Skip to main content
Select Source:

Democratic Party


DEMOCRATIC PARTY, the oldest mass-based political party in the world. The party traces its ancestry to the collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of Virginia and Aaron Burr and George Clinton of New York. The four founders of the party may first have gathered in upstate New York in 1791 when Jefferson and Madison were allegedly on a botanical expedition to observe the vegetation and wildlife of the region. The fateful alliance between Virginia and New York, between the planters and small farmers of the South with the small farmers of the West and urban workers of the East, began a durable coalition of American politics that endured into the middle of the twentieth century.

Jeffersonian Origins

Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and Clinton began their party as an organized opposition to the politics of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and his supporters favored a strong central government, debt, credit, banking, and trade policies to further commercial and manufacturing interests, an expanded military and naval budget, and a conciliatory policy toward Great Britain. The Jeffersonian "Republicans" as they were then known, favored minimalist government, retirement of the national debt, no favoritism for banks or for manufacturing enterprises, and discriminatory trade policies that would favor France over Britain. The Jeffersonians conceived that they could make America's agricultural exports into a potent instrument of diplomacy. Jefferson, Madison, and Albert Gallatin, the ablest political economist among them, disdained military and naval expenditure as inherently wasteful and corrupting in peacetime.

The Jeffersonians gained power in both the executive and legislative branches in 1801 and they retained political power for a quarter century, the era known as the "Virginia Dynasty": Jefferson's two terms as president were followed by two terms each for his fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe.

Jefferson as president was not the minimalist that Jefferson the opposition leader had been. Although he reduced government expenditures, particularly the war and navy budget, his refusal to pay a "tribute" to the dey of Algiers resulted in the Tripolitan War, and a buildup of American naval forces that extended to the War of 1812. Most importantly, Jefferson the "strict constructionist" of the Constitution dramatically expanded presidential power by negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, which he initiated and concluded without a specific constitutional warrant.

Jefferson's second term and Madison's first term marked a less successful period for the party that now called itself the "Democratic Republicans." The Jeffersonians tried to achieve their diplomatic ends peacefully, and this meant attempting to force diplomatic success through trade policy. Jefferson's Embargo Act and Madison's Non-Intercourse Act marked efforts to secure French and British recognition of America's neutral rights in the midst of their all-out struggle in the Napoleonic Wars.

In the upheaval of the war with Britain in 1812, the Jeffersonians found themselves severely hampered in their defense efforts, in part because of the cutbacks in naval and military budgets they had initiated a decade earlier. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Madison and Monroe altered their approach to economic policy. Madison endorsed a protective tariff in 1816 and supported a new charter for a Bank of the United States. Madison even cautiously approved of federally initiated internal improvements, such as canals, roads, and river and harbor improvements. By the end of Madison's presidency and throughout Monroe's two terms, known as the "Era of Good Feeling," the Democratic Republican Party largely abandoned its minimalism and supported tariff, banking, and improvements policies originally supported by its Federalist opponents.

The Jacksonians

After the retirement of James Monroe, the newly renamed "Democratic" Party came to rally around the candidacy of Andrew Jackson. Jackson steered the party back toward its minimalist origins. Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States and expressed his hostility to federally funded internal improvements with a veto of the Maysville Road Bill. While Jackson favored tariff reduction in his first term, he would not countenance the efforts of states' rights extremists in South Carolina, under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, to nullify the existing tariff. Jackson reduced the tariff and used the threat of a Force Bill to compel South Carolina to retreat from its dangerous course. Jackson favored aggressive western expansion into Native American lands and he initiated the removal of the remaining Indian tribes in the Southeast—the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles—to much less hospitable lands more than 1,000 miles farther west in what today is the state of Oklahoma.

Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren of New York favored the radical "hard money" policies advocated by labor reformers and some small farmers. Jackson initiated the Specie Circular, which required that all land transactions be conducted using coin rather than bank notes. In the aftermath of a severe downturn in the economy in 1837, Van Buren blamed "overspeculation" and called for a complete separation of bank and state. Hereafter all federal deposits would repose in an independent Subtreasury, immune from banking interference but also unavailable for investment to reflate the economy.

While the Specie Circular did not have its intended effect of reducing the power of banks and speculators, neither did it cause the panic of 1837, as many of the Democrats' Whig opponents charged. Nevertheless, the panic of 1837 and the economic discontent that lasted into the 1840s ended the Democratic dominance of the government after a dozen years. The Whig opposition to the Democrats succeeded in 1840 by imitating many of the aspects of Jacksonian Democracy that the voters found most appealing: in the "Log Cabin" campaign of that year they nominated a war hero and alleged log cabin dweller William Henry Harrison, known as "Old Tippecanoe" to supplant "Old Hickory" and his successor "Old Kinder-hook." Van Buren may not have made much impression on the voters in 1840, but he left a lasting impression on American language: His nickname "O.K." came to stand for anything that had popular approval.

The Democrats came back into power in 1845 with the accession to the presidency of another Tennessean, "Young Hickory," James K. Polk. Polk, like Jackson, was an ardent expansionist, and he campaigned for the presidency with promises to annex the republic of Texas to the Union and to extend Oregon Territory to the border of Russian Alaska: "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" In the latter affair, Polk accepted reality and abandoned northern expansion in favor of an equitable split of Oregon Territory between the United States and British North America. In the matter of Texas, Polk proved far more willing to resort to war. The successful conclusion of that war and the forced cession by Mexico of California, New Mexico, and the rest of its northern territory proved very popular. Polk's free trade policy, negotiated at a time when Great Britain was also abandoning protectionism, helped to generate significant economic expansion. Polk was sufficiently popular that he could easily have run for reelection. He had promised to serve only a single term, however. A Whig, the Mexican-American War hero General Zachary Taylor, followed in office.

