Racism and the four great Democrats

In the 1950s and 1960s in Washington County, Md., there was an annual Jefferson-Jackson Day picnic, in which Democrats would eat Southern fried chicken and corn on the cob, and listed to speeches about the four great Democratic champions of the common people.

We listened to praise of:

  • Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, upheld religious and intellectual freedom and fought the powerful financiers represented by Alexander Hamilton.
  • Andrew Jackson, who championed the common people and freed the young United States from the grip of powerful national bank.
  • Woodrow Wilson, who fought corruption and monopoly and created a vision of a peaceful world based on independent, self-determining nations under the rule of international law.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal established firewalls and safety nets against a future Great Depression, and led the nation to victory in war against the Axis.

The Republicans had their Lincoln Day picnics, and listened to speeches in praise of the Great Emancipator.

As I grew older and read more history, I came to realize the importance of what was left out.  The first two were white Southern slaveholders and racists, the third was a white Southern segregationist and racist, and the fourth accepted white Southern racism as a permanent reality which he had to deal with.

The great humanitarian reformers that we Unitarian Universalists honor – Horace Mann, creator of the public school system; Theodore Parker, the abolitionist; Susan B. Anthony, the advocate of women’s emancipation; Samuel Gridley Howe, the champion of the blind, and so on – were almost all Whigs and Republicans.

The 19th century and early 20th century Democrats were the champions not of  all the people, but of the white working man and often of white supremacy.  They opposed a hierarchy of wealth, but not of race.  There was a difference.  But the great New England Unitarians and transcendentalists had blind spots, too.  They favored emancipation of black people in the South, but most of them were indifferent to the struggles of the Irish immigrants in their midst.  If some of them sought to erase distinctions based on race, most of them insisted on distinctions based on social class and formal education.

But even after I have come to understand this, I still think Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and FDR were great.  Jefferson’s great statements about intellectual and political freedom still have the power to inspire me, as do Wilson’s statements about the right of all peoples to self-determination.  Andrew Jackson set an example of how to fight the power of bankers and the monied elite.

And Franklin Roosevelt was not a racist in the mold of Jefferson, Jackson or Woodrow Wilson.  Rather he helped transition the Democratic Party away from racism.

He did compromise with white Southern racists to accomplish his objectives.  Social Security as originally written excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants, who comprised the majority of black people in the South.  Other legislation was written so as to protect the racial order in the South.  Yet under FDR, the majority of African-Americans transferred their allegiance from the Republicans to the Democrats, because they benefited from the New Deal even so.

Moreover FDR did three things that set the stage for the Democratic Party of the 1960s to become the civil rights party.

  • He formed a political alliance with the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations), which unlike the American Federation of Labor did not allow whites-only union locals.
  • He decreed a Fair Employment Practices Code for wartime industry, responding to the threat of a march on Washington threatened by A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
  • Most importantly, he induced the Democratic Party Convention in 1940 to change its rules so that Presidents could be nominated by majority vote rather than having to get two-thirds.  Prior to this, the Southern bloc had a veto power over nominations.

The Democratic Party is no longer what it was from Jackson to FDR.  (Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were in some sense the ancestor of the Democratic Party, but Andrew Jackson was the real founder.)

From 1932 through 1960, the Democrats had the allegiance of the majority of African Americans and the majority of Southern white people, but this coalition could not have continued indefinitely.  President John F. Kennedy found it was impossible to strike a balance between these two blocs of Democratic voters, and President Lyndon Johnson made the Democratic Party a civil rights party. Southern white politicians such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms made a new home in the Republican Party.

The Democratic leaders of today have completely broken from this past.  They resemble the 19th century Whig reformers and Republican progressives more than they do the Democratic populists of that era.   College-educated Democratic liberals tend to be more interested in gay marriage, abortion rights and “diversity,” which of course are all good things, than they are in sticking up for the interests of the majority of working people, who of course include gays, women and people of color.

I don’t write this in order to belittle the great people of the past.  Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and FDR really were great, and so were Horace Mann, Theodore Parker and the other reformers.  But it is necessary to recognize that it is given to very few people to be great in every respect, and that political divisions of the past cut in different ways than they do now.

I feel angry when I hear people sneer at the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for only being concerned with the rights of white male property owners.  Founding a nation on the basis of human rights was a revolutionary change that set the stage for the emancipation of women, people of color and the propertyless.  Before we look down on the people of the past because of their limited understanding, we should reflect that we will be subject to the judgment and condemnation of people in the future because of our limitations.


Here are some books I read that helped me understand the connection between the Democratic Party and the history of American white racism.

“NEGRO PRESIDENT”: Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills.  Thomas Jefferson, like many Virginian slave owners, was a theoretical opponent and practical supporter of slavery.  Wills showed how Jefferson won the election of 1800, and the South dominated American politics until the Civil War, only because the South had extra representation in the Electoral College based on three-fifths of the nonvoting slave population.  Wills described Jefferson’s diplomacy toward Haiti, the black republic founded in a slave rebellion.  Haiti’s example was feared by Southern slave owners, and Jefferson’s policy was to isolate and harass the newly-independent country.

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe.  I had been influenced by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, which presented Andrew Jackson as a defender of democracy against a financial oligarchy, and the Democratic Party as a coalition of all those whose interests ran counter to big business.  This is not completely wrong, but it is not the whole story.  Daniel Walker Howe showed how Jackson’s actions as an Indian fighter and President opened up new frontiers for cotton-growing and slavery, and how the Democratic Party of that era was united by the principal of equality for all white males.  Howe did a good job of showing how people of color, women and immigrants influenced American society of that era; they were not mere spectators to the activities of native-born white males, and recognition of their role is necessary to understanding of history.

RECONSTRUCTION: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1867 by Eric Foner.  I was taught as a boy that the Reconstruction was a tragic era, in which vengeful Republicans imposed the rule of ignorant black people and opportunist carpetbaggers on the oppressed white people of the South.  Eric Foner showed that Reconstruction accomplished good things and might have accomplished more, if Democrats has not reestablished white rule through a combination of political organization and terrorism.

SUNDOWN TOWNS: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen.  Starting in 1890 and continuing for decades, there was an ethnic cleansing of black people from small American towns in the North—a fact that escaped the notice of American historians until James Loewen made this study.   Democratic Party leaders played an important role in making communities all-white by means of the law, harassment, race riots and even murder.

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