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Democratic Party - Early

The Democratic Party fundamentally changed during more than two centuries of existence. During the 19th century the party supported slavery, and it opposed Reconstruction reforms after the American Civil War in order to retain power. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Democratic party of Jackson was not strictly identical with the Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson - and some writers date back the origin of the present Democratic party only to 1828-1829.

After 1801 the commercial and manufacturing nationalistic elements of the Federalist party, being now dependent on Jefferson for protection, gradually went over to the Republicans, especially after the War of 1812. They were “Nationalistic", not in the sense of a general nationalistic spirit, such as that of Jackson, but the centralizing tendency of a broad construction of constitutional powers in behalf of commerce and manufactures. Moreover, administration of government naturally developed in Republican ranks a group of broad-constructionists. These groups fused, and became an independent party. They called themselves National Republicans, while the Jacksonian Republicans soon came to be known simply as Democrats.

Immediately afterward followed the tremendous victory of the Jacksonians in 1828 — a great advance in radical democracy over the victory of 1800. In the interval the Federalist party had disappeared, and practically the entire country, embracing Jeffersonian democracy, had passed through the school of the Republican party. It had established the power of the “people” in the sense of that word in present-day American politics. Bills of rights in every state constitution protected the citizen; some state judges were already elective; very soon the people came to nominate their presidential candidates in national conventions, and draft their party platforms through their convention representatives.

After the National Republican scission the Democratic party, weakened thereby in its nationalistic tendencies, and deprived of the leadership of Jackson, fell quickly under the control of its Southern adherents and became virtually sectional in its objects. Its states’ rights doctrine was turned to the defence of slavery. In thus opposing anti-slavery sentiment — inconsistently, alike as regarded the “rights of man ” and constitutional construction, with its original and permanent principles - it lost morale and power.

As a result of the contest over Kansas it became fatally divided, and in 1860 put forward two presidential tickets: one representing the doctrine of Jeflerson Davis that the constitution recognized slave-property, and therefore the national government must protect slavery in the territories; the other representing Douglas’s doctrine that the inhabitants of a territory might virtually exclude slavery by “unfriendly legislation.” The combined popular votes for the two tickets exceeded that cast by the new, anti-slavery Republican party (the second of the name) for Lincoln; but the election was lost.

“Peace” Democrats (also called “Copperheads”) were northerners that sympathized with the South and wanted the war to cease immediately. During the ensuing Civil War, Peace Democrats, members of the party as did not become War Democrats, antagonized the Lincoln administration, and in 1864 made the great blunder of pronouncing the war “a failure.” The 1864 election was a referendum on how the Civil War was going as well as Lincoln’s performance as president. The presidential campaign of 1864 between Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan during the Civil War was one of the most critical ones in the nation’s history. McClellan, was a Civil War general who Lincoln picked to lead the Army of the Potomac and then later fired. the Democratic Party created a “peace” platform calling for an immediate ceasefire and called on the states to settle their differences in a convention. McClellan accepted the nomination, but only on the basis of the Confederacy first laying down its arms and agreeing to return to the Union. Only then would issues such as the fate of slavery be negotiated. The result was a Lincoln landslide of 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21, and a Republican gain of 37 seats in Congress. An estimated 78 percent of the vote cast by soldiers in the Union army went to Lincoln.

The war laid the basis for Democratic reunification because Northern opposition to it centered in the Democratic Party. As might be expected from the party of “popular sovereignty,” some Democrats believed that full-scale war to reinstate the Union was unjustified. This group came to be known as the Peace Democrats. Their more extreme elements were called “Copperheads.”

Moreover, few Democrats, whether of the “war” or “peace” faction, believed the emancipation of the slaves was worth Northern blood. Opposition to emancipation had long been party policy. In 1862, for example, virtually every Democrat in Congress voted against eliminating slavery in the District of Columbia and prohibiting it in the territories.

It took years for the Democrats to overcome the perception that they were not only responsible for the Civil War (the party’s Southern wing had promoted secession in 1860-61) but that they had very nearly helped the Confederacy achieve its independence and the destruction of the Union by their course in the 1864 election.

