Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fainting Frank and Loco Focos

Franklin Pierce acquired a few nicknames during his career, such as Young Hickory of the Granite Hills and Handsome Frank. Another one, not heretofore discussed in this blog or in its parent blog Lugubrious Drollery, is based on an episode from Pierce's time in the military during the Mexican War.

Pierce entered the army in 1846 as a private and quickly rose to the rank of colonel, and then brigadier general. At the Battle of Contreras on August 19, 1847, his horse reared, causing Pierce to sustain a groin injury on the pommel of the saddle. He passed out and fell from his horse, sustaining a serious knee injury in the process. His horse also fell. Pierce came to, mounted another horse, and returned to battle. The next day, while leading his troops into the Battle of Churubusco, Pierce reinjured his knee and passed out again. Although both episodes of Pierce's loss of consciousness were associated with painful injuries, his political opponents made much of these events in later years, implying that he fainted out of cowardice, and dubbing him "Fainting Frank."

Pierce was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852, finally winning on the 49th ballot. The political cartoon below makes light of his relative obscurity, and brings up the fainting accusations, with Pierce stating from his perch in the tree, "Gentlemen don't fire! if you please I can't stand the smell of Powder! it makes me feel faint even to think of it!!"

Note the title of the cartoon: "Loco Foco Hunters Treeing a Candidate." What the heck is a Loco Foco?

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica article, Loco Foco:
In U.S. history, radical wing of the Democratic Party, organized in New York City in 1835. Made up primarily of workingmen and reformers, the Locofocos were opposed to state banks, monopolies, paper money, tariffs, and generally any financial policies that seemed to them antidemocratic and conducive to special privilege. The Locofocos received their name (which was later derisively applied by political opponents to all Democrats) when party regulars in New York turned off the gas lights to oust the radicals from a Tammany Hall nominating meeting. The radicals responded by lighting candles with the new self-igniting friction matches known as locofocos, and proceeded to nominate their own slate.
From Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett, 2nd ed. (1859):
In 1834, John Marck opened a store in Park Row, New York, and drew public attention to two novelties. One was champagne-wine drawn like soda water from a "fountain"; the other was a self-lighting cigar, with a match composition on the end. These he called "Loco-foco" cigars. The mode of getting at the name is obvious. The word "loco-motive" was then rather new as applied to an engine on a railroad, and the common notion was that it meant "self-moving;" hence, as these cigars were self-firing, this queer name was coined. His patent for "self-igniting cigars" bears the date of April 16, 1834. The term "loco-foco" does not occur in the notice of his patent in the "Journal of the Franklin Institute," but was used in his advertisements; the term was also applied to matches of that day.
But why foco? The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about loco foco:
"self-igniting cigar or match," 1839 (but presumably older), Amer.Eng., of unknown origin, perhaps from a misapprehension of the meaning of the first element of locomotive as "self-" + Sp. fuego "fire." During one heated political meeting in N.Y., the lights went out and the delegates used such matches to relight them, thence the name loco-foco entered U.S. political jargon (1837), usually applied to a radical faction of the Democratic Party, but by the Whigs applied to all Democrats.
Use of the term loco foco wasn't limited to detractors of the Democratic Party. One song written to promote the candidacy of Pierce and his running mate Rufus King included the refrain:

Hi, locos!
Ho, locos!
Listen while I sing
A song to you
Both good and true
About our Pierce and King.

The song also contains a couple instances of a racial slur, the quoting of which here would only serve to further sully the already tarnished reputation of Franklin Pierce. I'm sure there was no requirement in 1852 for the candidate to state his approval of campaign advertising, so we can only speculate as to whether Pierce consented to the use of this song. I will refer the interested reader to the album Presidential Songs: 1789-1996 by Oscar Brand, available on CD or at the iTunes Store.

While we're on the topic of music, I have just learned of a band called The Fainting Generals in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They bill themselves as the World's Best Franklin Pierce Tribute Band.

Are there any challengers out there?


"The Politics of Martial Manhood," by Amy S. Greenberg

The Fainting Generals' Myspace page

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