Polk's term as president marks the maturity of the Democratic Party in the antebellum era. The Democrats had succeeded in becoming the dominant party of the era by appealing to most planters in the South, small farmers in the West, and urban workers and immigrants in the Northeast. The Democrats were the party of minimal government and libertarianism on the domestic front. The party was consistently hostile to the causes of social reform, such as temperance, education reform, women's rights, and, most unequivocally, abolitionism. The party supported western expansion and after Polk's term this expansion was linked to extending territory for the expansion of slavery. Jefferson's notion that expansion into the West would extend the "empire of liberty" had given way to an idea condemned by antislavery reformers that further expansion would only further the "empire of slavery."

The Democratic Party in the Sectional Crisis and Civil War

By the mid-1850s the Democratic Party was the only significant national institution that united adherents both North and South. The Democrats accomplished this feat at a time when churches, professional associations, and fraternal organizations, to say nothing of the Whigs, had split over the issue of slavery. The party had achieved this unity by papering over its differences on the issue of slavery and, as a result, antislavery Democrats like David Wilmot, Charles Sumner, and even Martin Van Buren abandoned the party. Beneath the veneer of unity, there lurked a deep division between the wings of the Democratic Party. Northern Democrats like Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois favored popular sovereignty as a solution to the problem of slavery in the territories. Southern Democrats like John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky argued that slave-holders were entitled to full protection of their "property" wherever they should go in the federal territories, a view endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision.

By 1860 the Democrats could no longer paper over their differences. In a four-way presidential contest with Republican Abraham Lincoln and Constitutional Unionist John Bell, both wings of the Democratic Party were resoundingly defeated. With the secession of the Confederate states, the Democratic Party lost its base and became a rump party, deeply divided between War Democrats like Montgomery Blair of Maryland, who served in Lincoln's cabinet, and Peace Democrats like Mayor Fernando Wood of New York, who were openly friendly to the aims of the Confederacy. With the Union victories of 1863 and 1864, General George McClellan, a War Democrat campaigning on a Peace platform, could not win the presidency away from Abraham Lincoln.

The Gilded Age

In the aftermath of the Civil War the Democrats drifted for nearly a decade, unsure of their identity, from the pro-southern urban politics of New York governor Horatio Seymour to the reformist zeal of Horace Greeley, once anathema to every organization Democrat North or South. Although the Democrats under Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote and in all likelihood the electoral vote in the disputed election of 1876, the Republican Party emerged victorious in a compromise settlement. The Democrats gained by this Faustian bargain, however. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the southern states in 1877, the South became solidly Democratic and succeeded in disenfranchising African Americans almost completely within a decade.

The Democrats' fortunes revived in 1884 thanks to the reformism of New York governor Grover Cleveland. Dedicated to free trade and civil service reform and opposed to expansionism into the Caribbean and Hawaii, the Democrats attracted a significant coterie of reformminded Republicans known as the "Mugwumps." These deserters left their party to support Cleveland and remained in the Democratic Party as the forerunners of the Democratic Progressives.

Populism and Progressivism

In the 1890s, however, the urban and agrarian components of the Democratic coalition drifted apart on the issue of an expansionist money supply. Cleveland and other eastern Democrats, known as "Gold Bugs," favored remaining on the gold standard, a policy that benefited both Wall Street financiers and urban workers. Agrarian Democrats in the West and South, however, suffering severely from credit reduction after the depression of 1893, found a new eloquent champion for an expansionist money policy in the silver-tongued oratory of William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan's oratory left his southern and western listeners spellbound. His hostility to banks and to eastern financial interests had deep roots in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideology. Bryan's expansionist money policy engendered hostility, however, among the other key component of the Democratic coalition: urban workers in the East. His money policy and his endorsement of free trade in the depressed economy of the 1890s left wageworkers seeking prosperity under the protectionist policies of William McKinley and the Republicans. Bryan's religious fundamentalism gave his oratory tremendous moral power among those for whom biblical imagery was an appropriate metaphor for all problems of life. His famous peroration delivered at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1896 electrified his supporters, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Others found Bryan's speech more alarming than thrilling. Among liturgical Christians, particularly Catholics and Lutherans, Bryan's use of the crucifixion as political metaphor sounded blasphemous. To Jews, the fixation on Christian crucifixion and on the avarice for gold held unpleasant echoes of European anti-Semitism. The result was the alienation of non-evangelical Democrats from Bryan and from the party. The Republican Party thereafter dominated all sections of the United States except the South until the Great Depression.

The Democrats spent the following sixteen years as a political minority, identified with a kind of retrogressive agrarianism in the South and ethnocentric tribalism in the North. The election of Woodrow Wilson transformed the Democrats in 1912. He led the party away from its agrarian roots and toward an energetic form of progressivism. Wilson's progressivism was more concerned with promoting economic competition than with regulating monopolies. Wilson essentially abandoned the traditional minimalism of previous Democrats from Jefferson and Jackson through Cleveland. Only in one respect did Wilson retain a traditional Democratic approach: Wilson was a strict segregationist who re-segregated the civil service in Washington.

