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Summary: Franklin Roosevelt is said to have explained Al Smith, and his own New Deal, with these words: "Practically all the things we've done in the federal government are the things Al Smith did as governor of New York." Smith, who ran for president in 1928, not only set the model for FDR, he also taught America that the promise of the country extends to everyone and no one should be left behind.
The story of this trailblazer is the story of America in ...show morethe twentieth century. A child of second-generation immigrants, a boy self-educated on the streets of the nation's largest city, he went on to become the greatest governor in the history of New York; a national leader and symbol to immigrants, Catholics, and the Irish; and in 1928 the first Catholic major-party candidate for president. He was the man who championed safe working conditions in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. He helped build the Empire State Building. Above all, he was a national model, both for his time and for ours.
Yet, as Robert Slayton demonstrates in this rich story of an extraordinary man and his times, Al Smith's life etched a conflict still unresolved today. Who is a legitimate American? The question should never be asked, yet we can never seem to put it behind us. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized, not to oppose blacks, but rather against the flood of new immigrants arriving from southern Europe and other less familiar sources. Anti-Catholic hatred was on the rise, mixed up with strong feelings about prohibition and tensions between towns and cities. The conflict reached its apogee when Smith ran for president. Slayton's story of the famous election of 1928, in which Smith lost amid a blizzard of blind bigotry, is chilling reading for Americans of all faiths. Yet Smith's eventual redemption, and the recovery of his deepest values, shines as a triumph of spirit over the greatest of adversity.
Even in our corrosively cynical times, the greater vision of Al Smith's life inspires and uplifts us. ...show less
Slayton, Robert A. : Chapman University
Robert A. Slayton is Associate Professor of history at Chapman University. A New Yorker by birth, he is the author of Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy and New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel. He lives in Orange County, California.
Chapter 18: And the Pope Will Move to Washington
In retrospect, it is hard to grasp just how bad a situation Al Smith faced in 1928, but that year's presidential race remains arguably the strangest and sickest in American history. For if the general climate then could be described as a fear of modernism, this took a variety of virulent forms: bigotry against cities, immigrants, anyone who was outside the kuklos. Above all, the vision that gripped the nation was the spectre of a Roman Catholic in the White House, playing off deep-rooted American traditions.
Catholics had been demonized since the founding of an initially Protestant nation, but at certain times they attracted special attention. During the 1830s and 1840s, for example, as immigration and industrialization surged, a vogue of fantastic, horrific accounts purported to tell what really went on behind the mysterious walls of Catholic convents. The pioneering work in this genre, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, presented a sickening account of rape and beatings, plus the grim execution of infants resulting from illicit couplings between priests and nuns; the fact that this was actually written by the Reverend J. J. Slocum did little to deter readers, who turned it into a best-seller with more than 300,000 copies sold prior to the Civil War. Plenty of imitations followed, with titles like Secrets of Female Convents Exposed, The School Girl in France or the Snares of Popery, and Thrilling Mysteries of a Convent Revealed. Guy Fitch Phelps authored The Moan of the Tiber, whose advertisement included a drawing of a nun whipping a young blonde-haired woman, and the promise that "every touch of human agony and despair suffered by this girl victim decoyed from a Protestant home into the charnel house of popery is woven into the account."
From then on, the "lurid nun's story" served as a common vehicle for bigots' rantings. Tom Watson, former Populist champion turned race baiter, filled his numerous publications in the early 1900s with articles like "The Roman Catholic Hierarchy: The Deadliest Menace to Our Liberties and Our Civilization," "The Murder of Babes," "One of the Priests Who Raped a Catholic Woman in a Catholic Church," along with the inevitable, "What Happens in Convents." Watson was even able to mix racial and religious hates in "The Sinister Portent of Negro Priests."
But by then, several other movements were keeping this prejudice alive. The campaign for prohibition, for example, always carried with it an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic taint. Bishop James Cannon, one of the stalwarts of the Anti-Saloon League, declared in the Christian Advocate (a publication he owned and edited) that the Catholic church must be regarded as the "Mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance and vice."
Far more noxious, however, was the Ku Klux Klan. Only in later years would the Klan acquire its image as a chiefly racist organization that oppressed blacks. When William Simmons resurrected it in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, his chief concern was the rising population of the cities that threatened to engulf America: not blacks (who had already been put in their place by the Jim Crow laws), but the new immigrants. The KKK's first and most emphasized targets in the twentieth century therefore were foreigners, Jews, and, above all, Roman Catholics.
One of the Klan's best orators, for example, was Helen Jackson, another of those supposedly former nuns. Jackson toured the country, and her lectures would have won the award for being the most sickening example of this genre if such an honor had ever been bestowed. Her stock in trade was to describe forced abortions conducted by the priests who had fathered the children; for her grand finale she brought out a series of small leather pouches which she claimed had been used to dispose of aborted fetuses and the infant corpses. If that did not rivet the audience, however, she could always resort to her lurid description of the time priests burned a cross on her back.
Despite such images, however, the Klan in the twenties was no hillbilly organization. Members usually came from the lower middle class, people fearing displacement by all the forces affecting American life. Studies of Klan records indicate that the majority of hooded knights held white-collar positions or were small businessmen, its blue-collar workers usually coming from the better-off skilled trades. All these groups feared an erosion of their income and status from new people and a newly urbanized and large-scale economy. In terms of religion, their affiliations covered the full range of Protestant denominations, but Northern Methodists and Disciples of Christ were particularly likely to join the order.
