Party was founded at a Baltimore convention 195 years ago on
January 8, 1827. You may celebrate or
lament the occasion depending on your viewpoint. It was cobbled together from elements
of the shattered Democratic Republican Party founded by Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison which had dominated American politics
since the Revolution of 1800 and the virtual disappearance of
the Federalist Party after the War of 1812. The wizard of the new alignment
was the boss of the New York State political machine known as
the Albany Regency, Martin Van Buren, in the service of a charismatic
leader—General Andrew Jackson.
of James Monroe, the last of the Virginia Dynasty of Founder
Presidents after the collapse of the Federalists in 1822 ushered
in what historians have called the Era of Good Feeling due to
the lack of competition for the Democratic-Republican. The domination was so deep that
even John Quincy Adams, the son of the only Federalist president,
had joined the ascendant and served a Monroe’ Secretary of State
and was his heir apparent to the Executive Mansion.
for Adams, he had incurred the wrath of the tempestuous general
who mistakenly believed that the Secretary of State had been behind a court
martial for illegally invading Spanish Florida and executing to
British citizens who he believed had been arming rebellious Creek
warriors. It’s a long and complicated
story but the truth was that although Adams was aghast at Jackson’s
behavior which complicated efforts to acquire Florida by purchase
and threatened a possible new conflict with Great Britain, he
had come to Jackson’s defense against the charges.
the truth, Jackson vowed revenge by running against Adams in the
election of 1824. Jackson was the greatest
military hero since George Washington and wildly popular in
the South and West. In a head-to-head
contest Jackson would have won handily, but two others also entered
the race—Georgia’s William Crawford, a Jeffersonian “Old
Republican” and another Westerner and rising political star Henry
Clay of Kentucky. Although
Jackson led winning the popular vote, carrying 11 states and
winning 99 Electoral College vote with Adams behind with 7 state wins
and 86 Electoral votes, the other two candidates each won 3 states and enough votes
to deny a majority and Electoral College win.
was thrown into the House of Representatives where each state
delegation cast a single vote.
Only the top three candidates—Jackson, Adams, and Crawford—were included
in the House Vote. Clay not so
secretly rallied his former supporters for Adams who carried the House
vote by a lop-sided margin. Jackson
was outraged, especially after Adams selected Clay to be his Secretary
of State and by tradition a virtual heir apparent. Jackson charged a “corrupt bargain”
had been struck by Adams and Clay to win the election.
in New York State, Van Buren’s Albany Regency had finally gotten the upper
hand against the Clinton political organization in New York City which
had long led half of a political axis of the two most populous states,
New York and Virginia, in support of the Jeffersonian party. He saw a national ally in Jackson and began
quietly organizing key political figures and operatives in every
state in support of Jackson. That led to
the founding convention in Baltimore in time to organize behind Jackson and
against Adams in the election of 1828.
as a man of the people, painting Adams as aristocratic, and
backed by an effective political organization humiliated and swamped the
incumbent by an Electoral College vote of 178 to 83 carrying 15 states
to 9. The policies of Jackson and his
party were in favor of individual liberty (for white men), limited
government (except where Jackson himself chose to execute power,
opposition to the Second Bank of the United States, opposition to
federally funded internal improvements advocated by Henry Clay, rapid Western
expansion, removal of Native Americans from east of
the Mississippi River, and lowered tariffs.
Jackson’s policies and abrasive leadership style alienated many who
began to coalesce into a new anti-Jacksonian party, the Whigs. It was an inherently unstable and contradictory
collection—remnant old New England Federalists like Daniel
Webster, business interests appalled by the destruction of the Bank of the
United States and resultant currency instability and wildcat banks
leading to periodic financial panics, advocates of Clay’s
American System of internal improvements, and largely aristocratic Southern
Jackson threatened to use military force against South Carolina
in the Nullification Crisis over the Tariff, his own Vice President,
Southern firebrand John C. Calhoun joined the Whigs asserting states’
rights—and expansion of slavery into all new territories and states. The combination of pro-slavery Southerners
and anti-slavery New Englanders made the Whigs a feeble coalition. Democrats continued to dominate the
Presidency and national politics up to the Civil War with only two Whig
presidential victories, both by military heroes who quickly died in office and
left weak vice-presidents with little or no party loyalty in charge. The Whigs imploded and disappeared
after Winfield Scott’s loss to Democratic nonentity Franklin Pierce in
1854. Eventually the Republicans emerged
as a new major party leading to the victory of Abraham Lincoln in
1860 when Democrats split three ways over slavery issues.
