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Democratic party

From the Civil War to Bryan

During the Civil War some members of the party were openly sympathetic toward the South (see Copperheads), and Republicans in postwar years attempted with some success to depict the Democrats as the party of rebellion. Southern leaders associated the defeat of the South and Reconstruction with the Republican party, and the eleven states of the old Confederacy, with few exceptions, voted Democratic until the 1960s, giving rise to the "solid South."

The years from 1860 to 1912 were lean ones for the party on the national level. In 1876 the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won a plurality of the popular vote, but the disputed electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana (states still under Republican control) were awarded to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who became President. Thus only the victories of Grover Cleveland (1884 and 1892) broke the Republican control of the presidency during this period. Yet the Democrats often controlled one or both houses of Congress in this era and had wide success in the states.

In general policy the two parties differed little from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until 1896. Traditionally the Democrats were more the party of agrarianism and cheap money and the opponents of protective tariffs, and even the most conservative Democrats were opposed to the control of industry and trade by the trusts and big business. However, radical economic and agrarian schemes were as distasteful to many Democrats as they were to the Republicans.

The problem of how to deal with the agrarian appeal of the Populist party and with the question of free silver split the Democrats in Cleveland's second administration. In the convention of 1896 a radical group succeeded in nominating William Jennings Bryan for President on a platform calling for free silver and supporting other Populist demands. In the election the party suffered its worst popular defeat since 1872, and it appeared doomed by the impossibility of reconciling its diverse elements—Southern farmers, Western farmers, urban industrial classes, and a wealthy few.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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