The Political-Economy of the Democratic Party

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.


Democratic ideas about government's role in economic life differed from those of their Whig opponents. Democrats were hardly opposed to individual and national prosperity. Nor, contrary to what some historians have argued, were they intrinsically adverse to the spread of a cash-based commercial or market economy. Yet they did oppose positive governmental policies that might spur such growth, be they protective tariffs, governmental subsidies, charters of incorporation for businesses, or banking, bank loans, and especially paper-money bank notes. Instead, Democrats embraced laissezfaire or what is sometimes called the doctrine of the negative state, that government should have as little to do with the private economic sector as possible. "The less government interferes with private pursuits the better for the general prosperity." intoned President Martin Van Buren in 1837. Or as a Democratic journal put it the following year: "The democratic creed may be summed up in this brief formula. As little government as possible; that little emanating from, and controlled by, the people; and uniform in its application to all."

Behind this negative state creed lay three core beliefs which differed strikingly from those of Lincoln and the Whigs. First, Democrats contended that the volatility of the nation's antebellum economy, its frequent boom/bust cycles that first inflated prices and then produced unemployment and economic misery, was caused by speculation fueled by too much bank credit and too much paper money. Stabilizing the economy therefore required limiting, if not eradicating, banks and paper money.

Second, whereas Whigs saw credit, whether in the form of individual loans from banks or public bond issues, as crucial lubricants for economic growth and faciltators of improved economic opportunity. Democrats pessimistically viewed credit from its flip side as debt, as a form of economic self-enslavement that induced individuals to surrender their economic independence to creditors and governments to increase the tax burden of their residents.

Third, and most important, whereas Whigs stressed the enhancement of individuals' economic freedom to rise, Democrats stressed the protection of their equal rights and attacked all forms of government-granted privilege as inimical to those equal rights. Fundamentally, that is, Democrats opposed the positive economic policies favored by Whigs because such policies granted their recipients — stockholders in corporations, bankers, manufacturers, or areas that benefited from internal improvements — unfair privileges that violated the equal rights of others denied those privileges. Privilege, in short, was antithetical to equality, yet it was inherent and unavoidable in any governmental economic action. Therefore, Democrats believed, the best way to preserve equality was for government to refrain from any economic activity.