Religion helped defeat the first Catholic U.S. presidential contender

Al Smith fell prey to the three Ps – prohibition, prejudice and prosperity – in 1928

Pat MurphyWhen John F. Kennedy was running for the U.S. presidency in 1960, the ghost of Al Smith hung over public discussion of the campaign.

Smith, a New York Catholic, had been soundly beaten in the general election of 1928. And his defeat generated the conventional wisdom that no Catholic could be elected to the presidency.

But as Kennedy’s victory demonstrated, that was no longer true. Indeed, a strong case can be made that Kennedy’s Catholicism was a net electoral plus, a fact that the Kennedy high command was both cognizant of and willing to exploit. The Kennedys always played hardball.

Smith, though, wasn’t so lucky – 1928 was a different time.

Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944) was a true child of New York City, where he was born, raised and lived his adult life. All four of his grandparents were immigrants, Irish on his mother’s side and a blend of Italian and German on his father’s. In keeping with popular immigrant practise of the day, the Smith surname was an anglicized adaptation.

Smith entered Democratic politics via the notorious Tammany Hall machine. But although Tammany was famously corrupt, Smith was personally free of taint.

It was while they were serving in the New York State legislature that Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt first crossed paths. Apparently, Roosevelt’s patrician manner didn’t impress. Talking about the challenges of political deal making, Smith put it this way: “Franklin just isn’t the sort of man you can take into the piss room and talk intimately with.”

In 1918, Smith was elected to the first of what was to become four two-year terms as New York’s governor, a capacity in which he built a reputation as a progressive reformer. The argument has been made that many of the bills he enacted became models for Roosevelt’s later New Deal.

However, Smith’s aspirations were greater than gubernatorial office. Like most ambitious American politicians, he fancied the White House.

At the 1924 Democratic convention, Roosevelt nominated Smith for president, saluting him as a “Happy Warrior.” But while the flattering sobriquet stuck for the rest of Smith’s career, he didn’t win the prize. After 103 tortuous ballots, the nomination went elsewhere.

Smith had better luck in 1928. This time, he took the nomination on the first ballot.

The November general election was an entirely different matter. There, Smith found himself up against what’s been described as “the three Ps: prohibition, prejudice and prosperity.”

Prohibition grew out of the 19th century temperance movement, which saw it as a remedy for a range of social ills. And when the 18th amendment to the U.S. constitution took effect in 1920, it prohibited the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.

Inconsistently enforced, the ban was controversial from the beginning, pitting supporters (drys) against opponents (wets). Smith was decidedly wet.

Prejudice was centred on Smith’s Catholicism. Anti-Catholic feeling ran the gamut from rank prejudice to a wary – and not entirely unjustified – apprehension that Catholics were ambivalent on the separation of church and state. So entrusting a Catholic with the presidency was considered too dangerous.

In fairness, the religious issue cut both ways. Smith carried two then normally Republican states with strong Catholic populations – Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But, on balance, the issue cut strongly against him.

Prosperity, too, was a problem for Smith. The 1920s economic boom was still roaring and the incumbent Republicans naturally got the political benefit.

Come election day, it wasn’t close. Republican Herbert Hoover swept 58 per cent of the vote and 40 of what was then 48 states. Apart from the aforementioned Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Smith was reduced to six states in the Deep South where memories of the Civil War still dominated.

Defeat didn’t temper Smith’s ambitions. He tried again in 1932 but this time the Democratic nomination went to his erstwhile ally Roosevelt. And with Hoover hammered by the Depression, Roosevelt swept to power.

Interestingly, the relationship between Smith and Roosevelt went quickly downhill. Smith soon became a fierce critic and supported Roosevelt’s Republican opponents in 1936 and 1940. Whether this was down to jealousy or ideological differences – or perhaps both – is a matter of conjecture.

Shortly before he died, Smith had this to say about Roosevelt: “He was the kindest man who ever lived, but don’t get in his way.” 

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.


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