By Thomas J. Craughwell - OSV Newsweekly, 11/4/2012
In a few days, the 2012 presidential election will be history. Your favorite television stations will not be clogged with campaign attack ads. Your phone will no longer be ringing with political robo-calls. The talking heads will move on to talk about something else. Your Facebook friends will stop lobbying for their candidate. Don’t pretend you won’t be relieved.
Of course, it won’t be over entirely. There must be the inevitable analysis of the election results. Invariably, somebody will bring up the issue of “the Catholic vote.” This is understandable considering the many years when Catholics were a fairly consistent voting bloc for the Democrats, but it really is time for the pundits to catch up — Catholics are just as divided on political and social issues as their non-Catholic neighbors. Catholics do not vote as a bloc anymore. Regardless, in this election, Catholics in certain states may be influential.
Days after the 2008 election, the Pew Forum published on its website the article “How the Faithful Voted.” The study found that 54 percent of Catholic voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama, 45 percent for John McCain. This was a swing back to the Democratic candidate — in 2004, 52 percent of Catholic voters supported George W. Bush, while 47 percent backed John Kerry (who, you’ll recall, is Catholic).
Some Catholic political commentators believe that Catholics will be a decisive factor on Election Day. George J. Marlin, author of “The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact,” told NewsMaxTV that he thinks the election will be decided in the Midwest states that once were centers of heavy industry. These states have been hit hard by the ongoing recession, and they have large Catholic populations. Obama swept all these states in 2008, but they appear to be in play now.
Frustration with the economy may cause Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 to vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney four weeks from now.
The wild card is the religious liberty issue. The bishops of the United States have asked the Faithful to stand firm against the Obama administration’s assault on the First Amendment’s guarantees regarding freedom of religion, but we won’t know until after the election if this issue influenced Catholic voters. That may be the most interesting post-election statistic. In the meantime, let’s look back to how Catholics have voted since the founding of the republic.
In 1788, when George Washington took the oath of office as first president of the United States, the population stood at approximately 2 million, about 30,000 of whom were Catholic. Most Catholics were found in Maryland and Pennsylvania, with about 1,500 in New York and a couple hundred in New Jersey. The U.S. Constitution, with the Bill of Rights guaranteeing (among other things) freedom of religion, was still making its way through the states for ratification. Nonetheless, already anti-Catholic elements in the new U.S. government were searching for loopholes to keep Catholics out of political office. The state constitution of North Carolina, for example, barred Catholics from public office. In New York, future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay argued before the state assembly that Catholics should be kept from political office unless they renounced all allegiance to the pope. These anti-Catholic prohibitions lingered on into the 1840s. For the most part, however, Catholics were active in American political life, even if only as voters (a new experience for them — under English rule, Catholics had been denied the right to vote).
Charles Carroll of Maryland (his cousin John was the first Catholic bishop in the United States) had been elected to the first U.S. Congress, where he served on the first congressional finance committee. As a Federalist, he believed in a strong, centralized federal government, a sound monetary policy that included a national bank to stabilize the currency, and good relations with Britain (but not with France, which was still in the throes of the Reign of Terror). Carroll’s influence among his fellow Catholics in Maryland was so strong that virtually all of them followed him into the Federalist Party.
Washington’s campaign for the presidency had been subdued. In fact, he had not traveled around campaigning at all (it was considered bad form). His supporters did the campaigning for him. But after Washington left office in 1796, electioneering heated up. The two candidates, Federalist John Adams of Massachusetts and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, were vilified in the press (newspapers at the time made no pretense of impartiality). Jefferson supporters denounced Adams as a secret monarchist. Adams’ supporters said Jefferson was a criminal. Catholic Federalists stuck with their party and Adams won the election, squeaking by with 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68.
