Barnburners and Hunkers

Oddly Named Political Factions Wielded Major Influence In Late 1840s

Political cartoon from 1840s depicting Barnburner faction of the Democratic Party
The Barnburners depicted in a political cartoon. Library of Congress

The Barnburners and Hunkers were two factions that battled for dominance of the Democratic Party in New York State in the 1840s. The two groups might have been obscure footnotes to history remembered mostly for their colorful nicknames, but dissension between the two groups played a major role in the presidential election of 1848.

The issue underlying all the fracturing of the party was rooted, as were many political disputes of the day, in the growing national debate over slavery. In the early 1800s the issue of slavery was mainly kept submerged in the national political debate. For one eight-year stretch, southern legislators had even managed to suppress any talk of slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives by invoking the infamous gag rule.

But as territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War came into the Union, heated debates over which states and territories might allow slavery became a major issue. The disputes playing out in the halls of Congress also traveled into states where slavery had been outlawed for decades, including New York.

Background of the Barnburners

The Barnburners were New York State Democrats who were opposed to slavery. They were considered the more progressive and radical wing of the party in the 1840s. The group had splintered off from the Democratic Party following the election of 1844, when its preferred candidate, Martin Van Buren, lost the nomination.

The Democrat's candidate in 1844 who offended the Barnburner faction was James K. Polk, a dark horse candidate from Tennessee who owned slaves and advocated for territorial expansion. The Barnburners were anti-slavery and viewed territorial expansion as an opportunity for pro-slavery politicians to add more slave states to the Union.

The nickname Barnburners was derived from an old story. According to a dictionary of slang terms published in 1859, the nickname came from a story about an old farmer who had a barn infested with rats. He was determined to burn down the entire barn to get rid of the rats.

The implication was that the political Barnburners were obsessed with one issue (in this case slavery) to such an extent that they'd burn down a political party to get their way. The name apparently originated as an insult, but members of the faction seemed to take pride in it.

Background of the Hunkers

The Hunkers were the more traditional wing of the Democratic Party, which, in New York State, dated back to the political machine set up by Martin Van Buren in the 1820s.

The nickname Hunkers, according to Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms, indicated "those who cling to the homestead, or old principles."

According to some accounts, the word "hunker" was a combination of "hunger" and "hanker," and indicated that the Hunkers were always set on attaining political office no matter the cost. That also aligns to some extent with the common belief that the Hunkers were the traditional Democrats who had supported the Spoils System of Andrew Jackson.

Barnburners and Hunkers in the Election of 1848

The division over slavery in America had been largely settled by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. But when the United States acquired new territory following the Mexican War, the issue of whether new territories and states would allow slavery brought the controversy back to the forefront.

At the time, abolitionists were still on the fringe of society. It wouldn't be until the early 1850s, when opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin made the abolitionist movement more acceptable.

Yet some political figures were already firmly opposed to the spread of slavery, and were actively seeking to keep a balance between free and slave states.

In New York State's powerful Democratic Party, there was a division between those who wanted to stop the spread of slavery and those who were less concerned, regarding it as a distant issue.

The anti-slavery faction, the Barnburners, broke from the party regulars, the Hunkers, before the election of 1848. And the Barnburners proposed their candidate, Martin Van Buren, a former president, run on the Free Soil Party ticket.

In the election, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, a politically powerful figure from Michigan. He ran against the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, a hero of the recently concluded Mexican War.

Van Buren, supported by the Barnburners, did not have much chance of regaining the presidency. But he took away enough votes from the Hunker candidate, Cass, to swing the election to the Whig, Taylor.