprise and government oversight and control, favoring less government intervention. In 1837 the so-called Flour Riot broke out as a result of the rising cost of flour, almost doubling during the Panic of 1837. As opponents of business monopolies, the Locofocos were in the thick of it all.
Up until the 1840 election the term appears to have been used exclusively within the Democratic Party to differentiate various factions from one another. That year, however, the Whig Party decided to pin the name on the entire Democratic Party, although their newly coined term for the opposition had nothing to do with self-igniting cigars.
Rather, the Whigs devised their own term, a derogatory one, by combining the Spanish word for crazy (“loco”) and “foco” from the word “focus”. In other words, the entire Democratic Party was off its rocker (derogatorily speaking). The name would stick well into the 1850’s – even after the Whig Party was long gone and replaced by the Republican Party.
In 1840 Democratic President Martin Van Buren was fighting for re-election in the midst of an economic depression. The Whig Party was solidly united behind war hero William Henry Harrison – “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” became their rallying cry. In 1836 Van Buren was by no means a shoo-in for president. Although well known to New Yorkers, one Brooklyn newspaper believed he would “require every vote that can be had (Loco-focos and all) to secure him a bare majority!”2
Van Buren won in 1836, but by 1840 was overwhelming defeated by the Whig Party and William Henry Harrison, garnering only 60 electoral votes to Harrison’s 234. The Democratic Party, aka the Locofocos, bounced back in 1844 and traded places again in 1848 with the Whigs. By 1854 the Whig Party was disbanded and merged into the Republican Party.
The term “locofoco” remained a politically-charged and derogatory term, but not necessarily directed entirely toward the Democratic Party. In 1859 one newspaper referred to the “Locofoco press” who couldn’t make up its mind which candidate to support in the 1860 election, while another paper made reference to a “locofoco editor”.
Given the later derivation of the term which came to mean “crazy focus”, I wonder if we have now entered into a state of “locofoco” politics of our own these days. It seems pretty crazy and some, no doubt, consider Donald Trump to be the Republicans’ “locofoco” of the moment. The same might be said of the Democratic Party who is deciding whether to put all their eggs in Hillary Clinton’s incredibly shrinking basket.
I don’t know who will win their party’s nomination, nor can I recall any presidential election more volatile than this one at this point in the process (over a year before the actual election!). Heaven only knows how it will all turn out – all I ask is please God give us wisdom to pick the right leader (and help us survive until then!).
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.