Skip to main content


During the 1840s, a schism developed within the New York Democratic party over the issues of the day. The conservative Hunkers (so named by their antagonists because they were alleged to "hunger," "hanker," or "hunker" for office) favored state-supported internal improvements and opposed antislavery agitation, while their chief opponents, the more radical Barnburners (alluding to the farmer who burned down his barn to get rid of the rats) opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories. When, in 1847, the Hunker-controlled Democratic National Convention ignored the Wilmot Proviso (a resolution against the extension of slavery to free territory), the Barnburners bolted the party, united with the Free Soil party, and nominated Martin Van Buren for president.

Walt Whitman, who over the course of his career in journalism worked for several Democratic newspapers, aligned himself first with the liberal Barnburners and then later with the Free-Soilers. In a series of editorials written while he served as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman celebrated white free labor and urged the Democratic party to take a free-soil stance. Throughout 1847, as Whitman presented his pro-Wilmot arguments, his employer, Isaac Van Anden, a Hunker Democrat, patiently tolerated his liberal views, but this patience apparently waned by the end of the year, and as the Hunkers consolidated their control of the New York party machine, Whitman found himself dismissed as editor of the Eagle.

Although Whitman went on to work for other free-soil papers, the divisions within the party cost the Democrats the 1848 presidential election, and during the 1850s, many Barnburners decided to return to the party while others joined the newly formed Republican party. Meanwhile, the Hunkers divided into the "Hards," who opposed reunion with the Barnburners, and "Softs," who desired a reconciliation. Thus, the term "Hunker" became obsolete.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Foner, Eric. Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

Back to top