Remarks of John F. Kennedy, Junior League, Boston, Massachusetts, October 23, 1946

Why I Am a Democrat

The easiest and fairest answer to why I am a Democrat is to say "because I was born one." The accident of birth explains much more than the purely physical and intellectual differences in individuals. It is useful also in analyzing basic differences in social philosophy, economic outlook, and politics, which of necessity bears the imprint of both. Starting with the premise that one is born either a Democrat or a Republican, and is exposed to more or less intensive indoctrination during the formative years, the chances are that the family party line will be well established before the first vote is cast. I would venture to guess that some 95 percent of this group here tonight adheres to the general political beliefs of their immediate forbears.

Given this predisposition to traditionalism in politics, it follows that the changes in party affiliation will come only with extreme slowness. In dealing with the complex problems of an organized society, the traditional Democrat or Republican may remain in a political vacuum, completely inert. Obviously he will follow the party line as long as he is able to vote. Another may seriously inquire into the issues of the day and sincerely decide that his traditional political beliefs are best and reaffirm them. Another may believe that the two major parties are about on equal footing and this will result in maintaining his particular status quo in view of the predisposition to traditionalism. Our fourth Republican or Democrat may decide that the tenets of the opposing political faith are superior to those of his own. Whether this will lead him to change parties will depend on the strength of his convictions on one hand, and on the other, on the extent to which he has been indoctrinated and the amount of sacrifice in prestige, social position, etc. which may be involved in the change. Wendell Wilkie, born a Democrat could only find full expression by leaving the party and becoming the Republican standard bearer for the presidency in 1940. Arthur Vandenberg, on the other hand, thought that a complete reversal of his views on foreign policy could be worked out within the framework of the Republican Party.

In short to justify the change in political affiliations the opposing political party must present a program which is at least to some degree superior to that of the traditional party. I am by tradition a Democrat. If in my eyes the merits of the Democrat and Republican Party remain equal, the Republican Party has not carried the burden of persuasion. If this were the whole story however, I doubt that I should have become a candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. My active participation in a campaign for elective public office is the best proof I know, that my political convictions have gone beyond family traditionalism.

The Democratic party as intellectually inaugurated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 stood firmly opposed to a strong centralized government. It stood rather for direct popular control over the government. Its philosophy was based on the fundamental belief that the people are capable of self government. The Democratic Party of Jefferson advocated a wide extension of suffrage and the fullest measure of personal liberty of speech, of religion, and the press, in keeping with the maintenance of law, order, and the over-all national welfare. It championed state's rights, and strict constitutional interpretation. Founded by Jefferson, the party was held in trust by Madison and Monroe until the people themselves in the person of Andrew Jackson were ready to assume the responsibilities for which Jefferson had planned.

The Democratic party continued in control of national affairs until 1860, except for a brief intervening period, when it was split asunder by the slavery issue. During the remainder of the nineteenth century the Republican party retained virtual control of the government. Under Woodrow Wilson the Democratic Party fathered legislation during his first term beginning with the Federal Reserve Act, which for the constructive solution of national problems had been unequalled in any similar period in our history. Under Woodrow Wilson, World War I was successfully fought with distinction abroad and without scandal at home. But Wilson's dream of the League of Nations was rudely blasted by Republican opposition in the United States Senate.

Of more vital concern in the appraisal of the two parties is their respective records in the critical days of the great depression of the thirties, and the great global war just ended.

The Democratic party remained true to its traditions of personal liberties, and popular control of the government. But the complexity of economic affairs, the growth of huge enterprises, national in scope, and the complete interdependence of our whole economy made necessary the abandonment of a narrow states rights, strict constitutional construction viewpoint. The Commerce Clause proved flexible enough to support badly needed legislation in labor and finance: the Securities Act of 1933; the Securities Exchange Act of 1934; the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935; the Investment Company Act of 1940; the Wagner Act (1935); the Fair Labor Standards (1938). Within existing constitutional framework came Social Security legislation. The wage earners of the nation for the first time in our history reached the dignity to which they were entitled.

