Al Smith — Brown Derby to Silk Hat

al smith

East Side, West Side
  All around the town
The tots sing "Ring-a-Rosie,
  London Bridge is falling down."
Boys and girls together,
  Me and Mamie O'Rourke,
Tripped the light fantastic;
  On the Sidewalks of New York.
    Copyright 1894 by Blake and Lawlor.

Alfred E. Smith came Catholic-born from the sidewalks of New York. He went all the way from a Lower East Side tenement to the Governor's Mansion and left enduring marks along the high road: his daring, far-reaching social legislation lighted the path for the liberal Democratic tradition in the Empire State. In the nation, another kind of history envelops his name; his star-tipped chariot smashed against the twin roadblocks of prosperity and intolerance in the national elections of 1928. He could understand the first roadblock Herbert Hoover's campaign packet contained a guarantee of four more years of gilt-edged, ready-to-serve Republican prosperity. The second roadblock stunned Smith. He could not believe that the American people would slam the White House door in his face because of his religious faith.

jfkThe anti-Catholic whispers made a mess of the Presidential contest and left a deep scar on Al Smith and a still deeper scar on the American conscience. The mark was still there in 1956. In its convention that year the Democratic Party came within 38-1/2 votes of nominating another Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as its Vice Presidential candidate and then switched to Estes Kefauver. Kennedy had everything to recommend him as Adlai Stevenson's running mate youth and looks, a splendid war record in the Pacific and a good voting history in the Senate but he was a Catholic. In the last moments of the balloting, the terrible memories of 1928 intervened to deny him the nomination; the specter of Al Smith haunted the party after three decades. Kennedy had to wait another four years for the religious issue to subside enough for his party to run him for the ill-fated Presidency which put him in the line of an assassin's fire in 1963. Before the Kennedy time, it was evident that the major parties were sorely lacking either in courage or in any awareness of the new levels of religious tolerance across the land. But perhaps the old fears were understandable. Consider this excerpt from Irving Stone's study of the nation's Presidential campaigns, They Also Ran:

"For pure virulence there was nothing in all American history to equal the whispering campaign inaugurated against Al Smith: he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command, he would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!
"A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840-60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars . . . In addition Smith was accused of being a habitual drunkard, an illiterate, a rough, crude, uncouth tobacco-spitting bully of the East Side, a flunky of the corrupt Tammany of the Tweed days, an ignoramus who would disgrace the White House and make the United States the laughing-stock of foreign ambassadors."
smith/raskobbuttonsWhat was fought in 1928, actually, was the classic battle between Rural America and the Big City, between Dry and Wet, between the true-blue Protestant and the shanty Irishman. Al Smith was the essence of the political-moral-religious bigot's enemy. His political home Tammany Hall drew its great strength from the very melting pot so feared and hated by the legions in the hinterland. His spiritual home was the Roman Catholic Church. His morals were candidly outrageous: he was against Prohibition and he said so, let the votes fall where they may, and he told it to their faces along the campaign trail. There were no whispers on his side; he shouted. His gravel-voiced tones, touched with the coarse accents of the city streets, resounded over the land, into the very Bible Belt itself. But never mind the religious issue: even without it Al Smith, anything but a conventional campaigner that year, knew all the ways to shake off votes. He deserves credit for it, for he spoke from sheer fighting courage and passionate conviction. He spoke from the depths of a heart that was breaking.

francis p. duffyThe matter of Smith's Catholicism actually predated the campaign by twenty months, going back to the time the boom began for the man in the Brown Derby. Charles C. Marshall, a New York attorney versed in canon law, wrote an open letter to the Atlantic Monthly in the Spring of 1927 in which he questioned whether a Catholic could function as President of the United States and stay within the teachings of his faith. The letter, scholarly rather than intolerant, contended that under Papal Law a Catholic President would have to place his loyalty to the Pope above his patriotic duty to the state. Smith sat down with the Reverend Francis P. Duffy, the "Fighting Chaplain" of World War fame, and drafted a forthright reply challenging the Marshall thesis from start to finish.

pamlet"I recognize no power in the institutions of my church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land," Smith wrote. He said his own creed granted freedom of conscience and worship to all men. He said he believed in the absolute separation of Church and State. He said he regarded the public school "as one of the cornerstones of American liberty." He said he did not view the encyclicals of the Pope as articles of Catholic faith binding upon the individual Catholic. "I believe," he concluded, "in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God."

