The Democratic Party’s Dark Roots of Slavery and the KKK
From Jeffersonian Tolerance to Confederate Mutiny, to Jim Crow, to Civil Rights, to the Southern Strategy, to Social Liberal Progressivism; a Quick History of Slavery, the KKK, the eras of the Democratic Party, and “the Solid South Switch.”
The KKK and slavery both have their roots in the Democratic party (previously the anti-Federalists); the party’s aversion to aristocracy allowed for both at one time, but that changed.
What changed is that progressives overtook the Democratic Party, and Conservatives overtook the Republican Party, from the Civil War to the modern era as each parties position on “big government” changed.
We can say that originally, “both parties had progressive and conservative factions, and now they don’t,” but the details are a little more complex than that.
Furthermore, while the KKK is emblematic of extreme social conservatism, it hardly represents the majority sentiment of either party in any era.
Additionally, in any era since their inception during Reconstruction, the KKK has openly support candidates and members have even run for office so we can look to articles that document this like Ku Klux Klan members in United States politics and For decades, the Ku Klux Klan openly endorsed candidates for political office for proof.
Below we explain the Democratic Party, its history, and “the Solid South Switch” that was part of a 20th century reversal leading up to what I call “the Sixth Party Switch”.
THE BASICS: The Civil War era slavery supporting Confederates were mainly Solid South Socially Conservative Southern Democrats. The KKK was a Confederate faction that arose during Reconstruction and grew out of the Anti-Federalist movement and Democratic party. Today, that same socially conservative small government ideology is found in the Republican Party, and the Solid South votes Republican. “The Solid South Switch” happened slowly over time, but was notably spurred on by Progressive Liberal Democrats and their Southern Progressive allies when they got LBJ to pass Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965. The KKK never stopped existing in this time, but it did “change parties.” These facts should not be confused to mean “the entire South is comprised of radical Confederates who are secretly part of the KKK” (or some nonsense like that). Each faction, party, and region is composed of many different Americans. The point of this page is twofold. First to confirm history and then to provide a rebuttal the next time a figure like Ted Cruz tries to re-write history. The point is not to demonize the South or Republicans by equating them with a radical movement or to explain away the Democratic Party’s roots; it is to explain history as it occurred and describe the modern factions as they are.
From white supremacy to Barack Obama: The history of the Democratic Party. This is a VOX video; it gives the gist. It is meant to augment, but not replace the content of the page.
“What unites the two, aside from their hostility to the liberal academic establishment, is their mutual loathing of big government.” Libertarians in the Attic, or a Tale of Two Narratives; Explaining the gist of why Goldwater Republicans, Neo-Confederates, Neocons, and Libertarians would rather be in tent A than tent B today… Also explains why Jeffersonian liberals and Confederates were in the same party a back when. i.e. An aversion to “Big Government” for any reason, be it deregulating business, deregulating social programs (think they are calling it “deconstruction“), or simply sticking to classical liberal principles of small government despite the social costs.
Ku Klux Klan – A Secret History. If you know the history of the Klan, then you know “the parties switched.” You also know the roots of fascism, and how liberty is corrupting in extremes. You understand nativism and xenophobia as a reaction to economic inequality and immigration. Oh, and the Civil War and the black experience. In these ways, the KKK is at the heart of the American story.
TIP: Defending the KKK’s ideology is somewhere near the bottom of my to-do list. That said, if one can’t understand the Confederate argument, then one can’t understand American history. If one understands the Confederate South, then one understands the KKK. In that way, this page isn’t seeking to disrespect figures like Calhoun or the Confederate South. Instead, it seeks to clarify history, and that means understanding why the modern social conservative South is Republican, being cognizant of the arguments of figures like Calhoun, having the discernment to realize that not all KKK factions are the same, and having insight into works like V. O. Key’s classic Southern Politics in State and Nation.
