1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Democratic Party
DEMOCRATIC PARTY, originally Democratic-Republican Party, the oldest of existing political parties in the United States. Its origin lay in the principles of local self-government and repugnance to social and political aristocracy established as cardinal tenets of American colonial democracy, which by the War of Independence, which was essentially a democratic movement, became the basis of the political institutions of the nation. The evils of lax government, both central and state, under the Confederation caused, however, a marked anti-democratic reaction, and this united with the temperamental conservatism of the framers of the constitution of 1787 in the shaping of that conservative instrument. The influences and interests for and against its adoption took form in the groupings of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and these, after the creation of the new government, became respectively, in underlying principles, and, to a large extent, in personnel, the Federalist party (q.v.) and the Democratic-Republican party. The latter, organized by Thomas Jefferson in opposition to the Federalists dominated by Alexander Hamilton, was a real party by 1792. The great service of attaching to the constitution a democratic bill of rights belongs to the Anti-Federalists or Democratic-Republican party, although this was then amorphous. The Democratic-Republican party gained full control of the government, save the judiciary, in 1801, and controlled it continuously thereafter until 1825. No political “platforms” were then known, but the writings of Jefferson, who dominated his party throughout this period, take the place of such. His inaugural address of 1801 is a famous statement of democratic principles, which to-day are taken for granted only because, through the party organized by him to secure their success, they became universally accepted as the ideal of American institutions. In all the colonies, says John Adams, “a court and a country party had always contended”; Jefferson’s followers believed sincerely that the Federalists were a new court party, and monarchist. Hence they called themselves “Republicans” as against monarchists,—standing also, incidentally, for states’ rights against the centralization that monarchy (or any approach to it) implied; and “Democrats” as against aristocrats,—standing for the “common rights of Englishmen,” the “rights of man,” the levelling of social ranks and the widening of political privileges. In the early years of its history—and during the period of the French Revolution and afterwards—the Republicans sympathized with the French as against the British, the Federalists with the British as against the French.
Devotion to abstract principles of democracy and liberty, and in practical politics a strict construction of the constitution, in order to prevent an aggrandizement of national power at the expense of the states (which were nearer popular control) or the citizens, have been permanent characteristics of the Democratic party as contrasted with its principal opponents; but neither these nor any other distinctions have been continuously or consistently true throughout its long course. 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; 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 Jefferson 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. During the ensuing Civil War such 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.” 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. The Electoral Commission, however, made Hayes president, and the quiet acceptance of this decision by the Democratic party did it considerable credit.
Since 1877 the Southern states have been almost solidly Democratic; but, except on the negro question, such unanimity among Southern whites has been, naturally, factitious; and by no means an unmixed good for the party. 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 third-party of the “Populists,” only to be confronted thereupon by the growing strength of Socialism, challenging it to a farther radical widening of its programme. From 1860 to 1908 it elected but a single president (Grover Cleveland, 1885–1889 and 1893–1897). All American parties accepted long ago in theory “Jeffersonian democracy”; but the Democratic party has been “the political champion of those elements of the [American] democracy which are most democratic. It stands nearest the people.” It may be noted that the Jeffersonian Republicans did not attempt to democratize the constitution itself. The choice of a president was soon popularized, however, in effect; and the popular election of United States senators is to-day a definite Democratic tenet.
- The prefix “Democratic” was not used by Jefferson; it became established, however, and official.
- Under the rubric of “strict construction” fall the greatest struggles in the party’s history: those over the United States Bank, over tariffs—for protection or for “revenue” only—over “internal improvements,” over issues of administrative economy in providing for the “general welfare,” &c. The course of the party has frequently been inconsistent, and its doctrines have shown, absolutely considered, progressive latitudinarianism.
- “Nationalistic” is used here and below, not in the sense of a general nationalistic spirit, such as that of Jackson, but to indicate the centralizing tendency of a broad construction of constitutional powers in behalf of commerce and manufactures.
- Standing for protective tariffs, internal improvements, &c.
- 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.
- The Democratic national convention of 1832 was preceded by an Anti-Masonic convention of 1830 and by the National-Republican convention of 1831; but the Democratic platform of 1840 was the first of its kind.
- The attitude of the Republican party was no less inconsistent and evasive.
- 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.
- Professor A. D. Morse in International Monthly, October 1900. He adds, “It has done more to Americanize the foreigner than all other parties.” (It is predominant in the great cities of the country.)
- In connexion with the prevalent popular tendency to regard the president as a people’s tribune, it may be noted that a strong presidential veto is, historically, peculiarly a Democratic contribution, owing to the history of Jackson’s (compare Cleveland’s) administration.