The Democratic Party, the oldest political party in America, was born [in New York] almost simultaneously with the birth of our nation. The Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, which created the framework for the type of government the United States would have, also laid the cornerstone for its political institutions. One political faction, composed of the followers of Thomas Jefferson, became known as the Republican Party; the other, make up of the supporters of Alexander Hamilton, was called the Federalist Party. Republicanism versus monarchy or aristocracy - government by the people or government of the people - these were the basic issues of this period, the Republican Party espousing the former and the Federalists the latter on each issue.
Thomas Jefferson, as our first Secretary of State, fresh from France as our ambassador, was filled with a fear of monarchies and a fever for democratic ideas. The French Revolution in 1789 had gained the sympathy of the American minister. Traveling throughout France, Jefferson saw that the French peasants were extremely poor and haw few rights, while the nobility had virtually all of the privileges and lived in luxury.
As author of the Declaration of Independence thirteen years earlier, Jefferson had displayed for posterity his philosophy of governments in relation to the people. Governments, as he saw them, were servants of the people - not people the servants of governments.
When Jefferson assumed his role as our first Secretary of State, he found the capital city of New York abounded in antidemocratic attitudes. He reported that at social gatherings he often was the only one present holding to a democratic philosophy. Although America had just won its independence from a monarchy, many powerful men in government believed that George Washington should rule in an aristocratic manner similar to the roles played by kings in European monarchies.
In addition to Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the Federalist Party, other proponents of a government by aristocracy to rule over the common people were Gouveneur Morris, who believed that the Senate should be appointed by the President for life from the right and aristocratic classes; George Cabot, the Senator from Massachusetts who feared democracy; and John Jay, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who felt that the people did not really have the ability to govern themselves and should be governed by the aristocrats. The Democratic Party, disavowing despotic rule by any class and long touted as the party of the common man, has had a long succession of Presidents who have fought the "Economic Royalists" or the "special interests." From its beginning, the party has tried to represent the large class of people who cannot afford special representation and who desire only a fair, honest and effective government. The seeds of the Democratic Party were sown in conversations at the dinner tables of New York during these first few months of the government under its newly ratified Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote: "I cannot describe the wonder and mortification with which the table conversations filled me. Politics were the chief topic, and a preference of kingly, over republican, government was evidently the favorite sentiment. An apostate I would not be, not yet be a hypocrite; and I found myself, for the most part, the only advocate on the republican side of the question.
Alexander Hamilton, although respected by Jefferson, bore the brunt of Jefferson's antipathy for the advocates of aristocracy. Continual clashes between Hamilton and Jefferson created confusion and discontent in Washington's Cabinet. These two men symbolized the polar views of the road the young American government should take - aristocracy versus democracy.
Hamilton had become the cogent spokesman of the "rich and well-born" in America. he feared the common people, called them a "great beast," held the poor and lower classes in contempt, and felt that they were incapable of controlling or ruling themselves. He had no particular admiration for the wealthy but did think that the wealthy were a safer depository of power than the equally selfish common people.
His followers became known as the Federalists and believed in a strong federal or national government similar to the British government. John Adams, the other principal Federalist leader, called Hamilton's followers the "rich, the well-born, and the able." They soon labeled Jefferson's followers as Anti-Federalists, a term which improperly suggested that they were against federalism and for a more anarchical kind of government. The Federalists were primarily made up of merchants, creditors, and financiers. By warning these groups that the failure of the new government would ruin them economically, Hamilton was able to get them to throw their full support behind ratification of the Constitution. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton displayed facility and success in making his measures of funding, assumption, and banking work for the benefit of the new country.
The Anti-Federalists, the group supporting the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, assumed the name of "Democratic-Republicans" or simply "Republicans." This first Republican Party - later, ironically and paradoxically, to become known as the Democratic Party - was composed mainly of farmers and workers. Their major strength came from the South and the West while Federalists' strength came from the industrial Northeast. The Republicans favored farming over manufacturing, the rural over the urban.
In the early days of the Washington Administration, neither Jefferson nor Hamilton actively sought to form and o0rganize political parties. However, it was inevitable that factions, would evolve out of this basic philosophical issue. Feelings on the fundamental nature of the United States government could hardly be kept from formalizing into dissenting political parties.
Hamilton and Jefferson fought fiercely in Washington's Cabinet; their followers attached each other bitterly in and out of Congress; rival newspapers were organized and aligned with one side or the other.