A Summary of the Solid South Switch
To summarize the above claims before we get to the details:
In 1860 the Democratic Party Platforms were about Small Government and States’ Rights, and the more aristocratic Republican Platform about Federal Power and Collective Rights, but by 2016, the opposite is true (see platforms from the 1840’s to 2016).
This is because the “conservative south” and “old Republican Progressives” can be said to have “switched parties” in reaction to events that occurred from the Gilded Age to the Bush and Clinton years. These changes that are well symbolized by the 1968 election, but not explained by that alone.
To understand what changed, we must become familiar with people like W. J. Bryan, Teddy, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, Henry A. Wallace, Strom Thurmond, FDR, MLK, and Hoover. We must look at the Red Scare, the Dixiecrat States’ Rights Parties, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Nixon’s Southern Strategies, the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition, etc. See Democrats and Republicans Switched Platforms.
The full story aside, in the early days:
- Populist social liberals (like Jefferson) used to ally with the populist socially conservative solid south (an extreme faction of which is the KKK).
- The social liberal elite like Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton were in the Federalist party with classical conservative Tory-like figures and factions.
The Anti-Federalist populist liberals didn’t unite because they agreed on an issue like race, they united because they were both opposed to “Federal Power.” The parties are best thought of as “big tents” with many factions who agree on some key issues.
That pairing of factions is either hopeful or a blight on history, depending on your perspective.
Putting aside the many oddities of the other party and much else in history, we can say that despite the past, platforms have obviously changed.
Today the Republicans have the platform-in-action (and to some degree on-paper) that most resembles the Platform of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (that is verifiable fact), and the Democrats are taking a more “Federalist” position on most issues.
The Republican platform is based on small government, being strict on immigration and crime, anti-gun control, pro-Protestant, white “traditional values,” against “liberal Hollywood,” against the “international banks,” and against globalism, etc. The Democratic Party platform takes the opposite stance.
That said, not everything changed. The northern Republican Know-Nothing types and conservative anti-Communist Hoover and McKinley factions never swapped sides. Likewise, the Democrats retained some of their “Redeemed and Reformed” or otherwise more progressive Southern conservative Gore, Clinton, and Byrd types.
Today we can only see shades of the Lincoln and Hamilton types in rare figures like McCain, while we can see more than just shades of the Solid South in the Republican Party. Platforms aside, all we need to do is look at voting maps over time to confirm all this.
How the South Went Republican: Can Democrats Ever Win There Again? (1992).
TIP: As you can see in the quote below, while the KKK is not “like either major party,” they have more an extreme form of the modern Republican platform than the modern Democratic party platform.
“Enemies from within are destroying the United States of America. An unholy coalition of anti-White, anti-Christian liberals, socialists, feminists, homosexuals, jews [sic] and militant blacks have managed to seize control of our government and mass media. This gang of criminals and degenerates has declared war on the hard working, tax paying, White citizens. White Americans have become second class citizens in the country our ancestors built from nothing. The liberal dictatorship seeks to disarm us and leave us at the mercy of savage rapist and murders.” – The Platform of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan 1999; this is reminiscent of Solid South platforms in any era but far less polite. It is obviously not the “the same” as what one would find in the Progressive 2016 Democratic Party Platform. In historic terms, the DNC platform is more like a Bull Moose platform of 1912 than George Wallace’s American Independent platform of 1968 or Trump’s Republican platform of 2016.
FACT: The KKK was one of the first modern fascist right-wing movements. Like the fascist movements of the World Wars era Europe, they grew out of a liberal left-wing party. This doesn’t make them liberal or left-wing on most issues (aside from the issue of Federal power). Instead, these progressive social conservatives used their liberal environment to thrive. Thus we can say, the KKK are right-wing the same way that Hitler was right-wing, despite having liberal roots. Fascism is a good example of why Plato’s warning that Democracy leads to tyranny was not misguided; the other example is Communism. Extremes of liberty and equality are corrupting. Tyranny never looks very “left-wing” in action (despite the on-paper philosophy of a given faction).
