The Democratic Party was founded in the period after the American Revolution of 1776. One of the first major political struggles after the revolution was between the two groups of elites who had supported the revolution against Britain. The most powerful group was the large landowners from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Their wealth came from the exploitation of Africans who had been ripped from their homes and brought to the colonies as slaves. Their plantations produced cotton and other crops, which were sold directly to Europe. They saw themselves like European nobles living on their estates with servants and imported European finery.
The other group of elites was wealthy merchants based in the North. Some of the merchants had profited from the slave trade but as they grew wealthier they searched for new areas for investment. They wanted a central government which could develop roads, waterways, and other infrastructure to get goods to domestic markets and industry. They also wanted a strong central bank which could set tariffs to protect their enterprises from competition with the more advanced European capitalists. Advocates of the merchants’ interests formed the Federalist Party.
The slave owners opposed both setting up tariffs which would cut their direct connection to European markets and also a strong central government which might interfere in the slave trade. The slave owners organized around these fundamental goals called themselves the Democratic Party.
The conflict between these groups played out in Congress and in the elections for the presidency. In 1787, during the drafting of the Constitution, the two groups of elites made an agreement on how to govern the country. The agreement was written into the Constitution, as the “Three-Fifths Compromise” of 1787. The ruling class in the slave-states got proportional representation in the House of Representatives based on the white population plus three-fifths of the slave population. That meant that each slave gave the slave-owners of that state three-fifths more of a vote in the House of Representatives. The compromise reflected the importance of the slave economy and ultimately ensured the slave owners’ control of the country. The Democrats were the ruling party for most of the early years of United States’ history. Thirteen out of eighteen presidents before the Civil War were from the Democratic Party.
The Federalist Party and the Democratic Party were united in their goal of building up the United States by conquest and genocide. Both agreed that the U.S. would come to rule the continent of North America by taking land from Mexico and from the Native Americans. They wanted the state to use the army to clear new territories for expansion. The Democratic Party candidate Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828. His first action was to support the “Indian Removal Act” which was passed in 1830. Under Jackson and the next Democratic Party President, Martin Van Buren, 70,000 Indians east of the Mississippi were terrorized and driven out of their lands by the military. In 1845 Democratic Party President James Polk took the United States into a war with Mexico to acquire the territory from Texas to California. That summer, in a leading Democratic political magazine, the editor John O’Sullivan proclaimed that it was the U.S.’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent…” In other words, it is the so-called God-given right of the United States to dominate the continent of North America by force.
To maintain their hold over the government, the Democrats tried to play off the working class of the North against the Northern capitalists. They could oppose the capitalists’ economic policies because they had very different interests. They presented themselves as defenders of the Northern workers and small-farmers against the wealthy merchants. Since the 1790s, tradesmen and farmers in the North had organized into political clubs to fight against the policies of their employers in the Federalist Party. In most cases, workers did not have the right to vote. There were restrictions on those who did not own a minimum amount of property, or could not afford to pay a substantial tax at the polls. These laws were designed to keep workers and poor farmers from having any power in politics.
The Democrats were able to co-opt some of the farmers and workers by supporting a few of their demands – for a ten-hour day, and for voting rights for the propertyless. Because of this, they could present themselves as champions of the poor in the North while they were brutally exploiting their slaves in the South. Not all workers were tricked into this alliance with the capitalists’ slave-owning cousins. Between 1828 and 1834 workers built their own parties and ran worker-candidates in 61 cities, with some success. For the most part, however, the Democrats were able to control the Northern workers and farmers and incorporate their political activity into the Democratic Party.
The Civil War – The Democrats Fight to Maintain Slavery
The Northern merchants continued to expand industrial production and this increased their need for transportation, access to raw materials, and protection from more powerful European markets. Slave owners watched as the harsh cotton-growing agriculture stripped their plantations of fertile soil. They started to look for new lands in the South and West. The question was posed: Would the new territories be a space for industry and markets to develop or for slave-based plantations? If Congress remained under the control of the Democrats, the slave owners would control the wealth of the country. Between the Northern industrialists and the Southern plantation-owners a deadly struggle was developing over which system of exploitation would rule in the new territories, and ultimately in the whole country.
