For years, annual Democratic fundraising galas nationwide have been called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Of course, the reason for this is because of the historical context of the two men involved. Thomas Jefferson is considered the father of Democratic Party (under the Democratic-Republican Party, also known as Jeffersonian Democrats), and Andrew Jackson was the first “Democrat” to be elected President. But should history be the only measure by which Democrats name their annual fundraiser?
Let’s look some early, and not so early, American history briefly. We used to burn people at the stake because we thought they were witches. In the north, we practice the act of indentured servitude, while in the south we practiced slavery. We denied women the right to vote until the early 20th Century, while we denied many African-Americans the right to vote in some states well into the second half of the 20th Century. We force children to work in the mining industry. Basically, if we look back at some of the history of this country, there is a lot that can cause embarrassment.
The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner is named after two men. First, let’s look at Jefferson. Yes, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but that was basically a declaration of war. Even within that document, the ideas that Jefferson put on paper where not original. Many of the concepts that he wrote about, such as “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, were ideas promoted by John Locke nearly 100 years earlier (cf. “Life, liberty and property”). Any scholar of the Enlightenment period who was a strong supporter of classic liberalism had the capacity to write the Deceleration of Independence. In fact, it is Jefferson’s strong belief in classic liberalism which gives the current right wing in this country the tools to debate the rationality behind why they should be able to walk around with loaded weapons in public.
Jefferson also planted the seeds for the Civil War. During the French Revolution, the Federalist government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were intrusive laws which sought to deport those loyal to France (which where, rightfully, deemed unconstitutional). Federalists wanted to maintain a close relationship with Britain, while the Jeffersonians wanted to increase ties with revolutionary France, since both movements were deeply rooted in classical liberalism. This led Jefferson drafting the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which advocated Virginia leaving the union. While he might have been president of the union eventually, he also put the wheels in motion toward the breakup of the union 60 years later.
As far as his views on social issues, I think those are well documented.
Now let’s look at Andrew Jackson. First and foremost, he forcefully removed Native Americans from their land. It seems as if Jackson’s views on classic liberalism only applied to the white man and not to others. This was a pure violation traditional Jeffersonian values, though Jefferson himself might not have live by his own rules either. Jackson also created the “spoils system”, where we get the quote “to the victors belong the spoils”. Basically, this was a patronage system instituted by Jackson, where he removed qualified employees of all levels in the federal government and replace them with his cronies. This eventually led to a trail of corruption, as those who took advantage of this system openly embezzled the federal government. Practices like this nowadays would be considered a criminal offense with substantial prison time.
While Jefferson and Jackson did some positive things for the country, they also did a lot that hurt the country. And when we look at both of these men, we must take the good with the bad. We cannot just focus on the good. For example, George Wallace was a champion for teacher pay and benefits in Alabama, but I highly doubt that the National Education Association would have a “George Wallace Dinner” fundraiser to promote teachers. The entire context of the individual needs to be looked at, which is why the JJ Dinners should be renamed.
So, what would be the alternatives to the JJ Dinner?
This year, the Florida Democratic Party’s JJ Dinner has been renamed “Leadership Blue”. And yes, whoever came up with that name should be fired immediately, if not sooner. The name does not stand for anything at all. Yes, we understand that “blue” is the color of Democrats (which I never understood and think is 100% incorrect), and that Democrats want “leadership”, but who doesn’t want leadership? Basically, it is a forgettable name that doesn’t define who Democrats are. It is garbage.
One alternative that has been used in other states is the “Kennedy-King Dinner”. I am also opposed to this name. I am not opposed to it because I disagree with the two men it is named after (as I highly respect both), but MLK was never a member of the Democratic Party movement. Yes, we agree with his stance on civil rights, but he never endorsed a political party. Therefore, making him the namesake of a Democratic fundraiser is flawed.
One thing that I have learned in my 20+ years involved with Florida Democratic politics is that many Florida Democrats lack any historical understanding of party politics in Florida. And, honestly, I think Republicans have a much stronger grasp of historical Florida politics than do Democrats. The “Leadership Blue” dinner should be renamed two honor Democrats of the past who shaped the Florida Democratic Party of today.
A few weeks ago, Reubin Askew passed away. Of course, there was a sorrow over his passing, but I was under the impression that many Democrats only knew that he was a Democratic governor and nothing more. They lacked the knowledge that he was a pioneer when it came to Florida Democratic politics. With the election of Askew in 1970, he forever removed the segregationists from ever holding Florida’s highest office. And with this mandate, he also passed many progressive initiatives which has laid the groundwork for many (but not all) of the ideas behind today’s progressive movement in Democratic politics.
Still, we might not have ever heard of Reubin Askew if it wasn’t for the death of Robert King High. High, former mayor of Miami and progressive, took on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party during in the early 1960s, and actually defeated them in the 1966 gubernatorial primary, by beating incumbent governor Haydon Burns. But in the end, it was Burns’ reluctance to support High which led to north Florida Democrats jumping over to the Claude Kirk bandwagon. Like Askew, High was a champion for progressive causes. Not only did he fight corruption in Miami, but he was a strong supporter of civil rights, as well as a friend to the newly arriving Cuban community. In hindsight, it could be argued that the Robert King High was the most liberal candidate to ever run as a major party nominee for Governor of Florida.
Of course, when we talk about progressives in the State of Florida, Claude Pepper immediately comes to mind. Pepper was eventually run out of the Florida panhandle because of his liberal views on civil rights, and eventually had to reside in liberal south Florida. But unlike High, who was not able to hold statewide office, Pepper was one of Florida’s US Senators for fifteen years. Luckily for Pepper, his staunch support for FDR’s New Deal led to his election. But once the New Deal was old news, Pepper was out of the US Senate in one of the most heated campaigns in US Senate history. Still, he was elected to Congress in a newly created liberal seat in Miami, and continued as a champion of liberal causes.
Of course, there are other examples that could be used, such as John Orr or Joe Eaton, but these examples are much more obscure than the ones mentioned above. Still, the history of Florida’s early Democratic progressive movement should be praised. Instead, it is collecting dust on the bookshelf of forgotten history.
So why not name the dinner the Pepper-Askew Dinner, with maybe an award in Robert King High’s honor? The renaming of the JJ Dinner gives Democrats in Florida the opportunity to understand the history of their party. Sadly, many activists and people who work in the Florida Democratic politics are oblivious to the history, which is a real shame. This is an opportunity to change that.
For a different perspective on the name of the dinner, check out Kartik Krishnaiyer’s thoughts.