Fascism Explained: World History Review. Fascism isn’t unrelated to the KKK.
What did it Mean that the KKK Were Confederates and Democrats?
The idea that the Democratic Party is the party in which the KKK has its roots is confusing to a modern audience.
However, after the Revolution:
- The northern conservative party of Federalists, like Hamilton, wanted to have a more aristocratic government that favored strong central power.
- The southern liberal party of Anti-Federalists, like Jefferson, wanted a more Democratic party that supported the Articles of Confederation and States’ Rights.
Factions had to choose sides in the early days, and the populist southern nativists teamed up with liberals like Jefferson.
TIP: To fully understand the story we need to start long before the KKK formed during Reconstruction. That is because the KKK was a militant group with a radical Confederate ideology that grew out of the States’ Rights faction of the founding Anti-Federalists. They are connected, so we have to start the story 100 years before the KKK formed to give us a foundation.
Limited Government, States’ Rights, and Anti-Federalism
Had the populist liberals, who agreed with limited government but did not agree fully on social issues, not aligned, there would have been a Federalist dominance in early America. The dominant factions would have been northern know-nothing-like nativists, social progressive Roosevelt-like or Hamilton-like elites, and quasi-loyalist Aristocrats like Adams.
The founders were not pro-slavery. However, slavery was part of the culture and economy of many nations; the South was one such region.
Abolishing slavery meant crippling the South’s votes and industry. This was the main argument for slavery by the Solid South historically. It didn’t stop the abolitionists like Hamilton from pushing for the abolition of slavery as he pushed for a central bank or federal control (to the dismay of the populists in all respects). However, it did result in many key compromises from the 1770’s to mid-1800’s.
Good Feelings; and Not so Good Feelings
Moving on from those early days of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, following the Napoleonic War of 1812, there was an era of Good Feelings in which all sides came together as Democratic-Republicans.
The conflict between the elite modernist Adams and the populist, nativist Jackson was a political battle that split the parties creating Democrats and Whigs.
In this era, John C. Calhoun helped to shape the Confederate Spirit that would stand up to the northern elites from that point on, but in doing so, he also helped to shape the social conservatism that would give the KKK power as a militant response to the North’s Reconstruction policies following the war.
From the 1830’s to late 1850’s the political situation fragments quickly.
The Rise of “America First” Nativism: Anti-Masons, Know-Nothings, and the KKK
During the 1830’s to 1850’s, as tension builds, third parties spring up like the northern nativist Know-Nothings (AKA the American Party). This faction pushed back against immigration in places like NYC and was more likely to be allied with the Whigs than the Democrats.
The conflict between Catholic immigrants and Know-Nothings is the subject of the movie Gangs of New York.
These Know-Nothings were like a Northern version of the KKK but were notably more concerned with immigration than slavery. The soon-to-be KKK and the earlier Know-Nothings shared an aversion to Catholics, Jews, non-whites, and non-Protestants in general, but much else was different.
The Know-Nothings were accused of being in bed with Northern abolitionists, and their “American party” really never caught on in the south due to them being perceived (and correctly so) as more elitist and northern.
Thus, although each region breaks into different groups, one should note that “the slavery south” is not the only faction with socially conservative position, and certainly, they aren’t the only authoritative group. Remember, they are opposing northern elitists who are perpetuating their brand of economic and political inequality.
Just as we find different types of conservative or economically conservative factions in early America, we find more than one nativist progressive conservative faction as well. And in this case, although the States’ Rights south had long been politically active, the KKK wasn’t yet, and thus we should note that the Know-Nothings come first.
TIP: The American Party was, at some points, the main opposition to what would become the KKK. Former Whigs in the South used the radical Know-Nothing brand to try to combat the equally radical confederates. Even between nativist groups from the 1800’s who want “America First,” there was a clear division as strong as any other split. Namely, it is the breach that remains between different nativist right-wing groups. The Solid South never liked big government even if it was going to be used to keep out the immigrants, while the Know-Nothings were comfortable with government and a Whig-like Federalist-like elite. Today these groups are both parts of the Tea Party (the less radical spiritual successors of these groups at least), but this issue may be expected to fragment parties again.