Historian James M. McPherson wrote "Many Northerners adopted a “plague on both your houses” attitude toward the White Leagues and the “Negro Carpetbag” state governments. Withdraw the federal troops, they said, and let the southern people work out their own problems even if that meant a solid South for the white-supremacy Democratic Party."

In elections marred by fraud, intimidation, and violence, Democrats gradually regained control of state governments throughout the South. Owing to Republican errors in reconstruction and the scandals of President Grant’s administration, the party gradually regained its strength and morale, until, having largely subordinated Southern questions to economic issues, it cast for Tilden for president in 1876 a popular vote greater than that obtained by the Republican candidate, Hayes, and gained control of the House of Representatives. In 1877, a political bargain declared Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the winner of the closely contested 1876 presidential election. In exchange, Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the South. Black Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom then lived in the states of the former Confederacy, were again at the mercy of racist state laws. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote without regard to "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." All federal efforts to enforce this amendment came to an end after the 1876 election.

Since 1877 the Southern states had been almost solidly Democratic; but, except on the race question, such unanimity among Southern whites was, naturally, factitious; and by no means an unmixed good for the party. Although their solid majority had vanished with the 1880 elections, Senate Democrats, when the Senate of the 47th Congress convened on March 4, 1881, its members included thirty-seven Republicans, thirty-seven Democrats, and two independents. Leadership of the Senate committees remained in Republican hands, while the Democrats continued to control the offices of Secretary and Sergeant at Arms.

It controlled the House of Representatives from 1874 to 1894 except in 1880-1882 and 1888-1890; but except for a time in Cleveland’s second term, there were never simultaneously a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in Congress.

Apart from the “Solid South,” the period after 1875 is characterized by two other party difficulties. The first was the attempt from 1878 to 1896 to “straddle” the silver issue; the second, an attempt after 1896 to harmonize general elements of conservatism and radicalism within the party. In 1896 the South and West gained control of the organization, and the national campaigns of 1896 and 1900 were fought and lost mainly on the issue of “free silver,” which, however, was abandoned before 1904. After 1898 “imperialism,” to which the Democrats were hostile, became another issue.

Finally, after 1896 there became very apparent in the party a tendency to attract the radical elements of society in the general re-alignment of parties taking place on industrial-social issues; the Democratic party apparently attracting, in this readjustment, the “radicals ” and the "masses ” as in the time of Jefferson and Jackson. In this process, in the years 1896-1900, it took over many of the principles and absorbed, in large part, the members of the radical “ Populist” third party, only to be confronted thereupon by the growing strength of Socialism, challenging it to a farther radical widening of its program. From 1860 to 1908 it elected but a single president (Grover Cleveland, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897).

Democrats, who had no hope of winning the White House without the support of the "solid South," did nothing to irritate white Southerners -- nor did the national Republicans, who were anxious to make inroads in the Democratic South. Thus, for more than a generation, neither national party paid more than lip service to the rights of African-Americans.

Ninety percent of African-Americans lived in the South, where the vast majority was kept from voting by state law and terrorism. Elections were usually "lily white." In the rest of the nation, however, black Americans did vote. Traditionally these voters supported the Republicans -- the party of Reconstruction, Emancipation, and Lincoln. Anxious for votes, the Republican party continued to work to retain the support of African-Americans.

Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, raised in the Confederacy, and concidered himself a Southerner, despite running from New Jersey. In the 1912 eelction, if the position of the Democratic party was difficult indeed in every Northern state, its support in the South seemed secure. But this meant that the older and more rigid Protestant parts of the country, the conservative, native-born, English-speaking groups of the composite nation would be aligned behind Wilson.

In the South, although men were ardent Democrats, economic interests took precedence over any theories of democracy that formerly underlay their party attitude, at least that was true of their more experienced statesmen. And, although Southerners were more religious and more Puritan than other sections of the country, the South was by no means a unit that could be wielded in any great crusade for a more humane and kindly foreign policy, for example, in relation to Mexico. The South was bound fast by the insoluble "Negro Problem".

In the middle of the 20th Century, a new solid South emerged on the American political scene. And only this time, it was a Republican South. There followed the rise of the Republican Party in what had once been known as a Democrat stronghold, referred to as "the solid South." In 1994, Republicans took the majority of congressional seats in the South and helped their party seize control of the U.S. Congress.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:20:21 ZULU