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.
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).