Bleeding Kansas and Justifications for the Civil War
By the time of Bleeding Kansas, as the radical ideological decedents of John C. Calhoun tear the nation apart over states’ rights and slavery, all the north/south factions, progressive and socially conservative, elite or populist, are forced to choose sides.
In those days you were either Union Republican North, or you are Confederate ex-Democratic Party South. It was at this time that the Whigs disbanded, their members becoming Confederate or Union.
In this radicalized America where 600,000 died, the Confederate ideology could become the KKK.
On the one hand, that ideology is what today we call right-wing fascism.
On the other hand, the Confederates were “liberals in the rural south fighting against the central government for their sovereignty.”
Alternately, it was a battle between slave labor and civil rights.
To a figure like Calhoun (who died in 1850, but whose arguments were used by “the Radical Generation” who succeeded him), it was the argument that, “the slave system of the South was superior to the ‘wage slavery’ of the North. By slavery intertwining the economic interests of master and slave, it eliminates the unavoidable conflict that exists between labor and capital under the wage system. The amount of money a master invested in his slaves made it economically unfeasible to mistreat them or ignore their working and living conditions.”
The southern socially conservative whites saw themselves as anti-elite regarding of federal power vs. liberty. Further, they did not want the federal government telling them what to do. This made them left-wing in terms of authority. Understanding this creates a centered picture of the progressively socially conservative South and their place in the otherwise liberal-leaning Democratic Party.
Here it should be noted that the Civil War wasn’t just about slavery. It was an important issue, but not the only issue. The Democrats also wanted to expand into the south and didn’t want a big central government telling them what to do. They wanted to own people but wanted their own liberty. It is ironic, but it is also U.S. history.
Today we tend to see the Civil War as being about the morality of slavery, but for the South, it wasn’t a moral issue. It was about big government, liberty states rights and not being enslaved by the northern elite.
Military Reconstruction and the Birth of the KKK
After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the northern elite Radical Republican Progressives used the military to force the south to reform. At the time the Deep South used things like “apprenticeship laws” to extend slavery past the end of the War. The KKK took a stand in defense of the old Southern way of life in a society divided by murder, military occupation, and mayhem.
To be clear, “Military Reconstruction” is a term that describes the occupation of the South, and the KKK formed as a response to it.
From that point on the South becomes “Redeemed” by “Southern Bourbons” AKA Northern Oligarchs who help the South replace slave labor with wage labor.
The above might be viewed less critically if it wasn’t for a notable speed bump:
Before Reconstruction could end naturally, in 1877, the Republican establishment traded the reformation of a few southern states for the Presidency when Tilden beat the Republican Hayes.
At that point, the Gilded Age began. Gilded Age Republicans Redeemed the South and liked to be seen as putting aside the issue of race to focus on modernization and becoming a superpower.
The Gilded age gave way to the Progressive era. And in those eras, most of the country again minimized issues of race to focus on other minority rights such as women’s rights. Then, after that came the World Wars.
TIP: Reconstruction ultimately ended in a “corrupt bargain” or Compromise of 1877, which was struck by Republicans over the 1877 election. This began a century of racist policy, black codes, and Jim Crow laws. The racism that had been largely ignored regained the spotlight. It was in this century that the radical Southern Conservative Democratic faction the KKK would go through its three iterations and help to enforce the black codes much to the dismay of its increasingly progressive wing represented by figures like William Jennings Bryan.
Radical Republicans From PBS’s Reconstruction: The 2nd Civil War.