In 1924 the Democrats had denied the nomination to Smith because they feared that the combination of a Catholic and a Wet meant certain disaster at the polls. That convention went to 103 ballots before John W. Davis emerged as the candidate. Four years later the situation was vastly different. Franklin D. Roosevelt put the smiling man in the Brown Derby before the Houston convention this way: "We offer one who has the will to win who not only deserves success but commands it. Victory is his habit the happy warrior, Al Smith." The delegates picked Smith on the first ballot; he was the first Catholic to carry either major party's banner but the Democrats deemed him the only man with any chance, however faint, to chase the Republicans out of the White House.

In the campaign, the religious issue emerged above the surface in reverse, for the most part. The bigots usually mentioned Catholicism openly only by way of protesting that Al Smith's faith was the furthest thing from their minds; they always said they were against him for a variety of other reasons. Herbert Hoover disavowed any discussion of religion. So did the Republican National Committee, but here and there an individual committeeman publicly charged that Smith would be nothing more than a Vatican stooge if he got to the White House. Bishop James Cannon, Jr. of the Methodist Episcopal Church added fuel to the issue by accusing the Catholics themselves of intolerance. The Dry bishop charged that "the campaign was being waged on the mystical body of Christ rather than on the man Alfred Emanuel Smith" and insisted that all "Catholic lovers of Christ" were "feverishly praying" for Smith to win. In the anti-Smith underground, the cry of "Rum
and Romanism" resounded across the nation right up to election day.

hankerchiefsThere will always be a question as to how much difference it made that year. The Republicans were at the crest of their popularity and had a substantial candidate in the Quaker-born Hoover. As Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge regimes the man in the high collar had a strong identification with the fat years. Beyond that, his own campaign pledges made the boundless prosperity of the retiring Coolidge look like nickel-and-dime stuff. "We in America today," Hoover said, "are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation . . ." The Republican National Committee topped that with paid ads promising the voters "A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage." Some party spokesmen doubled this IOU: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage.

posterSo Al Smith really had to go against a formidable variation on the three "Rs" Rum, Romanism and Riches. It was too much even for the Happy Warrior, despite his remarkable record as the three-term Governor of New York. All he had to talk about were the liberal reforms that had done so much for the little people. These items had no impact around the nation in 1928; they represented small gains at a time when everybody was talking about big money, not just some tiny forward steps on the social front. Besides, what did it mean? It meant that Al Smith was a Good Governor, whereas in Herbert Hoover the Republicans had a Great Engineer, pledged to engineer some more good times.

The result was a landslide.

mapHoover drew 21 million votes to 15 million for Smith. He carried all but eight states and got 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87. He cracked the Solid South, taking Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. He captured such doutful Border States as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kentucky. He even took Smith's own New York the worst blow of all.

cornerstoneNo one quite like Al Smith had ever run for President before. Son of a horse-and-wagon teamster, he had no book-learning beyond the parochial school levels because he went to work at fourteen to help his widowed mother. He toiled in New York's Fulton Fish Market before he went into Tammany Hall and moved up through menial political chores to the State Legislature and the Governor's chair. He was crude and rough. In his derby, with a cigar sticking out of his face, he looked more like a machine boss than the potential master of the old mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, but he wanted to get to that house very badly. He took his defeat hard and when the Democrats refused him re-nomination in 1932 and picked Roosevelt to make the easy race against the depression-tarnished Hoover, he went into a towering rage. Four years later he was still angry enough to campaign for the Republican Alf Landon against the man who had first called him the Happy Warrior.

He fought Roosevelt again in 1936 under the banner of the ultra-conservative Liberty League, and still again in 1940. In time, grown rich as the $50,000-a-year president of the Empire State Building and a director in several corporations, his political philosophy grew more akin to the Republican Old Guard's than to FDR's. In defeat, Al Smith had moved all the way uptown.

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