Estimates of total membership at its height in 1923 range from 2 to 4 million, and the distribution was far more national than it would be in later years. The state with the largest number of Kluxers was Indiana, where between one-quarter and one-third of all native-born white males belonged to the Invisible Empire. Klansmen controlled the state governments there and in Colorado, elected the mayors of a number of cities, and even got the Oregon legislature to pass a law requiring all Catholic children to attend public schools. Chicago had at least forty thousand members, and important chapters existed in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In small towns, Klansmen would display their power by descending on a presumably friendly church unannounced, entering abruptly, then marching down the aisle in full regalia to interrupt the minister and hand him an envelope with money. They would then either leave just as dramatically, or offer a brief talk on the evils facing America.
Their power even extended to Smith's home state. The Albany metropolitan area produced eleven thousand Klan members, with seven thousand more in Buffalo, and as many as sixteen thousand in the New York-Yonkers-New Rochelle region, the most urbanized in the nation. In Syracuse hate-mongers called themselves the Guardians of Loyalty; and Hugh Carey remembered KKK parades in Hicksville, and how scared he was of the place because "there was a real anti-Catholic sentiment."
Al Smith had seen all of this, of course -- the prejudices the Klan both reflected and invigorated. As governor he had confronted, for example, bigotry against Jews, when he had to discipline state police and municipal officials in Massena for arresting a rabbi on the high holy days on charges that he had murdered a child as part of his rituals. Smith also saw a copy of a letter sent to Joseph Proskauer, claiming that the judge's record proved "Ford's contention that Jews favor their own race 'Crooked or straight;'" as payback Proskauer was "going to be removed by Maxim silencer Gun poison," or in plain English, a poisoned slug from a quiet pistol.
Throughout Al's years as governor, it had always been easy to dismiss sick fanatics like that anonymous letter writer, and that was exactly what Smith and those around him did. They just could not conceive that bigots had any influence on the American mainstream, so when the Klan marched in Queens, Al's secretary responded to pleas for action by explaining, "the governor is giving no heed" to that organization, since "it is not believed that fair-minded people are taking them at all seriously." Smith felt that people would dismiss such rantings, that as far as he was concerned, he would "allow them to say anything they like," since "they don't help their cause any by it." He referred to hate mail as "crackpot letters," telling friends that episodes like the Klan were something the country went through every thirty years or so, with no lasting impact.
Because Al believed that groups like this were marginal, his normally acute political instincts sometimes shut down, leading him to make innocent but dubious judgments that affected the pending presidential campaign. In 1926, for example, the Roman Catholic church staged a Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, a gathering that brought together thirteen cardinals, five hundred bishops, and thousands of priests and nuns. The guest of honor was papal legate Giovanni Cardinal Bonzano, and after landing in New York, His Eminence agreed to appear for a photo session on the steps of city hall with his entire entourage and the local Catholic hierarchy. Mayor Jimmy Walker was there, of course. But Al also attended, genuflecting before the church official and kissing his ring. From a standpoint of naiveté, of course, he was right; any American has the right to practice the religion of his choice in public. But in terms of realpolitik, Al knew that he was a leading contender for the presidential nomination two years hence, and had been rudely informed plenty of times that Catholicism might be an issue. He now appeared in every press photo in a sea of red velvet cardinals, leading to questions like the one asked by the Baptist Advance, "How would you like to have a thing like that staged in the White House or the Capital?" Smith even traveled to Chicago and attended the giant rally in person, telling reporters that this was the final proof that "there is no religious bigotry in this great country."
The first anti-Catholic challenge that the Smith campaign took seriously came in April 1927, when the Atlantic Monthly published an article by Charles C. Marshall entitled, "An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith." Marshall, a graduate of Columbia University Law School and an expert on canon law, had spoken and written on the issue of Catholics' holding political and judicial positions in this country, claiming that they should be barred from both because of their dual allegiance to the pope and to U.S. law. A flier enunciating his views came to the attention of Ellery Sedgewick, editor of the Atlantic, and Sedgewick invited Marshall to write a longer piece, focusing on Smith and his potential candidacy.
It is hard to understand, so many decades later, why this particular article caused such a fuss. Marshall's work raised no new issues and was anything but flamboyant, as he employed a style that could only mercifully be described as dull and pedantic. His primary argument was the traditional one that a Catholic's loyalty to Rome should preclude him from high office, but Marshall couched it in daunting scholarship, quoting encyclicals and works like the Catholic Encyclopedia whenever possible. Many of his sentences ran between ten and twenty lines apiece.
But this piece was the first time that the leading contender for a presidential nomination of a major party had ever had his religion questioned -- not in private, not in a dining room or over the back fence, but in one of the nation's most prestigious publications. It became front-page news, with every paper in the country carrying the story; even the foreign press picked it up. Sedgewick, meanwhile, had provided advance knowledge of Marshall's piece to Franklin Roosevelt and had suggested that Smith reply at length. Roosevelt asked Sedgewick not to publish the work at all, that the debate over this "fool article" would not bring out anything good in American political life, but FDR knew that no matter what he said, the Atlantic was going to proceed anyway. He passed the proofs along to Belle Moskowitz, who alerted Al and the senior staff.
Most accounts indicate that Joe Proskauer first talked to Al about the article, and that the candidate was dumbfounded. Al's Catholicism did nothing to prepare him for this assault; he was a simple but true believer who knew nothing of papal bulls or any other of the church's legal documents. Proskauer claimed the governor told him, "To tell you the truth, I've read it, but I don't know what the words mean." Smith tried to avoid the subject, grumbling, "I'm not going to answer the damn thing," and did not change his mind until the judge, and especially Moskowitz, leaned heavily on him and he finally authorized a response.
