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Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers

How Al Smith Faced Anti-Catholicism (Part 1)


     Catholics in the United States should be deported because they can never be good citizens due

to their allegiance to Rome. That was the argument made in 1928 by Democratic Senator Tom Heflin

of Alabama in response to the Democrats wanting to nominate Al Smith as their candidate for

president. Smith would make history by becoming the first ever Catholic on the ballot for the highest office in the land, but a contingent of his fellow Democrats – many of them members of the KKK – opposed him with all their might.

     So how was Smith able to make history despite his detractors? With the help of his friend Frank. That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Author Terry Golway tells the story of the “unlikely alliance” between the two men in his biography “Frank and Al,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.” 

     Al Smith may be best known today for the annual Catholic Charities fundraising dinner named in his honor, but Golwaycalls him “one of the greatest governors, if not the greatest governor, in New York history.”

Smith grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood which included Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants. His family was working class, though many around him were poor. Financial hardship hit the Smiths when Al’s father died. His mother had to take a job to support the family, and Al himself dropped out of his Catholic grammar school to find work. Through political connections he made as a teenager with the Irish Catholics who ran Manhattan’s Democratic party, better known as Tammany Hall, he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1903 and went on to become a self-educated politician who got things done, often in a bipartisan way, through his charisma, knowledge, and personality.

     Despite making inroads into the halls of power in New York, Catholics weren’t always embraced on a national level.Golway explained, “The overt discrimination against Catholics, particularly the Irish, dates back to the 1840s when the first wave of Irish Catholic immigrants came over to the United States during the potato famine. By 1873, which is when Smith was born, there’s still a lot of contempt for Catholics based on religion, but also based on the fact that many of them were poor and didn’t speak English, like the Italians...And there was a great sense that Catholics were threatening the Protestant identity of the United States.”

     Though Tammany Hall is often used as shorthand for corruption, Golway takes a more nuanced approach to its efforts because the Irish Catholic politicians who ran it helped a lot of people. Smith was something special, though, because he genuinely cared about others and wouldn’t be bought off by rich businessmen. For instance, Smith supported issues like minimum wages, and joined forces with a woman named Frances Perkins to craft a bill that would limit women and children’s working hours to 54 hours a week. Golway writes, “Adults commonly worked 100 hours a week; children worked until they dropped, literally.”

     Many reformers were astonished, said Golway, “that an Irish Catholic machine politician would be in favor of something that’s good. They…were open-minded enough to realize, ‘Okay, you could be a kid from the streets, you could be a papist – as many Catholics were referred to – and still be on the right side of an issue.’ Smith was a paragon of that sort of thing.”

     So where does Roosevelt fit into the picture? That part of the story next time.


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