Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past

Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past

by Bruce Bartlett

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On the tails of an election with the subject of race at the forefront, Wrong on Race uncovers a hidden past that many Democrats would rather see swept under the carpet. Ranging from the founding of the Republic through to today, it rectifies the unfair perceptions of America's two national parties. While Nixon's infamous "Southern Strategy" is constantly referenced in the media, less well remembered are Woodrow Wilson's segregation of the entire Federal civil service; FDR's appointment of a member of the KKK to the Supreme Court; John F. Kennedy's apathy towards civil rights legislation; and the ascension of Robert Byrd, who is current President pro tempore of the Senate, third in line in the presidential line of succession, and a former member of the KKK.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230600621
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/08/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.74(w) x 9.13(h) x 1.15(d)

About the Author

Bruce Bartlett has had a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the last ten years, and has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The National Review, and Fortune. He was a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and a treasury official under President George H.W. Bush.

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Wrong on Race

The Democratic Party's Buried Past

By Bruce Bartlett

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2008 Bruce Bartlett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61138-2



If you go to the web site of the Democratic National Committee and click on the page with the history of the Democratic Party, you'll read that Thomas Jefferson founded the party in 1792 in opposition to the Federalist Party. Of course, political parties were fairly informal affairs in those days. Most of the Founding Fathers viewed them with deep suspicion, fearing that they would lead to disunity—a view best expressed by Jefferson's protégé James Madison in Federalist No. 51. It wasn't until the administration of Andrew Jackson—whom the DNC considers to be the Democratic Party's co-founder—that parties really evolved into their modern form.

Historians tend to dwell on the Democrats' differences with the Federalists and later the Whigs during the early years of the republic on economic issues such as a national bank. The Federalists and Whigs favored a strong central government that would be actively involved in economic development through public works, trade, and financial policy. They saw the young nation's future lying in manufacturing and commerce. By contrast, the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats were more agrarian and skeptical of central government power.

A key reason for the Democrats' fear of the central government was that it might threaten the institution of slavery, upon which the agrarian economy of the South was vitally dependent. The Federalists opposed slavery and supported its protection in the U.S. Constitution only because union was impossible without it. If the Southern states had feared that the federal government would ever try to uproot slavery, the thirteen colonies surely would have split into separate countries right from the beginning—one free, one slaveholding. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, much debate ostensibly about other issues, such as taxation and the Electoral College, was in fact about slavery.

During the Jacksonian era, when the Democratic Party really became a party in the modern sense of the term, skilled politicians like Martin Van Buren of New York were able to convince Democrats to subordinate their sectional interests in the name of party unity. This worked very well in the 1820s and 1830s, making the Democratic Party the nation's dominant party. But in the 1840s, westward expansion put pressure on Congress to reconsider the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited the spread of slavery into the West. The potential for new states threatened the balance of power in the Senate between slave and free states.

In the 1850s, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois engineered the final breakdown and repeal of the Missouri Compromise, thus allowing the spread of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska. He also persuaded Congress to enact a new Fugitive Slave Law to prevent the collapse of slavery through escape to free states. These actions had the effect of turning the Democratic Party into a purely sectional party based in the South, just the kind of development the Founding Fathers had feared. In effect, the Democratic Party became the party of slavery, fighting to save and protect that institution right down to the Civil War.


As a prominent Virginian, a slaveholder, and the leading intellectual force in the early republic, Jefferson was a central player in all of this. He was author of the Declaration of Independence, the nation's first secretary of state, its second vice president, and third president. Directly or indirectly, Jefferson shaped much of the United States' present and future identity.

Central to Jefferson's views on slavery were those he held on blacks in general. As a scientist, he observed them closely and tried to understand the ways in which they differed from whites beyond mere skin color. Jefferson recorded his thoughts on the subject mainly in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written between 1781 and 1782 and published in 1787. Following are a few of them:

They [blacks] secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.... They require less sleep. A black after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.... They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transparent. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor.... Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

Jefferson considered the possibility that blacks' backwardness resulted from the institution of slavery, rather than biology. But he noted that the ancient Romans treated their slaves even worse than Americans did, yet Roman slaves often excelled at art and science, and were frequently employed as tutors for the children of slaveholders. Jefferson reasoned that the critical difference was that Roman slaves were white, while American slaves were black. "It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction," he wrote; it is nature that "has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head." Jefferson concluded that blacks "are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."

This racist conviction really explains the contradiction between Jefferson's views on individual liberty, so well expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and the fact that he not only owned slaves himself, but steadfastly avoided taking any action that would end or even undermine the institution of slavery. Of course, it is easy enough to find comments by Jefferson in private letters that indicate opposition to slavery. But discussions based on this source tend to gloss over Jefferson's lifelong ownership of slaves and the fact that he took no actions to end slavery, and very seldom made any public statements against it. In the view of CUNY historian Frederick Binder, Jefferson's concern for the economic and political welfare of his state and nation, and the purity of the white race, "took precedence over his desire to see the Negroes freed." Or as University of Alaska historian Kenneth O'Reilly put it, "He disliked slavery only in theory."

The way historian William Cohen sees it, the idea that blacks were inherently inferior to whites is the only way Jefferson could reconcile his often expressed libertarian beliefs with his implicit support for slavery. To Jefferson, black people were, in effect, not altogether human and therefore not endowed by God with the same rights as whites. The only other possible explanation for Jefferson's position is that he had been flatly wrong when he said that "all men are created equal." Since Jefferson's statement about the equality of men was the most famous thing he ever said, he could hardly repudiate it and say that black men were not equal to white men. Therefore, his "scientific" analysis of racial differences was really an exercise in rationalization meant to justify his obviously contradictory position.

Jefferson held similarly contradictory views on many civil liberties whose foremost defender he is often considered to be. For example, he fully supported the prosecution of newspapers for publishing "falsehoods"—really just opinions differing from his own—on political matters. And during wartime, Jefferson was willing to go much further, forcibly suppressing all speech that was injurious to the war effort. He also supported bills of attainder when he felt that circumstances warranted, as in the case of Josiah Philips. Historian Leonard Levy has documented many other conflicts between Jefferson's rhetoric and his actions (or inactions) on questions of civil liberty. As with slavery, there was a sharp contrast between what he professed to believe in principle, and what he did or didn't do when confronted with opportunities to apply his beliefs in the real world.


One might argue that Jefferson's position on slavery was simply dictated by political necessity. He was from a slave state and could hardly hope for any kind of future in politics as an opponent of slavery. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, it was mainly on the strength of his support from slave states. He knew that union was impossible without the Constitution's explicit support for slavery. And Jefferson also knew that there weren't enough votes in Congress to do anything about it anyway. When the first Census was used to allocate seats in the House of Representatives, thirty out of sixty-five total seats went to states with significant slave populations. The number of congressmen from the slave states would have been even greater had those states not agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a man for the purposes of representation.

Another possibility is that slaves represented an important part of Jefferson's wealth; he could not free them personally nor support abolition of slavery without suffering a huge financial loss that would have severely crippled his lifestyle. Jefferson inherited slaves from both his parents and acquired many more through marriage. By 1783, he owned more than 200 slaves, making him one of the richest men in Virginia. During his life, Jefferson would often buy and sell slaves. There is no evidence that he treated them either more or less humanely than was common at that time. His slaves often sought escape—thirty of them went over to the British during the war—and Jefferson had them hunted down and flogged as punishment. As secretary of state, he worked hard to get the British to compensate him and other slave owners for their losses. In that position, Jefferson also supported watering down the slavery prohibition in the Northwest Ordinance by permitting slaveholders entering the Northwest Territory to keep their slaves and forcing the children of slaves to remain in slavery.

President Jefferson was "functionally proslavery," in Stanford University historian Don Fehrenbacher's words. He did nothing to diminish the institution and significantly expanded slavery by permitting it in the new territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. As historian David Brion Davis put it, "The extension of what Jefferson called an 'empire for liberty' was also extension of an empire for slavery." Later, Jefferson opposed the Missouri Compromise because it restricted slavery in the Louisiana territory.

The explanation for this position is that he came to believe that diffusing slavery over a broader geographical area would somehow undermine the institution. Dispersion was Jefferson's solution for dealing with the Indians as well. In many ways, his policy toward them anticipated and led inevitably to the removal policy later implemented by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.

In Haiti, President Jefferson supported French efforts to suppress a slave revolt that American slaveholders feared might spread northward. In 1806, he even pushed a law through Congress that embargoed trade with Haiti in order to deny American arms and provisions to the black revolutionaries. As historian Forrest McDonald put it, "the Jeffersonians sentenced the black revolution in St. Domingo to death by starvation."