The capable pair of advisers immediately took over. Mrs. M called the Atlantic's editors and asked them to hold space for a reply in their next issue, while Joe agreed to write a draft. Proskauer had originally declined "the contract" (as Al referred to it), but then accepted, savoring the irony: "A Protestant lawyer charges a Catholic candidate for the Presidency...and you want it answered by a Jewish judge." He asked for only one form of assistance, a senior Catholic priest to aid him in preparing arguments. Proskauer wound up working with the famous Father Francis Duffy, chaplain to the 165th Regiment of World War I fame, and for whom Duffy Square in Manhattan would later be named.
Their essay (which Proskauer felt was "the perfect answer") appeared in the May issue as "Catholic and Patriot: Governor Smith Replies," taking up eight pages. Over and over, quoting almost as many religious works as Marshall had, it hammered home the theme that Roman Catholics could be loyal American citizens. In the end, it had Smith agreeing to "summarize my creed as an American Catholic." While remaining faithful to his religion, he insisted, "no power in the institutions of my Church" could ever "interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States" in any Smith administration, past, present, or future. He endorsed separation of church and state, the public school system, and "freedom of conscience for all men." The last line of the piece read simply, "I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer that never again in this land will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God."
Smith's reply became a public sensation. It was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times and got carried everywhere, with editorials and commentaries appearing in Madrid's El Sol and El Debate, among other European papers. Sales for the Atlantic, which normally hovered around thirty thousand, shot up to fifty-four thousand for the issue in which Marshall's letter ran, and then peaked at seventy-two thousand when Al's piece came out. Marshall, meanwhile, the least combative of souls, never recovered from the fight he had blundered into, writing endless angry letters to Sedgewick over the fact that he had not been provided an opportunity to offer the last word, bitterly complaining that the abuse he had suffered from Catholics over this affair had destroyed the favorable opinions he felt he had had of them when it started.
Marshall's article, however, raised the two substantive issues that would haunt Smith in 1928, even if they had no more substance than the stories of convent rapes and abductions. First, many Americans believed that Catholics take an oath of allegiance to a foreign monarch, so that their first loyalty is, and always will be, to the pope in Rome. After that came the claim that because the church was hierarchical, because it tried to enforce total loyalty to papal views, Roman Catholics were more like serfs than citizens; they did not understand, could never practice American democracy. Both of these, of course, ignored how freethinking American Catholics were, how they could easily maintain dual identities just like other Americans, how they had no problems voting, serving in Congress, dying in wars, or winning the Medal of Honor. Logic and evidence, however, rarely impress bigots.
But Marshall's article was just the opening salvo, the prelude to future combat. By the fall of 1928, ideas like these had become solidified into rigid doctrine for many Americans. Making matters even worse, presidential campaigns in those days were short, dramatic affairs of only 8-10 weeks length, condensed, potentially feverish episodes where every cheap taunt could become a major event, with little time to rebut. As the campaign officially opened in September, Al Smith now confronted, for the first time in his life, a nation obsessed with, and basing judgments on, fantasies and hate.
Robert Schuler, for example, a Los Angeles minister, wrote a pamphlet entitled Al Smith: A Vigorous Study, in which he told readers, "Al Smith is distinctly Rome's candidacy. It has been fostered by Tammany, for years recognized as an active ally of Rome. It is headed by Rome's active chamberlain to the Pope...If America desires a President born and raised in a foreign atmosphere, politically trained and promoted by a foreign political machine...that man may be had by electing Al Smith." Schuler went on to warn Americans that if Smith was elected, the public school system would be destroyed and civil marriages would no longer be recognized. He also reported that Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley had all been killed by Romanists.
Ridiculous claims now started to appear across the nation. Mrs. J. L. Swint wrote Franklin Roosevelt that her neighbor told her that "if Gov. Smith is elected President, the Pope's son will be his secretary." Mrs. Caroline Bond wrote John Roach Straton, a minister who took on the holy duty of following Smith around the campaign trail to denounce his depravity, that she had discovered the keys to the secret of Roman Catholicism. They had been revealed to her three times: first, by the wife of a man who had turned from Catholicism to Methodism; second by a Presbyterian member of the Klan; and third by a Jewish woman "whose husband read it out of the book of the secret order of the rules of the Knights of Columbus -- found by her husband on the way home," where they assumed it had been dropped by a workman. That "book of sacred rules of the Catholic Church," Mrs. Bond explained, contained the following dictum: "When opportunity offers itself in a time or place under cover -- it is the will of the Almighty God as a Roman Catholic to tear out the womb of any Protestant Woman -- For by so doing you abolish the perpetuity of that Satanic following." J. H. Fletcher, "Kligrapp" or secretary of the Bay Shore, Long Island, chapter of the Klan, also wrote Straton, telling him, "This fight is not only a battle against Rome, but against all the evil forces in America, cutthroats, thugs, the scum from the cesspools of Europe."
But that was just the beginning, and now the Republicans would also have to decide what to do with this; eventually they would make their own contributions to the rhetoric of hate. Officially, Herbert Hoover reiterated over and over that he would have nothing to do with any attacks on Governor Smith's religion; Hubert Work, his campaign manager, announced, "All such activities are vicious and beyond the pale of decent political campaigning." Hoover, a shy and proper man with no experience of political roughhousing, truly felt shocked at the bigotry that year, and it is hard not to believe that his fundamental sense of right and wrong was not offended by groups like the KKK.
His immediate circle, however, shared no such reticence, especially Herbert's wife, his closest companion and adviser. Lou Hoover was a witty, worldly, charming woman, with plenty of moxie and lots of character. Much like Katie Smith, however, she was also devoted to her husband, and exquisitely sensitive to any attacks on him. This defensiveness soon overwhelmed both her cosmopolitan edge and any charitable feelings she may have entertained toward the Democratic candidate.
