Democrats vs. Republicans: Which Came First?

democrats, republicans, elephant, donkey

Since Democrats and Republicans appear to have an inexhaustible appetite for enjoying political friction, it seems worth offering some insight on which label came first, in the hopes that each group can use it to browbeat the other. The short answer is that republican came first, but as with so many political issues, that does not necessarily mean what we might think.

The earliest recorded use of republican currently known is in 1616, found in A Vision of Balaams Asse, by Peter Hay (“…meerely Republicanes against the Architype and order of God…”). The earliest meaning of the word was “a person who favors a republican form of government.”

The earliest recorded use of democrat in English is not until 1788, when it began to be used to describe “a person who supports or advocates democracy”; its earliest use was in reference to those who opposed the aristocracy in the French Revolution.

So republicans have been around for more than a century and a half longer than democrats (at least in English). The only problem with claiming any linguistic or political high ground based on this is that neither term had the same meaning that it commonly holds today. When did these modern meanings come about? Again, it’s somewhat complicated.

There was a Republican Party in US politics at the end of the 1700s, but it wasn’t the same one that we all know and either love or hate today, and it didn’t last long. The modern Republican Party is widely viewed as having begun in 1854, so the people who refer to themselves as Republicans would use that date as the starting point of their descriptor.

The modern Democratic Party is a bit older than its counterpart; its roots lie in the 1790s when followers of Thomas Jefferson began calling themselves “the Republican Party.” Does this make sense? No, it does not, but it will soon. The Republican Party’s opponents (the Federalists) referred to Jefferson’s faction as the Democratic-Republican Party (with the intention of smearing them with the title Democratic, hoping it would remind voters of the rowdy and radical democrats of the French Revolution). Jefferson’s followers took this expanded name as their own for a few decades, and then in the 1820s split off into factions. In 1844, one of these factions officially adopted the name Democratic Party.

Given how strong an allegiance many people today have for one of these two parties, it is worth noting that they were not always viewed as opposites. A book from 1800 titled Connecticut Republicanism gives an excellent illustration of how cloudy the histories of these two terms are: “The terms ‘republican and democrat’ are used synonymously throughout: because the men who maintain the principles of 1776 are characterized by one or the other of these names in different parts of the country.” Would that it were still so.

Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.

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