In the election of 1800, Catholic voters in New York and Maryland became players in national politics. Jefferson had successfully portrayed the Federalists as a political elite of wealthy, landed gentlemen (which most, if not all, of the party’s leaders were, including Carroll). Although Jefferson was a member of Virginia’s plantation aristocracy, his policies favored “the little guy.” Catholic farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and laborers in New York voted for Jefferson. They did so in Maryland, too, in spite of fervent appeals from Carroll. Thanks in part to Catholic support, New York and Maryland swung for Jefferson.
At the time of Washington’s election, virtually all Catholics in America were of English descent, with a sprinkling of Irish, German, French and Spanish. By 1830, however, immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean outnumbered the English Catholics. The largest groups were from Ireland and Germany, but there were also French refugees from the violence of the Revolution, and Haitians — white and black — who had escaped the Revolution there. The increase in the Catholic population resulted in the building of more Catholic churches, schools and charitable institutions. Catholics became more noticeable, and anti-Catholic elements in America did not like it. The age-old hostility to Catholicism was coupled with a new hostility to foreigners and led to long delays — 14 years or more — before an immigrant could apply for citizenship. Some political extremists advocated forbidding citizenship to immigrants altogether. The extremists feared that if Catholic immigrants could vote, they could use the ballot box to alter the character of America.
These fears of Catholics and immigrants evolved into a political movement known as the Nativists, better known as the Know-Nothings. Part secret society and part political organization, the Nativists were instructed by the leaders that if anyone asked about their political platform, they were to reply, “I know nothing.”
The Know-Nothings became a potent political force in the 1830s, 1840s and even into the 1850s. They dominated state and local politics in all the New England states, as well New York, Pennsylvania and even California. There were Know-Nothing mayors of Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston. And then there were the riots: from Bath, Maine, to Galveston, Texas, Know-Nothing mobs attacked Catholic churches and institutions, as well as homes and businesses owned by the Catholics. There is no accurate body count, but at least 100 were killed and hundreds were injured in riots that flared up sporadically across America for years.
Throughout this upheaval, an overwhelming number of Catholic voters remained loyal to the Democratic Party. New York City and Philadelphia became Democratic powerhouses primarily because both cities had large Catholic immigrant populations. The Whig Party allied itself with the Know-Nothings, which disgusted a 29-year-old Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. At a gathering of Whigs in Springfield, Lincoln broke with his party’s platform, submitting a resolution that declared, “The guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution … belongs no less to the Catholic than to the Protestant.” Lawyer Lincoln’s resolution was not adopted.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were cementing their relationship with urban Catholic voters by nominating Catholics for local office, such as city councilman, alderman or state legislator. With overwhelming support from their fellow Catholics, these candidates almost invariably won.
If the Nativists had been distressed by the tiny Catholic presence in the 1830s, they became panic-stricken by the 1850s. The revolutions of 1848 brought Catholics from Germany, Austria and Bohemia to America in unprecedented numbers. Simultaneously, the potato famine in Ireland drove hundreds of thousands of penniless, starving Irish to America. As a result, the American Catholic population, which stood at 663,000 in 1840, soared to 3.1 million by 1860.
The Whigs began to believe that if they wanted to become the dominant political party in the nation, they must make amends with the Catholics. After years of Whig candidates spewing all manner of anti-Catholic rhetoric, it wouldn’t be easy to win Catholic voters away from the Democrats. Then, in 1852, the Whigs found an ideal candidate and the Democrats made some very foolish mistakes.
The Whigs nominated for president Gen. Winfield Scott, the hero of the War with Mexico. Scott was an Episcopalian, but he was no bigot. He sent his daughters to Catholic convent schools. During the war he protected Catholic churches in Mexico from would-be looters. On one occasion he even celebrated a victory by attending Mass.
As for the Democrats, inexplicably they alienated the Irish party faithful in Massachusetts by selecting as candidate for the governor’s race an ardent supporter of the temperance movement.
