[AllPolitics - DNC '96 Facts]

Democratic Party History


The Democratic party is the oldest existing political party in America. Democrats have won 19 of 42 presidential elections since the party first ran a presidential candidate (Andrew Jackson) in 1828. While there is no precise date for the beginning of the Democratic party, its origin can be traced to the late 1700s when Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican party organized opposition to the Federalist Party.

The Democratic-Republican Party was an outgrowth of the Anti-Federalists, the party that advocated more states' rights and less central government than desired by the Federalists. Most historians agree that the Democratic party as we know it today began with Andrew Jackson's successful 1828 presidential campaign. The 1828 presidential campaign is also the origin of the Democratic party's mascot -- the donkey. Andrew Jackson's opponents called him a "jackass" during the campaign, and Jacksonians adopted it as a political symbol. In the late 1820s, Andrew Jackson led a splintered group of Democratic-Republicans to form the Democratic Party.


Leaders of the Democratic Party encouraged the Populist movement of that era and the expansionist movement west that followed. This era was marked by grass-roots democracy at the local level, especially in the new western frontier of the Ohio Valley. If an official date can be established for the beginning of the Democratic Party, it would be 1832, when the Democrats held their first nominating convention.

The Democrats dominated American politics through the beginning of the Civil War. Between 1828 and 1860, the last election before the Civil War, the Democrats held the White House for 24 of the 32 years. The party controlled the Senate for 26 years and the House for 24 years during this period. The ideology of the party during pre-Civil War era stressed states' rights and low government spending. The party, as in the modern period, attracted the disenfranchised and out-groups. But the dominant issue during this time was slavery.


Finally, in 1860, slavery divided the Democratic party. In 1860 the Democrats ran two separate tickets -- one southern and one northern. The irony for the southern pro-slavery Democrats was that the split in the party helped Abraham Lincoln win the White House. Lincoln only carried 40 percent of the national vote. During the Civil War, the northern Democratic party split into two factions, "War Democrats" and "Peace Democrats."

The "War Democrats" supported the war effort and President Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln chose "War Democrat" Andrew Johnson as a vice presidential running mate in the 1864 election. "Peace Democrats" -- also known as "Copperheads" -- actively opposed the war (they favored a negotiated peace settlement with the South) and President Lincoln. This split, along with the total defeat of the South, led the way for the dominance of the Republican party for the next 72 years.


The years after the Civil War stand out as the lowest point in Democratic party history, when it was unable to win the White House or control Congress. The only stronghold of Democratic power was in the South, where Republicans gave blacks the right to vote and took that right away from southerners who had fought against the Union. Most southerners firmly believed that the Republican party was against their beliefs, and the region became a solid Democratic block.

During the 72-year period, 1860-1932, the Democrats occupied the White House for a scant 16 years. (The terms of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson.) In Congress, the Democrats controlled the House for 26 years and the Senate for only 10. In 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency, the Democratic party began to shift away from its philosophies of strict interpretation of the Constitution and limited government. The Depression in 1929 completed this change, and the Democratic party led the country into the modern era.


Franklin Roosevelt stormed into office in 1932 with a broad coalition of blacks, labor, academics and the traditional core of southern Democratic support. Ideologically, the party now supported a strong central government, a liberal interpretation of the Constitution and a federal government which took an active role in solving the nation's economic and social ills. Major items that characterize this philosophy are the New Deal programs of the 1930s (when Social Security was established) and the Great Society programs of the 1960s (when Medicare and Medicaid were established).

The Democrats controlled the White House for 32 of the 48 years between 1932 and 1980. (Except for the terms of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford.) However, the Republican party has became dominant in presidential elections since 1968. A string of liberal presidential nominees has alienated the Democratic party's traditionally conservative southern base. However, losses in presidential campaigns were balanced by strength in the Congress, as well as state and local level politics. In 1992, the Democrats won the White House with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Clinton ran as a politically moderate "New Democrat" who was pro-business and pro-death penalty -- but also pro-abortion rights. He seemed to offer plausible solutions to the problems facing the country.


In 1994, Republicans, galvanized by the "Contract With America" (a list of 10 popular initiatives, such as a balanced budget), took control of the House for the first time since 1948. (They also captured the Senate for the third time since 1945.) Many analysts saw the election as a rejection of President Clinton's proposed big government programs, notably his call for the government to oversee most of the nation's health care system. Analysts also said the 1994 election indicated a political realignment may be underway in the country -- with the South and suburban middle class becoming predictably Republican rather than Democratic. (Analysts also say political realignments take several elections to prove themselves valid). President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is dead" in his 1996 State of the Union address, but the Democratic party is still considered as the party that defends the role of government in America.

(SOURCES: CQ U.S. Guide to Elections; World Book Encyclopedia, CNN Political Analyst Bill Schneider)

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