The History of the Democratic Party

  • The victory of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 began the “Era of Good Feelings” in U.S. politics, where a political coalition known as the “Democratic-Republicans” easily won elections.
  • As the USA grew in size and allowed more citizens to vote, changes that led to factions emerging in the Democratic-Republican coalition.
  • The 1824 election ended in a four-way split between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and William Crawford (each representing different factions of the Democratic-Republicans).
  • Although Andrew Jackson won the most votes, Clay threw his support behind Adams, and Adams became president. Jackson disassociated himself from the Democratic-Republicans, and referred to his followers as “Jacksonian Democrats” — historians see this as the beginning of the Democratic Party.
President Andrew Jackson (Source: Chickasaw TV)
  • Andrew Jackson and his Democrats were united by a populist opposition to Washington D.C. leaders and central government power.
  • While the party was successful on a national level, it faced increasing internal splits over the issue of expanding slavery into new U.S. territories.
  • Southern Democrats wanted to expand slavery into all new territories, while Northern Democrats wanted the territories to decide for themselves by holding referendums.
  • Ideological splits between Southern and Northern Democrats allowed Lincoln to win.
  • During the war, the Democratic party became even more split. Northern Democrats were split between pro-war and anti-war factions. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats controlled the Confederacy and were actively fighting against the USA.
  • During this Republican-dominated period, only two Democratic presidential candidates — Grover Cleveland (1884–1888 and 1892–1896) and Woodrow Wilson (1912–1920) — win the presidency.
  • However, Democrats maintain control of the South in this period thanks to widespread suppression and intimidation of African-American voters.
  • Wilson was able to win the election thanks to a major split in the Republican Party between President Taft’s and former-President Theodore Roosevelt’s factions.
  • Wilson enacted progressive laws and led the USA into World War One. After the war, he wanted the U.S. to be highly involved in international affairs, a position most Americans rejected. Wilson’s record was also tarnished by his support of white supremacy and segregation.
  • In the 1920 election, voters rejected the Democratic nominee in favor of Republican Warren Harding.
FDR (center)worked closely with Russia’s dictator Stalin (left) and Britain’s Prime Minister Churchill (right) during World War 2 (Source:
  • Roosevelt (nicknamed FDR) came to power during the Great Depression, an economic crisis that Republican President Herbert Hoover failed to handle well.
  • FDR promised a “New Deal” for Americans, consisting of a series of government programs and new regulations designed to revive the economy.
  • The New Deal’s success encouraged a massive coalition of voters (middle class voters, labor unions, immigrants workers, racial minorities, poor Southern whites and others) that stayed loyally Democratic for decades.
  • Roosevelt was re-elected in 1936, 1940, and 1944, making him the longest-serving U.S. president ever.
  • Roosevelt led the U.S. into World War Two, but died shortly before the surrenders of Germany and Japan.
  • FDR was succeeded by his vice president, Harry Truman, who served until 1952.
  • JFK is best remembered for his successes on the international stage, as he averted war with the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis and boosted the Apollo Space Program.
  • His administration also supported the Civil Rights Movement.
  • JFK was killed by a sniper in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
  • LBJ passed many of the reforms and laws proposed by his predecessor.
  • LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and created social welfare programs known collectively as “the Great Society.”
  • During this time, the USA sent increasing numbers of troops to the Vietnam War.
  • The Vietnam War turned many students and liberals against the Democratic Party, while Southern whites opposed civil rights legislation.
  • The 1968 election saw the collapse of the New Deal coalition and brought Richard Nixon to the White House.
  • The success of the Republican Party during this period encouraged Democratic politicians to adopt more conservative policies.
  • President Clinton’s time in office is remembered mainly for a sex scandal that led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.
  • Clinton described his political philosophy as a “Third Way.” In practice, this resulted in conservative policies towards issues including international trade, criminal justice, social welfare, and foreign policy.
  • In one of the most controversial elections in U.S. history, Al Gore won the national popular vote by 500,000 votes, but lost the electoral college thanks to a close margin in Florida. After a month of legal challenges, Gore conceded in December.
President Obama and Vice President Biden in 2012 (Source: Obama White House)
  • Barack Obama was the first African-American presidential nominee from either party, and the first African-American President.
  • Obama inherited a struggling economy and a drop in the USA’s international prestige (due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Much of his presidency was taken up with rebuilding America’s economy and international standing.
  • Obama passed large-scale reforms of the financial industry and healthcare — as well as a series of economic stimulus bills — in his first two years.
  • However, Obama’s policy agenda was stymied when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and the Senate in 2014.
  • The Democratic nominee in 2016 was Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state. She was the first female presidential nominee in U.S. history, but lost the electoral college to Donald Trump (despite winning the popular vote by almost three million votes).
  • Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, and previously served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years.



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