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Democratic Party

Timeframe: 1834 - 1834

In the 1830s, under the starkly new leadership of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, the Democratic party developed the characteristics it retained until the end of the century. It was willing to use national power in foreign affairs when American interests were threatened, but in economic and social policy it stressed the responsibility to act cautiously. Democrats argued that the federal government should do nothing the states could do for themselves, leaving everything in control to the smallest denominator. Jackson, when president, acted to reinforce a coalition, and built the foundations of the party.

In the presidential elections of 1824, the former war hero Andrew Jackson, despite receiving the largest number of popular votes, had lost the election to the House of Representatives. Rejecting "King Caucus" the Jacksonians were soon joined by Senator Martin Van Buren leader of New York’s political machine. Thus the Jacksonians built an alliance between those on the West and Eastern city organizations.

Thus the major source of the party’s cohesion was its strong organization, which enabled it to fight in elections effectively and shape government decisions. The Democratic organization, with its local, district, and statewide committees, conventions, and rallies, spread everywhere to promote the party and principles, drawing up lists of voters. Jackson had to stradle Western demands for internal improvements and Northeastern objections to large federal expenditures, Northeastern demands for the protective tariff and Southern demands for tariff reduction, and Calhoun’s view that any state could nullify a national law.

Calhouns followers, not intent to drop the issue, called a special state nullification convention to proclaim the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the jurisdiction of South Carolina. However, Jackson responded with a proclamation declaring the federal government sovereign and indivisible, thus denying that a state could refuse to obey the law. He received from Congress a force bill that empowered him to use armed forces. Southern Democrats began to split between pro-Calhoun nullifiers and pro-Jackson unionists. Problems erupted with the slavery issue when it came to the annexation of Texas.

Van Buren’s administration hedged on Jackson’s unionist view by agreeing in part to a Calhoun sponsored resolution which said that a state had jurisdiction over slavery within its borders. However, slavery still remained an issue. Democrats spillet into two camps, the "barnburners" and the "hunkers." The issue divided local as well as national Democrats; party leaders as Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas supported "squatter sovereignty". However, this did not please Southern Democrats. The result was electoral disaster, as many northern Democrats, seeking to punish their leaders, joined the emerging Republicans. These defections cost the party northern support.

After the Southern Democrats seceded from the party and the nation, new factional groupings emerged along East-West, war-peace, and mercantile-agrarian lines. National chairman August Belmont of New York led the "War Democrats" in support of Lincoln’s conduct of the war and "sound money programs." Representative Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio became the spokesman for the "Peace Democrats" who criticized Lincoln’s conduct of the war. The Democrats, in 1864 succeeded to nominating George B. McClellan, a Civil War general, for president and giving him a peace platform to run on. President Lincoln in the mean time recruited Governor Andrew Johnson of Tenesee, a war Democrat, for his vice-presidential nominee.

The Republicans charged the Democrats for disloyalty, as they opposed the draft, social changes and government encroachment, and made it an effective campaign slogan for the rest of the century. The tactic, known as "waving the bloody shirt" always hurt the Democrats in close elections until powerful emotional memories faded. They did not regain control of either house of Congress until 1874, and the Presidency until 1884. As the minority party, Democrats became absorbed in the problems of postwar inflation and agricultural depression. Factional interests debated "hard" versus "soft" currency and credit policies. After a stalemate, Horatio Symour agreed to a "soft money" platform while he was a "hard money" leader. From this election emerged Samuel J. Tilden.

Without a leader, the Democrats turned to endorse the 1872 Liberal Republican nominee, who had defected from Grant’s administration. The nominee turned out to be Horace Greeley. Within two years, Tilden became the governor, and in the next election ran as the Democratic nominee. Though he lost, Tilden was an instrumental factor in the winning candidacy of Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland returned the Democrats to control of the White House after twenty-four years of Republican rules. He oversized federal patronage to distribute. Around this time, party fationalism got out of hand, as three groups fought for control in an increasingly harsh atmosphere. One bloc comprised the traditional Democrats behind New York’s Grover Cleveland; they still espoused the conventional policies of limited government activities. A second group consisted of the urban political machines, which won the support of immigrants by helping them adjust to conditions in the country. The third faction was made up of the groups in the South and the West reacting against the industrial economy. Currency and tariff policies became the major issues of the Cleveland era, complicated by a rising output of silver mines, and the need to establish a balance between silver and gold currencies.

Cleveland struck hard for tariff reduction, but was opposed by Democratic protectionists. Angry farmers wanted a shift of government intervention towards there behalf, but were strongly resisted by traditionalists. They provoked a revolt and found William Jennings Bryan a presidential candidate who overthrew Cleveland. William Jennings Bryan led the free silver cause and was supported as well by the Peoples’ Party. The silverites dominated the national convention, and the gold delegates refrained from voting. Bryan endeavored to forge an alliance out of agrarian discontent in the South and Midwest.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Democrats’ minority among voters remained central to their interest. However, a Progressive split in the Republican party helped elect Woodrow Wilson twice. Wilson conceived his party leadership as a parliamentary role, shaping his approach to his legislative program, which he promoted vigorously and successfully, and his patronage and other organizational needs of his party. The Great War, popular at first, backfired against the Wilson administration when large numbers of German-Americans and Irish-Americans protested with their votes against involvement on the English side. The national convention in 1924 was stalemated between the urban-ethnic wing and the older Bryanite-southern groups.

Problems generated in the 18th Amendment set the "wets" against "drys." The South closed ranks to deatlock the national convention of 1920. By 1924, "dry" Wilson, and "wet" Al Smith were the leaders of two factions in the party. In 1928, the nomination of Irish Catholic Al Smith broke the solid South, part of which went Republican for the first time ever in reaction to the social and cultural values represented by Smith. Nevertheless, the first Catholic to be nominated, he raised the Democratic turnout by a substantial percentage, particularly in large cities.

In the mid-20th century, the basic character of the Democratic appeal began to change in a gradual and then rapid manner. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Democrats became a party of vigorous government intervention in the economy and on social issues, willing to regulate and redistribute wealth to protect those least able to help themselves. Urban political machines brought to the party a commitment to social welfare legislation to help immigrant constituents.

The election came at a time of a grave national economic crisis; a disenfranchised public looked to the Republicans as abandoning their interests while the Hoover presidency spent money on private interests. Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the Democratic message to the White House and solidified and expanded the new Democratic commitment to the poor ethnic constituencies in city districts. Increasingly, under Democratic leadership, the government expanded its role in social welfare and economic regulation. Traditional Democrats surged at the polls and the party won over new groups, such as the blacks who had previously gone Republican. The Result was a New Deal coalition which lasted in a dominant role for more than 30 years.

World War II witnessed a new factionalism, as the South prepared to reassert itself. Labor unions now had potent vote getting capacity and urban Democratic machines were attempting to modernize themselves. Roosevelt acquiesced to Southern pressures by withholding support for Vice President Wallace, and instead giving the nomination to Harry S. Truman, who had gained credibility and prominence through investigations of defense spending.

Truman had become president within a year, upon Roosevelt’s death. The reawakening of memories of the New Deal and the depression President Truman’s campaign helped bring him back for a second term. The Republican Congress, seeking to limit union activity, passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto, gaining Truman support of union members. Truman also appointed the Committee on Civil Rights to develop race-relations, but it so inflamed the South that Democratic regulars in Southern states supported a Dixiecrat ticked led by Wallace.

At the next national convention, ideological New Dealers fought to establish a loyalty pledge that would bind delegates to the convention’s choices. Despite efforts to avoid a candidacy, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois was the compromise choice over the sectional candidacy of Richard B. Russel of Georgia and Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. The Republicans were victorious with their election of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson however made efforts to improve party organization and serve as an active spokesman. At the grassroots level, urban machines were working to incorporate new constituents into the party.

The Democrats regained power with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and were able to pass much vigorous legislation. Kennedy’s victory demonstrated that Catholicism need not be the handicap that it was for Al Smith. The Kennedy-Johnson campaign conducted a thoroughly united campaign that brought a narrow victory.

The 1960 election also brought a further breakup of the one-party solid South, as Kennedy’s New Frontier program included new protections for civil rights in the South and for bringing blacks into the ranks of the Democratic party. Robert F. Kennedy had a major responsibility for the implementation of civil rights legislation and registration. Overseas, the Castro regime of Cuba defeated an American-sponsored invasion by anti-Castro exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy also increased Communist pressure on South Vietnam by sending military aid.

The Vietnam War provoked many to challenge it on its anti-Communist foreign policy. At the same time, the revolt of the youth against the draft and on matters of personal behavior and discipline contributed a strong challenge; at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the police culminated in street battles with groups of protesters.

Many anti-war Democrats turned to the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, as Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek renomination. New nominating rules, inspired by the restlessness in the party, led to the nomination of George McGovern. His campaign ended in overwhelming defeat, but the party bounced back after the excesses of Watergate and the tapering off of the war induced fervor.

Former governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia swept the primaries and succeeded in unseating President Gerald Ford in a close contest in which labor, blacks, and the South joined to bring a Southerner to the presidency. The clash of social values, and changing economic issues shifted the center of gravity within the party and continued to drive many away. Issues such as inflation gravely hurt the party. Political parties at this time were in general decline, as fewer voters remained loyal to them.

The Democrats, with a ticket of the former vice president Walter Mondale were defeated in the 1984 elections by a greater margin than in 1980, where Carter ran for reelection. The Democrats lost more than a dozen seats in the House, and the Republicans maintained control of the Senate. In the midterm elections of 1986, the Democrats won control of the Senate and gained modestly in the House.

Although in 1988, the Democratic nominee for president, Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts had chosen Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as his running mate, the South and West carried the Republicans to victory. However, the Democrats strengthened their hold in the House and Senate.

In 1992, after twelve years of Presidential rule by the Republican parties, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas was able to regain the Presidency for the party after winning over President George Bush, blamed for an economic downturn, and Ross Perot. With the country in a recession, the Democrats succeeded in rallying the public around a call for change and a commitment to domestic jobs programs. Bill Clinton was able to pull off a reelection in 1996, though his presidency was plagued with scandals and campaign finance problems. Apathetic voters failed to pay attention to campaign, and missing the major issues, they handed the President reelection. However, the 1994 midterm elections brought a stunning defeat to the Democrats as the Republicans gained control over both hoses of Congress. Democratic support in the South had eroded, but it showed dissatisfaction with Democratic rule nationwide.

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