TIP: There isn’t “one Klan,” the Klan comes in three iterations, each with multiple factions. Some members have a liberal and democratic ideology; some are more authoritative, and fascist. It is a populist movement that is progressively socially conservative and right-wing, but each era and faction are unique. We discuss the first iteration below, the Second was founded in 1915 in Georgia and was puritanically American and Moralist (they support Prohibition in the style of the Reformists like Bryan; “worst, progressive era, ever”). The Third iteration is the one we know today, it arose in response to Civil Rights and included many changing factions (some of whom want to be recognized Democratically, some who are more extreme, some who are more like neo-Nazis, some more like neo-Confederates).
Founding the KKK: The first Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, sometime between December 1865 and August 1866 (after the end of the Civil War, during Reconstruction) by six former officers of the Confederate army (according to Wikipedia at least). It was founded as a fraternal, social club inspired at least in part by the then largely defunct Sons of Malta. Here we should note the opposing party was the Northern and, at-the-time Republican, party. However, no party had a monopoly on nativism. Nativism started in both parties, in the North we see earlier notable groups like the Anti-Masons and Know-nothings allied with the Republicans; in the South during Reconstruction we see the new KKK allied with the Democrats (specifically the States’ Rights ex-Confederate Democrats). The groups. their geography, and their time of activity are different, but in all cases the general concept is a banding together of militant Christian Evangelical Whites within a liberal nation to stand against “others,” like blacks, Catholics, Jews, non-Protestant non-White Immigrants, and in the case of the KKK and Confederates, the elite Federal Government. Here it helps to remember that, for the KKK specifically, it wasn’t “just about race.” They focused on an extension of Calhoun’s old argument that was revived in the Reconstruction era. A primary goal was to “push-back against the northern elite who just beat us in the war and are trying to change our whole way of life, making the poor white man the equal of the black man via the votes of the freedmen.” This was as important as it was “to create a dominant White Protestant master race state.”
A Century of Jim Crow, but Otherwise Lots of Progress
From 1877 to at least the 1960’s, the Solid South KKK-like Progressively Socially Conservative Democrats remained a formidable faction of the Democratic Party.
This is true even though the party was increasingly dominated by Progressives like William Jennings Bryan. We can see in Wilson that both factions held sway in the party, Wilson was both a progressive liberal and a “son of the Confederates.”
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow | PBS | ep 1 of 4 Promises Betrayed.
TIP: During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Eugenics was a popular theory. In this era, we might find Margaret Sanger, liberal economists and social scientists, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, a young Hitler, and the KKK all agreeing on aspects of eugenics. There are many sides of the eugenics argument, and one must study its history in earnest before making a judgment call. Very radical right-wing propaganda equated birth control with genocide, but there was a wide range of beliefs. An espousal of negative eugenics is part of the dark history of the Democratic party.
The World Wars, a Fight For Freedom, Equality, and Liberalism Abroad
During the World Wars, all KKK related issues took a back seat while the nation focused on the fascists in Europe. After the war, Solid South States’ Rights Dixiecrats started trying to run third parties. In this, we can see a clear split from the increasingly liberal Democrats.
Malcolm X – Dixiecrats. Malcolm X talks about Dixiecrats and the strained relationship between Democrats and Black Americans. There is a dark, dark, dark history of what they used to call “slave power” (a difficult term, but bear with me) from 1776 to 1976, Malcolm saw it clearly in his time, but that doesn’t change where we are at today. Remember M.L.K. made his choice; he did not choose to be a Republican, much for the same reasons Henry A. Wallace (not George C. Wallace) and Teddy left. Some accuse the liberal welfare state of being a thing of “slave power” (here understood as “a thing that keeps the lower economic classes, of which many are minorities like immigrant and black Americans, down), but look a little closer at what factions are aligned today. History is clear; the alternative facts aren’t always. Teddy, the Republican and Lincoln, the Republican were what we would today call “Progressive.” They used state power to ensure social justice, just as the W J Bryans and FDRs sought to (or like LBJ, Obama, and Clinton). The folly of the modern Democratic party wasn’t found in some racist undertone; it was found in the same principle that created the KKK, in the paradoxical irony that extremes of equality and liberty are corrupting.