Thus, Lou's private comments during the campaign became twisted and malicious. She considered Smith a sham and a liar because he spoke out against smears directed at himself, but did not defend Herbert against the far fewer personal attacks aimed his way, like that the Hoovers were really Brits and tools of the empire; or that because he was a Quaker, Herbert had to be a coward. At one point she complained, "The cry from Smith himself and from many of his...cohorts against the whispering campaign is such a travesty!"
Even worse, Lou Hoover soon joined the ranks of those who claimed they despised bigotry, but found nothing wrong with denigrating Catholicism. She argued that Smith's religion "should not be whispered against," but also believed that "there are many people of intense Protestant faith to whom Catholicism is a grievous sin. And they have as much right to vote against a man for public office because of that belief" as anyone else; "that is not persecution."
Because of these beliefs, she could even descend to underhanded tactics. In one letter, Mrs. Hoover wrote that it would be impossible for Smith to have a "clean administration" because of his Tammany background. On another occasion, her secretary responded to a Smith denunciation of charges that he was drunk in public with a snide private letter that if Al really wanted to put an end to these rumors, all he had to do was to declare that he had never broken the law since the inception of the Eighteenth Amendment in any way, shape or form. Lou Hoover then took this document and sent it along to a friend with a note that she "could not resist...a bit of impudence...While of course it could not come out of our camp, and is too undignified for you personally, you may know someone else who would like to use it, or you might like paraphrasing it."
Adding to this character assassination were members of Herbert's campaign. Hoover, for all his organizational genius, had no background in elective politics, and Hubert Work, his campaign manager, was relatively ineffective (Herbert felt that Work was doing a poor job but just did not know of anyone better). Their staff control, therefore, was particularly weak, even in an era of decentralized campaigns; Stanley Washburn, a Republican worker who quit because he could not take the anti-Catholicism that darkened the campaign, said that "Hoover officially denounced" the bigotry, "but he never stepped on it."
This weakness became particularly apparent in the state and local campaigns. Despite the candidate's denunciations of bigotry, the Republican Committee of Louisville and Jefferson County sent a solicitation letter that declared: "The American theory of government is threatened...Our immigration laws are attacked. American institutions are at stake." Anonymous Republicans used the slogan, "A Christian in the White House"; while the New Jersey Klan billed its rallies as being "in conjunction with the National Republican Committee," and in truth, the Virginia party chairman turned out to be co-owner of the Fellowship Forum. R. W. Patterson, reporting from Florida, noted that he had to "soft peddle...some of the local Republican papers that have featured...the religious issue," but confessed that it was "dynamite," and was "the one thing that is turning thousands of votes to the Chief." And when a reporter for the New York World, acting undercover, went to the Washington, D.C., Republican headquarters to ask for information, an aide suggested that she stop instead at the KKK office nearby, and even offered to drive her there himself.
The worst example of this lack of control involved a complex Republican official. Mabel Walker Willebrandt was, in more ways than one, a pioneer. Born on the Kansas prairie, marriage and family eventually brought her to the Golden State, where she received bachelor's and master's of law degrees from the University of Southern California. After passing the bar exam Willebrandt became active in local politics; and in 1921, the Harding administration, in a bid for women's votes, appointed her assistant attorney general in charge of prohibition enforcement, the highest position a female would hold in national law enforcement for many years. She became a source of pride for women everywhere, the Ladies' Home Journal beaming as it reported how the nation's top female official "sits in a big many-windowed room on the seventh floor of the Department of Justice" and "commands a little army" of forty-two attorneys and countless clerks and stenographers. All this, and not yet forty years of age.
But Willebrandt was a product of the old America. In her autobiography she referred to Abraham Lincoln as "the greatest Anglo-Saxon"; her position in prohibition enforcement, furthermore, meant her views would bitterly clash with Governor Smith's.
On September 7, 1928, campaigning for fellow Republican Herbert Hoover, Willebrandt crossed the line that separated legitimate advocacy from indecent partisanship, even demagoguery. Using her title as a cabinet official conspicuously, she addressed a meeting of twenty-five hundred Methodist ministers at Springfield, Ohio, in an openly political speech. After praising her candidate, Mrs. Willebrandt turned to Smith, claiming that "Tammany had reared him; gave him his power"; and that he "was the one Governor in all the American states who, notwithstanding his oath to support the Constitution of the United States, pulled down one of the...pillars the people had erected for its support." That was fair politics, but she then urged the ministers to embark on a holy crusade, pointing out that "there are two thousand pastors here. You have in your churches more than six hundred thousand members...in Ohio alone. That is enough to swing the election." And these six hundred thousand had friends in other states. "Write to them," she beseeched, work from the pulpit tirelessly, since "every day and every ounce of your energy" were needed.
Willebrandt's talk made national headlines, and they were not complimentary. The Chicago Tribune, one of the most Republican papers in the country, called the speech "an act for which an official should be removed from office...The administration has permitted one of its conspicuous officials to promote a church war in a Presidential campaign, an instance of pernicious political activity which it would be hard to equal." The national magazine Independent editorialized, "No event...has been more fatuous or less in keeping with fair play than the proselytizing of Mabel Walker Willebrandt"; and Robert Taft quietly wrote the head of the Republican Speakers' Bureau that "continued speeches by her are the only thing which can possibly defeat Mr. Hoover." (After the election, ironically, Willebrandt resigned her prohibition job at the Justice Department to become counsel to the Vine-Glo Company, a California firm that sold liquid grape concentrates available in flavors like sherry, port, muscatel, and burgundy. Although these beverages were nonalcoholic, one could, however, add water and sugar, let the mixture stand for sixty days, and end up with a beverage of 24 proof.)