The newly born party, composed of the followers of Jefferson and his philosophy of government, received its name from its parent founder, Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote to George Washington on May 13, 1792: "The Republican party , who wish to preserve the government in its present form, are fewer in number than the monarchical Federalists." Not only did Jefferson give the name to the newly founded party, called the Democratic party today, but he also characterized his followers' opposition by calling them "monarchical Federalists."
George Washington, appreciative of the talents and efforts of both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, acted as a mediator in the philosophical arguments and bitter personal fights carried on about him. He had great praise for Hamilton's financial abilities and for what he had done to make the young government's financial situation sounder and more respected. On the other hand, his admiration was great for Thomas Jefferson who had the experience, knowledge, and ability to represent the United States in its foreign affairs.
At first the Democratic-Republican Party was not really a party at all but simply a conglomeration of countrymen possessing similar ideas and expressing their thoughts in letters to each other. Nor did the Hamiltonians gather to form a political party.
In fact, the Federalist feared dissent, organized as factions or parties, more than anything else in the new government. Gradually, however, this conglomeration became more closely knit and united.
Political parties are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, and its is a matter of record that those framing the Constitution feared factionalism. Even Washington in his Farewell Address warned against the "baneful effects of the spirit of party." It was felt that political parties or factions would split the country asunder and cause confusion and dissension among the people. For example, James Madison, writing in The Federalist, feared factionalism, but he recognized that political parties were bound to come since "the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government." John Adams also expressed fear of growth of political parties and the divisiveness which would result. "[There] is nothing I dread so much as the division of the Republic into two great parties, each under its leader... This, in my humble opinion, is t be feared as the greatest political evil under our Constitution." And John Marshall said: "Nothing I believe more debases or pollutes the human mind than faction."
It is very clear that the Republican Party founded by Jefferson gave itself the name to escape the negative connotation of Anti-Federalists. Anti-Federalists were those who fought the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Jefferson strongly supported the Constitution and did not want to be identified with the term "Anti-Federalists." He wanted to emphasize that he and his followers favored a republican, or anti-monarchical, form of government.
Jefferson became so embroiled in the battles with Alexander Hamilton over the policies the United States government should follow that he resigned as Secretary of State in 1793. But being a man of high purpose and principle, and destined to become a leader he could not step out of his office and retire to his plantation for very long. He led the Republicans to their victories in Congress in 1795 and became their candidate for the Presidency in 1796 and 1800.
Part of the reason for the birth of the Republican Party was Jefferson's objection to the power which the wealthy merchants, manufacturers,, and financiers were getting as a result of subsidies from the government. He felt that these groups of "special interests" were becoming even wealthier as a result of their manipulation of the coupons of the government bonds, the dividends on their bank stock, and the protective tariff on their goods. Jefferson believed that these businessmen were not very interested in liberty and equality; all they wanted was government help in making more money. He was the government becoming corrupt and gradually falling into the hands of the financiers and speculators with whom Hamilton dealt.
Out of all these rumblings arose the present-day Democratic party. In 1796, just a few years after this group of Jeffersonians became known as the Republican Party, they exhibited their growing strength by electing a majority in the House of Representatives and losing the Presidency by only a narrow margin.
The Federalists noticed that Jeffersonians were beginning to criticize the Federalists in power and to increase their strength by including the many recent immigrants from Europe. Therefore, fearing a loss of power to the accelerating growth of Republican strength, the Federalists inspired the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These four acts were aimed at punishing those who criticized the government and directed toward making it difficult for foreigners to become American citizens, many of whom were French and most of whom were Republicans. The acts had sharp political overtones and were even disapproved by such leading Federalists as Adams, Hamilton, and Marshall. The Republican Party countered with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, prepared by Madison and Jefferson. The resolutions declared that the remedy for an unconstitutional act of Congress was nullification by the state sovereignties. Primarily, the resolutions served as campaign material against the Federalists in the election of 1800.
The battle of parties had begun. By 1800 Jefferson had proved that the Republican was truly national in character and had the sympathy of the masses.
