Democratic Platform of 1840

Adopted in Convention on the 5th or 6th of May, 1840, in Baltimore

  1. RESOLVED,  That the Federal government is one of limited powers, derived solely from the constitution, and the grants of power shown therein ought to be strictly construed by all the departments and agents of the government, and that it is inexpedient and dangerous to exercise doubtful constitutional powers.
  2. RESOLVED,  That the constitution does not confer upon the general government the power to commence and carry on a general system of internal improvements.
  3. RESOLVED,  That the constitution does not confer authority upon the Federal government, directly or indirectly, to assume the debts of the several states, contracted for local internal improvements or other state purposes; nor would such assumption be just or expedient.
  4. RESOLVED,  That justice and sound policy forbid the Federal government to foster one branch of industry to the detriment of another, or to cherish the interests of one portion to the injury of another portion of our common country—that every citizen and every section of the country has a right to demand and insist upon an equality of rights and privileges, and to complete and ample protection of person and property from domestic violence or foreign aggression.
  5. RESOLVED,  That it is the duty of every branch of the government to enforce and practice the most rigid economy in conducting our public affairs, and that no more revenue ought to be raised than is required to defray the necessary expenses of the government.
  6. RESOLVED,  That Congress has no power to charter a United States bank; that we believe such an institution one of deadly hostility to the best interests of the country, dangerous to our republican institutions and the liberties of the people, and calculated to place the business of the country within the control of a concentrated money power, and above the laws and the will of the people.
  7. RESOLVED,  That Congress has no power under the constitution, to interfere with or control the domestic institutions of the several states; and that such states are the sole and proper judges of everything pertaining to their own affairs, not prohibited by the constitution; that all efforts, by Abolitionists or others, made to induce Congress to interfere with questions of slavery, or to take incipient steps in relation thereto, are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences, and that all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people, and endanger the stability and permanency of the Union, and ought not to be countenanced by any friend to our political institutions.
  8. RESOLVED,  That the separation of the moneys of the government from banking institutions is indispensable for the safety of the funds of the government and the rights of the people.
  9. RESOLVED,  That the liberal principles embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and sanctioned in the constitution, which makes ours the land of liberty and the asylum of the oppressed of every nation, have ever been cardinal principles in the democratic faith; and every attempt to abridge the present privilege of becoming citizens, and the owners of soil among us, ought to be resisted with the same spirit which swept the alien and sedition laws from our statute book.

WHEREAS,  Several of the states which have nominated Martin Van Buren as a candidate for the presidency, have put in nomination different individuals as candidates for Vice-President, thus indicating a diversity of opinion as to the person best entitled to the nomination; and whereas, some of the said states are not represented in this convention; therefore,

RESOLVED,  That the convention deem it expedient at the present time not to choose between the individuals in nomination, but to leave the decision to their republican fellow-citizens in the several states, trusting that before the election shall take place, their opinions will become so concentrated as to secure the choice of a Vice-President by the electoral college.

Generally speaking, most of this political platform is thoroughly liberal or libertarian, except for one glaring and unconscionable error.  Specifically, the party’s comments on slavery in the seventh clause above are repugnantly illiberal and unlibertarian.

It is really rather strange, for multiple reasons, that they would have written clause seven as they did.  For one, there were many Democrats who were strongly opposed to the institution of slavery.  Indeed, Jefferson himself, whom the party references in its ninth clause, was an abolitionist (despite hypocritically also being a slave-holder).  Northern Democrats, in particular, held much hostility to slavery.  There was, for example, the locofoco democrat William Leggett, who wrote vigorously against the institution of slavery.  Indeed, there was a whole Locofoco Party in New York, of whom Leggett was the leading intellectual.

Then there was the fact that Martin Van Buren, who was the presidential nominee of the party the same year it adopted this platform, who himself was a New York Democrat and an opponent of slavery.  In fact, it was this general opposition to slavery which led Van Buren and other anti-slavery Democrats (referred to collectively as “Barnburners”) to bolt from the party and join up with members of the abolitionist Liberty Party to form the Free Soil Party.