But by then Mrs. Willebrandt was being shoved aside by far larger forces, by a blitzkrieg of hate that was gathering strength and speed. Along the byways of towns and villages, roadside signs -- small, handwritten notices -- appeared, reading, "For Hoover and America, or For Smith and Rome. Which? Think It Over Americans." In Atlanta, ministers issued a statement, "You cannot nail us to a Roman cross and submerge us in a sea of rum"; while that city's Wesleyan Christian Advocate took to calling the Republicans the party of the "upperworld," that a vote for the GOP was a vote for "the kingdom of God." The Knights of Luther, who noted with scholarly pride that all their material came from the "Washington Bureau of Statistics," informed readers that every Catholic priest, bishop, and cardinal had to "make and repeat the following statements: "The public schools are nurseries of vice. They are Godless, and unless suppressed will prove the damnation of this country." J. C. Hale, pastor of the Baptist church at Ralls, Texas, argued that the Catholic church was not Christian, a pretty serious charge given that he felt that "this is a Christian nation. The law of the Federal Constitution was founded on the Christian Bible." In Muncie, Indiana, some folks believed that Catholics were engaged in a conspiracy with blacks; the Romanists had invented a powder that would bleach the skins of black men so they could go out and marry white women, the chief goal of the race. But the real spirit of that year's election was summed up by a voter whose name is lost to the ages, an honest man or woman who admitted "that in all reason we ought to put Smith in the White House for the ability that he has shown...But I suppose at my mother's knees I acquired a prejudice against Catholics and I cannot really forget it."
Violence -- imagined and real -- now began to crop up everywhere. Robert John Cunningham, Organizer and Chief of the United Protestant Secret Service for United States, and Prohibition, took his exalted title very, very seriously. He let Republican Ogden Mills know that "we have current information that Catholics have been killing Protestants. I also have seen this, and they tried to murder me." Wisely, Cunningham marked the letter, "Personal and Confidential." Laughable, perhaps; but when the Smith campaign train pulled into Billings, Montana, a cross burned on Rim Rock, just north of the business district, and several charges of dynamite went off.
The best example of all the ignorance that year was a conversation that took place when Arthur Rhorer, a lawyer, interviewed two workers in a tanning factory in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Rhorer asked how most of the men down at the works were going to vote; the vast majority favored Hoover, only a few supported Al Smith. When queried if this meant that "you men are satisfied with conditions and think we are having good times...under the Republicans," the interviewees answered, "No, times are rotten." Rhorer asked what the problem was with Smith and got told, "Well, they say he's a Catholic." He then inquired, "What is a Catholic?" and the first man calmly replied, "DamifIno."
And then there was the pope. In 1928, a great many Americans honestly believed that if Al Smith became president, the pope would come over and rule America. The American Standard headlined, "Rome Suggests That Pope May Move Here," and in North Manchester, Indiana, a Klan lecturer warned his audience what to watch for, to beware the imminent arrival of the pope. "He may even be on the Northbound train tomorrow!" the Klansman exhorted. "He may! He may! Be warned! Prepare! America is for Americans! Search everywhere for hidden enemies, vipers at the heart's blood of our scared Republic! Watch the trains!"
A lot of people went even further, claiming that the preparations for the pope's arrival were already underway. One source held that plans had been drawn up, so that the minute the election was over, the president-elect could send a battleship to Rome to bring the pope to the United States (intellectuals in New York joked that the day Al Smith lost the election, the pope received a one-word telegram: "Unpack."). According to this account, Smith would install the pontiff in a fortress in the Georgetown section of Washington, a citadel already built and guarded by rows of artillery. Other pundits were not so sure, claiming that the chosen site was in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Smith's opponents distributed photos nationwide showing the construction of New York's Holland Tunnel, claiming this was the secret passageway being built to bring the pope all the way from Rome (the candidate tried to argue that tunnels cost $25 million a mile, that Vatican City was thirty-five hundred miles away, but what was the use?). Others feared the worst -- that he was here now, in an underground lair beneath a Franciscan monastery in the District of Columbia; some people had even seen the facilities down there. At one time or another, someone, somewhere, also accused the pontiff of taking over just about every federal department, or at least plotting to do so. Lillie Case of Charlottesville, Virginia, reminded Lou Hoover that "the Pope wanted a navy and an army and an outlet to the sea," and that was why he had created the Smith candidacy -- to take these from America -- while the Klan's organ, Fellowship Forum, ran the headline, "Pope Tries to Run U.S. Post Office."
Now the horrible truth had become apparent: contrary to Al Smith's deepest beliefs about America, anti-Catholicism had moved to center stage in the election of 1928. National magazines wrote how "in no political campaign since the Civil War have the churches played so prominent a part in political discussions," and compared it to a religious conflict. One survey found that out of eighty-five hundred Southern Methodist preachers, a grand total of four supported Smith, a situation paralleled in the ranks of Northern Methodists, Southern Baptists, and the Disciples of Christ; even the moderator of the Presbyterian church announced, "The plain duty of every churchman is to work and pray for the election of Herbert Hoover." Senator Matthew Neely of West Virginia felt that he lost sixty thousand votes that year because he spoke on behalf of the Democratic candidate; one voter wrote him about the 65 million dead martyrs the Roman Catholics had produced, and how he "would much sooner and with far more honor vote for Satan than such a man as Smith." In Kansas, a little girl came home to ask, "Mama, why don't they kill that bad man...that bad man Smith that they told us about in Sunday school?"