Thomas Jefferson occupied the executive mansion from 1801 to 1809, followed by Madison and Monroe who held the Presidency from 1809 to 1825. This was the real measure of the strength of the movement started by Jefferson in 1792. The Federalist Party was ultimately destroyed by is resistance to the War of 1812 and by its participation in the Hartford Convention. For one very brief period in American history, 1812 through 1825, there was really only one political party in the United States, the Republican, or the Democratic, Party started by Thomas Jefferson. Instead of uniting the country, the decline of Federalist opposition led to chaos, thus making it more apparent that party organization is a vital principle of representative government. Democrats today look upon Thomas Jefferson much as an offspring looks upon his parent. Jefferson's mind and actions gave birth to the Democratic Party. For this and a multitude of other reasons, Thomas Jefferson is remembered and revered by Democrats each year in thousands of Jefferson-Jackson Day celebrations throughout the country.
Bitterness erupted in the Presidential election of 1824 when John Quincy Adams was elected President. Although the Presidential contest of 1824 was not a contest of parties, since the Federalist Party was dead, it was a struggle between sections of the country to get control of the government. The candidates were John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, Henry Clay of Kentucky, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and William Crawford of Georgia. Since none of the five candidates received a majority of the electoral college, the House of Representatives chose the President from the three highest names on the list. Clay, not being one of the electoral college, the House of Representatives chose the President from the three highest names on the list. Clay, not being one of these three, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, thereby giving Adams the election. The Jackson supporters cried "corrupt bargain" after Clay was appointed as Adams' Secretary of State. From that moment onward, Jackson and his supporters worked to win the election in 1828. They harped on the theme that Jackson was unjustly deprived of the Presidency in 1824. They argued that he was "the people's choice" since he had received the greatest number of popular votes and the greatest number of electoral votes.
Jackson went on to win the Presidency in 1828 and again in 1832. He was the embodiment of the principles which Thomas Jefferson promoted. Unlike the Presidents before him, Jackson was a man who had keep faith in the common people. Although Jefferson had an abiding faith in inalienable natural rights and an inherent system of moral values, he believed that education and training were desirable to fit the common man for his part in government. Jackson, on the other hand, disregarded such requirements and stated: "The duties of all public officers are ... so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance." Jackson believed that every American, no matter what his background or education, was capable of holding any job in government. He challenged existing government practices and made room for his supporters. The common man was going to run the country.
Jacksonian democracy was given added impetus by the growing population and the addition of new states in the West. The laboring man, the farmer, the common man attained their zenith - they received recognition of their abilities, their intelligence, and their contributions to the fast-growing country.
The Jacksonian era probably gave America its greatest flourish of democratic changes. It gave more people the right to vote; it extended free discussion on the platform, the pulpits, and in the rapidly multiplying newspapers. It was an era when the number of elected officials was expanded, when many state constitution were revised, and when the national nominating convention came into being.
It was in Jackson's time that labor started to organize that inventions in industry and commerce flourished, and that such major means of transportation as the steam locomotive and the ocean steamship became successful.
And the Jacksonian era was a period of humanitarian reform in many areas - debtor's laws, prisons and asylums, and the elementary schools. It was in Jackson's time that agitation for the abolition of slavery was begun.
Jackson, like Jefferson, will long be regarded as one of America's greatest Presidents. Also like Jefferson, Jackson is remembered and revered in the thousands of Jefferson-Jackson Day celebrations held annually throughout the United States.
Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia scholar and statesman, believed that the competent should rule, always subject to the suggestions and criticisms of the total public. He established the Democratic Party on this basis. The victory in 1800 of the Republican Party over the Federalists gave the common man new hope.
Andrew Jackson, the dynamic, self-make frontiersman from Tennessee, believed that government should be by the people as well as for the people. The United States was pushing its frontiers farther west, farther from the aristocratic customs and traditions of the Old Continent. This added strength to the concept of democracy which was being widely accepted at that time. The party's victory in 1828 was a triumph for the people in a most practical way.
Jefferson gave the Democratic Party its being: Jackson gave it its full meaning. Jefferson was the champion of democracy and its theorist in the formative stages of America. He created the rationale of a broad-based party. Jackson was the practitioner of democratic government. He brought theory to life for the people. They participated. They understood. They were the government of the United States.
The Democratic Party, full-grown and mature today celebrates and commemorates the happy compatibility of theory and practice through the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners held annually throughout the nation. Theory and practice, thought and action - in the Democratic Party these mean Jefferson and Jackson.
Excerpted from: Democrats, Dinners & Dollars, This History of the Democratic Party its Dinners its Ritual 1967 by: Ronald F. Stinnett, PhD, Research Director, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee 1963-64