During World War I, Wilson took an antitrust approach in foreign affairs. Like Jefferson and Madison one hundred years earlier, Wilson found it impossible to generate respect for American neutral rights when Europe was once again engaged in an all-out struggle. With America's entry into the war, the Wilsonians' agenda became ever more interventionist. The War Industries Board regulated wages and prices in key defense industries, including steel, petroleum, and railroads.

The aftermath of World War I brought the Democrats new problems. Wilson sponsored the Fourteen Points as principles by which the victorious Allies might lay the foundations of a lasting peace at Versailles. These were hailed abroad and widely admired at home. Wilson's devastating stroke, his consequent lack of judgment, and his failure to cooperate with the Republican-controlled Congress doomed the Versailles Treaty's passage in the Senate, and the failure of the United States to participate in Wilson's cherished League of Nations. The war's aftermath brought other problems on the home front. The passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts and the "Palmer Raids" led by Wilson's attorney general against domestic radicals tarnished the Democrats' record as the defender of civil liberties. It also harmed the party's image among those ethnic minorities, such as Italians and Jews, singled out for persecution.

The 1920s were a period of eclipse for the Democrats. The party was bitterly divided over ethnocultural issues, including Prohibition, immigration restriction, and whether or not to recognize the Ku Klux Klan. The Democratic Party was deeply divided between Drys and Wets, Protestants and Catholics, Klansmen and their antagonists. Even among what Wilson called "hyphenated Americans," there were deep divisions between northern and southern Europeans, old and new immigrants, Catholics and Jews. With Al Smith's nomination for president in 1928, the latter divisions between non-Protestant immigrants disappeared and the urban Progressive Smith led a new generation of Italian and Jewish Americans into the Democratic fold, where they would later support Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Smith, however, proved too much of an urban stereotype for Protestant Democrats in the South and West. His accent, his Catholicism, and his antagonism to Prohibition alienated many Democrats in the South and West into voting Republican for the first time in their lives. In 1928 Smith carried only two heavily Catholic states outside the Deep South: Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Solid South was no longer solid in the face of a Catholic running for president. Smith lost the Upper South, where fear of Catholicism triumphed over hatred of Republicans. Only in the Deep South (including heavily Catholic Louisiana) did the loathing of Republicans prove stronger than fear of a Catholic in the White House.

The New Deal and the Fair Deal

In 1932, in the worst days of the Great Depression, the Democrats nominated another New Yorker for president: this time however, he had an impeccable old-line Protestant background and he hailed from a rural area in the Hudson River valley. Franklin D. Roosevelt united the Wets, Catholics, Jews, and urban Progressive reformers of the East and Midwest with the small farmers and miners of the West and the lily-white Democratic Party of the South. Roosevelt synthesized the trust-busting economic policy of the Wilsonians with the interventionist regulatory approach of his distant cousin Theodore.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt launched the "alphabet soup" of government agencies instituted to help the American economy get going again. In agriculture, labor reform, securities trading, child labor restrictions, social security, unemployment relief, rural electrification, banking, and currency regulation, Roosevelt stamped the Democrats' vision of government as inherently interventionist.

World War II drew the United States once again into an all-out European conflict, and Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term because the nation required an experienced chief executive in the midst of such a grave worldwide crisis. In the midst of the war, the Democrats sponsored active intervention in the economy. As in World War I, government, industry, and labor found themselves in a sometimes-uneasy partnership directing a planned war economy. Wartime exigencies forced Roosevelt to break with another Democratic tradition: in the midst of the war, by executive order, Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the hiring policy of federal contractors. African Americans reciprocated by giving their support to the Democrats, beginning in 1932 and accelerating in the 1940s. For the first time in American history, by the 1940s the majority of African American votes were cast for the Democrats.

With Roosevelt's death and the defeat of the Axis, the Democrats looked to Harry Truman to orchestrate the postwar strategic and economic order. The devastation of Western Europe and growing tensions with Joseph Stalin over the political complexion of Eastern Europe produced conflict with the Soviet Union in the early stages of formulating a postwar world order. The Soviet blockade of West Berlin and a Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia produced a siege mentality among Americans now in the early stages of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Truman and the Democrats supported interventionism and new mechanisms to promote international stability. The Marshall Plan, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund produced economic aid and lent stability to the war-torn Western European economies. The Truman Doctrine in the eastern Mediterranean produced "containment" of Communism in Greece and Turkey. American sponsorship of decolonization in India and the Middle East gave Americans greater leverage in those newly emerging states. The United States' recognition of Israel cemented a lasting relationship in the Middle East, despite the antagonism of European allies and the emerging Arab states.

East Asia proved more difficult for Truman and the Democratic Party. The successful Communist Revolution in China prompted Truman's Republican opponents to ask, "Who lost China?" American inability to halt the Korean War before it degenerated into a long, inconclusive stalemate also proved unpopular with the voters. When the Republicans nominated war hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, campaigning against "Korea, Communism, and Corruption," they made inroads into hitherto solid Democratic constituencies, including Southerners and Catholics.

In 1954 the Democrats regained their control of both houses of Congress after their losses in the 1952 Eisenhower landslide. The Democratic leadership was able to work with Eisenhower to promote a bipartisan approach to such issues as nuclear energy, federal aid to education, interstate highways, and limited civil rights legislation. The Democrats in Congress and the Eisenhower administration proved unwilling, or incapable, however, of opposing Senator Joseph McCarthy, until his own ruthless excesses destroyed him.

