The US Democratic Party

The Historic Roots of the Modern Democratic Party in the United States

Andrew Jackson (1767 - 1845), American general and the 7th President of the United States of the United States of America.
The First Democrat Party President: Andrew Jackson (1767 - 1845). Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Democratic Party along with the Republican Party (GOP) is one of the two dominant modern political parties in the United States. Its members and candidates—known as “Democrats”—typically vie with Republicans for control of federal, state, and local elected offices. To date, 15 Democrats under 16 administrations have served as President of the United States.

Origins of the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party was created in the early 1790s by former members of the Democratic-Republican Party founded by influential Anti-Federalists including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Other factions of the same Democratic-Republican Party formed the Whig Party and the modern Republican Party. The landslide victory of Democrat Andrew Jackson over incumbent Federalist John Adams in the presidential election of 1828 solidified the party and established it as a lasting political force.

In essence, the Democratic Party evolved due to upheavals in the original First Party system, made up of the two original national parties: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.

Existing between roughly 1792 and 1824, the First Party System was characterized by a system of deferential-participant politics—the tendency of constituents of both parties to go along with the policies of elite political leaders out of sheer respect for their family pedigree, military accomplishments, prosperity, or education. In this respect, early political leaders of the First Party System might be viewed as an early-American aristocracy.

The Jeffersonian Republicans envisioned a locally-established group of intellectual elites who would hand down the unquestionable government and social policy from on high, while the Hamiltonian Federalists believed that the locally established intellectual elite theories should often be subject to the approval of the people.

Death of the Federalists

The First Party System began dissolving in the mid-1810s, possibly over the popular revolt over the Compensation Act of 1816. That act was intended to raise the salaries of Congressmen from a per diem of six dollars a day to an annual salary of $1,500 per year. There was widespread public outrage, fanned by the press which was almost universally opposed to it. Of the members of the Fourteenth Congress, over 70% were not returned to the 15th Congress.

As a result, in 1816 the Federalist Party died out leaving a single political party, the Anti-Federalist or Democratic-Republican Party: but that lasted briefly.

A split in the Democratic-Republican Party in the mid-1820s gave rise to two factions: the National Republicans (or Anti-Jacksonians) and the Democrats.

After Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824, Jackson's supporters created their own organization to get him elected. After Jackson's election in 1828, that organization became known as the Democratic Party. The National Republicans eventually coalesced into the Whig Party.

Political Platform of the Democratic Party

In our modern form of government, both Democrat and Republican parties share similar values, in that it is the political elites of those parties who are the main repositories of the public conscience. The core set of ideological beliefs subscribed to by both parties includes a free market, equal opportunity, a strong economy, and peace maintained by an adequately strong defense. Their most glaring differences lie in their beliefs of the extent to which the government should be involved in the daily lives of the people. Democrats tend to favor the active intervention of the government, while Republicans favor a more “hands-off” policy.

Ever since the 1890s, the Democratic Party has been measurably more socially liberal than the Republican Party. Democrats have long appealed to the poor and working classes and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "common man,” while Republicans have gained support from the middle class and higher, including suburbanites and the burgeoning number of retirees.

Modern Democrats advocate for a liberal domestic policy featuring social and economic equality, welfare, support for labor unions, and nationalized universal health care. Other Democratic ideals embrace civil rights, stronger gun control laws, equal opportunity, consumer protection, and environmental protection. The party favors a liberal and inclusive immigration policy. Democrats, for example, support controversial sanctuary city laws protecting undocumented immigrants from federal detention and deportation.

Currently, the Democratic coalition includes teachers' unions, women's groups, blacks, Hispanics, the LGBT community, environmentalists and many others.

Today, both the Democratic and Republican parties are made up of coalitions of many diverse groups whose loyalties have varied over the years. For example, blue-collar voters, who were for years attracted to the Democratic Party, have become Republican strongholds.

Interesting Facts

  • The symbol of the donkey for the Democratic Party is said to have stemmed from Andrew Jackson. His opposition called him a jackass. Instead of taking it as an insult, he chose to adopt this as a symbol. This, in turn, became the symbol of the Democratic Party.
  • The Democrats hold the record for controlling both houses of Congress for the most consecutive Congresses. They controlled both houses of Congress from 1955 to 1981.
  • Andrew Jackson was the first President of the Democratic Party; and, including him, there have been 14 Democrats in the White House.

Updated by Robert Longley

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