These constructive internal policies to heal the paralysis of our economic system and to strengthen our social fabric were matched externally by the Trade Agreements of Cordell Hull and the fight for low tariffs, which was essential to the success of Hull's program. This was America's great contribution towards breaking the economic nationalism that was strangling world trade.

Our political and military nationalism was also shaken in 1937 by President Roosevelt's "quarantine aggressor" speech in Chicago. That speech, belated though it was, marked the beginning of the end of the tradition of nationalism of the American Republic. But the new foreign policy was to meet the opposition of the Republicans and great sections of Mr. Roosevelt's own party.

As the Japanese drove into the heart of China in the East and as Nazi Germany rode Southward to join with Austria, and Eastward to envelop the Sudeten Deutsch at Munich, and rolled over Prague to the Russian border in March of 1939, the lines became drawn between our political parties and between individuals as to what our policy should be. The arms embargo sponsored by Republican Senator Borah in the summer of 1939 was the dying gasp of the tradition of nationalism.

With the fall of France the administration policy became more closely identified with the Allies, and the "destroyer trade," Lend-Lease, and other acts implemented that policy. At home the administration worked hard to strengthen our defenses and build our armed forces. All of these measures were bitterly opposed by the Republican Party and for their opposition they must bear great responsibility.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Air Forces, the conflict between the two parties was ended and they united in the prosecution of the war.

Through this period, I believe, that the Democratic party understood the economic and political forces raging through the world far better than the Republicans, who either because they failed to understand the dynamism of these new forces, or whether their opposition was merely party opposition, whatever the reason, their record for this period remains as a monumental failure.

The post-war world finds new lines being drawn in this country's politics. Republicans like Stassen, Vandenburg, and Dulles have taken a leading part in formulating the bi-partisan foreign policy which has immeasurably strengthened the country.

At home we see the tradition of the two party system strained as never before. We see the belief growing that the two party system is not large enough in these critical times to envelop the various elements that are included in it. We see also segments of both parties sharing the same economic views. We see the large growth of those who call themselves political independents who owe allegiance to neither party – but only to the individual.

We see indications that the traditional parties with their traditional viewpoints are held together by abnormal and precarious prosperity. When that prosperity breaks, which I believe it will, the alignments may change and the conflicting views of agriculture, industry and labor, the strong sectional pulls may cause the parties to divide along conservative and liberal lines instead of, as now, where each party contains elements of both.

But that is for the future.

I have tried tonight to present and in broad terms sketch the history and opinions of the Democratic party. The political philosophies of parties are not made by single men, they are hammered out over long period in good times and in bad. I have viewed over a long time the record of the Democratic party and I have attempted to follow advice of the Hon. John W. Davis given at Princeton in 1929:

"First, then, make a choice of your political party, on grounds that satisfy your reason if you can, by tradition or by environment or sentiment or impulse if you have not the wit to do better. In any event, make a choice. Do not wait until you can find an aggregation of demi-gods or angels; they are scarce - some people think they are even scarcer than they used to be. Perhaps even you might not be comfortable in their midst. And do not expect to find a party that has always been right, or wise or even consistent; that would be scarcer still. Independent judgment and opinion is a glorious thing, on no account to be surrendered by any man; but when one seeks companionship on a large scale, he must be content to join with those who agree with him in most things and not hope to find a company that will agree with him in all things."

All the things the Democratic Party has done I cannot approve, but most things done by the Democratic Party have made us stronger at home and abroad. This has been the great contribution of the Democratic Party and I am proud to be found among its members.

Speech source: David F. Powers Personal Papers. Series 09. John F. Kennedy Speeches File. Box 28, Folder: "Junior League: 'Why I am a Democrat,' Boston, MA, 23 October 1946".