The New Frontier and the Great Society

In 1960 the Democrats broke with tradition and nominated a young, Harvard-educated Catholic, John F. Kennedy, for the presidency. Kennedy inspired a generation of young Americans with his idealistic rhetoric promoting sacrifice. Kennedy sponsored sweeping civil rights legislation, a tax cut to stimulate the economy, and a doctrine of "limited war" that would engage Communism in peripheral struggle without risking nuclear holocaust.

After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson inherited Kennedy's civil rights and limited war initiatives. In the hands of Johnson, widely considered the most effective majority leader of the Senate, sweeping civil rights legislation passed Congress for the first time since Reconstruction. The Democrats, once the party supporting white supremacy, inaugurated an era of Second Reconstruction with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Bill of 1966. These measures and Johnson's sponsorship of a War on Poverty brought to life the full promise of inclusion for African Americans. That this was achieved by a southerner, thanks to his extraordinary legislative abilities, was an irony lost neither on blacks nor on his fellow white southerners. The Vietnam War, however, proved to be Johnson's worst nightmare. He would not withdraw and he could not escalate the war without risking a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and with China. Johnson was left in a war he could not win, and he refused to run for re-election in a year in which the Democrats seemed bent on self-destruction.

The candidacies of Robert Kennedy and Eugene Mc-Carthy in 1968, and the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, fired the idealism of the youthful antiwar wing of the Democratic Party. The labor unions, the lower middle class, Catholics, and white southerners expressed their alienation from these new politics by staying away from the polls or defecting to the Republicans or to George Wallace.

The Post-Watergate Democrats

In the aftermath of Watergate, widespread disillusion with the Republicans produced dramatic gains for the Democrats in Congress and in the statehouses in 1974. Despite a four-year hiatus in which white southerner Jimmy Carter temporarily won the South back for the Democrats, the party once again seemed on the verge of convulsion in 1980. With the advent of Ronald Reagan's presidency in that year, the Republicans gained control of the Senate as well as the White House, while the Democrats—bitterly divided once again between the liberal wing supporting Edward Kennedy and the moderate wing supporting Carter—went down to a landslide defeat. The Democrats recovered their control of the Senate in 1986 but continued to govern largely in response to Republican initiatives in the Reagan years and in the Persian Gulf War of President George H. W. Bush.

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 seemed to argue a return to more of the activist policies of the Democrats in earlier eras, but after the failure of his health care initiative and the ignominious defeat of the Democrats in both houses of Congress the party lost whatever initiative it had in leading the government. Although President Clinton easily won a second term in 1996 and Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, after that time the Democratic Party exhibited the deep divisions between its diverse constituencies that marked its earlier errands in the political wilderness.


Baker, Jean H. Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Benson, Lee. The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Burner, David. The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918–1932. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Cunningham, Noble E. The Jeffersonian Republicans: The Formation of Party Organization, 1789–1801. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

———. The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power: Party Operations, 1801–1809. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Formisano, Ronald P. The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827–1861. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Goodman, Paul. The Democratic Republicans of Massachusetts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Leuchtenberg, William E. In the Shadow of F.D.R.: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

McGerr, Michael E. The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865–1928. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Remini, Robert V. Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

Andrew W.Robertson

See alsoPolitical Parties ; Republican Party ; Republicans, Jeffersonian ; Two-Party System ; andvol. 9:An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic Party." Dictionary of American History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic Party." Dictionary of American History. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic Party." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Democratic Party


The modern Democratic Party is the descendant of the democratic-republican party, an early-nineteenth-century political organization led by thomas jefferson and james madison. Also known as the Jeffersonian Republican Party, the Democratic-Republican Party began as an antifederalist group, opposed to strong, centralized government. The party was officially established at a national nominating convention in 1832. It dropped the Republican portion of its name in 1840.

Despite destructive struggles and philosophical shifts, the Democratic Party remains a dominant political force in the United States. The Democrats compete for office with the Republicans, their counterparts in the United States's de facto two-party system though third-party candidates and independents have experienced increasing success at both the state and federal levels, with Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler and Navy Seal, being the most visible example. He won the gubernatorial race as a member of the state's reform party.

The Democratic Party of the late 1990s supports liberal government policies in social and economic matters. The early party disapproved of federal involvement. Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe—Virginians who were each elected president of the United States—favored limited powers for the national government.

The fundamental change in Democratic philosophy was the result of fluid coalitions and historical circumstance. The master coalition builder and founder of the modern Democratic Party was andrew jackson, a populist president who was portrayed as a donkey by political satirists. Jackson transformed presidential politics by expanding party involvement. (The donkey later became the symbol for the Democratic Party.)

The transformation began after Jackson's first unsuccessful bid for the White House. In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson won the popular vote but failed to win a majority in the electoral college. The U.S. Constitution requires the House of Representatives to select the president under these circumstances. When the House chose john quincy adams, Jackson was incensed—and began a four-year campaign to win the next presidential election.

With help from political adviser and future president martin van buren, Jackson won the presidency in 1828.