Leading this campaign was often the Klan. By 1928 the KKK had been in significant decline since a series of mid-decade revelations of their violence and sickness, the most famous of which was when D. C. Stephenson, head of the all-powerful Indiana organization, was convicted of raping and maiming a secretary. But the Smith candidacy revived their fortunes magnificently, and they went all out in a national effort, distributing millions of pamphlets, newspapers, and images. America was blanketed with material from their national organ, the Fellowship Forum; one piece, a flier for a book that exposed the evils of Catholicism, asked, "Will It Come to This?" over images of a priest throwing a baby into a fire; torture that appears to include vivisection; a priest whipping a woman as she is burned at the stake; and the hanging of numerous Protestants from a single tree. The Tocsin, the KKK's vehicle in Garden City, Kansas, announced that an "Alien Army is Now Marching on Washington...Al Smith Stalking Horse of Jesuits...Murderous 'Society of Jesus' Under the 'Black Pope'...He had agenda for years plotting downfall of nation." "The alien hordes of the Roman Catholic political machine," they pointed out, "led and driven by Jesuits, have invaded America. Already they have captured many large cities." Franklin Roosevelt estimated that the printing and postage bills of the Fellowship Forum alone ran between $2 and $5 million, and told how even in small towns like his beloved Hyde Park, from July onward, "practically all" the families received a steady flow of material from sources like this. The Forum was now an enterprise with fifteen people in the editorial department and a total staff of 125.
Complicating things even further, many people who opposed Smith on religious grounds, sometimes quite coarsely, did not feel that they were bigots, and resented anyone addressing them as such, lumping them with thugs like the Ku Klux Klan. In 1928 middle-class Americans could sincerely believe that they were free from prejudice, but still make outrageous, hurtful statements.
Thus, an editorial in the Presbyterian told readers, "If the Protestants hesitate to vote for Catholics, because Catholics hold and teach their children a political creed which is unAmerican and...opposed to liberty of conscience...of worship...of speech...and...of the press, it is neither just nor honest to accuse Protestants of religious intolerance." Charles Hillman Fountain, writing in Current History, argued vehemently that he had no prejudice, that his followers would never keep Smith out of the White House "on account of religious grounds," but only "because the Catholic Church is opposed to the principles of democracy." Because of that, however, they had decided that "not only should no Catholic be made President, but no Catholic should be elected to any political office."
The foremost example of this dubious self-righteousness appeared in October, when the country's leading Protestant magazine, Christian Century -- a publication that epitomized respectability -- came out against Al Smith's candidacy because the editors could not "look with unconcern upon the seating of a representative of an alien culture, of a medieval Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of President of the United States." They believed that the reasonable voter would agree, and "it is not because he is a religious bigot. It is not because he does not like the Roman Catholic religion or does not like its ways of worship." Simply, it is because there exists "a real issue between Catholicism and American institutions." How, the Smith camp must have asked, does one ever respond to that kind of logic?
But there was more, much more, for Al Smith symbolized the challenges of modernism in so many ways. It was Smith's misfortune, for example, to run during the era of prohibition; for many Americans, it was the issue of alcohol, more than any other, that had dominated their political thinking throughout the twenties, and they were not likely to abandon it during this presidential season. One Baptist paper explained, "We base our opposition to Governor Smith entirely on the fact that he has been the implacable foe of Prohibition. The Roman Catholic papers insist on lugging in the religious issue." The Waterloo (Iowa) Evening Courier began its coverage of Smith's acceptance speech, a long and complex document, with the headline, "Democratic Nominee Outlines Stand on Prohibition."
This meant big problems for the Smith campaign. Many Americans could not discuss prohibition calmly, since for them, it meant the fate of civilization. Kate Penney, for example, mailed Lou Hoover a piece called, "I Wonder!" a series of homilies the lady had written that included the line, "I wonder if the 'Wets' realize the full significance of their sobriquet? 'Wet' with beer and whisky, drenched in the tears of women and children, soaked with the blood of drunkards and criminals." The Midland Baptist Association declared that they would "take their stand against the enemy of the souls of...children," while one ward heeler in Nashville told a reporter, "I shall never forget to my dying day the look on the face of my dear old mother when I told her that the great Democratic Party...was in favor of likker. I had to wait a week before I told that sainted lady that he was a Catholic too."
But in 1928, the discussions of prohibition shifted focus dramatically, to direct attacks on Al Smith. In every account he appeared as a drunkard; the tale repeated over and over in every small town was that someone had personally seen him, up close, too drunk to even talk or walk. In Kansas City the story circulated that when Smith attended a dinner at a yacht club he and his party "showed signs of having been drinking strong liquor"; and in Wilmore, Kentucky, gossips told how Al showed up at the New York State Fair to give a talk, but was so sloshed they had to shut him down after ten minutes. When Smith gave his acceptance speech he was bombed, they said, and when he delivered his first talk over the radio two men had to hold him up. The Western Christian Advocate believed "the Al Smith smile will break forth in maniacal glee should he ever have the opportunity to sign a document of nullification," and the rumor raged that he was sure to appoint a bootlegger as secretary of the treasury. Nasty little sayings appeared, like Bishop Cannon of the Anti-Saloon League's "Shall Dry America Elect a Cocktail President?" William Hamilton Anderson, one of the heads of the prohibition movement, bragged to interviewers that he "had a lot of fun in that campaign" on his weekly radio show; he gleefully explained, "I went after Al Smith and even took up the question of his personal drinking habits...I had a lot of fun, very carefully avoiding any complication with the libel law." Anderson's parent organization, the Anti-Saloon League, spent $1.5 million to influence the election that year.
And this confluence of dryness with anti-Catholic bigotry created a terrible problem for the Smith camp. How could they tell when attacks from the prohibition camp were real, and when they were simply a mask for anti-Catholic bigotry? Hugh Evans of Macon, Georgia, for example, told the Democrats, "The Real reason...many people are opposing the governor is on account of his religion, although they maintain that their opposition to him is based on his declaration on the Eighteenth Amendment"; while Marvin Jones of Texas referred to this use of the liquor issue as an alibi for other, less polite sentiments.