But perhaps most striking is the fact that this plank represents a complete misunderstanding of the issue.  Indeed, one of the things keeping slavery alive was federal intervention.  I’m thinking, of course, of the Fugitive Slave Laws, which were federal edicts dictating to northern states that they must return runaway slaves back to their masters in the southern states.  This repugnant federal intrusion made it more difficult for slaves to escape tyranny, for instead of merely having to get to a free state, slaves had to make it all the way up to Canada in order to avoid statist repression under the Fugitive Slave Laws.  If it weren’t for this federal intrusion, slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad would not have had to travel nearly as far to find freedom.  Thus, many abolitionists back in the day wanted to see the northern states secede from the slavery-supporting United States government.

Luckily for many slaves who did make it to northern states, Jury Nullification was used to protect runaways from the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Laws.  Nevertheless, the point remains that it was the Fugitive Slave Laws, and not the abolitionists, that were the problem.  Thus, should we be surprised that five years after this convention, in 1845, the libertarian lawyer Lysander Spooner would write a book called The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, explaining that slavery, properly understood, has never been truly constitutional?

Slavery itself was only able to exist because of statism.  Without the state, an organised system of oppression, to protect slave-holders from prosecution for their violations of natural law, slaves would have found immediate emancipation.  But because there were (and remain) such institutions as states, institutions possessing the strength to protect oppressors from the righteous retribution of their victims, slaves were denied basic human rights.  That the Democrats of 1840 could not recognise the inherent evil of slavery, or the incontrovertible connection between it and statism, between it and big government, is frankly surprising.

Let us then turn to the libertarian Murray N. Rothbard, who in 1977 wrote that

From the 1850’s to the 1890’s the Republican party was almost exclusively the pietist party, known commonly as the “party of great moral ideas”; the Democratic party, on the other hand, was almost exclusively the liturgical party, and was known widely as the “party of personal liberty.”  Specifically, after the Civil War there were three interconnected local struggles that kept reappearing throughout America; in each case, the Republicans and Democrats played out this contrasting role.  These were: the attempt by pietist groups (almost always Republican) to enforce prohibition; the attempt by the same groups to enforce Sunday blue laws; and the attempt by the selfsame pietists to enforce compulsory attendance in the public schools, in order to use these schools to “Christianize” the Catholics.

What of the political and economic struggles that historians have, until recently, focused on almost exclusively: sound money vs. fiat money or silver inflation; free trade vs. a protective tariff; free markets vs. government regulation; small vs. large government spending?  It is true that these were fought out repeatedly, but these were on the national level, and generally remote from the concerns of the average person.  I have long wondered how it was that the nineteenth century saw the mass of the public get highly excited about such recondite matters as the tariff, bank credits, or the currency.  How could that happen when it is almost impossible to interest the mass of the public in these matters today?  [Paul] Kleppner and the others have provided the missing link, the middle term between these abstract economic issues and the gut social issues close to the hearts and lives of the public.  Specifically, the Democrats, who (at least until 1896) favored the free-market, libertarian position on all these economic issues, linked them (and properly so) in the minds of their liturgical supporters, with their opposition to prohibition, blue laws, etc.  The Democrats pointed out that all these statist economic measures—including inflation—were “paternalistic” in the same way as the hated pietistic invasions of their personal liberty.  In that way, the Democrat leaders were able to “raise the consciousness” of their followers from their local and personal concerns to wider and more abstract economic issues, and to take the libertarian position on all of them.

The pietist Republicans did similarly for their mass base, pointing out that big government should regulate and control economic matters as it should control morality. In this stance, the Republicans followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, the Whigs, who, for example, were generally the Fathers of the Public School System in their local areas.

Generally, the “mind your own business” liturgicals almost instinctively took the libertarian position on every question.  But there was of course one area—before the Civil War—where pestering and hectoring were needed to right a monstrous injustice: slavery.  Here the typical pietistic concern with universal moral principles and seeing them put into action brought us the abolitionist and anti-slavery movements.  Slavery was the great flaw in the American system in more senses than one: for it was also the flaw in the instinctive liturgical resentment against great moral crusades.