IN the summer of 1791, Thomas Jefferson went to New York to collect butterflies.
Or so it was said. But according to lore - perhaps more apocryphal than true - the real purpose of Jefferson's noted "botanical expedition" to the Hudson Valley was to collect a species of a different sort: political allies to buttress his running war against George Washington's powerful treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
Whatever its exact origin, the sturdy group of anti-Hamiltonians that ultimately coalesced around Jefferson succeeded in tapping into a political impulse that, 200 years later, remains a central part of the American political tradition: individual liberties over the power of the state; the common man over the monied aristocracy.
As their political heirs assemble in New York for the Democratic convention, they celebrate a political party that is now, arguably, the world's oldest and, indisputably, the source of some of its most remarkable leaders - James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
But after 200 years of change, would Thomas Jefferson still be a Democrat?
Probably, several political analysts agree. They explain that after generations of change the party still accents themes that would be welcomed by the anti-Federalists of Jefferson's day.
"Of the two parties, the Democrats are still the party of individual liberties," says Robert Rutland, retired University of Virginia historian and author of a book on the Democratic Party. "In this sense, the torch has been passed."
Through its long history, the party has managed to live with extraordinary contradictions. It has been home to agrarians and urban immigrants, blacks and Southern whites, intellectuals and laborers. A party of the common man, for a time it was even a party of slaveholders. What has held this improbable congregation together has been the party's continuing appeal as champion of the disadvantaged.
"The [Democratic] coalition has held together," says historian Arthur Schlesinger, "because it has remained a party of outsiders against the party of business. What [its factions] have had in common is the notion that business shouldn't run the country."
"The key is that the party has remained tied to the old moorings of getting a better deal for the common man," says Professor Rutland. "Farmers who were in debt and city people who had few possessions could both look to the Democratic Party and find help."
The anti-Hamiltonians took power in 1800, when Jefferson was elected president. The Democrats, as they became known in the 1820s, defined mass politics in America. They emerged from the Civil War with the solid South but little else, as the party of Lincoln dominated the White House into the 20th century.
During a brief respite from Republican rule, Woodrow Wilson formalized a tactical shift that has been a hallmark of Democratic governance ever since. Where Jeffersonians preached the virtues of small government, Democrats now saw the need for assertive federal power to regulate big business and protect workers.
"It was a matter of using Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends," notes Dr. Schlesinger.
The high-water mark of Democratic rule came with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose coalition of industrial workers, urban ethnics, blacks, and Western and Southern farmers kept Democrats in the White House, with the exception of the Eisenhower years, until the late 1960s.
That Democrats have held the White House only one term since is due in part to the defection of key constituencies.
Postwar prosperity eventually turned large segments of the middle class against New Deal social programs. The Vietnam war and the party's taste for smaller defense budgets prompted many party conservatives to cross the aisle.
In one of its most crucial decisions, the party opted for Southern blacks over Southern whites when it backed strong civil rights legislation in the 1960s, opening the South to Republican competition for the first time since Reconstruction.
The party's problems have been compounded by 1970s-era rule changes that were designed to give broader representation to special-interest groups. The goal was laudable, but it paralyzed consensus-making and reduced the party to little more than the sum of its often quarrelsome parts.
Finally, the party has faltered because one of its few natural constituencies - the inner cities - is now the smallest of the three broad geographic groups, including suburbanites and residents of rural areas and small towns, that make up the American electorate.
The problem for Democrats is that, outside the inner cities, the traditional accent on big-government liberalism - for so long an idea that has given the party definition - has become anathema. As President Bush and Ross Perot swap angry charges, delegates gathered in New York remember that it was another electoral split - between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft - that paved the way for Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912.
But to seize the moment now, political analysts say, Democrats will have to emphasize another theme that has been a source of strength in the past: economic growth.
"Democrats today are still living in the 1960s. They want to right all social wrongs," says Paul Wieck, author of a forthcoming book on pro-growth politics. "There's nothing wrong with that, but the top priority has to be to create jobs.
"Democrats create programs to train people for jobs," says Mr. Wieck. "They sponsor legislation to give people access to jobs. But try to define what they've done to create jobs and you don't find very much. The next majority will be a pro-growth majority, but it's not clear which party will put it together."