I am amazed at the strange claims found online as to how the democratic party was founded. On answers.com, for example, I found the answer to “Why was the democratic party formed?” as the following extremely biased remark:
To enlighten the uninformed and misinformed, to the reality of corruption found within the government. They banded together to protect the common good of the whole country and its people, rather than the selfish interests of the few. Many in government were so self-consumed with power that they would, by today’s standards, be considered to be psychopaths; without empathy towards their fellow citizen.
Such answers are everywhere online, and they have no historical basis, especially if you look at the entire American political timeline rather than that of a few months or a single presidency. Even the Democratic party itself spreads misinformation about its origins, claiming it came from the Democratic-Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson (when, in fact, both modern parties have equal ground to make the same claim, as both the Republicans and the democrats arose from that party, though the republicans adhered more to the principles of the old party than the democrats did.). Jefferson, a man of ideals and principle must roll in his grave every time he is dragged into the argument.
It’s hard to blame anyone, then, for being so confused. Even before the widespread adoption of the internet by the public, I remember the 8th graders in my hometown being taught that “Democrats were for the people and Republicans were for big business”. I found out later that the truth is far more complex than that, and saying that “Democrats are for the People” is an intentional abuse of semantics.
In this day and age when the party is guilty of damaging the environment and putting farmers out of business after re-routing water to help a fish in California (the Delta Smelt), when it’s last elected president is guilty of accepting $77,051 from “big oil” – the same “big oil” whose crooked practices filled the Gulf of Mexico with Oil for 4 months this year, surely “the people” aren’t as important as “the lobbyists” and “the companies”.
As I began writing my own response to the ridiculous claim, I realized that squeezing that much history into a tweet-sized comment was impossible. So short-attention spans be darned, I’m posting the real history here.
The Real Origin of the Democratic (and Republican) Parties
While this (referring to the above comment) is a popular and polarized answer today, the truth lies with the 1824 Election.
Until that point, there had been a few parties, most notably at that point the “Democratic-Republicans” and the “Federalists”. The Federalists, though popular at the beginning of the Nation’s founding, were falling out of favor as the nation grew and became more complex. More and more politicians began identifying themselves as “Democratic-Republicans” to distance themselves from the Federalist label.
By 1820 we didn’t really have a recognizable “two party system”. That year both candidates were “Democratic-Republican” and in 1824 all four claimed that affiliation. The race was a close one, particularly between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and actually had to be decided by the House of Representatives.
John Quincy Adams, son of former president John Adams and his wife Abigail, was well respected, as was his family before him. Adams was very anti-slavery, and was viewed by many than and now as driven by moral values.
Andrew Jackson was a war hero from the War of 1812, despised Native Americans and was a firm supporter of slavery, himself a prosperous owner of over 150 slaves. He was also a lawyer and businessman, and was thought by many of the time to be a good representative of the “common man” (which meant, back then, common white man).
Adams became president and during his 4 years he advocated a greater federal role in internal improvements and public education.
Meanwhile, Jackson supporters sought to find a way to triumph over Adams in the next election. Martin Van Buren had the answer: a new political party driven not by a list of set ideals, but by the single-minded goal of winning the elections. Rather than approaching the public with a set agenda and hoping to win them over, this new group would survey the public for the most popular issues and it would fill in its platform with those. This new democratic approach breathed new life into the political process, and created a formidable adversary to those who still followed the old, stuffy way of politics.
As part of the plan, Van Buren and other supporters created newspapers who only reported on their own candidates. Though truthful in their titles (many following the “City Name+Democrat” naming convention), these papers were anything but objective. It wasn’t until the Civil War that papers began to be more fact-driven, a result of the public’s need for names of the dead and locations of the battles.
Jackson, now running as a “Democrat”, won the 1828 election against Adams, who was now a representative of the “National Republican” party. The election was brutal, with Jackson’s side accusing Adams of corruption and the Adams camp making attacks on Jackson’s wife and mother, but in the end Old Hickory, the “common man” won.
In short time Jackson introduced some new concepts to politics that we are all familiar with today. He created a national political spoils system where the winning candidates rewarded their best supporters with jobs and fired their rivals from their appointed posts, creating more fertile ground for the political corruption he claimed those minority politicians he ousted would have eventually brought. Jackson also increased Federal power over the states, raised tariffs (causing struggling southern plantation owners to lose more money as English merchants refused to do trade because of the high tariffs), and used military power to threaten those states which dared subscribe to the “nullification” concept.
Jackson was also heavily anti-“Indian”, and in 1830 he backed congress in passing the Indian Removal Act, which was designed to give whites more access to land which was inhabited by Native Americans.
While these policies seem to defy the pro-civil rights image of modern Democrats, it is important to remember that there is nothing contradictory in a power-focused political organization’s hop-scotching the issues to choose those that are most favorable to an ever shifting public at any given time. That is why the succession of presidents and other politicians who are democrats have been anti-Indian, and anti-Black, have thrown Japanese-American citizens into concentration camps, dropped the atomic bombs, championed civil rights, been members of racist organizations, forced mortgage lenders to accept high-risk loans, started wars and “conflicts”, taken money from “big oil”, been patriotic, have ridiculed America, created welfare programs and shipped the homeless away from cities during events where they might be unseemly, they have championed the environment and have given bailout money to big corporations.
The Democratic Party is driven by the whims of the “common man” regardless the cost and regardless the wisdom. With no common fundamental concepts or guidelines, the party will continue to evolve forever, always championing whatever group or cause is likely to generate the most votes.