One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.
By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite. By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.
Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist. He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers. In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy. Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.
In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training. He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.
Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties. He killed enemies in duels. He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears. He was not a respecter of individual rights. He was not a liberal.
This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later. They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums. Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.
They were liberals, but not populists. Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law, they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst. Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.