FACT: The Birth of a Nation (1915) popularized the Klan and gave them much of their symbolism (including the burning cross). Today the KKK might blame “Liberal Jew Hollywood” for indoctrinating our children with “multiculturalism” at the whims of “the international globalist bankers” “who just want to rule the poor whites.” Back in 1915, Hollywood gave visibility to the Klan in a process similar to the way the movies Easy Rider and Colors influenced Hip-Hop culture. We are all connected, be it via Hollywood when it acts as a mirror for society or Ford’s Dearborn Independent. Actions have consequences. We can frame and skew this to make it look as though liberals created the KKK and gangs and are the bad guys, but that is mostly a simplified misreading of history mixed with propaganda. History is complex, and often dark, and there is plenty of room to get confused.
Finally, the Democrats aren’t [that] Racist Anymore; Those Goldwater Republicans Though… and States’ Rights Parties, and the American Independent Party, Plus…
Eventually, we got a blended conservative movement of Goldwater that combines Hoover-Republicanism with States’ Rights Dixiecrat ideology.
By the 1960’s the Democrats were so progressive that the Dixiecrat LBJ gave into his liberal wing and supported Humphrey and M.L.K. That upset the relationship between the Solid South and liberals, and, from there, Nixon revived Hoover’s Lily White southern strategy to gain southern support for the increasingly conservative Republican party.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act Explained: US History Review. LBJ was a Dixiecrat, but he sided with the liberal faction of his party and “lost the south.”
Southernization; Oh that Sounds Fun! Wait, it isn’t…
From the 1960’s to the 2000’s a “southernization” of the Republican party occurs. Paired with Goldwater and Hoover states’ rights conservatism and along with old Anti-Communist ideology, it was enough to completely change the political parties.
From the late 1800’s to the 2000’s Republican progressives moved toward the Democratic Party and Southern Conservatives moved toward the Republican party. See the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition.
The grand result is that the David Dukes of the world today fly the Confederate Battle flag and vote Republican.
This story is a major reason why the voter map looks the way it does.
Meanwhile, while we can still see Gores and Clintons, and sometimes even a Byrd, in the modern Democratic party, those Redeemer and Redeemed liberals made a conscious choice to ally with the dominate Progressive and “Neoliberal” factions in this cycle.
The State of the Nation and the Modern KKK; How to Pick a Party and Faction
Today, the socially liberal left-wing of our divided nation, the Democratic party, is a very different collection of factions to the party who housed the KKK or called themselves Confederate. The party of states’ rights and abolishing the central government is the Republicans. They, ironically, have been overtaken by the southern spirit of the Confederates, with many of their policies mirroring those of that faction. Although Teddy Progressives are long gone, this remains close to old nativist know-nothing and anti-communist and elitist anti-immigrant factions.
Ultimately, M.L.K. made a choice; Bernie Sanders made a choice, and they both made it for a reason. We know which party sprayed fire hoses in Alabama; it was the same party who was marching. These two factions went head-to-head, and the progressive liberals were left standing.
Whether the reason M.L.K. and Sanders fought for is found in the messages of Jefferson, Jackson, and W.J. Bryan, or found in FDR’s revival of his cousin’s ideology, I’m not sure. One thing is sure. The party that waves the Confederate flag today is the Republican party although, as history shows us, a much is subject to change.
TIP: The point of the Civil War was a fight for Unity and against extremes. This was also the aim of the World Wars. When one feels beaten down, it can be tempting to push back, but we must remember that America is a balanced and liberal nation. We don’t need to wear kid gloves, but we do need to be united.
The Bad Boy of Washington: Lee Atwater – Southern Strategy (1997).
1982: Grand Wizard defends KKK policy on segregation. They are liberal in that they don’t want a king telling them what to do and they seek to use democracy to get their way. That isn’t “left-wing.” Indeed they are progressive conservatives in the Republican party, but the West is liberal, so all factions are going to have elements of liberalism.