Democratic Party

Of the two current major political parties, the one with the oldest roots is the Democratic Party. Although it has gone through name changes and deep philosophical shifts, it can trace itself back to the end of the 18th century.

If George Washington had had his way, there would be no political parties in America, but even as his two terms as president, which he won without opposition, were drawing to a close, the first parties were taking shape. Today's Democrats like to trace their lineage to Thomas Jefferson. If this is true, then the founding of the party could be said to have taken place on December 31, 1793. That was the date on which Jefferson, having grown alienated from Washington's movement towards the British instead of the French, resigned as Secretary of State.

Jefferson's party, which was often called both Republican and Democratic-Republican, favored rural over urban interests, agrarian over manufacturing, common people over the more prosperous. The Democratic-Republican Party gained the presidency in the election of 1800, beginning a string of six elections in which three Virginians held that office. They were weak in New England, but shared the support of the Mid-Atlantic states and were popular in the southern states. As settlement moved west, they were a natural fit with the largely rural citizens of the newly admitted states.

The Federalists, their original opposition, won only one election after Washington, the narrow win by John Adams over Jefferson in 1796. Their popularity declined gradually and their strategies in the War of 1812 did not enhance their reputation. The Federalists fielded their last candidate for president in 1816 and faded away. During the so-called Era of Good Will, when partisan politics seemed to have been eliminated, James Monroe won the 1820 election with a nearly unanimous vote in the Electoral College.

The apparent unity was an illusion. It was simply due to the fact that politicians had nowhere else to go. In the campaign of 1824, the later system of a nominating a single candidate had not yet evolved, and every candidate for President identified himself as Democratic-Republican. Nevertheless, the campaign was bitter and the faction supporting John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson gained the support of Henry Clay and won the presidency in the House of Representatives, perhaps through a corrupt bargain. By 1828, Jackson was strong enough to win in the Electoral College. After 1830, the party he headed adopted the name Democratic Party, while his 1832 opponents Henry Clay and Adams described themselves as National Republicans. In 1834, the opposition to Jacksonian democracy coalesced into the Whig Party, which remained the primary opposition to the Democrats for the next 20 years.

Through their own generally strong organization and unity, combined with frequent division in their opposition, the Democrats maintained control at the national level for most of the remaining years before 1861. The Whigs managed a transient victory in 1840, only to see their man, William Henry Harrison, die in office almost immediately, with the White House passing to John Tyler, a Democrat from Virginia who had been added to the ticket to provide balance. The Whigs again beat the Democrats in 1848, but the party began to fragment by 1852, allowing a Democratic win for Franklin Pierce, which was followed by one in 1856 by John Buchanan.

The tables were turned in 1860, when the issue of slavery split the Democratic Party into northern and southern factions, allowing Abraham Lincoln to win with a majority in the Electoral College, despite only a plurality in the popular vote. In 1864, the Union fortunes in the Civil War turned up just in time to save the election for Lincoln, as the base of Democratic support had seceded.

After the Civil War, the policy of the Republicans in Congress was to reconstruct the South in such a way as to guarantee continued Republican domination. The policy succeeded while Reconstruction was active, and Ulysses S. Grant was easily elected in both 1868 and 1872. However, as the Federal troops were gradually withdrawn, white southerners took steps to effectively disenfranchise the region's blacks, despite the latter's newly granted constitutional protections. Remembering their hatred of Reconstruction, which they associated correctly with the Republican Party, the southerners who could vote did so in support of the Democratic Party almost continuously for a hundred years.

With the foundation of the Solid South and support from small farmers and businessmen, and newly arrived immigrant groups, the Democratic Party was able to regain parity with the Republicans in presidential contests. In the space of five elections, Democrats carried the election twice with Grover Cleveland, carried the popular vote two more times and essentially battled to a popular vote draw in the fifth. Then in 1896, the Democrats nominated a populist, William Jennings Bryan. Republicans successfully painted him as a radical with no regard for property rights and the pro-business William McKinley defeated Bryan in both 1896 and 1900.

The assassination of McKinley in 1901 resulted in Theodore Roosevelt becoming president and moving the Republican Party into a phase of progressivism that was not natural for it. After Roosevelt was succeeded by William Howard Taft, the progressive elements began to lose control. In 1912, a frustrated Roosevelt bolted with his followers, and the Democrats gained their first national victory in a quarter century.

Before the first world war, Democrats were not well disposed towards big government, which they expected to be the tool of big business. World War I forced the Democratic Party to govern on a large scale and acclimated them to the idea of a strong federal government. After spending the decade of the twenties largely in the political wilderness, the Great Depression brought the Democrats back to power, at a time that called for government intervention in the economy. By the end of the decade, the Democrats were squarely in support of big government.

One of the most long-lasting political developments of the thirties was the labor legislation of the New Deal. By establishing strong union rights, the Democrats not only promoted the growth of union membership, they cemented a political alliance that persists to this day. Organized labor's support for the Democrats has been in exchange for the Democrats' protection of union rights against pressure from business interests associated with the Republican Party.

After World War II, the Democrats found themselves on the defensive. Warm relationships with the Soviet Union, embraced perhaps too much by the Democrats' left wing, began to look "soft" as the Cold War unfolded. The unpopular Korean War and a popular Republican war hero Dwight Eisenhower led to the Democrats losing the national election in 1952 and again in 1956.

Democrats regained the White House under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic senator from liberal Massachusetts, in 1960. Kennedy began and after his death, Lyndon Johnson continued, a push for Civil Rights legislation. This brought to a crisis the long standing conflict within the Democratic Party. Although the liberal wing might wield power at national conventions, conservative Southern Democrats, aided by a one-party system in their home districts, stayed in office longer than almost anyone else and were able to assert disproportionate power on Capitol Hill as chairmen of committees. In 1964, however, they were unable to fend off the Civil Rights Act. The Republican Party in that year nominated its most conservative candidate in decades, Barry Goldwater, and the South switched allegiance to the Republican Party for the first time ever. In the ensuing years, the South has occasionally given support to Democrats with Southern connections, but in general the Solid South has re-emerged as solid for the Republican Party.

The current configuration of support for the Democrats is surprising in view of the party's earlier positions. Formed in opposition to strong central government, the Democrats are now closely identified with those policies. Dominated after the Civil War by elements hostile to blacks, the Democratic Party now enjoys nearly unamimous support from the black community. Notorious as anti-intellectual at the time when William Jennings Bryan prosecuted the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Democrats have overwhelming support today from academics.

The evolution of the Democratic Party, rather than showing a consistent policy over two centuries, instead demonstrates the innate stability of the two-party system in the United States.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Democratic Party.

By Horace Greeley
I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers; what I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.

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