Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

By Eyal, Yonatan | Civil War History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party


Eyal, Yonatan, Civil War History


In 1860, when Stephen A. Douglas prepared his run for the presidency, he invited New York banker and financier August Belmont to become national chairman of the Democratic party. Belmont had arrived in the New World barely twentyyears earlier, at the age of twenty-four, and now he was helping to run the campaign of the most prominent leader of the Democracy. As a representative of the Rothschild family in New York, and as one of America's richest men during the nineteenth century, Belmont symbolized the East Coast establishment, or what Jacksonians loved to call the "money power." Yet he remained a staunch Democrat throughout his life, never wavering in his commitment to the coalition established by Old Hickory in the 1820s and 1830s. How could someone so seemingly un-Jacksonian fit so well within the leadership of the antebellum Democratic party?

The answer is "Young America," a faction of the Democracy that displaced the organization's established leadership and reshaped what it meant to be a Democrat by the late 1840s and early 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War, the Democracy no longer stood for the same policies, no longer represented the same outlook, that had dominated its heyday in the 1830s. Between the time Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren served as the leading Democratic icons and the moment Stephen Douglas and August Belmont took their place, several transformations altered the core of Democratic ideology. (1)

European nationalist organizations associated with the revolutions of 1848 collectively became known as "Young Europe," and members of the U.S. Democratic party who sympathized with European dissenters began calling themselves "Young America" in emulation. These Young America Democrats fundamentally altered the principles of their political organization. Led by figures such as Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and editor John L. O'Sullivan of New York, they gained power during the late 1840s and early 1850s. In place of an insular and domestically oriented Democracy, they ushered in a new internationalist consciousness within their party and mid-century American culture as a whole. Displacing the romantic agrarianism heralded by Jefferson and Jackson, they substituted a forward-looking market orientation that emphasized business opportunity, technological growth, and overseas commercial expansion. Young America Democrats also formulated new positions on race relations and slavery, social reform, and constitutional interpretation. They made the Democratic party and American society more progressive, dynamic, international, and humanitarian.

This essay will address the new economic orientation of Young America Democrats, or what contemporaries often called "young Democrats." What beliefs about commerce and finance transformed the party of Jackson and Van Buren into the party of Douglas and Belmont? In the late antebellum period, young Democrats started to leave behind the outmoded philosophy of agrarianism and republican virtue in favor of market opportunity and international commerce. Tempted by the market revolution, Democrats finally came to terms with the challenges of economic growth, in the process discarding much of their strict construction constitutionalism. Young America Democrats reoriented their party to become more economically progressive, hungry for prosperity and trade, and no longer so worried about monopoly and corruption. In fostering this shift, Young America Democrats moved their organization closer to the traditional views of Whiggery, with consequences for the party realignments of the 1850s. (2)

Although there is not enough space here to address some of the larger questions regarding Young America Democrats, a few introductory generalizations can be made. First, young Democrats organized a relatively self-conscious movement. They and others referred to the faction as the "young Democracy," the "progressive Democracy," or simply as "Young America. …

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