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The Democratic Party: From Jefferson to Today

The oldest political party in the world continues to evolve.

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The Democratic Party, one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, has a long and storied history. It is now the oldest active political party in the world.

In its over 200-year existence, the party has changed significantly: From supporting slavery and opposing civil rights reforms, to leading the nation through the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929. More recently, the Democrats have changed their civil rights policies, standing the first black president and becoming the first major political party to nominate a woman candidate for president.

Origins of the Party

The Democratic Party traces its roots to 1792. Followers of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison created the Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to the Federalist Party. Under the guidance of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the Federalists supported the idea of a centralized government and national banking system. Jefferson and Madison, on the other hand, favored a decentralized, limited government, and greater states’ rights.

The modern-day Democratic Party was created after the contentious presidential election of 1824. The Democratic-Republicans offered four candidates. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, securing 99 electoral votes. However, Jackson’s lack of an electoral majority meant the House of Representatives were tasked to declare the winner. They named John Quincy Adams as the president.

That fired up the mayor of New York, Martin Van Buren, who seceded from the party and started his own offshoot, the Democratic Party, to back Jackson – who defeated Adams easily in 1828. The party dominated the nation until the Civil War when a newly formed organization, the Republican Party, offered a candidate by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

During the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, national politics were dominated by the Republican Party for the better part of a half-century. The victory by the Union over the South saw Republicans controlling Congress and the presidency while Democrats solidified their base in southern states. Most white Southerners vehemently opposed Republican measures to protect the rights of former slaves.

Times of Change

John F. Kennedy

The Democrats came back to the forefront of politics during the stock market crash of 1929. Under the leadership of Franklin D Roosevelt, they redefined the Democratic ideology. There would be a “chicken in every pot” under Roosevelt, and his social and government programs attracted a new group of voters – northern industrial workers and African Americans.

Racial segregation was still a major issue across the country, and the Democratic Party, under the charismatic leadership of President John F. Kennedy, dominated the civil rights conversation in the 1960s. He and others paved the way for the signing by President Lyndon Johnson of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Democratic Party of the 21st Century is again experiencing a shift in ideology — not unlike the disagreements of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1824. The party is again split into two factions: the establishment group of more moderate members (such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) versus the new progressive wing embodied by members including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Will the party follow its usual ideas or adapt a radical socialist stance? Nobody yet knows.

Some famous Democrats

Barack Obama: The most recent Democrat president, Obama was also the country’s first black president. Elected of a platform of “change” and “hope,” he has been known for his youthful energy and skill as a public speaker. Obama held the office between 2009-2017, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize soon after being elected.

Bill Clinton: Sometimes called a “New Democrat,” Clinton was known for moderate policies and financial acumen. President from 1993 to 2001, he was eventually impeached for lying under oath. Despite this, he left the job with the highest end-of-office approval rating since WWII.

Hillary Clinton: First Lady during the presidency of her husband Bill, Hillary also served as Secretary of State under President Obama. She was the party’s presidential nominee in the 2016 election against Donald Trump, making her the first female to compete in a U.S. presidential election.

John F. Kennedy: One of the most famous of Democrat presidents, JFK served during the height of the Cold War and was the first to promote the idea that humans could travel to the moon. He symbolized a feeling of renewal and refreshment in America, but his presidency was cut short as he was assassinated in 1963, two years after entering the White House.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The only U.S. president to have served more than two terms, FDR occupied the White House from 1933-1945. A major American figure during the first half of the 20th Century, he was elected during the Great Depression and served until the end of WWII. He is remembered for his New Deal reforms which aimed to help the country recover from economic collapse.

National Columnist at and Sarah has been a writer in the political and corporate worlds for over 25 years. As a sought-after speech writer, her clients included CEOs, U.S. Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and even a Vice President. She’s worked as Contributing Editor at Scottsdale Life, a news reporter for the Journal and Courier, and guest opinion political writer for numerous publications nationwide. A born storyteller, Sarah has published a full-length book and is currently finishing a quirky, sarcastic, second novel.

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