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Governor Al Smith & the 1928 Presidential Election

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Before JFK, 'Alcohol Al' Smith became the first Catholic presidential nominee of a major party in 1928. The election focused on Smith's religion but also on his urban and immigrant background. Read about Smith and the election of 1928.

Who Was Al Smith?

When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he had to assure Americans that as a Roman Catholic he would not place the interests of the pope in Rome over the needs of the United States. He was loyal to America, he explained, not to the Vatican. Voters agreed, and elected him as the first Catholic president of the United States.

But he wasn't the first Catholic presidential candidate on a major ticket. That was Democrat Alfred Emanuel Smith in 1928. The child of Irish immigrants, Smith worked his way up from the Lower East Side of New York City, through the Tammany Hall political machine, and eventually served four terms as governor of New York.

Al Smith speaking to a crowd, wearing a derby hat
al smith

As a progressive governor, Smith pushed legislation limiting corporate power, improving social services, and promoting more direct democratic involvement in the political process. Sympathetic to the immigrant, working-class population, Governor Smith helped to improve factory conditions, low-income housing, and welfare programs.

He also opposed federal immigration quotas, signed a state anti-Ku Klux Klan bill, and opposed Prohibition. For working-class urban Democrats, Smith was a hero who protected their interests. Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants saw Smith as their champion. For his efforts, Smith became known as the 'Happy Warrior.'

Irish Immigrants in the Beginning of the 20th Century
irish immigrants

The Issues of the 1928 Election

Smith would need to remain happy, because in 1928 he faced the popular Herbert Hoover, who represented everything opposite. Engineer and former Secretary of Commerce, Hoover was a small-town Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and appealed to those Americans in the South and West who saw these traits as synonymous with being 'American.' Hoover was a symbol of the prosperity of the 1920s, and he championed big business and economic growth.

Herbert Hoover
hoover

Since the economy was strong, the campaign focused on social and cultural issues, and Smith was at the center of the political storm. For rural and small-town Americans of Anglo-Saxon Protestant background, Catholic Smith was foreign. When they heard his New York accent on the radio and saw pictures of him with his derby hat and fancy suits, they marked Smith as a city man who didn't have in mind the interests of 'real' Americans.

For these voters, the issue of Prohibition reinforced their unease with Al Smith. Smith was opposed to Prohibition and argued it was an attack on immigrant culture. But old-stock Americans considered drinking - especially the custom of many immigrants groups to drink on Sundays - as an affront to their traditional values. For this, Smith was dubbed 'Alcohol Al.'

But it was Smith's Catholicism that came under the most direct attack. Most Americans believed Catholics were more loyal to the pope than to America, and that parochial schools prevented Catholics from assimilating into mainstream culture. In addition, many recent southern and eastern European immigrants were Roman Catholic.

For example, a Methodist bishop in Virginia attacked Catholicism as 'the Mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance and sin' and admonished Protestants not to vote for a candidate who represented 'the kind of dirty people that you see today on the sidewalks of New York.' Bishop James Cannon of the Methodist Episcopal Church insisted that 'no subject of the Pope' should ever be allowed to be president.

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