Jackson had benefited from growth in the nation's population and from laws that increased the number of U.S. citizens eligible to vote. In the 1824 presidential election, about 365,000 votes had been counted. In the 1828 election, over 1 million votes were cast, an

Democratic National Convention Sites, 1832 to 2004
Year Site
aAn earlier convention, held in Charleston, South Carolina, had resulted in a split ticket in the party. The official nomination was made at the Baltimore convention.
source:Democratic Nation Convention website.
1868New York City
1876St. Louis
1888St. Louis
1900Kansas City, MO
1904St. Louis
1916St. Louis
1920San Francisco
1924New York City
1960Los Angeles
1964Atlantic City
1972Miami Beach
1976New York City
1980New York City
1984San Francisco
1992New York City
2000Los Angeles

increase that clearly helped Jackson, the socalled people's president.

In reaching his goal, Jackson laid the groundwork for a strong party system. He set up an efficient Democratic political organization by forming committees at the local, district, and state levels; holding rallies and conventions; generating publicity; registering new voters; and getting people to the polls.

Jackson also backed the newly created convention system for nominating presidential candidates and was himself nominated for reelection at the 1832 Democratic convention. The original purpose of conventions was to allow local input in the political process. In Jackson's time, conventions were forums for debate and deal making.

As the Democratic Party changed in form and purpose, alliances became more difficult. Relations between southern and northern Democrats were increasingly strained. Southern states sought the reduction of tariffs, or taxes on imports, whereas northern states favored tariffs to safeguard their manufactured goods. Some southern Democrats suggested that individual states could nullify federal tariff laws.

Even more troublesome was the issue of states' rights and slavery. The regional split within the party widened over the designation of new territories as free or slave states. The breaking point was the 1860 national convention. The Democrats were divided—the southern faction favored John C. Breckinridge, and the northerners selected stephen a. douglas. Although Douglas advocated limited national control, or popular sovereignty, the southern delegates were not appeased. Republican nominee abraham lincoln capitalized on the dissension in the Democratic Party and won the election.

Following Lincoln's election came a twenty-four-year spell with no Democrat in the White House. After the Civil War, Democrats were denounced in the North because they had not supported legislation to finance the war or to enlist new soldiers. Meanwhile, the South became solidly Democratic in response to the Republicans' unpopular Reconstruction policies.

During the nineteenth century, the Democrats also created powerful urban political machines such as New York City's tammany hall. In these systems, people were offered political jobs or money in exchange for voter loyalty. Immigrants tended to support the Democratic Party and machine politics as a way to gain a foothold in their new country. Unfortunately, the machines became sources of corruption and graft.

In 1884, Democratic nominee grover cleveland, of New York, was elected president with a pledge to end political patronage and support for the gold standard. Again, factionalism undermined Democratic strength. william jennings bryan, a powerful Democratic orator, supported free coinage of silver currency. He tapped into the discontent of southern and western farmers who sought government assistance. He also drew support from the labor movement. With Bryan as the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908, the party's original position on limited government was all but abandoned.

Factionalism was the party's strength as well as its weakness. On the one hand, it gave minority interests a chance to be heard. However, successful coalitions among the different interests were difficult to achieve. The traditional Democratic alliance consisted of labor supporters, immigrants, farmers, urban interests, and southern populists. Later, African Americans and northern liberals joined the coalition.

After Bryan's losses, the Democrats were determined to regain the White House. In 1912, former Princeton University President woodrow wilson won the nomination on the forty-sixth ballot of the Democratic convention. A liberal reformer, Wilson defeated Republican william howard taft and third-party candidate theodore roosevelt. Wilson's accomplishments as president included lowering tariffs, establishing the federal trade commission, backing antitrust legislation, and leading the country during world war i. However, the Republicans regained the presidency in 1920 with a huge victory by warren g. harding.

The Republicans prevailed for the next decade. Finally, in 1932, the Democratic Party triumphed at the polls with the election of New York's franklin d. roosevelt. Roosevelt introduced his sweeping new deal to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. Ambitious government programs helped put many businesses and millions of people back on their feet. The Roosevelt administration openly embraced social welfare programs and economic regulation. Elected president in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, Roosevelt was the only president in U.S. history to win four terms in office, before the constitutional limitation of two consecutive terms was put in place in 1951 with the ratification of the twenty-second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also steered the nation through most of world war ii.

After Roosevelt's death in 1945, Vice President harry s. truman assumed office. In 1948, after Truman had supported key civil rights legislation, a cadre of southern Democrats rebelled by joining the Dixiecrat Party, a group advocating states' rights and segregation. The Dixiecrats eventually disbanded, and some southern Democrats switched to the republican party. This shift began in earnest with the election of dwight d. eisenhower in 1952 and peaked with the election of ronald reagan in 1980 and 1984.

In 1960, Democratic nominee john f. kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to hold the Oval Office. Kennedy's administration, called the New Frontier, established the Peace Corps; weathered the cuban missile crisis, in which it convinced the Soviet Union to dismantle long-range nuclear missile sites in Cuba and return the missiles to Russia; and lent support to integration efforts in the South. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Vice President lyndon b. johnson was sworn in as president. He later defeated Republican barry m. goldwater for the chief executive position in the 1964 general election.

Johnson strongly supported civil rights, a position that further eroded the Democrats' base of southern whites and northern labor and ethnic voters. Johnson's policies for U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia made him unpopular at home and abroad. In 1968, after Johnson declined a reelection bid, the Democrats held a tumultuous convention in Chicago that tarnished the image of party leaders and Chicago police. As protesters and police officers clashed on the streets, convention delegates nominated Minnesota's hubert h. humphrey, despite a groundswell of support for vietnam war critic eugene mccarthy. Humphrey lost the general election to Republican richard m. nixon.

