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Barnburners.                 more selected entries

Democratic Party faction formed in the late 1830s when conflict developed within the party over the state's economic policies. Originally called the Radical wing of the party, the faction was led by former president Martin Van Buren, his son John, Azariah C. Flagg, and Silas Wright. Use of the term Barnburners suggested its members' alleged willingness to burn down the barn (the party) to rid it of its rats (its enemies). Unlike their party opponents, the Hunkers, the Barnburners favored balanced budgets and hard money, and opposed state funding for canal and road construction, a national bank, and the liberal speculative activities of state banks. After the Panic of 1837, they fiercely resisted Whig governor William H. Seward's successful plans, supported by the Hunkers, to use state funds for spending policies, including canal building, aimed at promoting development. Democratic divisions intensified after Martin Van Buren's failed renomination bid in 1844 and new Democratic president James K. Polk's mishandling of the state's factional differences. Polk failed to recognize the Barnburners' election efforts on his behalf, including Wright's successful run for governor, which helped Polk win New York State, and he favored the Hunkers through patronage. In the late 1840s the Barnburners antagonized their Democratic opponents by supporting the Wilmot Proviso, which challenged Polk's attempt to add new slave territory in the West. The state Democratic Party formally split in 1847; thereafter two Democratic organizations fought each other as well as the Whigs. In 1848 the Barnburners joined with antislavery Whigs to form the national Free Soil Party, with Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate; they opposed the Democrats and Whigs, each of which, Barnburners argued, favored the expansion of slavery. Placing second in New York State, they denied the state to Democratic candidate Lewis Cass, an opponent loathed for contributing to Van Buren's 1844 renomination defeat. In the election aftermath, with Polk gone and the territorial issue being compromised in Congress, the Barnburners and Hunkers began a painful process of reuniting to keep the Whigs at bay. Many Barnburners, however, would join the antislavery Republican Party later in the 1850s.

Cole, Donald B. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press, 1984)

Donovan, Herbert D. A. The Barnburners (1925; repr Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974)

Joel H. Silbey


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