The Magazine

The Boston Democrats

From the August 2, 2004 issue: Why it took them 200 years to hold a Democratic convention there.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By JAMES PIERESON
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WHEN THE DEMOCRATS meet in Boston this week, it will mark the first time that their 200-year-old party has held a national convention in that historic city. The Democrats, moreover, are breaking precedent in a big way in Boston--first, by staging a tribute to Edward Kennedy, the host state's senior senator, on Tuesday, then by nominating its junior senator, John Kerry, for the presidency on Thursday. With this embrace of Massachusetts-style liberalism, the Democrats conclude a transformation of their party that began nearly a century ago.

Back then, it would have been almost unthinkable for the Democrats to stage a national convention in the capital of Massachusetts, a state, from the formation of the Republic down to the New Deal, dominated by Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans. Shunning New England, the Democrats convened in places like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and Charleston. For most of their history, Democrats considered Boston to be enemy territory, home to all manner of misguided ideas. And it is true that Boston, cradle of the American Revolution, has been a center of radical political innovation that has often repelled the more conservative sections of the country.

The Democratic party, after all, originated as a southern party devoted to states' rights and, indirectly, the preservation of slavery. Jefferson organized the party in the late 1790s in opposition to two prominent Federalists: Alexander Hamilton of New York and President John Adams of Massachusetts. The first three Democratic presidents--Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--were Virginians, who looked to the South and mid-Atlantic regions for the bulk of their votes. New England was home to the hated, albeit disintegrating, Federalists.

The designation of founder of the modern Democratic party, however, probably deserves to go to Andrew Jackson, who set in motion a reorganization of the party after he was cheated out of the presidency in 1824 by Boston's own John Quincy Adams. "Cheated" is, admittedly, an exaggeration, since Adams won fair and square under the rules of the Electoral College. But Jackson won the popular vote by a substantial margin.

The collapse of the Federalists during Monroe's presidency left the Democrats the sole established political party--yet without control over what candidates claimed the party's name. The election of 1824 was thus fought out among four regional candidates--including Adams and Jackson--each of whom called himself a Democrat. This kind of factional politics opened the door for Adams to sneak into the presidency. Jackson's solution, once he was elected in 1828, was to redefine the Democrats as a popular party, and to establish the national convention as the mechanism for nominating its candidates for national office. His opponents, mostly former Federalists, had little choice but to organize a separate party, the Whigs, whose most prominent member was the great spokesman for union, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.

Jackson and the Democratic party were united in the belief that slavery should be kept out of national debate, for they understood that this was the one subject that could divide their party and split the nation.

Beginning in the early 1830s, Congress began to receive petitions from abolitionist groups--many of them based in Boston--calling for an end to slavery. In response, Congress in 1836 adopted the "gag rule," under which any bill, petition, or motion that raised the issue of slavery would be automatically tabled without discussion.

The man who challenged and ultimately defeated the gag rule was Jackson's old nemesis, John Quincy Adams, who had retreated to the House of Representatives after losing the presidency and had recast himself as an antislavery legislator. Adams, persistently and often without allies, challenged the gag rule on the floor of the House by submitting endless motions dealing with slavery. Gradually, as voter sentiment changed across the North, the Bostonian won allies in the House, until he was able to push through a motion in 1844 to eliminate the rule altogether. Adams's stand paved the way for slavery to be debated in Congress.

Southerners, mostly Democrats, took strong exception to the methods of the New England abolitionists. In the 1840s and 1850s, as slavery became the all-consuming issue, southerners began to speak in the harshest terms about their northern critics. In fact, when southern leaders used terms like "the damnable Yankee race," they were generally referring to prominent Bostonians like Adams; or William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of The Liberator, the abolitionist magazine; or Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist lawyer and orator; or John Greenleaf Whittier, the abolitionist poet; or, most of all, Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator.