State by State, Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson

Jonathan Martinaug, New York Times, August 12, 2015

For nearly a century, Democrats have honored two men as the founders of their party: Thomas Jefferson, for his visionary expression of the concept of equality, and Andrew Jackson, for his populist spirit and elevation of the common man.

Political candidates and activists across the country have flocked to annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, where speeches are given, money is raised, and the party celebrates its past and its future.

But these time-honored rituals are colliding with a modern Democratic Party more energized by a desire for racial and gender inclusion than reverence for history. And state by state, Democratic activists are removing the names of Jefferson and Jackson from party gatherings, saying the two men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.

The Iowa Democratic Party became the latest to do so last weekend, joining Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri. At least five other states are considering the same change since the massacre in June at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.

“The vote today confirms that our party believes it is important to change the name of the dinner to align with the values of our modern-day Democratic Party: inclusiveness, diversity and equality,” said Andy McGuire, the Iowa Democratic chairwoman.

For all the attention this summer to the fight over the Confederate battle flag, the less noticed moves by Democratic parties to remove Jefferson and Jackson from their official identity underscore one of the most consequential trends of American politics: Democrats’ shift from a union-powered party organized primarily around economic solidarity to one shaped by racial and sexual identity.

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The move to erase Jefferson and Jackson is not being welcomed by all Democrats. Some of them fear the party loses what has long been its unifying philosophy by removing the names of founders, whose virtues and flaws illuminated the way forward. And they worry that as the labor movement declines, cultural liberalism is beginning to eclipse a fundamental message of economic equality that brought about some of the party’s most important achievements, from the New Deal to Medicaid.

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Still, the motions have passed easily in the state parties that have considered them, with activists arguing that the two men no longer fit the party’s essential principles. Thomas Jefferson, while writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, owned over 600 slaves during his life, and it was slave labor that built and tilled the land at his Virginia estate, Monticello. He freed only a handful of them upon his death.

Andrew Jackson was also a slave owner and did not seem to wrestle with the morality of the institution, as Jefferson did at times. As president, he also consigned thousands of Native Americans to death by removing them from their homes in the South and pushing them west on what became known as the Trail of Tears.

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In more recent times, Bill Clinton memorably began his presidency with a pre-inaugural trip to Monticello and Mr. Obama took the president of France there last year and declared: “Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,” while noting Jefferson’s “complex” relationship with slavery.

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The Jefferson-Jackson dinners–“JJs” in the shorthand of political operatives and insiders–are a staple of the political calendar.

It was at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa where Mr. Obama delivered one of his best speeches in the 2008 campaign, putting himself on a path to win the state’s caucuses and break the presidential color barrier.

Such progress is why many in the party feel they must borrow from Jefferson himself, who said that “as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

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