This evolved into a diabolical trap: trying to defend himself, Smith attacked all bigots, many of whom hid behind these false facades. Yet by attacking all of them with the same vehemence, tarring with a broad brush, his campaign ran the risk of alienating large numbers of voters who felt that they were being unjustly accused of prejudice. William Gibbs McAdoo wrote that he knew "thousands of sincere men and women...who intensely believe that the prohibition policy ought to be maintained and whose opposition to Governor Smith is based solely on that ground. I think it is a grave mistake...for Governor Smith's friends to charge all who oppose him with bigotry, intolerance, and prejudice against him because of his religion." It was a terrible position to be in, and severely limited the Democrats' ability to respond.
But by then it hardly mattered. The election had become a visceral declaration of war, not just on Al Smith, but on foreigners and cities, on the Irish and on Tammany, a hurricane attempting to remove everyone and everything the candidate had ever stood for. In Clarkesville, Tennessee, the president of the Kiwanis Club explained that "in the last thirty years the tide of immigration has undergone a decided and alarming change. Prior to that time the overwhelming majority of entrants were of a racial stock akin to our own and therefore easily assimilable." But now, "the inflow has been of a distinctly different and decidedly inferior character, Italians, southern Slovenes, Magyars...the very antithesis of the Anglo-Saxons." No match was possible, no assimilation attemptable for these peoples, since "among them the most revolting diseases are more prevalent...They are unable to appreciate our conceptions of political liberty. Their ideas of right and wrong are so diametrically opposed to our own that no reconciliation...is possible." Baptist minister A. J. Barton felt "the greatest issue in this campaign" was "whether we shall continue our American civilization or lower it to the standards" of this untamed mob; and Bishop Alma White of the KKK spoke for many when she remarked, "I am 100 per cent Anglo-Saxon...We are the keepers of the Constitution, of the flag and of American citizenship."
Many Americans felt this way in 1928. Lillie Case begged Lou Hoover to "think of the large number of immigrants...being admitted by this friend of Rome! If we fail this time, how can we ever hope to win again?" In Tennessee Ned Carmack editorialized that the Democratic Party "had its birth in the very veins of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors," and it would be sacrilege to "let a tumultuous horde of the scum of Southeastern Europe inundate the land"; that was why he would vote for Hoover. Even in New York, Judge David Edelstein remembered, "You can't imagine the bigotry that existed in this very city" that year; it was horrible...vicious...horrible slurs against Jews, against Italians, against Irish."
And these foreigners, of course, lived in cities, places John Roach Straton referred to as nothing more than a nest of "saloons and cabarets." According to Bishop Cannon, Al Smith could never be president -- never -- because he stemmed from the "sneering, ridiculing, nullifying...foreign-populated city of New York." Speakers presented an image of the Tammany Tiger gobbling up innocents, asked listeners to consider that "if Tammany stole millions when it had charge of New York City, what will it do when it has the whole nation to feed on?" The rotten joke made the rounds that Al -- the immigrant, ignorant governor of New York -- went on a trip and forgot his gun (ignore the fact that he never carried one in his life), then phoned home to have it sent to him. The connection was poor, so he had to recite: "I want my gun. G-U-N. G for Jesus; U for Europe; N for Pneumonia."
It got so personal, so sickeningly bitter, that even poor Katie Smith became an issue. If Al was cheap, she had to be cheaper; gossips referred to her as vulgar, unkempt, overweight, a drunkard, someone who did her own housework (and did it poorly), someone, in other words, totally unsuitable as first lady. Stories made the rounds that when complimented on her gown by an ambassador's wife, Katie replied, "You said a mouthful," as critics painted images of a White House smelling of "corned beef, cabbage, and home brew," a scene from Jiggs and Maggie. Annie Hugillmof of Seattle wrote John W. Davis, complaining, "Aside from Smith's weak face and uncertain manners...who would want to see such a looking woman as his wife...as the First Lady of the Land?" One man suggested that the Republicans take pictures of Hoover and his family, and Smith and his family, then put them side by side under the caption, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide"; while Thomas Robins wrote Franklin Roosevelt that "one of the most intelligent women" he knew was committed to a Republican victory, strictly to "help keep Mrs. Smith" out of the White House. Throughout the land it swept, one member of Eleanor Roosevelt's advisory committee remarking, "The kind of stupid talk that is circulating around tea-tables and dinner-tables is positively disgusting."
Even the public versions were only slightly muted. In Alabama speakers suggested politely that poor Katie's "social training had been inadequate" for the role she aspired to. The Republicans slyly alluded to the issue when they issued a pamphlet entitled, Mrs. Herbert Hoover: "American Through and Through," although Florence Griswold, Republican national committeewoman from Texas, felt this hardly sufficed and openly raised the question, "Can you imagine Mrs. Smith in the White House?" Most brazen of all, Massachusetts senator Frederick Gillett teased his audience one night with the line, "I cannot say very much of Mrs. Smith, but if the contest were between Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Smith...," then left the rest of his obvious contempt unspoken. When the New York Times called this "execrable taste," Senator Gillett claimed that he had "neither conceived nor uttered" any such statement as reported, only to have the pressman who broke the story reply that his account was "accurate and fair," and that he still had his notes, if the senator was interested. The Christian Century reported that the "Katie issue" had become "the most widespread whispering campaign of all."
The Smith people were stunned. No one had ever dreamed in his wildest imagination that Katie would become a target, let alone planned for this contingency. For Al, this was something he could never have conceived was possible in America, and according to Frances Perkins, "it almost killed him...he could stand anything but that."
