Barnburners and Hunkers

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The Barnburners and Hunkers were the names of two opposing factions of the New York state Democratic Party in the mid-19th century. The main issue dividing the two factions was that of slavery, with the Barnburners being the anti-slavery faction. While this division occurred within the context of New York politics, it reflected the national divisions in the United States in the years preceding the American Civil War.


File:Smoking him out.jpg
1848 cartoon satirizing the Barnburners / Free Soil Party

The Barnburners were the radical faction. The term barnburner was derived from the idea of someone who would burn down his own barn to get rid of a rat infestation, in this case those who would destroy all banks and corporations, to root out their abuses.[1]

The Barnburners opposed expanding the public debt, and the power of the large, state established, corporations (the Barnburners were not opposed to large business enterprises due to their largeness - only ones established or subsidized by government); they also generally came to oppose the extension of slavery. They also stood for local control by the Albany Regency, as against the Polk political machine which the new administration was trying to build up in New York. Among the prominent Barnburners were Martin Van Buren, Silas Wright and John A. Dix.

At the 1848 presidential election, the Barnburners left the Democratic Party, refusing to support presidential nominee Lewis Cass, and instead joining with other anti-slavery groups, predominantly the abolitionist Liberty Party and some anti-slavery Whigs in New England and the Midwest, to form the Free Soil Party, which nominated former President Van Buren to run again for the presidency. Their vote divided the Democratic strength and secured the election of Zachary Taylor, the Whig nominee.


File:The modern Gilpins.jpg
"The Modern Gilpins" - rivalry between the Hunkers and anti-slavery Democrats

The Hunkers were the conservative faction. They opposed the Barnburners, and favored state banks, internal improvements, and minimizing the slavery issue. The term hunker has obscure origins, but probably came from the Dutch word honk, meaning “post,” “station,” or “home.” It was basically a synonym for “stick in the mud,” and became a contemptuous nickname, like “mossback,” for the unprogressive members of a party, which detested change. Among the leaders of the Hunkers were Horatio Seymour, William L. Marcy, Samuel Beardsley, Edwin Croswell, and Daniel S. Dickinson.

Following the 1848 election, the Hunkers themselves split over the question of reconciliation with the Barnburners, with the Softs, led by Marcy, favoring reconciliation, and the Hards, led by Dickinson, opposing it. This split would be exacerbated following the 1852 presidential election, when disputes over patronage led to an even broader split between Hards and Softs, and helped lead to the defeat of the Soft governor, Horatio Seymour, for re-election in 1854.


  1. OED, citing the NYTribune of 1848.