Jeffersonian Democrats

By: Lionel V. Patenaude

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: November 11, 2020

In the 1936 presidential election a victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed a foregone conclusion. While the black days of 1933 (see GREAT DEPRESSION) were still too close to forget, some recovery had been effected; moreover, relief from hunger and want was being widely attributed to the Democratic administration. Yet there was discontent among business and professional groups. During the course of the campaign a group of Texans known as the Jeffersonian Democrats attempted to capitalize on this unrest. The Jeffersonian Democrats were important because they constituted the first serious, organized effort among disenchanted Democrats and Republicans to oppose the New Deal. Although their numbers were small, they laid the groundwork for future opposition, since many of those who organized the Jeffersonians belonged to organizations that opposed the New Deal in later campaigns. In August 1936 W. P. Hamblen, a lawyer from Houston, issued a call for a statewide meeting in Dallas of people who were disillusioned with the New Deal. Twenty-eight attended the gathering at the Hotel Adolphus, where, under the sponsorship of Hamblen, John Henry Kirby, and former congressman Joseph W. Bailey, Jr., the organization known as Constitutional Democrats of Texas was founded.

Within a few days Kirby, Bailey, and J. Evetts Haley, chairman of the new group, attended a meeting in Detroit, where a national organization known as the Jeffersonian Democrats was formed. The national chairman of the movement, at which twenty-two states were represented, was Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, and the national secretary was Sterling Edmunds, an attorney from St. Louis. The national group established headquarters at St. Louis. The Texans, whose quandary was similar to that of disaffected Democrats elsewhere, played a prominent part in starting the national organization. Since the election was only three months away, a third party movement was out of the question, but the Jeffersonians from the South feared to support Republican Alf Landon because that would make it difficult to support local Democratic candidates. The meeting finally agreed that the methods for opposing Roosevelt would be left entirely to the states. As a result of the Detroit meeting, the Constitutional Democrats of Texas changed their name to that of the national movement. By the end of August they opened state headquarters in Austin. The stated objective of the Jeffersonians was to turn the Democratic party back to the people. The Texas membership of this anti-Roosevelt group was composed largely of lawyers, followed by businessmen, farmers, and ranchers. Their theme was that the New Deal was un-American and a threat to the institutions that Texans cherished and respected. In all, there were probably not more than 5,000 members. The Jeffersonians' main publicity vehicle was a paper, the Jeffersonian Democrat, which was aimed primarily at farmers. Before the campaign was over, 1,850,000 copies had been distributed; the last two issues were sent to all rural mailboxes in Texas. The Jeffersonian Democrats attempted to identify the Roosevelt administration with communism and made extreme charges against the president and his family. They also used religion, White supremacy, and prohibitionism in their appeals. Although the organization's sources of financing are uncertain, the amount of propaganda the Jeffersonians distributed suggests that they should have made a substantial impression on the voters. Before November 3, 1936, they had expected to deflect at least a third of the Texas votes from Roosevelt, but their opposition turned out to be ineffective.

Seth Shepard McKay, Texas Politics, 1906–1944 (Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1952). George Wolfskill, The Revolt of the Conservatives: A History of the American Liberty League, 1934–1940 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lionel V. Patenaude, “Jeffersonian Democrats,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
November 11, 2020