March 08, 2009

What's in a name -the American Democrats of the mid 19th century

One factor that readers of the previous two posts may wonder is why did these parties have these names in early 19Th century America? Why was the party of Elites, racially inclusive ,evangelical pro government intervention in the economy called the Whigs and the party of popular8st , "whites only" , non evangelical front, sceptical of government funding for development called the "democrats"-these are odd names to our ears.

In particular the early to mid 19th Century Democratic Party is oddly named particularly in line to it's general hostility to black suffrage. Indeed it was also probably more hostile than the Whigs to women's suffrage though that was not really a serious policy idea in the period). It should be pointed out the Democrats were more supportive of White suffrage than the Whigs (particularly when they got more ideologically coherent in the 1840'. Nonetheless the explanation is to be found in the different meaning of the terms- and the historical associations they had to the politic ans and voters of the 1830's and 1840's . This can be seen by looking at the Democratic party.

Indeed if one was flippant one could say the Democratic party was not called that-the near universal colloquial title for them was the Democracy (the Democrats were the members of that party).

It is no coincidence was a common name for "Mr Jefferson's Party" that is the Jeffersonian Republicans/Democracy that had won the presidency and congress in 1800 and held both till 1824 when the party split with the most electoral college voters going to Andrew Jackson-the founder of the "new" Democratic party. In their decision to use this name when they stopped simply being "Jackson" men-the Democrats were making a clear-and shrewd decision to claim to be the continuation of that party.Indeed many of the Democratic party's formal party dinners both nationally and state are "Jefferson-Jackson" to this day.

This claim has been enough to confuse historians who often saw the Democrats as being the party founded by Jefferson. They saw Jefferson's supposedly reactionary "federalist" opponents as being continued by the Whigs. This was a major line of Democratic propaganda. That does not make it true. What is true is that in New England from the late 1830's the strongholds of the Whig's tended to be those in which the federalists had been relatively strong.But the Whig Patty's National Republican predecessor had won landslide victories in New England-including in the Old Jeffersonian stronghold. And the Whig Party was competitive in the South-where the federalists had been dead since the 1800's. The foremost leader of the Whig party Henry Clay was a veteran Jeffersonian.AT the same time there were only two federalists who after the death of that party became president. The first John Quincy Adams had left them despite his father having been a federalist president to become an enthusiastic Jeffersonian and was a National Republican/Whig. The second Buchanan was a Democrat- and indeed one of Jackson's first supporters!

Secondly the name Democratic had a meaning in the politics of the time. It was this meaning which filled European elites with such horror at the term. It's the sense De Tocqueville generally uses it- a society in which all men are equal in that distinctions in the eyes of the government between them on the basis of status have been abolished.In other words it's the opposite of aristocracy- it did mean giving all men the vote on the same terms-but also opposition to other forms of distinction between men.

Thus it provided an attractive title for the Democratic party platform- eliminating government intervention to promote the economy or "purify" society. Whether it was government activity in banking or education taxes- a distinction was being made and it was that which in principle the Democrats opposed. Partly because of the relative radicalism of this view of equality Democrats tended to make tight distinction between white men who were entitled to it and Blacks (and women to some degree) who were not.The Whigs could fudge these issues more easily partly because of their less egalitarian worldview.

On the other hand only the most extreme fringes of the Democratic party extended this hostility to legal distinctions as far as private property- indeed because they opposed distinctions between people they could oppose redistribution of property (in the form of school or roads taxes say) on the same "Democratic" ground.

It is in this ideological sense opposed to their very dubious institutional argument that their best claim to being the true heirs to Jefferson.Though Jefferson did not like Jackson calling him a "dangerous man" their ideologues had a very large number of similarities.

Thus the term "Democratic" made perfect sense for the party it described but not really for reasons we'd identify with. It included it's main claims to be the true heir to Jefferson, to be the true party of the people and to oppose a new "aristocracy" of Whig government intervention and elitism. In the context of the time it was almost an obvious label.

The Cartoon is of President Andrew Jackson-the true founder of the Democratic Party and probably the most successful American politician of the age. It shows him defeating the Bank of the United States the quasi central bank of the era-for many Democrats his greatest legacy. In the words of one of his supporters. "Only General Jackson would have dared veto the bank of the United States. And only General Jackson could have triumphed o'er that most vile and perfidious American aristocracy."