To Franklin Roosevelt, he was the “Happy Warrior.” To suspicious Protestants, he was a pawn of the pope. Amid such conflicting views as these, the remarkable political career of Al Smith was forged.
Four-term governor of New York and Democratic candidate for president in 1928, Smith was a living embodiment of the enormous shifts in America’s cultural and political center of gravity during his lifetime — from rural to urban, Anglo-Saxon to immigrant, Protestant to religiously diverse.
Of significance to Catholics in particular, he demonstrated that one could rise to the top of America’s political heap — or at least very close to it — yet, in the end, still have his religion count against him.
Alfred Emanuel Smith was born Dec. 30, 1873, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This was the section of the city where he would live all his life. The Brooklyn Bridge was being built nearby at the time, and Smith later said he and the bridge “grew up together.”
His parents were Alfred Ferraro — a son of Italian and German immigrants and a Civil War veteran who took the name Alfred E. Smith — and Catherine Mulvihill Smith, daughter of a couple from County Westmeath, Ireland.
When the boy turned 13, his father died, and young Al dropped out of parochial school to help support the family. He never attended high school or college, saying later that he learned about human nature while working at the Fulton Fish Market for $12 a week. His speaking skills were honed in parish theatricals.
In 1900, he married Catherine Dunn. They had five children and were a notably happy couple until her death in 1944.
Smith’s early political career was linked to Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine often depicted as an archetype of big-city political corruption. But Smith, scandal-free throughout his career, labored on behalf of reform causes like government efficiency and measures to help working people and immigrants.
From 1904 to 1915, he served in the state assembly. Depending on the Democrats’ political fortunes, at various times he held the offices of majority and minority leader and speaker.
In November 1915, he was elected Sheriff of New York County, a position abundant in political patronage. In 1917, he became president of the city’s Board of Aldermen.
Smith was elected governor in 1918, defeated for re-election in 1920, then re-elected in 1922, 1924 and 1926. He was identified with the “progressive” movement in politics, and his years as governor saw the enactment of measures dealing with issues like workmen’s compensation, women’s pensions and child labor. Among his close political associates were such later prominent figures as James A. Farley, who managed several Smith election campaigns, planner and builder Robert Moses, and Frances Perkins, a future United States Secretary of Labor.
In 1924, Smith sought the Democratic presidential nomination. It was then that Roosevelt, in a nominating speech, called him “the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield” — a tag that stuck. Smith and another contender fought it out at the party convention through 100 inconclusive ballots until the weary delegates turned to a third candidate, who was overwhelmed by Republican Calvin Coolidge in November.
Nothing daunted, Smith now set his sights on the 1928 nomination. But it was clear from the start that when and if he ran for president, the religious issue would dog him.
Spewing anti-Catholic vitriol, the Ku Klux Klan was riding high in those days. A U.S. senator, Thomas Heflin of Alabama, made a name for himself denouncing “the Roman hierarchy and the political machine.” Oregon adopted a law closing down Catholic schools (the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it in 1925). In such ways, the stage was set for an ugly campaign if Smith sought the nation’s highest office.
If the 1928 presidential race made it clear how far America had traveled from the overt religious bigotry of the 19th century, it also showed how far the country still had to go to make the Constitution’s ban on a religious test for public office a reality.
Anti-Catholicism was an all-too-obvious part of the opposition to Smith. An editorial in a Protestant magazine declaring “the mere mention of a Roman Catholic as president” as a cause for alarm typified its tone and substance.
“Today Rome has reached one of its long-sought goals,” the editorial said. “It well behooves us to emphasize before our people those cardinal principles which came forth as fruit of the Reformation, on which our government is founded ... Rome has not changed ... Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Somewhat more sophisticated was an “open letter” in the Atlantic Monthly magazine raising questions about Smith’s commitment to religious liberty and his potential vulnerability to political dictation by the Catholic hierarchy.
Smith replied with an article written with the assistance of Father Francis Patrick Duffy, a close friend and chaplain of New York’s famous “Fighting 69th” regiment in World War I. Here Smith argued that the record of American Catholics — loyalty to the nation, service during the war — counted for more than theories about “dogmatic principles.” This casual dismissal of Church teaching by the candidate made some Catholics nervous, but most observers felt Smith had offered an effective defense.
In the end, though, it hardly mattered. Smith lost badly to Herbert Hoover in November, collecting 40.77 percent of the popular vote and 87 electoral votes to the Republican’s 58.2 percent and 444 electoral votes.
It’s likely that no Democrat could have won that year — the Republicans were too much identified with the prosperity of the 1920s for that to happen. And other issues besides religion played a role in Smith’s defeat, including his opposition to Prohibition and his image as a fast-talking New Yorker. (Using “East Side, West Side” as his campaign song didn’t help.)
Moreover, Smith’s Catholicism undoubtedly helped by bringing him the Catholic vote (80 percent), including the votes of many Catholic women who had never voted before.
Overall, however, religion worked against him, with traditionally Democratic states like Texas, Oklahoma and Florida all going Republican. Countless anti-Smith votes were cast “because he was a Catholic,” said The New York Times. That’s still the consensus today.
Smith’s defeat had a powerful impact on the Catholic psyche — a mixture of red-hot anger and a frustrated yearning for acceptance by non-Catholic Americans. More than two decades later, these feelings were very much present in a best-selling novel titled “The Cardinal.”
The book, by Catholic writer Henry Morton Robinson, is a highly romanticized but thinly disguised version of the career of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. Speaking of the events of 1928, the author attributes to his central character, a rising young churchman named Stephen Fermoyle, these bitter reflections:
“Would [critics of the Church] never realize that Catholicism in the United States was a cornerstone of civil order, a bulwark against the corrupting forces of anarchy and decay? To those who accused the Church of undermining American freedom, Stephen wanted to cry out: ‘Our sole aim is to inculcate patriotism founded upon divine law ... to help men keep alive the light of their souls, the hope of heaven, the love of God.’”
Smith was eager for another shot at the White House in the election of 1932, but the party turned instead to Roosevelt. Smith supported him during the campaign but later became a critic of FDR’s New Deal policies. Relations between the two men soured.
Meanwhile, Smith had become president of Empire State Inc., the corporation responsible for building the Empire State Building, and presided over the management of what was then the tallest building in the world. His identification with this iconic structure supplied an appropriate winding-down for the career of a man who’d always been a New Yorker at heart.
Smith died on Oct. 4, 1944, just five months after his beloved wife. But bitter recollections of the campaign of 1928 lingered on in the memories of American Catholics for many years after that. One long-term result of Smith’s defeat — and the anti-Catholic bigotry that did so much to bring it about — was to mobilize Catholics as a national political force.
As events were to show in time, the great beneficiary of that would be another Catholic politician named John F. Kennedy.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.