Of course, it is easy to criticize those who lived in different times and circumstances for not living up to today's standards. But Jefferson didn't even live up to those of his own time. In this respect, it is worth comparing his actions with those of George Washington, a fellow Virginian and slave owner. As historian Gordon Wood explains, before the Revolution, Washington's views on slavery were probably even more orthodox than Jefferson's. But the war changed Washington in a way that it didn't change Jefferson:

Washington as commander in chief in Massachusetts for the first time saw blacks as human beings rather than as slaves. He began recruiting free blacks into the Army and even invited the black poet Phillis Wheatley to his headquarters. By the time of the battle of Yorktown, a quarter of Washington's Continental Army was made up of blacks. With peace and the prodding of Lafayette, Washington began gradually and quietly to rethink the issue of slavery. By 1786, he vowed never to purchase another slave and expressed a wish to see slavery in America "abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees." Eventually he found slavery to be morally repugnant, and he did what no other Southern slaveholding Revolutionary leader was able to do. In his will, which he drew up secretly, he freed upon the death of his wife, Martha, all the slaves under his control and urged that they be educated. He did this in the face of Martha's and his family's bitter opposition.

By contrast, Jefferson freed only one slave during his lifetime; one other bought his own freedom and another ran away, leading Jefferson to free her rather than bothering to chase after her. At his death, he freed only five of his 200-plus slaves. Like Washington, many of Jefferson's contemporaries freed all their slaves in their wills. Contrary to what some historians have asserted, there was no legal obstacle to freeing slaves in Virginia after 1782, except that after 1806 freed slaves had to leave Virginia within twelve months.

In the end, we can draw no other conclusion except that Jefferson's record on race was dreadful. By today's standards, he unquestionably was a racist. In the words of University of Mississippi historian Winthrop Jordan, "His derogation of the Negro revealed the latent possibilities inherent in an accumulated popular tradition of Negro inferiority; it constituted, for all its qualifications, the most intense, extensive, and extreme formulation of anti-Negro 'thought' offered by any American in the thirty years after the Revolution."

But we have never honored Jefferson so much for his actions as for his ideas, which stand on their own merit regardless of how flawed and hypocritical their author was. The same is true for other slaveholders among the Founding Fathers. Nevertheless, it is important for our understanding of American political history to know that one of the men credited by the Democrats as a founder of their party was someone who undoubtedly would be the subject of harsh criticism by them if he had instead been a founder of the Republican Party.


As noted earlier, political parties were rather casual operations in the early days, more like loose alliances than the formal organizations we know today. It was Andrew Jackson who was really responsible for building the Democrats into the first modern political party. The glue that held them together was slavery and the exploitation of Indians. Indeed, one of Jackson's greatest accomplishments in office was the removal to the west of most Indians east of the Mississippi, often utilizing methods so harsh that they constituted virtual genocide.

Jackson was born in South Carolina in 1767 but moved to Tennessee in 1787, becoming the state's first congressman in 1794. He was elected to the Senate two years later, but served only two years. Jackson served again in the Senate from 1822 to 1826. Before becoming president in 1828, he achieved his greatest fame as a soldier. Jackson joined the Continental Army at the age of 13 and was taken a prisoner of war by the British. He became a colonel in the Tennessee Militia in 1801 and thereafter engaged in a number of battles with local Indian tribes.


Excerpted from Wrong on Race by Bruce Bartlett. Copyright © 2008 Bruce Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Explanatory Note     v
Introduction     ix
The Racist Origins of The Democratic Party
Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Stephen A. Douglas Sow the Seeds of Civil War     3
Andrew Johnson: The Democrat Who Tried to Wreck Reconstruction and Paved the Way for Jim Crow     23
Southern Democrats: Racist to the Core
Ben Tillman, Cole Blease, and James F. Byrnes: Democrats of South Carolina     43
Tom Watson, Hoke Smith, Eugene Talmadge, and Richard B. Russell: Democrats of Georgia     61
James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo: Democrats of Mississippi     77
Democrats in the White House: Blacks Sent to the Back Door
Woodrow Wilson: Reactionary Progressive     95
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Insensitive Liberal     111
Democratic Racism Finally Repudiated
Harry S. Truman: Unsung Civil Rights Hero     131
Democrats Jump on the Civil Rights Bandwagon     151
Since the Civil Rights Act: A Racial Double Standards?     169
Conclusion: A Time for Reassessment?     187
A Note on Sources     195
Percentage of Blacks in the Population by Region and State, 1790-1990     197
Presidential Vote of Black Americans 1936-2004     199
Per Capita Regional Income Relative to U.S. Average     201
Notes     203
Index     261

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Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
HistReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bruce Bartlett wrote a book of non-stop citations of Democratic racism through the history of the party. The claims he makes are either prefaced or immediately supported by quotations. This is a great introductory book to learn about the misconception that Republicans are and have always been the Troglodytic, hood-wearing racist. From newspaper articles (including partisan press), speeches and correspondence, Mr. Bartlett references all documentation. What is most unique about this book is he concludes by encouraging the reader to reference original documents by visiting the library and official state and national archives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago