Jefferson's Political Heirs Gather in New York City Democratic Party Convention Will Pin Hopes for Nov. 3 Win on a Son of the Agrarian South

By George D. Moffett Iii, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 13, 1992 | Go to article overview

Jefferson's Political Heirs Gather in New York City Democratic Party Convention Will Pin Hopes for Nov. 3 Win on a Son of the Agrarian South


George D. Moffett Iii, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IN the summer of 1791, Thomas Jefferson went to New York to collect butterflies.

Or so it was said. But according to lore - perhaps more apocryphal than true - the real purpose of Jefferson's noted "botanical expedition" to the Hudson Valley was to collect a species of a different sort: political allies to buttress his running war against George Washington's powerful treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

Whatever its exact origin, the sturdy group of anti-Hamiltonians that ultimately coalesced around Jefferson succeeded in tapping into a political impulse that, 200 years later, remains a central part of the American political tradition: individual liberties over the power of the state; the common man over the monied aristocracy.

As their political heirs assemble in New York for the Democratic convention, they celebrate a political party that is now, arguably, the world's oldest and, indisputably, the source of some of its most remarkable leaders - James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

But after 200 years of change, would Thomas Jefferson still be a Democrat?

Probably, several political analysts agree. They explain that after generations of change the party still accents themes that would be welcomed by the anti-Federalists of Jefferson's day.

"Of the two parties, the Democrats are still the party of individual liberties," says Robert Rutland, retired University of Virginia historian and author of a book on the Democratic Party. "In this sense, the torch has been passed."

Through its long history, the party has managed to live with extraordinary contradictions. It has been home to agrarians and urban immigrants, blacks and Southern whites, intellectuals and laborers. A party of the common man, for a time it was even a party of slaveholders. What has held this improbable congregation together has been the party's continuing appeal as champion of the disadvantaged.

"The {Democratic} coalition has held together," says historian Arthur Schlesinger, "because it has remained a party of outsiders against the party of business. What {its factions} have had in common is the notion that business shouldn't run the country."

"The key is that the party has remained tied to the old moorings of getting a better deal for the common man," says Professor Rutland. "Farmers who were in debt and city people who had few possessions could both look to the Democratic Party and find help."

The anti-Hamiltonians took power in 1800, when Jefferson was elected president. The Democrats, as they became known in the 1820s, defined mass politics in America. They emerged from the Civil War with the solid South but little else, as the party of Lincoln dominated the White House into the 20th century.

During a brief respite from Republican rule, Woodrow Wilson formalized a tactical shift that has been a hallmark of Democratic governance ever since. …

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