Bourbon Democrats

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The Bourbon Democrats from 1876 to 1904 were a smaller subset of conservative or classical liberal members of the liberal-dominated Democrat Party, especially those who supported Samuel J. Tilden in 1876, President Grover Cleveland in 1884–1896, and Alton B. Parker in 1904. After 1904, the Bourbons faded away. Woodrow Wilson, who had been a Bourbon, came to terms with William Jennings Bryan in 1912.

Bourbon Democrats represented business interests, supported banking and railroad goals, promoted laissez-faire capitalism, opposed imperialism and U.S. overseas expansion, fought for the gold standard, and opposed silver. They strongly supported reform movements such as civil service reform and opposed corruption of city bosses, leading the fight against the Tweed Ring. Their fight against corruption earned the votes of many Republican Mugwumps who in 1884 denounced the Republican candidate James G. Blaine as tainted by multiple scandals.

Besides Cleveland and Parker, nationally prominent Bourbons included:

Bourbons and Bryan

The Panic of 1893 damaged the Bourbons because Cleveland was President at the time and was blamed for the consequent economic losses.

The Bourbons' great opponent was William Jennings Bryan, who harnessed the energy of an agrarian insurgency with his Cross of Gold speech and defeated the Bourbons at the decisive 1896 Democratic National Convention. Some of the Bourbons sat out the 1896 election; others created the third party ticket of the National Democratic Party led by John M. Palmer, a former governor of Illinois. Most Bourbons returned to the Democrat Party by 1900 or 1904 at the latest. Bryan demonstrated his hold on the party by winning the 1900 and 1908 Democratic nominations as well; in 1904, a Bourbon, Alton B. Parker, won the nomination. He lost, as did Bryan every time.

William L. Wilson, Cleveland's postmaster general, confided to his diary that he opposed Bryan on moral and ideological as well as party grounds. Wilson had begun his public service convinced that Congress was too much controlled by special interests, and his unsuccessful tariff fight had burned this conviction deeper. He feared the triumph of free silver would bring class legislation, paternalism, and selfishness feeding upon national bounty as surely as did protection. Moreover, free silver at 16 to 1 was morally wrong, "involving as it does the attempt to call 50 cents a dollar and make it legal tender for dollar debts." Populism, he said, was "the product of protection founded on the idea that Government can and therefore Government ought to make people prosperous." [Summers 240]

Origins of the term

The term was first used as a pun to refer both to bourbon whiskey from Kentucky and even more to the Bourbon Dynasty of France that was overthrown in the French Revolution, but returned to power in 1815 to rule in a reactionary fashion.

The term was occasionally used in the 1860s and 1870s to refer to conservative Democrats (both North and South), and in the 1870s to refer to the regimes set up in the South by Redeemers as a reaction against Reconstruction.


  • Going, Allen J. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama, 1874-1890. Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 1951.
  • Merrill, Horace Samuel. Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party. 1957. Merrill argues that in an age of rapid economic change Cleveland staunchly defended the untenable status quo. online edition
  • Merrill, Horace Samuel. Bourbon Democracy of the Middle West, 1865-1896. Louisiana State University, 1953.
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896. Syracuse University Press, 1969. online edition
  • Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932)
  • Sperber, Hans and Travis Trittschuh. American Political Terms: An Historical Dictionary. Wayne State University Press, 1962.
  • Summers, Festus P. William L. Wilson and Tariff Reform, a Biography. Rutgers University Press, 1953.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Louisiana State University Press, 1951.

Primary sources

  • Democratic Party (U.S.) National Committee. Campaign Text-book of the National Democratic Party. 1896. This is the handbook of the Gold Democrats or Bourbons; it strongly opposed Bryan.
  • Nevins, Allan. ed. The Letters of Grover Cleveland, 1850-1908. 1933. 640 pp
  • Wilson, William L. The Cabinet Diary of William L. Wilson, 1896-1897. University of North Carolina Press, 1957.