During a bible-reading session in a church in Charleston, South Carolina last June, white nationalist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans.
A few weeks later, in the midst of the national debate about the legacy of slavery and the Civil War that followed the tragedy, the Connecticut Democratic Party chose to drop the names of former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from the title of the party’s annual fundraising dinner.
The decision, which followed pressure from the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, meant that the event formerly known as the “Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner” — named after Jefferson, Jackson and prominent 1950s-era party leader John Bailey — would no longer honor prominent slave owners. Last week, the Democrats announced that the event would be newly christened the “Connecticut Democratic Progress Dinner.”
For Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile, the case for effacing Jefferson’s and Jackson’s names was simple: The two men were slave owners who made enormous profits from owning other human beings.
“They were ruthless slave masters, and they made a fortune off the backs of black people,” he said. “If you want to take down the Confederate flag, we also need to remind the Democratic Party of their history.”
Esdaile said the NAACP has also pushed for renaming other institutions and buildings that honor slave owners. The state NAACP, he said, began its efforts to pressure Yale into renaming Calhoun College in 1987. He added that the University should make the change immediately. Though this debate has not yet been resolved on campus, three portraits of former U.S. vice president and notorious slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, have been removed from the walls of Calhoun College.
Vincent Mauro Jr., the chairman of the New Haven Democratic Party, said he supports the renaming of the dinner, though he was not involved in making the decision. He said his personal opinion is that it was “about time” to rename the dinner and continue with the Democratic Party’s normal functions.
Gary Rose, chair of Sacred Heart University’s Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies, said the name change signals a fundamental shift in the ideological underpinnings of the Connecticut Democratic Party.
“The Democratic Party in Connecticut has — like democratic parties across the country — moved in a decidedly leftward direction,” he said. “It’s not the old centrist democratic party that we once knew. It is a party with a much more liberal agenda.”
Rose said the renaming of the dinner is connected to a demographic transition underway among Connecticut Democrats. In the years of the old party boss John Bailey, the party represented working-class Italian and Irish immigrants and their descendants. But racial minorities make up a larger proportion of the party than they used to, and as a result the party’s message has changed, he said.
Rose said the new name of the dinner — the inclusion of the word “progress” evokes the in-vogue progressive movement — is no coincidence.
“That’s where this [Connecticut] party is heading,” he said. “I still think it’s more of a Clinton party than a Sanders party in Connecticut, but it’s still a party that is moving to the left on social issues, economic issues.”
He added that he believes the party’s sensibilities are increasingly in line with the progressive ideology of popular party leaders like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The legacies of Jefferson and especially of Jackson have soured in recent years. In a New York Magazine article published shortly after the Charleston tragedy, prominent liberal writer Jonathan Chait argued that the “party of Jackson” is incompatible with the “party of Obama.”
Chait criticized “The Age of Jackson,” a glowing and influential account of Jackson’s time in office published by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1945. Schlesinger argued in the text that Jackson was a radical Democrat whose policies greatly expanded the franchise to all white men.
But, Chait noted, Schlesinger’s account failed to mention Jackson’s genocidal policies against Native Americans. Filled with what Chait called “analytic errors and ghastly omissions,” the book does not once mention the Indian Removal Act, a signal policy of Jackson’s tenure.
Chait’s central argument, that Jackson was the father of the modern Republican Party, holds considerable merit in the modern academic sphere.
Esdaile said renaming the dinner is a step in the right direction, but it does not yet rectify all of the Democratic Party’s past misdeeds.
“I’d like to applaud the leadership of the Democratic Party in doing the right thing, and I think the leadership of the Democratic Party should be striving to right the wrongs of the past,” he said. “They haven’t righted the wrongs, but they’re moving in the right direction.”