In 1976, Governor jimmy carter, of Georgia, reclaimed the White House and the South for Democrats. Carter served one term, losing the 1980 election to Republican Reagan. Another southern Democrat, Governor bill clinton, of Arkansas, won the presidency in 1992 and again in 1996, becoming the first Democratic president to win reelection since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party was led to what many believed to be a centrist position. After the failure of his health care plan in the early part of his term, Clinton backed welfare reform and ran a budget surplus through most of his presidency. At the same

time, Clinton did not shrink from all liberal positions, vetoing Republican efforts to ban partial-birth abortion and to reform bankruptcy laws to help creditors, among other things, and allowing the government to be shut down for a long period rather than give in to Republican spending cuts.

The impeachment of Clinton in 1999 furthered the partisan divide in the country. Led by a Republican Congress, the impeachment was backed by a majority of Republicans and opposed by a majority of Democrats. Despite the embarrassment to Clinton, the impeachment did not seem to hurt the Democrats in the same way watergate hurt the Republicans—the Democrats actually picked up seats in the House and the Senate in both the 1998 and 2000 elections.

Just how evenly the country was split between the Republicans and Democrats was illustrated by the 2000 election. Democratic presidential candidate al gore won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes; however, the Electoral College was another story. A disputed ballot count in Florida kept the election from being officially decided for over a month after Election Day. When it was over, george w. bush had become president of the United States by a mere 537 votes, according to the Florida statewide official tally. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 271-266, one of the closest results in U.S. history.

Ironically, considering that they won the popular vote for president and picked up seats in both the House and Senate, the 2000 election paradoxically left the Democrats in their weakest position since the Eisenhower administration. In addition to the presidency, the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate by slim majorities. In the Senate, that majority consisted of one seat.

However, the decision by Republican Senator Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, to become an independent in 2001 gave the Senate majority to the Democrats for the first time since 1994. Using their majority, the Democrats were able to frustrate President Bush on some of his proposed policies, though they were too weak to pass legislation on their own. The Republicans strengthened their position after the 2002 election, regaining control of the Senate and increasing the number of seats they controlled in the House. But they still did not have enough votes to stop a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, thus giving the Democrats a measure of power.

Some party activists felt at the end of the 2002 campaign that the Democratic Party had lost its way with the centrist policies advocated by former President Clinton and others—they saw the way back to power to take the party in a more liberal direction and to delineate more strongly their differences with Republicans. Others saw this as political suicide, pointing out that Clinton was the only successful Democratic candidate in the past quarter century. Whom the Democrats nominate for the 2004 presidential election was seen as an important determinant of what direction the Democratic Party goes from here, in an era when much of Middle America appears politically ambivalent, fluctuating across party lines.

further readings

Judis, John B., and Teixeira, Ruy. 2002. The Emerging Democratic Majority. New York: Scribner.

Wilson, James Q. 2004. American Government: Institutions and Policies. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Elections; Republican Party.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic Party." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic Party." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic Party." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Democratic party

Democratic party, American political party; the oldest continuous political party in the United States.

Origins in Jeffersonian Democracy

When political alignments first emerged in George Washington's administration, opposing factions were led by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. In the basic disagreement over the nature and functions of government and of society, the Jeffersonians advocated a society based on the small farmer; they opposed strong centralized government and were suspicious of urban commercial interests. Their ideals—opposed to those of the Federalist party—came to be known as Jeffersonian democracy, based in large part on faith in the virtue and ability of the common man and the limitation of the powers of the federal government. This group of Anti-Federalists, who called themselves Republicans or Democratic Republicans (the name was not fixed as Democratic until 1828), supported many of the ideals of the French Revolution and opposed close relations with Great Britain.

Led by Jefferson and his ally James Madison, the group had become a nationwide party by 1800, winning the support of Aaron Burr and George Clinton in New York, of Benjamin Rush and Albert Gallatin in Pennsylvania, and of most influential politicians in the South. Jefferson became President in 1800 in an election that has often been called a turning point in American history. With this election emerged an alliance between Southern agrarians and Northern city dwellers, an alliance that grew to be the dominating coalition of the party. With Madison and James Monroe succeeding Jefferson, the party's "Virginia dynasty" held the presidency until 1824.

The Dominant Party

As the Federalist party waned, politics came to consist mainly of feuds within the Democratic Republican organization, such as the opposition of the Quids to Madison's election (1808) and the peace ticket led by De Witt Clinton (1812). By 1820 the party dominated the nation so completely that Monroe was reelected without opposition. But the foundations for political regrouping were being laid.

In 1824 the electoral vote was split between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay; when the election went into the House of Representatives, Clay threw his support to Adams, who won. Jackson was elected in 1828 and in 1832 (when his followers held the first national convention of the Democratic party). In the debates of his administrations, especially over his dissolution of the Bank of the United States and the nullification controversy, opposition ultimately coalesced in the Whig party.

Until 1860 the Democrats won all the presidential elections except those of 1840 and 1848, electing Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. During this period political debate centered more and more on the bitter question of slavery that was dividing North and South. With the demise of the Whig party in the election of 1852 and the emergence of the sectional, antislavery Republican party in 1854 (succeeding the Free-Soil party), the Democrats remained the sole national party.