The balance of forces was maintained, at least for the time being, because the capitalists in the North preferred to compromise with the Southern slave owners. Pushing a conflict would upset trade and force a confrontation that the Northern merchants feared losing. The old Federalist Party had been reorganized in the 1830s as the Whig Party by Federalists who supported a policy of compromise with the Democrats. The Whigs opposed the Democrats in elections, criticized their policies, and argued that the new territories should be free from slavery but they accepted the South’s dominance based on the Three-Fifths Compromise. Step by step they gave in to the Democrats’ demands. For example, in 1850 Whig President Millard Fillmore pushed for California and the other territories taken from Mexico to be made non-slave states. In return for the support of the Democrats, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act promising the aid of the federal government in tracking down slaves that escaped to non-slave states. This meant that even in states where slavery was illegal, a slave was still a slave and could be arrested and sent back to the slave owner.
The institution of slavery did not go unchallenged. The first opponents of slavery were the slaves themselves. The system of slavery was constantly under threat of a generalized slave rebellion. In 1791, Haitian slaves overthrew the French colonial administration in Haiti and set up their own government. The thought of a similar generalized slave rebellion in the U.S. was an inspiration to the slaves and a nightmare haunting the slave owners. Many small-scale rebellions took place. The largest on record occurred in 1811 when nearly five hundred slaves at a plantation near New Orleans took up arms and marched to neighboring plantations attempting to launch a general slave rebellion. In 1822, a conspiracy for a major rebellion in South Carolina was organized by a freed slave named Denmark Vessey, but was uncovered before it was launched. In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led a famous slave rebellion in Virginia, which set the whole South on guard against other rebellions. In all cases the rebellions were crushed by military and police, and the leaders and participants were executed.
There were also many people in the North who organized politically to fight for the abolition of slavery. These people were collectively known as the Abolitionist Movement. The abolitionists were led in the North by religious leaders such as the Quaker, William Lloyd Garrison, and ex-slaves, such as Frederick Douglass. The abolitionists produced a great amount of literature condemning slavery and arguing against it on moral grounds. Abolitionist ideas provided moral ammunition for those who opposed slavery. The Abolitionist Movement was never a mass force, but its criticism of the slave system threatened the Southern elite who feared anything that might encourage the slave rebellions. In 1830, the U.S. Postmaster General banned abolitionist literature from being sent to the South. Schoolteachers who were suspected of being abolitionists were expelled from Southern states.
The struggle between the North and the South became impossible to contain in spite of the Whig Party’s compromises,. Bloody battles took place in the new territories. In 1855, Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of bloody conflicts between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. In 1859, the abolitionist John Brown, who fought pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, led a raid on the military armory of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown hoped to take the armory and rally the local slaves in revolt. The attempt failed and John Brown was tried and executed, but the incident became a symbol of the conflict over slavery.
The conflicts outside of the political system led to a dramatic change in the two-party system. Many Northern capitalists were tired of compromise and wanted to weaken their opponents by striking at the heart of their system. They formed a new political party which was thoroughly opposed to the Democrats, the Republican Party. The Republican Party, like the Whig Party, fought for the economic interests of the Northern capitalists. Unlike the Whigs however, the Republicans called for an end to the power of the Southern slaveholders to dominate the Federal Government. The Republicans started to use some of the abolitionists’ moral condemnation of slavery in their rhetoric.
After the founding of the Republican Party, the conflict between Northern merchant elites and Southern Democrats came into the open. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, a Republican and lawyer for the railroad companies, was elected President. Southern Democrats seceded from the Union when they saw that the Republicans were coming to power. Eleven Southern states from Texas to the Carolinas broke away to form the Confederate States of America. This began the Civil War. In fact, the Civil War took the shape of a revolution led by the capitalists of the North against the political domination of the slave-holders. In order to destroy the slaveholders’ power, the Republicans would be driven to destroy the system of slavery which was its basis.
The Civil War raged for four years until it seemed that the North might be beaten by the South. The South had a more effective and experienced army. The most skilled army officers had been slave-owners from the South – an aristocratic plantation tradition. The North, however, had a weapon which it could use against the slave owners’ power. There were four million African Americans living in the South under the Confederacy. The slaves already understood that the Civil War meant a shake-up for slavery. With the forces of repression off fighting the war, thousands of slaves were leaving the plantations as the Northern Army approached. This force of rebellious slaves could provide the forces the Northern capitalists needed to defeat the Southern slave owners.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was a military maneuver. It was a recognition that thousands of slaves had freed themselves and constituted a powerful force in the conflict. By giving the signal that Northern victory meant securing their freedom, the Republicans could use the newly freed slaves to shut down the Southern economy, cut the Confederate army’s supply lines, and give the Union Army an overwhelming military advantage. Lincoln and the Republicans were by no means abolitionists. In fact, the Proclamation did not declare that all slaves would be freed, but only those in the states that had participated in the rebellion. This left slavery intact in some Northern states in the Union.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army prevailed and the South was occupied by Union troops. By the end of the war in 1865, Congress signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the old form of slavery in the whole United States. The power of the slave-owners organized in the Democratic Party was effectively broken.
