A History of the American Democratic Party Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A History of the American Democratic Party

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The American Democratic Party has had a long and interesting history. It originated as a very different party to the one the USA has today. It has gone through many incarnations and name-changes over the years, but has generally retained the same basic values.

In the Beginning...

Thomas Jefferson founded the party in 1792 in response to the Federalist party, which had become a major force in the Continental Congress. Jefferson's party wasn't formally recognised — it didn't even have an official name. It was billed as the party of the common man, devoted to defending the rights of the states and pushing the Bill of Rights as amendments to the Federalist Constitution. In 1798, it received a name: the Democratic-Republican Party. The name is usually shortened to 'Republican'.

Jefferson himself was the first man to serve as President who belonged to the party that would eventually be called the Democrats. During the election, the Electoral College's votes for Jefferson and his rival Aaron Burr were tied1 and so a staunch Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, used his influence in the House of Representatives to have Jefferson elected over Burr. As per the laws of the time, Burr then became Jefferson's Vice President — and you thought that the election of 2000 was just one big game of 'eeny, meeny, miny, mo'! Jefferson went on to serve two distinguished terms. He purchased the vast Louisiana Territory, sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition across the continent and cut the national debt by a third.

Jefferson was followed by James Madison, another Democratic-Republican, who expanded the armed forces, for which Jefferson had previously cut some funding. This build-up helped the Americans fight (and lose) the War of 1812. James Monroe, another Democratic-Republican, was the next President to be elected. He helped his party gain strong control of the government after the Federalists had been flushed out of power, following such disgraces as the Alien and Sedition Act. His Presidency defined a period of time called 'The Era of Good Feelings'.

Though it is true that one of the two wars America lost2 occurred during the Presidency of a Democratic-Republican, something great for the party came out of the War of 1812. A Tennessee native named Andrew Jackson had scored a major victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 18153. Jackson ran for President in 1824 along with several other Democrats, causing a split in the voting.

A Party Divided and United

The National Republican John Quincy Adams won the vote in the Electoral College and was therefore inaugurated, despite the fact that Jackson had won the popular vote. Adams served an essentially useless term. The checks and balances of the US Constitution prevent the President from enacting laws without the approval of Congress, which was controlled by Jackson's supporters.

Jackson made a second run for the Presidency after spending the four years of Adams's presidency planning and organising his supporters. These people were called the Jacksonian Democrats, in a bid to replace the old Jeffersonian Republicans. They unified the party with a platform and a convention system, starting in 1832. His supporters were, like Jefferson's, relatively ordinary men and were extremely vocal in their support of their man. There is a story that, when Jackson was inaugurated after the election of 1828, the party at the White House became so raucous that he had to escape through a window.

In 1844, at the new Democratic Convention, the party was officially renamed the Democratic Party. In 1848, the Democratic National Committee was formed, whose job was to prepare Conventions and to advance the party's cause, as it still does today.

In 1850, the only major opposition party to the Democrats, the Whigs, collapsed. But since the Democratic platform took a largely tolerant attitude towards slavery in order to keep the important Southern vote, the former Whigs and some abolitionist Democrats created the Republican Party and made a run for the Presidency in 1856. They lost to James Buchanan. In 1860, the Democrats made a strategic error, allowing the southern Democrat John C Breckinridge and the more moderate northerner Stephen A Douglas to be nominated. This split caused the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to be elected. The Civil War ensued, which would ultimately lead to the decimation of the Democratic Party.

The War and Its Aftermath

During the Civil War, the South was not exactly concentrating on party politics, but the Northern Democrats split into two factions. They were the War Democrat faction, which supported Abraham Lincoln's policies, and the Copperheads, who wanted to make peace with the South. In the end, the Republican party grew stronger in the North as the war went in its favour, and the Democratic party weakened. However, Lincoln had made a Southern Democrat who opposed the secession of the South his Vice President in order to show unity. This man's name was Andrew Johnson. Because he was not a Republican, Johnson was met with considerable opposition. He was impeached and nearly taken out of office, but survived the scandal and served out the rest of his term quietly.

