The Bourbon Democrats were an important faction within the Democratic Party from the Reconstruction era until 1904. For much of that period they were the dominant force within the Democratic Party and played an influential role in party and national politics, including selection of the party's presidential nominee. “Bourbon Democrat” originated as a largely pejorative term used by critics who sought to equate many of the group's policy stances to the elitist, traditionalist views of Bourbon France, before the Revolution of 1789. It also referred to the influence of conservative southern Democrats (i.e., bourbon whisky) in general and specifically to those southern Democrats who opposed Reconstruction.
Bourbon Democrats were a combination of several constituencies including southerners, political and fiscal conservatives, and classical liberals. Bourbons supported the gold standard, seeing the policy as a means of stabilizing currency and the economy. They generally supported the U.S. business establishment and the ideas of limited government and laissez-faire economics, and they opposed commercial or agricultural subsidies and protectionist trade policies. They also opposed the expansion of U.S. territorial ambitions and military interventions abroad, stressing the need to focus attention upon critical domestic issues instead.
Although the faction and some of its candidates could espouse campaign rhetoric claiming to support the interests and rights of the common man, Bourbon attitudes were in general not favorable to the working classes of the era. The faction was opposed to organized labor, regarding stronger unions as both unhealthy for economic growth and as a threat to the continued political hegemony of traditionally influential elements within American society. Many leaders among the Bourbon Democrats were also averse to increased political participation on the part of small-scale farmers, the landless poor, and blue-collar urban workers, fearing that the working classes could upset the traditional balance of power and thus control the direction of the Democratic party.
The faction began to coalesce after the U.S. Civil War and was initially concentrated primarily in the South and Midwest prior to becoming influential in other parts of the country. In the presidential election of 1872, Bourbons supported the candidacy of Charles O'Conor, who declined the nomination in deference to Horace Greeley, who in turn lost to Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Four years later, the Bourbons succeeded in awarding the Democratic nomination to Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote but narrowly lost the election to Republican Rutherford Hayes because of a highly controversial and contested Electoral College vote and what was known as the Compromise of 1877.
Bourbon Democrats frequently ran on anticorruption platforms, publicly denouncing graft at all levels of government. They were famously among the first influential groups to expose and condemn the malfeasance of the Tammany Hall political machine of New York, ultimately leading to its demise. The role played by the Bourbons in ending the Tammany Hall graft and in calling for other political change, such as civil service reform, which replaced the traditional system of political patronage, garnered them significant public support in the 1880s including the votes of Republican defectors disillusioned by scandals affecting their own party and its candidates.
Bourbon Democrats won their first presidential election in 1884 when their leader Grover Cleveland succeeded in portraying himself to voters as a reformer in contrast with Republican candidate James Blaine, who had been negatively affected by allegations of improper past business dealings. During his first term in office Cleveland exemplified Bourbon ideals, vetoing many bills that would have expanded federal spending or authority, reducing tariffs, condemning corruption, and supporting the gold standard and an isolationist U.S. foreign policy. In the 1888 election, Republican Benjamin Harrison championed the position of industrialists and labor unions in maintaining high tariffs, and although Cleveland won the popular vote, Harrison won the Electoral College and the presidency.
The influence of Bourbon Democrats arguably reached its zenith with Cleveland's second term. In the 1896 elections, the probusiness, antilabor Bourbons were unsuccessful in securing the Democratic nomination. Instead, the Democratic and People's Parties both supported the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, who lost the general election to Republican William McKinley. Bryan, known for his opposition to many Bourbon policies, again ran unsuccessfully against McKinley in 1900. The last candidate for the U.S. presidency fielded by the Bourbon Democrats was Alton Parker, who was handily defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt. This was to be the final national repudiation of a Bourbon candidate, and most of what remained of the faction's leaders and supporters faded from politics or transitioned to other political affiliations.
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Democratic Party ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901)
Going, Allen J. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama 1874–1890. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.
Kent, Frank R. The Democratic Party: A History. New York: Century Co., 1928.
Merrill, Horace S. Bourbon Democracy of the Middle West 1865–1896. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.
Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.