The Party of Racism and Terror in the South
President Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended and power passed to his Vice President, the Northern Democrat, Andrew Johnson. Some Democrats in the North, like Johnson, rejected the Confederacy and supported the North during the war. They had supported the North, but they were not politically committed to seeking a radical restructuring of the South and preferred to make an alliance with the defeated slave owners.
The Northern capitalists wanted to rebuild the South so that they could start shipping cotton and other agricultural products to Northern factories and cities. To do this they had to find people who could govern the South for them. President Johnson pardoned the ex-slave owners, returned their property, and gave them political control of the South. The ex-slaveholders immediately used their regained political power as well as their wealth and ownership of the land, to re-institute slavery in all but the name. They vetoed new state-constitutions which gave African Americans the right to vote. For a short period of time it seemed that the Southern plantation-owners would regain control of the South and the Civil War would begin again.
The Northern capitalists were unwilling to give political control back to the Southern plantation-owners whom they had just defeated. At first, the Republicans’ attempt to impeach Johnson failed by one vote in Congress. Then in the 1868 election, Republican Ulysses S. Grant, a general for the North in the Civil War, was elected president on a platform of radically restructuring the South to stop the ex-slave owners.
The South was still occupied by the Union Army. The North divided the South into military districts. Under Grant, anyone who had been involved in organizing or supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War was barred from holding office, this meant the majority of the plantation owners. Conventions were held to write new sets of laws and state constitutions. The Northern capitalists relied on the ex-slaves and poor white people to prevent the ex-slave owners from exerting political control. This period, known as “Reconstruction,” is one of the most important democratic experiments in the history of the U.S.
For a brief period, the ruling class was suppressed, and it was up to the poor, farmers and workers, to set policy. What did they do? African Americans and white people from among the poor and working population were elected to the state governments. They cooperated because they had the same goals and interests. They passed laws to improve their lives. They set up some of the first public schools in places like South Carolina. They built roads and bridges for small farmers. They ensured equal rights of white and African American citizens. The experiment of Reconstruction even reached to the federal level. In 1869, there were two African American members of the U.S. Senate and twenty Congressmen. Congress passed a Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal rights for all races.
The plantation lands, however, were held by the federal government after the Civil War and returned to the ex-slave owners. The Republicans were willing to allow the ex-slaves to exercise new political rights, but they were not willing to overturn the property-relations in the South.
After the experience of Reconstruction, the Southern elite and their Democratic Party representatives made it clear to the North that they accepted the defeat of slavery and would not threaten the new order. Above all, the wealthy industrialists of the North wanted the South to be a stable source of agricultural produce. The Southern elite had promised to ensure this and a deal was struck.
The Reconstruction democracy was vulnerable because it had a fatal weakness. It’s existence rested on the protection afforded by the guns of the Union Army. It was the Union Army that had crushed the slaveholders and opened a political space for the participation of African Americans and poor white people.
The big landowners and their Democratic Party representatives used their wealth and authority to organize paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1860s and 1870s the KKK and other groups terrorized African Americans and poor white people who were politically organized. They beat those who resisted, burned their homes, and lynched people. The violence was designed to reverse the gains that poor people had made during Reconstruction and to use racism to drive a wedge between the races. Southern plantation owners still owned the land and rented it out to share-croppers in return for a big part of the produce. In 1877, the Union Army was withdrawn from the South, leaving the Reconstruction governments at the mercy of the Southern plantation owners.
The Democratic Party was re-organized by the plantation owners to take back the state and federal legislatures. The Democrats recaptured the Southern states and took their place alongside the Republicans in Congress. They passed many state-level laws in the South known collectively as the Jim Crow laws. The laws institutionalized the segregation that had been established by violence. The laws effectively stripped African Americans from having any voice in the political system. And the Supreme Court effectively reversed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1896, legalizing a system which denied the African American population equal rights to education, housing, and jobs turning an entire population into second-class citizens. The population of the South had been divided and conquered by force and the Democrats were re-integrated into the political system as the party of racism and terror. The most democratic experiment in U.S. history died at their hands.