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

By | November 15, 2020

test article image
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.

test article image
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."