Al Smith Presidential Campaign
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Time Period
11/6/1928
Description
Alfred E. "Al" Smith was a four-term New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential candidate when he ran as a Democrat in 1928 against Herbert Hoover. He previously had an unsuccessful presidential run in 1924, but made another attempt four years later.

His campaign faced many obstacles. Southern Democrats were tentative about supporting a northern "wet" or pro-liquor Democrat. Moreover, he was a Catholic, which became the most consequential factor in the 1928 election. As early as April 1927, Smith already was facing public charges that a devout Catholic could not be a loyal American and especially could not hold the country’s highest elected office. Many feared a Catholic takeover of the United States. The Ku Klux Klan disseminated anti-Catholic literature directed against Smith all the way up to the November election.

Smith went on to lose the election in a landslide, reflecting a resurgence in public anti-Catholicism.
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Catholic Religious Events and People in American History
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Prominent Religious Events and People in American History
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Narrative
Alfred E. "Al" Smith, a four-term governor of New York, became the first Catholic nominee for president when he ran as a Democrat against Herbert Hoover in 1928. Smith, known for his support of reformist, progressive politics and for his opposition to Prohibition, previously had attempted a presidential run in 1924, but the Democratic National Convention that year was an extremely divisive event, with the issue of the Ku Klux Klan splitting the party. Four years later, Smith had become the country’s leading urban progressive, and his campaign would give rise to a resurgence in public anti-Catholicism that had been somewhat muted since the seeming demise of the Klan in the mid-1920s.

Although Smith had a relatively smooth route to the Democratic nomination in 1928, the party’s convention in Houston provided a negative foreshadowing of things to come for the Smith campaign. While the South had been solidly Democratic since Reconstruction, the image of an urban, northern, Catholic, anti-Prohibitionist in Smith was too much for many southerners to bear. A number of southern Democrats refused to back Smith’s nomination, which was made easier for these delegates after the delivery to the convention of a message from Smith indicating his clear opposition to Prohibition. Despite their challenge, Smith became the party’s standard-bearer after being formally nominated by future President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In addition to intra-party factionalism, Smith faced the difficult problem of distinguishing himself from Hoover, who also could claim to be pro-business in a booming economy and who could boast a distinguished record of social concern.

However, the single most consequential factor in the 1928 election was the issue of Smith’s religion. As early as April 1927, Smith already was facing public charges to the effect that a devout Catholic could not simultaneously be a loyal American and especially could not hold the country’s highest elected office. Smith faced these challenges head on, arguing that his religion, no more than any other, prevented one from loyally serving one’s country. At this point, though, Smith’s enemies were able to draw on a much longer American history of anti-Catholicism that saw Catholicism as being diametrically opposed to liberty and republican government. During this period, even religious moderates could accept the notion that Smith was working cooperatively with church officials and the pope to facilitate the Catholic conquest of the United States. Not surprisingly, despite its previous decline, the Klan made a very public comeback in the run-up to the presidential election in November 1928 and frequently led the charge in disseminating anti-Catholic literature directed against Smith.

Smith went on to lose the election in a landslide. Hoover and the Republicans were able to break the supposedly Solid South and even won Smith’s own state of New York. Hoover captured more than 58 percent of the popular vote and 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87. Coupled with his ties to urban immigrants and his anti-Prohibitionism, Smith’s Catholicism played a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the election, and anti-Catholicism would soon see a larger comeback that spread among several intellectuals in the coming decades.
Religious Groups
Catholicism (Western Liturgical Family): Other ARDA Links

Photographs

Al Smith campaign speech- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-37755

Al Smith portrait- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-37228

Joseph Robinson, Al Smith's running mate- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-hec-21465

Al Smith campaign political cartoon- English Wikipedia
Book/Journal Source(s)
Handlin, Oscar, 1958. Al Smith and His America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
McGreevy, John T., 2003. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Slayton, Robert A., 2001. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. New York: The Free Press.
Web Page Contributor
William S. Cossen
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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