The Democratic Party of the 1800s favored limited government and dreamed nostalgically of an agrarian country, and many saw it as the party of the working man. It also eyed suspiciously Northern industrialism and the banking industry. In many respects, the Democratic Party traces its origins to Thomas Jefferson and his anti-federalists, but it was founded during the rise of Andrew Jackson in the late 1820s. After the Civil War, it found its strongest supporters in the South.
In the 1790s, the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists, or the debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, led to the formation of political parties leading up to the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800. Jefferson formed a political party, the Republican Party, from the base of the anti-Federalists. His party is often called the Democratic-Republican Party to distinguish it from the later modern Republican Party of Lincoln. Jefferson was anti-aristocratic, wanted the president to have limited powers, advocated limited government in general, sought an agrarian democracy and rallied against Northern industrialism and banking.
In the election of 1828, many of Jefferson’s core followers coalesced into the Democratic Party proper under Andrew Jackson. The Jacksonian Democrats largely controlled the presidency until the Civil War, with a couple of losses to Whigs in the elections of 1840 and 1848. Jacksonian Democrats sought further limitations of federal power, promoted state power, saw themselves as the party of the common man, despised privilege and aristocratic behavior and particularly detested the banking industry and Northern industrialists. The party found strong support in the South and among Northern laborers. The Jacksonians also advocated western expansion, and for this reason, the Democratic Party had many followers in the West.
When Abraham Lincoln formed the new Republican Party was elected in 1860, the Democratic Party entrenched itself in the Southern Confederacy as the party of slavery. The loss of the Confederacy during the war briefly dismantled Democratic power in the South. However, white, Southern Democrats began to retake control of the Southern states in the mid-1870s as the Grant administration eased away from its policy of protecting Southern Republican state governments. This was exacerbated as federal troops began leaving the South. Soon the Democratic Party began to erode the voting rights of Southern African Americans, who largely voted Republican, in order to retain political power. Nationally, in large part due to the bloc of Southern states, the Democratic Party regained the majority in the House of Representatives in 1874.
When compared to the Jefferson and Jackson eras, the power of the Democratic Party waned after the Civil War. After 1860 and until 1912, the Democrats only won two presidential elections. Both of these were the split terms of Grover Cleveland, who won in 1884 and 1892. During this era, winning a presidential election as a Democrat was difficult due to the South forming a major segment of the party base, which hurt its reputation nationally due to lingering effects of the Civil War and disenfranchisement of African Americans. However, the party did still retain significant power after the Civil War. The large contingent of Democrats from the Southern states kept the party a relevant force in Congress. Also the party enjoyed support from immigrants, Northern factory laborers and Roman Catholics.
- TeachingHistory.org: Jefferson versus Hamilton
- The American Studies Group University of Virginia: The Hamilton Years: The Formation of the Republican Party
- Public Broadcasting Service: Jacksonian Democratic Party
- Ohio History Central: Democratic Party
- History Department University of West Georgia: Reconstruction
- Harper's Weekly: 1876 Election Overview
- University of Michigan Geography of Race in the United States: Techniques of Direct Disenfranchisement, 1880-1965
- Saylor.org: Politics in the Gilded Age
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