Democrats long thrived on Jackson’s spoils system which replaced
almost all Federal employees loyal political appointees who
provided an army of campaign workers in every corner of the country.
Democrats are now the oldest electoral party in the world by a
wide margin, but they have flipped positions many times over their long
history. They were the backbone
of the Jim Crow Era in the South and began to make strong inroads
in big Northern cities with ethnic-based political machines. They were for hard money and against greenback
Treasury notes. With Republicans in
national ascendancy, the party suddenly became advocates of civil
the 1890s a large portion of Democrats in the West and South became populists
in favor of the “free coinage of silver” against a pure gold
standard that made cash scarce and kept prices high; agitated for
railroad rate reform and against monopolies, and in favor of democratic
reforms like voter referendums and recall elections. They continued to be in contest to business and
hard money conservatives.
early 20th Century, they began to attract support of major labor unions
and vied with the Socialist Party for others. Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic party progressive,
enacted some major labor reforms in the areas of child labor,
job safety, and working hours.
Yet the same administration violently crushed World War I strikes
and led the worst domestic suppression of dissent in the post-war
Red Scare years. Wilson became a
hero to liberals for his post-war vision of the Fourteen Points and
for the League of Nations. Democrats
largely became advocates of international action and against isolationism. The establishment of the Federal Reserve
System put the party firmly behind national banking.
to draconian Republican immigration restrictions in the 1920’s
and in favor of the repeal of Prohibition earned the loyalty of
many working class voters.
the face of the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal put an
end to Jacksonian limited Federal powers. The President and his party borrowed heavily
from old Socialist Party platforms to enact Social Security and unemployment
insurance, guarantee labor union rights, use public works programs,
and many other popular reforms. Even
Southern Democrats bought in as long as Blacks were largely excluded
from the benefits.
and its aftermath created support for a vast standing armed forces with
virtually unlimited funds for new arms and weapons and
backed world-wide interventionism whenever American—read business—interests
might be threatened.
Rights Movement gained steady support among national Democrats and Lyndon
Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the process of
Southern Democrats abandoning the party for the Republicans who had gone from
the Party of Lincoln to states’ rights fan and were increasingly willing
to employ wink-and-nod code words in favor of white supremacy. By the 21st Century that process was
opposition to the Vietnam War led to growing anti-war sentiment through
much of the party and peace advocates continued to struggle with cold-warriors
Widespread support for the Equal Rights Amendment, gender
protections under Civil Rights law, and for abortion rights led to a
steady swing of women, particularly college educated and middle
class women, from the Republican to the Democrats who now enjoy a substantial
edge in that demographic.
Blacks have become the most loyal Democratic party supporters by a wide margin and Latinx voters with the exception of Florida Cubans also reliable. Together with the college educated and youth voters they elected Barack Obama as the first Black President.
that expanding the voter pool worked against them, Republicans have become
relentless in attempting voter suppression, gerrymandering, and
other attacks on access to the polls. Meanwhile they have exploited resentments
of many working class voters who believe they have been insulted and ignored
by an elite cabal robbing complacent and ineffective Democratic
Party leadership of once solid support.
become a growing part of the party in Congress and scoring electoral victories
around the country. Their policies are
aimed at, among other things, winning back working class support by providing life-changing
new benefits. Party so-called centrists
fret that they will be labeled communists or that powerful business backers
of the party will turn on them.
However that struggle turns out, the Democratic Party today bears almost no resemblance to the one founded by Van Buren and Jackson. But it is telling that Jackson was the Orange Menace’s favorite president roll model. Both shared fragile egos, inflated self-importance, and dictatorial impulses. And both have political parties personally loyal only to them.