On February 13, 1837, the Equal Rights Party, better known as the Loco Focos although that was a pejorative from the city’s Whigs, held a rally in City Hall Park in New York City to protest the high cost of living. This led to the Flour Riot, where workers raided flour mills to gain what they thought what rightfully belonged to them at a much lower price than they paid. This brief moment of labor agitation is a good window into both the problems early 19th century urban workers faced, as well as their nascent labor organizations.
The Loco Focos were a faction of the New York Democratic Party that defined itself as being anti-Tammany Hall. Many of them were former members of the Working Men’s Party that existed between 1829 and 1831. That was one of many nascent workers’ parties that developed in this period, with a platform of land reform, government confiscation of inheritances, and opposition to monopoly. The Loco Focos held to similar ideas, promoting the legal protection of labor unions, and against paper money and state banks. In short, this was a grassroots movement of white working men who distrusted the burgeoning system of capitalism growing especially fast in their city and the booms and busts that went with it such as the devastating Panic of 1837, soon to follow the Flour Riot. Food prices skyrocketed as well, with a barrel of flour rising from $7 in September 1836 to $12 in February 1837.
The faction’s influence began to grow and started shaping the economic policies of Martin Van Buren, founder of the Democratic Party and New York’s most powerful politician in these years. He was just about to take over the presidency when the Loco Foco riot occurred. The Working Men’s Party and Loco Focos that followed were highly concerned about their ability to earn enough to support their families. Self-identifying as husbands and fathers in their rhetoric, they saw the rise of financial capitalism as undermining the self-sustaining male economy they valued. Their rhetoric focused heavily on paternal duties, on providing children what they need to grow into the next generation of independent workers, and to provide decent housing for their families at reasonable rates. They built upon a quasi-religious message, bringing spirituality into their movement without being explicitly denominational and certainly without falling toward the growing alternative religious movements popping up during this time. All of this was responding to the desperation working men felt about a politics they did not feel they could control, even as white male democracy was in the ascendant. Said William English, a Philadelphia worker who was involved in labor politics at the same time that the Loco Focos formed in New York:
Once a year they call us men; once a year we receive the proud appellation of freemen; once a year we are the intelligent, virtuous, orderly working men. But then they want our votes, and they flatter us; they want our interest, and they fawn upon us; and it grinds them to the very soul, to have their delicate fingers clenched in the friendly gripe of an honest hand, but they dare not avow it then. There is contamination in the very touch of a man who labours for his bread
For the Loco Focos, the banks were at the heart of their loss of control. One Loco Foco named Clinton Roosevelt, serving in the state house in Albany, stated, “banks decrease the wages of mechanics and others when they appear to rise” because they manipulated the supply and type of paper currency in circulation that workers used to pay their bills so that they could play the market on the discounted bills that marked early 19th century paper. Bosses would frequently pay workers in paper currency worth less than its stated value. With the price of this currency often declining daily, it took money away from workers because they assumed they were being paid in face value. Given that much of this unregulated currency was developed for speculation in western lands the middle class engaged in, the Loco Focos also rightly claimed that their landlords were passing along their own debts from this system to the working class through raising their rents. This angered them tremendously because a hard-working artisan should be able to support his family. At a March 6, 1837 rally, a Loco Foco committee stated that workers should not face such high “prices of provisions, rent, and fuel,” given that they had “not been unusually wasteful or lazy.” As would often be the case in American labor history, workers also blamed immigrants for their low wages, saying that Irish and German migrants were undercutting their labor power to set wages.
To rally people to their February 13 protest against all these problems, Loco Focos put out handbills that demanded “Bread, Meat, Rent, And Fuel! Their prices must come down!” They protested that “every article of necessity—bread stuffs, flesh meats, fuel and house rents, are at exorbitant rates; and an increase is demanded beyond the means of the working and useful classes of the community.” They had no interest in blaming the flour merchants. Rather, the focus of the Loco Focos was the bankers and their nefarious discounted paper money. At the rally, they called for taxing the wealthy and prohibiting bank notes larger than $100.
However, the crowd quickly got rowdy, as was not uncommon during these days where street protests frequently turned violent. As soon as the official rally ended, about 1000 protestors went to nearby flour processors, broke down the doors, and looted the flour and wheat. This food riot went on for a few hours. Fifty-three people were arrested, but none of them were known Loco Focos. Generally, the Loco Focos avoided displays of riots, preferring to work through the political system. So they largely ignored the criticism they received in aftermath of the Flour Riot. In fact, they built upon this action to continue to demand an end to monopoly and the banks. Later that year, their rallies attracted up to 40,000 people. By the end of 1837, Tammany Hall agreed to adopt most of their program and the Democratic Party was reunited in the city. The Loco Focos disappeared as an organized political movement, although the Whigs would not let it go, simply using Democratic Party and Loco Focos as synonyms, lasting all the way into the early days of the Republican Party.
I borrowed from Joshua Greenberg, Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840, for the writing of this post.
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