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.

Sumner, a Harvard graduate, was a particular object of hatred to Democrats. Elected to the Senate in 1851 on an antislavery platform, Sumner, like other prominent Massachusetts politicians, joined the Republican party in the mid-1850s when it was formed to provide a vehicle for antislavery forces across the North.

Sumner never hesitated to attack slavery or abuse its defenders. On one occasion, in May 1856, he took to the floor of the Senate to denounce the practices of the pro-slavery insurgents in the Kansas territory. In doing so, he singled out Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing him to Don Quixote, "whose mistress, though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot, slavery!" This insult was regarded by southerners as a calumny against the character of an upstanding gentleman. A few days later, Butler's nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks, found Sumner working alone at his desk in the Senate chamber, and avenged his uncle by beating Sumner with a cane so severely that Sumner was disabled for three years. Both men, as a consequence, were treated as heroes in their respective states. The episode greatly intensified sectional animosities.

The Civil War merely cemented in place the conflicts symbolized by the clash between Sumner and Brooks. During the war, Massachusetts sent into battle many prominent sons and daughters, not least of them, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Clara Barton, and Robert Gould Shaw. Col. Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists, led the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment, which consisted of Negro soldiers he had recruited. When the "Fighting 54th" took the field of battle in South Carolina, Confederate troops were enraged at the sight of Negro soldiers. Shaw himself was killed, and many of his men slaughtered on July 18, 1863, in a desperate assault at Battery Wagner in South Carolina. Their sacrifice is commemorated in a magnificent bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common.

Massachusetts, as a consequence of these conflicts, was among the most reliably Republican states from the Civil War down to the New Deal. Between 1856, when the Republican party contested its first presidential election, and 1928, when Al Smith was nominated by the Democrats, Massachusetts went for the Republican ticket in every election save 1912, when a split between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt threw the race to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. It is in keeping with our story line that President Wilson's main adversary was still another Bostonian, Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, whose very reasonable objections to the League of Nations covenant left Wilson sputtering with rage. When the president embarked on a tour of the country to rally support for the League, he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his term. The League went down to defeat in the Senate, with Lodge taking the lion's share of the credit (or blame).

Beginning with the election of 1928, and continuing through the Roosevelt years, Massachusetts moved steadily away from Republicanism and into the Democratic column. The city of Boston had already moved in this direction, as immigrant Irish and Italians challenged the Protestant leadership class that had governed the state since the Revolution. After supporting Eisenhower twice in the 1950s, Massachusetts cemented its loyalty to the Democratic party with John F. Kennedy's presidency and the continuing influence of the Kennedy family--whose power and prestige in the state today rival those of the Adamses and Lodges in years gone by. Ted Kennedy, however, in his virulent rhetorical attacks against Republicans, resembles nothing so much as a modern day Charles Sumner.

Today Massachusetts is perhaps the most liberal state in the union, as safely Democratic as it was safely Republican between 1856 and the New Deal. But its liberalism is, to a great degree, one of its own creation, for the politics of culture and style that defines contemporary liberalism was an innovation of the Kennedys, crafted to appeal to an increasingly sophisticated electorate through the medium of television.

As Massachusetts has moved into the Democratic column, its natural rivals in the union have moved toward the Republicans. Indeed, the electoral maps of the 1896 (McKinley-Bryan) and 2000 (Bush-Gore) elections look almost exactly the same, except that the states have reversed their party loyalties. In 1896, the Republicans carried New England and the Midwest, plus California, while the Democrats took the South and the Mountain states; in the 2000 election, those results were reversed. The South is today a Republican stronghold, while New England leans heavily to the Democrats.

This exchange, however, seems not to have benefited northern politicians to any great degree. John F. Kennedy, in 1960, was the last northerner to be elected to the presidency, and since that time several others (Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis) have been defeated, most by large margins. Since 1960, our elected presidents have come from just four states: Texas, California, Arkansas, and Georgia.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Democratic party adopted a strategy of nominating for the presidency northern politicians who were sympathetic to the southern position on slavery. The idea was to sweep the Democratic South, while retaining a sufficient number of northern or border states to win the election. It was a successful strategy, even though the candidates (Van Buren of New York, Cass of Michigan, Pierce of New Hampshire, Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and Douglas of Illinois) were derided in the North as "northern men with southern principles."

In recent decades, the Democrats have adopted something of an opposite strategy, nominating southern liberals who can hold the North while attracting enough electoral votes in the South to win a majority. These "southern men with northern principles"--Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and now John Edwards--have proved to be more successful as candidates than northern Democrats. Yet the game has been played often enough by now that it has probably lost its capacity to fool many voters in the southern and border states.

So it is that the Kerry-Edwards ticket is unlikely to win a single state in the South in this year's election, thus conceding the 160 or so electoral votes in the region to George Bush. If history is any guide, the Democratic ticket, led by a Boston liberal, will have great difficulty crafting a majority coalition out of the remaining sections of the country. Still, stranger things have happened--as witness the metamorphosis of Boston from its roots as a Republican stronghold to its current role as eager host to a Democratic convention.

James Piereson is an occasional contributor to The Weekly Standard.