Most momentous election
Arguably, the election of 1860 was the most momentous in United States history. It was widely understood that if Lincoln, the Republican candidate, were elected president, many Southern states would secede, and the result would be civil war. The Republican Party in the North campaigned hard to lure Irish and German Catholics away from the Democrats and into the Republican fold — at least for this election. But Catholic voters were not buying the sudden “conversion” of abolitionists, members of the temperance movement and Know-Nothings who tried to pass themselves off now as the friends of the immigrant and the champions of down-trodden Catholics. The Catholics stood by the Democrats, not least because they feared what civil war would mean to them economically.
While most Germans had come to America with some money, many Irish refugees from the famine had arrived penniless. For generations, their families had been tenant farmers, but with no cash to buy land out west, the overwhelming number of Irish immigrants settled in the cities. With no job skills, the Irish were compelled to take the dirtiest, most dangerous, worst paying jobs — the jobs native-born Protestant Yankees didn’t want: digging canals, building railroads, loading and unloading ships’ cargo, working in coal mines. The Irish weren’t at the absolute bottom of the pay scale, but they were very close. Only one group was paid less — free blacks. The Irish feared that if civil war broke out, the Union would win (a safe gamble) and the slaves would be free. Overnight, the Irish would be competing for work with 4 million newly liberated black men and women. From their point of view, a vote for Lincoln was entirely against their self-interest.
After the first shot was fired upon Fort Sumter, three New Yorkers, all Irish immigrants, successfully persuaded the Irish to fight for the Union. The first was John Hughes, archbishop of New York. Hughes had been a tenant farmer in Ireland and had begun life in America as a ditch-digger. He traded up to a job as assistant gardener at Mother Seton’s convent in Emmitsburg, Md. Unlike so many of his fellow Irishmen, Hughes had a little education: he could read and write, and he even had a smattering of Latin. One day, he screwed up his courage, knocked on the convent door, and asked Mother Seton to help him gain admittance to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, just a couple miles up the road. Mother Seton agreed, and through her intervention, Hughes enrolled in the seminary, was ordained and rose to be archbishop of New York. When the war began, he urged the Irish to prove their worth to their Yankee neighbors by fighting in defense of their new homeland.
The second man of influence was Col. Michael Corcoran, commander of the all-Irish militia regiment, the 69th New York Infantry. In 1860, the Prince of Wales came to New York. The city fathers planned a grand military parade up Broadway in honor of Queen Victoria’s son, but Corcoran refused to lead the Irishmen of the 69th in a parade honoring the monarchy that occupied Ireland. Corcoran was arrested for insubordination and tried by court martial. The trial was still in session when the Civil War began. Corcoran issued a statement calling upon all Irish Americans to fight in defense of the Union. On the strength of that statement, the Army quashed the charges against Corcoran, restored his rank, and reinstated him as commander of the 69th. Corcoran opened a recruiting station, and the line of volunteers wrapped around the block — every Irish immigrant in New York wanted to fight with the man who had thumbed his nose at the Prince of Wales.
The third man of influence was Thomas Francis Meagher, a convicted revolutionary whom the British government had exiled for life to Tasmania. Meagher escaped to New York, enlisted with the 69th, and first saw action at Bull Run in July 1861. The battle was a debacle, with the Union army sprinting back to Washington, D.C. Corcoran’s 69th, however, retired from the field in good order, covering the retreat of their comrades. Meagher concluded that if one regiment of Irishmen was this good, a brigade would be better. With the approval of the War Department and President Lincoln, Meagher established the Irish Brigade. At it’s core was Corcoran’s 69th.
The valor of the Irish Brigade in battle won the admiration of both Union and Confederate commanders, and was reported in both Northern and Southern newspapers. It won for the Irish some grudging respect from the Yankees and made it easier for the Irish war to begin assimilating into American society.
The years after the Civil War also saw Irish Catholic Democrats dominate urban politics. Big city machines sprang up in Boston, New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and elsewhere. Their purpose, of course, was to get Democratic candidates elected to local, state and national office. To encourage voters to support the Democratic ticket, the machine helped immigrants find jobs; picked up the tab for weddings, funerals and other family functions; paid doctor’s bills or heating bills; and even handed out turkeys to the indigent at Thanksgiving and Christmas, thereby building up the immigrants’ loyalty to the Democrats in urban areas. Wisely, as waves of new immigrants arrived in America — Slavs, Italians, Jews, French Canadians — most Irish-dominated machine extended their help to the newcomers, ensuring that most of these future American citizens would be loyal Democrats, too.
By 1928, the Democrats were a “big tent” party that welcomed “wets” and “drys” in the era of Prohibition, Catholic and Jewish immigrants, as well as anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant Klansmen, advocates of social reform in the North, and die-hard supporters of Jim Crow legislation in the South. The party’s nomination of Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic from New York, caused jubilation among Catholic voters, but inspired a backlash among non-Catholic Democrats. He became the target for a host of vicious anti-Catholic smears, the mildest of which claimed that if Smith were elected, he would invite the pope to move into the White House and surrender to the pontiff the U.S. government. Smith’s candidacy revived the Ku Klux Klan; as he traveled by train across the country, he often saw crosses burning along the tracks. Although Catholic voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote for Smith, it was not enough; anti-Catholic voters also turned out in vast numbers. Smith lost by more than 6 million votes; he carried only 8 out of 48 states, and garnered only 87 electoral votes to Herbert Hoover’s 444. After the results were in, Smith said, “The time hasn’t come when a man can say his beads in the White House.”
A second chance
Thirty-two years later, the Democrats were ready once again to see if the time had come when “a man can say his beads in the White House.” John F. Kennedy was handsome, charming, witty; he came from a family of nine children; his father was a self-made millionaire and former ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (Great Britain); and his mother was the daughter of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a popular mayor of Boston; she was also noted for her piety. Kennedy was married to the stunning Jacqueline Bouvier, a bona fide American Catholic blueblood; the couple had two young children. Kennedy’s campaign strategists — and his father hired the best he could find — assumed JFK could count on the Irish vote, but would other ethnic groups, especially those who were blue-collar or struggling to make ends meet, vote for a young man from such a privileged background? On Election Day, the answer was yes. JFK won 75 percent of the Irish vote, 75 percent of the Italian vote, 82 percent of the Slavic vote and 85 percent of the Hispanic vote. The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency was a clear indication that after more than 300 years in America, Catholics had finally reached the pinnacle of success and acceptance in the United States.
The years after Kennedy’s presidency saw the breakdown of the Catholic vote. Beginning in the mid-1960s and stretching into the 1970s, the Democratic Party moved toward the left, a direction that initially made many Catholics uncomfortable. The Democratic Party turned against the war in Vietnam, while throwing their support behind such volatile issues as abortion and, later, embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriage. At the same time, Catholic voters as a group began to fragment. In the turmoil within the Church that followed the Second Vatican Council, bishops lost a great deal of the influence they had once enjoyed over the faithful. Dissenting Catholic voices became louder than ever, and even Catholics who took their faith seriously believed that they could separate their faith from how they voted.
Today, the Catholic bloc is a distant memory. Catholics can no longer be counted upon to vote for a fellow Catholic — as the liberal John Kerry and the conservative Rick Santorum discovered. Nor are Catholics as solidly Democratic as they once were. About 40 percent of Catholics identify themselves as independents, while at any given time between 21 and 36 percent of Catholics identify themselves as Republican, which means that between 24 and 39 percent of Catholics identify themselves as Democrats.
How will Catholics vote a few days from now? It is anyone’s guess. The Obama administration’s attempt to compel religious institutions to cover medical services and procedures that violate their religious principles has become an issue that has united both conservative and liberal Catholics. But most likely, the sorry state of the economy will be the deciding factor for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, identified the issue most important to voters: “It’s the economy, stupid.” By focusing on the economy, Bill Clinton won the election — with 47 percent of the Catholic vote.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” (Harvard University Press, $17) and “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs