History of the Democratic Party: The Evolution of U.S. Democrats

By Grace Taylor

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 04: Members of the 110th Congress raise their right hands and take the oath of office during the swearing in ceremony in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 4, 2007 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

When George Washington resigned as President of the United States in 1796, he published a farewell address in the popular American Daily Advisor for the nation's public to read. It was 32 pages handwritten, but here's the basic gist, at least for our purposes:

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views ... They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

In other words, Washington believed political parties would always put their own interests over those of America, so ... don't make them? But like any youngster in their rebellious phase, America did not listen to her Founding Father's word of advice and went on to create not one but two major political parties before the election of 1796 even took place. Sorry, Dad.

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson from United States Currency. (Bureau of Engraving and Printing & Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons)

The Birth Of The Democratic Party

The original party divide was between the Federalists, backed by political powerhouse Alexander Hamilton, and that of the more familiar-sounding Democratic-Republicans, backed by Declaration of Independence scribe Thomas Jefferson. It is enormously messy and unwise to try to boil down either party and relate it to the modern day, but let's just say one party was pro–federal government power and one party preferred to distribute power more evenly among local and state authorities.

The true birth of the Democratic Party as we know it today accompanied the rise of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. He lost his first bid for the presidency to John Quincy Adams after failing to win enough electoral votes to seal the deal, but with the help of then-senator Martin Van Buren, Jackson reshaped American politics, using the newly formed Democratic Party to define and legitimize his populous viewpoints.

One unfortunate recurring theme in the first century of the Democratic Party was intense racial strife, and Jackson certainly led the way with his Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly removed Native Americans from their ancestral homes. It played out most horrifically in the Cherokee Nation's removal, in which an estimated 4,000 people died in the "Trail of Tears."  

Photo of rioters attacking a building on Lexington Avenue during the New York Draft Riot of 1863. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Republican vs. Democrat

For decades, the Democratic Party championed ideals like Manifest Destiny with the aim to further replace Native lands with American settlements. The strategy made the Democrats very popular, "winning all but two presidential elections from 1828 to 1856," yet the real line in the sand was drawn in 1854 with the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of legislature in the history of the nation, this act overturned the previously accepted Missouri Compromise, which effectively quarantined slavery below the Mason–Dixon line. However, Franklin Pierce and the Democrat-controlled government decided that new western states ought to choose for themselves whether or not they would allow slavery. 

Enter Abraham Lincoln of the upcoming Republican Party. While by no means an abolitionist, his rhetoric was enough to scare Southerners into believing that his election would bring about the end of slavery, leading the state of South Carolina to secede from the Union in 1860 and the rest of the South to follow suit. With the Union's eventual victory in the ensuing Civil War, the Republican Party proved itself a legitimate and formidable foil to the Democrats' long-running political dominance.

One of the most famous American photos by Dorothea Lange of the 1930s, shows Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven children, 32 years old, in Nipomo, California, March 1936, looking for a job or social aid to support her family. (Library of Congress/Wi

The Southern Strategy And The New Deal

The Democrats survived, however, mostly because they promised white Southerners that they would do everything within their power to limit the freedom of the newly emancipated black population, specifically when it came to the vote. Although black men were technically allowed to vote after the Civil War, voter intimidation and the era of Jim Crow suppressed the black vote until the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

How does the party of pro-slavery suddenly become the party that actually signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into action under the hand of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson? Essentially, it all comes down to workers' rights versus the elitist "robber barons" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While these manipulative businessmen existed in both parties, the Democrats eventually began campaigning on ending monopolies and restructuring the economic landscape, which was widely unregulated and exploitative of the working class. The Republicans, in turn, backed the "big business" corporate elites in the cities of industry, which presented a major problem for rural and blue-collar workers. Fear became reality when the stock market crashed in 1929, devastating both the rich and rural.

The Great Depression gave new urgency to the Democratic call for economic reform, and in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election cleared the way for a public works program called the New Deal. You might have heard of it? The basic idea was to create new government jobs for the scores of unemployed whom the private industry had failed. F.D.R. also guided America through the bulk of World War II. The Democrats were back in power, but this time, they had the support of a much more diverse and progressive base.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

The "Big Tent" And Barack Obama

While many continued to support the traditionally Southern Democratic Party, almost every pro-segregationist had fled by the mid-1960s due to the party's new focus on civil rights. As a result of the movement's initial success, the black vote swung wildly in favor of the Democratic Party, hoisting up the "big tent" under which the Democrats lost many of their former supporters but welcomed a more diverse coalition of voters that rose in political prominence over the next few decades.

While the Democrats suffered major defeats through the '70s and '80s, they made a big comeback in the '90s and have remained a heavy hitter ever since. In a turn of events so bizarre that it could only be true, the same party that once touted the necessity of slavery nominated and elected the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, in 2008.

That wasn't the end of the evolution of the Democratic Party, though. Post-Obama, America's liberals once again split into two factions, with more traditional moderates, led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, locked in a contentious but presumably civil disagreement with the more progressive branch, run by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her "squad." What the future of the Democratic Party holds is impossible to predict, but for better or worse, it's safe to say they will be making political waves for years to come.

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Grace Taylor