The vital question of the decade between 1850 and 1860 concerned slavery in the territories, and on this issue the Democratic party divided sharply. One group, mainly Northern, led by Stephen A. Douglas, championed the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which held that the inhabitants of the territory should decide whether it would be slave or free. Other Northern Democrats (mostly the old Barnburners) swung over to the new antislavery parties. Southern Democrats, led by Robert Toombs and Jefferson Davis among others, and buttressed by the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott Case, held that slavery must be protected in the territories. At the Democratic Convention of 1860 the party split, Northern Democrats nominating Douglas, and the Southern Democrats choosing John C. Breckinridge, thus facilitating the victory of Abraham Lincoln.

From the Civil War to Bryan

During the Civil War some members of the party were openly sympathetic toward the South (see Copperheads), and Republicans in postwar years attempted with some success to depict the Democrats as the party of rebellion. Southern leaders associated the defeat of the South and Reconstruction with the Republican party, and the eleven states of the old Confederacy, with few exceptions, voted Democratic until the 1960s, giving rise to the "solid South."

The years from 1860 to 1912 were lean ones for the party on the national level. In 1876 the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won a plurality of the popular vote, but the disputed electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana (states still under Republican control) were awarded to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who became President. Thus only the victories of Grover Cleveland (1884 and 1892) broke the Republican control of the presidency during this period. Yet the Democrats often controlled one or both houses of Congress in this era and had wide success in the states.

In general policy the two parties differed little from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until 1896. Traditionally the Democrats were more the party of agrarianism and cheap money and the opponents of protective tariffs, and even the most conservative Democrats were opposed to the control of industry and trade by the trusts and big business. However, radical economic and agrarian schemes were as distasteful to many Democrats as they were to the Republicans.

The problem of how to deal with the agrarian appeal of the Populist party and with the question of free silver split the Democrats in Cleveland's second administration. In the convention of 1896 a radical group succeeded in nominating William Jennings Bryan for President on a platform calling for free silver and supporting other Populist demands. In the election the party suffered its worst popular defeat since 1872, and it appeared doomed by the impossibility of reconciling its diverse elements—Southern farmers, Western farmers, urban industrial classes, and a wealthy few.

The New Freedom and New Deal

The Democrats regained the presidency in 1912 under Woodrow Wilson, but only because the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt on the Progressive party ticket diminished the Republican vote. Under Wilson's progressive policy, known as the New Freedom, some fruitful reform was enacted, but the idealism he had inspired waned after World War I. Democratic presidential candidates were defeated in the next three elections, but in 1928 urban Democrats made key inroads into important urban voting blocs.

The economic depression that began in 1929 helped to sweep the Democrats and Franklin Delano Roosevelt into office in 1932, and with his New Deal the Democrats were again identified as the party of reform. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936 with the largest plurality in the nation's history, and in 1940 he became the first U.S. President to be elected to a third term. After leading the country for three years in World War II, he was reelected for a fourth term in 1944.

Upon his death (Apr., 1945) he was succeeded by Harry S. Truman. In 1948, despite the withdrawal from the Democratic convention of many Southern Democrats (whose subsequent nominee was J. Strom Thurmond) and despite the candidacy of Henry A. Wallace, Truman narrowly defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey. Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956 was easily defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The 1960s to the Present

In 1960, John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, in the presidential race. Upon Kennedy's assassination (1963), Lyndon B. Johnson became president and won a landslide victory in 1964 against the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. His administration was marked by much social welfare and civil-rights legislation but the conduct of the Vietnam War split the party, and when combined with the strong third-party showing of the conservative Southern Democrat George C. Wallace, led to the defeat of Hubert H. Humphrey by Richard Nixon in 1968.

The Democratic party of the 1970s and 80s was an uneasy alliance among labor, urban, and ethnic minority groups, intellectuals and middle-class reformers, and increasingly disaffected Southern Democrats. In 1972 the balance in the party was further upset with the nomination of George McGovern, whose defense and social welfare views proved unacceptable to many labor unions and other groups, while the South continued to swing its support to national Republican candidates. Although the Democrats retained their solid majorities in Congress (except for the Senate in 1980, 1982, and 1984), the victorious national coalition built by Nixon was sustained by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and by George H. W. Bush in 1988. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia, may have won in 1976 because of the political scandals that emerged during the second Nixon administration and by temporarily recalling Southern Democratic voters to the fold.

The Democratic victory of Bill Clinton in 1992 was thought by some to have marked the emergence of a new Democratic coalition of labor, women, minorities, moderates, "Reagan Democrats," and the South. In 1994, however, voters expressed their anti-Washington and anti-incumbent sentiments by delivering Republican victories nationwide, with a particularly strong showing in the South, resulting in the loss for the Democrats of their majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the loss of a number of governorships. Clinton's conflicts with the Republican House helped restore much of the stature he had lost in 1994, and with a generally healthy national economy in 1996 he handily defeated Republican Bob Dole and Reform party candidate Ross Perot. Other incumbents, however, also benefited from the voters' general contentment, and Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This situation was largely unchanged by the 1998 congressional elections despite the Lewinsky scandal, which Democrats feared would benefit Republicans.

In the 2000 elections, the party's presidential nominee, Al Gore, lost to Republican George W. Bush despite having won a plurality of the popular vote. Gore's candidacy was hurt by the campaign of Green party candidate Ralph Nader, and the extremely narrow loss of Florida's electoral votes, which Gore unsuccessfully challenged in the courts. Despite Gore's electoral-college loss, the party's fortunes clearly seemed to have improved since the Reagan years, and the Democrats made gains in Congress, subsequently (June, 2001) controlling the Senate due to a Republican member's defection. The Nov., 2002, elections, however, returned control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Senator John Kerry easily won the party's 2004 presidential nomination, but he was soundly defeated in the general election by President Bush. The party also saw the Republicans further solidify their majorities in Congress.