The attacks broke his heart, and not surprisingly, caused the only outburst he ever permitted himself during that long, hard season of hate. The photographer's request seemed innocuous enough; before he took Mrs. Smith's picture, would she mind removing some of her jewelry? Did he ask this because she looked garish, or because the gems reflected light into his lens? Now Al exploded in front of the press, finally letting out the anger, snarling, yelling, "Leave Katie alone!"
But even Katie Smith was small pickings; as Election Day neared, the contest emerged as nothing less than a war over the nation's destiny, over who had the right to be called "American" and to choose its values. Bishop Alma White, author of Heroes of the Fiery Cross, explained, "Who are the enemies of the Klan? They are the bootleggers, law-breakers, corrupt politicians, weak-kneed Protestant church members, white slavers, toe-kissers, wafer-worshippers, and every spineless character who takes the path of least resistance." While she referred to Smith as "the papal Governor of New York," she also pointed out that "among the forces threatening America are the great Hebrew syndicates that have acquired a monopoly of the motion-picture industry. These conscienceless, money-mad producers have no worthy ideals, either of dramatic art or virtue. Playing with sex themes, they are so depraved as to give the public any thrills they dare, for profit. They are destroying the moral standards of America and educating our youths in vice." Elaborating on this theme, Bishop White told how, "Great numbers of young women are employed in foreign-controlled theaters and the motion picture industries, which are...completely under the domination of the Hebrew producers and white slavers." She recalled how on one railroad trip she overheard a young woman in a theatrical troupe explaining to a companion what her boss forced her to wear when she danced the "shimmy"; regarding that unusual term, Bishop White noted, "I am not sufficiently familiar with the language of the vaudeville to know what she meant, but I understood enough to know that she was the slave of her Hebrew master."
That fall, lots of ministers used Al Smith as a vehicle to attack the horrors of modern culture. Things like the Sunday newspaper (a defiler of the Sabbath!), gambling, the mixed bathing pool, and especially dancing. One minister listed the evils: "bunny hug, turkey trot, hesitation, tango, texas tommy, hug-me-tight (this one just sounded sinful), foxtrot, shimmy-dance, sea-gull, swoop, camel-walk, and the unforgettable skunk-waltz."
To John Roach Straton, Al Smith represented "card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism." Clearly he got that last one right, but poodle dogs? This was the year, however, that the Klan drove readers to action by warning, this man would get the Catholic and the wet vote, "the Jew and negro vote...He will get the vote of the Jew-Jesuit movie gang who want sex films and Sunday shows to coin millions through the corruption of youth...He will get the vote of the vice trust, the gamblers, the red-light and the dope-ring vote."
As Election Day appeared on the horizon, the 1928 presidential campaign had become something far more than just another episode in a strange era. That year, the American people reached into the muck at the bottom of the well, pulling up primordial hate from those murky places we hope never see light, turning a man's bid for the White House into one of the most revolting spectacles in the nation's history.
Every commentator stood stunned. Lillian Wald wrote a friend about "the organized bigotry, the like of which I have never seen. I feel as if some poison gas had spread over us, and that our democracy will suffer from this for many years to come." Frances Perkins, campaigning in Maryland, the oldest Catholic settlement in America, encountered what she described as "some of the most terrible fantastic prejudices and dreadful yarns that I ever heard...I had pointed out to me...the estate which had been purchased for the Pope and where the Pope was coming as soon as Smith was elected...It was pointed out to us. They knew it for a fact." Marvin Jones, a Texas Democrat, went into a drugstore in his home town of Amarillo and was asked if he was going to vote for Smith. Jones, a good party man and a liberal to boot, said that, yes, he was most definitely going to vote for Smith. The proprietor sneered, "We've been fighting that bunch for 2,000 years. Do you think I'm going to turn the government over to them?" John W. Davis, the Wall Street lawyer who had been the party's candidate in 1924, gave a radio address supporting Smith; he got a letter telling him, "Your talk went over big with Micks but rotten with the most intelligent minds of America." It was signed, "a 100% American."
Judge Simon Rifkind was, in 1994, one of the last people still alive to have actually been on the Smith campaign train. He explained that "having been brought up in New York, with plenty of Catholics around me [Rifkind was Jewish], I had not been aware of the intense anti-Catholic feeling that prevailed in this country." But "when I came to mid-America...it hit you in the face...There were some times when nobody showed up at the platform...He would be boycotted because he was a Catholic." Above all, Rifkind explained, "It was a terrible coming of age for me, losing my innocence on that subject...It startled me." Judge Rifkind was not the only one to lose his innocence during that terrible season of hate.
Copyright © 2000 by Robert A. Slayton
Prologue: Oklahoma City, September 20, 1928
Part I: Coming of Age
CHAPTER 1. The Sidewalks of New York
CHAPTER 2. Neighborhood
CHAPTER 3. The F.F.M. Man
CHAPTER 4. "The Hall"
CHAPTER 5. Albany
CHAPTER 6. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
CHAPTER 7. Leadership
Part II: Governor
CHAPTER 8. The New Governor
CHAPTER 9. Picking Fights
CHAPTER 10. Winning Administrative Reform
CHAPTER 11 Forging a New America
CHAPTER 12. Prohibition
CHAPTER 13. The Sound of the Siren
CHAPTER 14. Business as Usual
Part III: 1928
CHAPTER 15. Opening Rounds
CHAPTER 16. Taking On America
CHAPTER 17. "Politics! Politics!"
CHAPTER 18. And the Pope Will Move to Washington
CHAPTER 19. The Decision
Part IV: Finale
CHAPTER 20. Up to Now
CHAPTER 21. The Little Boy
CHAPTER 22. Mr. Smith Does Not Go to Washington
CHAPTER 23. Nadir
CHAPTER 24. Elder Statesman
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