After the war was over, Republican President Ulysses S Grant imposed punitive measures on the South during Reconstruction. This strengthened Southern resolve, and they sent Democratic Senators to Congress, who were turned away. The Republicans forced the South to allow African-American men the right to vote, with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870. However, once their hold on the South was loosened, it soon became a Democratic stronghold. The 'Jim Crow' laws prevented African-Americans from voting, in addition to confirming segregation in public places. African-Americans would have to wait many years to gain unreserved equality.

Because the region voted so reliably Democratic, it was known as the 'Solid South'. Eventually, the party grew again. Support spread into the mid-Atlantic states. In 1884, progressive New Yorker Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected President since the war. The Democrats often held the House of Representatives near the turn of the century. At around this time, the major parties experienced a switch in platforms: the Democrats became increasingly liberal, while the Republicans became more conservative.

The Coming of the Leftists

In 1896, the Democrats chose a populist candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan, who famously prosecuted in the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial. He lost to a conservative candidate, William McKinley. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson beat out a split Republican Party and gained the White House. At one time the President of Princeton University, he was considered a very progressive man and reformed and liberalised the government quickly. He passed several labour laws and saw the country through World War I. The Democrats began to find their new constituencies in the rapidly-growing urban areas of the country.

Following the Great Depression, which was largely blamed on Republican Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt led the Democratic Party to victory in the White House for a record four times. His 'New Deal' programmes cemented the reputation of the Democrats as a party of 'big government', meaning that the government has more involvement in and gives more assistance to people's lives. He established Social Security, work programmes and a farm authority, while fighting World War II. Roosevelt, in an attempt to get rid of conservative Democrats, actually campaigned against five Democratic senators whom he thought were part of the conservative wing. The liberalisation of the party did not happen quite that quickly, though — each of the five senators were re-elected.

In 1948, the Democratic National Convention adopted a resolution to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and endorse the civil rights movement. This led to Strom Thurmond and other old-fashioned Southern Democrats breaking away from the party and forming the 'Dixiecrat' party, which was against civil rights.

Into the Modern Day

John F Kennedy won the Presidency in 1960 and excited the nation into an optimism it hadn't seen in years. When he was assassinated in late 1963, Lyndon B Johnson assumed the office of President. He engaged in an incredibly ambitious domestic programme, including the passing of a Civil Rights Bill. After its signing, he is said to have remarked to an assistant that the Democrats had just signed away the Solid South to the Republicans for years to come. It was true. Never again would the Democrats be dominant in the South, while the Republicans lost their grip on the North. However, it must be said that by this time, American politics were less and less set according to north and south. California, in the west, would become a Democratic stronghold.

Because of his Vietnam policy, Johnson did not run for a second term of his own, resulting in Richard Nixon's takeover of the Presidency. After the desperately damaging Watergate Scandal, Democrat Jimmy Carter took over. He is often seen as the most honest modern President, though is not popular among Republicans. Carter was defeated in the next election by a California Republican named Ronald Reagan, whose style of government would effectively stay in place4 until 1993, when Bill Clinton took office. Clinton focused on debt reduction and domestic goals, like reducing crime. However, his presidency was tarred with the famous Monica Lewinsky scandal, and after two terms his successor, Al Gore, lost the election of 2000 to George W Bush, son of the previous President Bush. In the hotly-contested election of 2004, Democratic contender John Kerry also lost to Bush.

At the time of writing, all three branches of the United States government (Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court) are Republican-controlled. Optimistic Democrats say that it won't be long before the party regains control of Congress, whereas those who are less positively-minded say that this is not a particularly accurate outlook. But opinion is much divided on this issue, so perhaps it is best to see what the future holds.

1The Electoral College is a body of representatives from all the States, plus the District of Columbia. Today numbering 538 members, it is what really elects the President of the United States. In the event of a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives will cast their votes for the President.2The other being Vietnam.3Incidentally, this battle was actually fought after the war was officially over — the news of the peace treaty hadn't been got to Jackson's forces in time.4Despite the change of power from Reagan to George HW Bush.

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