The party's national fortunes reversed with the 2006 congressional elections, in which voter discontent with political scandals, the war in Iraq, and other issues resulted in significant Democratic advances, giving the party control of both houses of Congress. Democrats also made gains in the states, winning control of additional governorships and state legislatures. Some of the gains, however, particularly in the U.S. Senate, were due to narrow victories.

In 2008, aided by the unpopularity of the Bush presidency and a national economic crisis, Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain to become the first African American to win the nation's highest office. Obama's win represented the Democrat's biggest presidential victory since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, and the party generally added to its gains of 2006, especially in the U.S. Congress. Those gains were in large part reversed in 2010, when an uncertain, lackluster recovery contributed to the Republican party's capturing the U.S. House of Representatives as well as winning many governorships and additional U.S. Senate seats. In 2012, despite an economic recovery that continued to be only gradual, Obama was reelected, defeating Republican Mitt Romney. The balance of power in the Congress remained largely the same, but in the 2014 elections the Republicans won control of the Senate.


See C. A. Beard, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945); H. J. Clancy, The Democratic Party (1962); R. M. Goldman, Search for Consensus (1979) and Dilemma and Destiny (1986); S. E. Frantzich, Political Parties in the Technological Age (1989); D. Sarasohn, Party of Reform: Democrats in the Progressive Era (1989); S. L. Maisel, The Parties Respond: Changes in the American Party System (1990).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic party." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic party." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic party." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Democratic Party


The Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) since its founding in 1990 has changed its face radically at least three times. It was created by politicians, including radical anticommunists as well as "communists with a human face," as a counterbalance to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The first split happened as early as the constituent assembly, and a number of well-known politicians left the party, unhappy with the selection of Nikolai Travkin, leader of the CPSU Democratic platform, as sole chair. In the 1993 elections, the DPR, whose list was headed by Travkin, film director Stanislav Govorukhin, and academicianeconomist Oleg Bogomolov, received 3.0 million votes (5.5%, eighth place) and fourteen seats in the Duma. The second split happened in 1994, when Travkin entered the government; the majority of the fraction, charging him with compromise, elected a new leader, economist Sergei Glaziev, who had left Boris Yeltsin's administration in 1993. The DPR changed from "Travkin's party" into "the party of Glaziev-Govorukhin." The DPR did not participate independently in the 1995 elections. Its leaders joined three ballots: Glaziev was third on the KRO list, Govorukhin headed the Stanislav Govorukhin Bloc, and Bogomolov was third on the "Social-Democrat" list. None of the three lists crossed the five-percent barrier. In 1996, with the departure first of Glaziev from the DPR (via the Congress of Russian Communities to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF), then Govorukhin (via the KPRF to FatherlandAll Russia, or OVR), the DPR came to be led by little-known functionaries. In the 1999 elections, the party first became a co-constituent of the bloc "Voice of Russia," then moved into the bloc "All Russia," and vanished completely with the formation of OVR.

When, in the fall of 2001, an attempt was made to restore the former popularity of the old brand, and the Novgorod governor Mikhail Prusak was elected leader of the DPR, many viewed this as an endeavor on the part of the Kremlin to create a tame right-centrist party to replace the Union of Right Forces (SPS), which was not sufficiently compliant. Prusak announced at the time that the "The DPR will most likely become a party of the center, with a clear structure in observance of the principle of single management. This will be a national party, whose tasks will include the construction of a democratic civil society, fortification of the government, preservation of its territorial integrity, formation of a middle class, and development of national product." In 2002, having created fortynine regional branches with a total of more than 10 million members, the DPR was able to register again as a political party with the Ministry of Justice.

Prusak was not sufficiently dedicated to party matters, and at the 2003 congress the DPR deposed its leader. It was announced that the party would enter federal elections for the first time in ten years but that the position of leader would probably be vacant.

See also: political party system; union of right forces


McFaul, Michael. (2001). Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

McFaul, Michael, and Markov, Sergei. (1993). The Troubled Birth of Russian Democracy: Parties, Personalities, and Programs. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Reddaway, Peter, and Glinski, Dmitri. (2001). The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism against Democracry. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press.

Nikolai Petrov

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic Party." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic Party." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic Party." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Democratic Party

Democratic Party US political party, the descendant of the Anti-Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party. From the election of Thomas Jefferson (1801) until James Buchanan in 1857, the Democratic Party was the dominant force in US politics, gathering support from farmers and white-collar workers. The party was split by the Civil War (1861–65), with support mainly restricted to the South and West. It regained power in 1932 with Franklin D. Roosevelt'sNew Deal’ policy. Democratic presidents were in office from 1961–69 ( John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson), a period marked by progressive economic and social policy, such as the passing of civil rights legislation. The 1970s and 1980s were more barren years, only Jimmy Carter (1977–81) held the presidency. The Republican Party dominated the political landscape until Bill Clinton recaptured the centre ground.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic Party." World Encyclopedia. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic Party." World Encyclopedia. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic Party." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Democratic Party

Dem·o·crat·ic Par·ty one of two main U.S. political parties (the other being the Republican Party), which follows a liberal program, tending to promote a strong central government and social programs.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Democratic Party." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Democratic Party." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 13, 2017).

"Democratic Party." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from