Al Smith And The Forces Of Hell

As of 1928, Al Smith faced an insurmountable political obstacle. “[Al Smith] is a typical product of American conditions- a man who gains recognition by making the best use of his inborn qualities”read the New York Times, on July 22, 1927. Unfortunately for Smith, these ‘inborn qualities’ would not allow him to win him the upcoming presidential elections against Herbert Hoover, but why? Smith had worked himself up the ranks of politicians, and had made his way from the poor child of immigrant parents to the governor of New York, was entrenched in the working-man’s plight, and was consistently honest throughout his campaign. Smith’s downfall, though, was his link to Catholicism and his liberal stance on the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment. The 1920’s brought with them a conservative movement across the United States that was soon followed by the Great Depression, but New York City was not as conservative, and was in fact considered more liberal than the rest of the country. Added to its liberalism, New York City was the beacon of all things modern: bolstered by its immigration and huge population, it would become the center of new social culture (especially in print and radio).This differentiation created tensions which were exemplified through the election of 1928. Smith represented the progressive city that had birthed him, which meant, to a large portion of the country, that Smith was extremely wet (anti-prohibitionist) and very liberal, plus his Catholic faith made voters shy away even faster. Though Smith was actually moderate in his views on Prohibition (he did not want to repeal it, only modify), and made many speeches to the public explaining that he strongly believed in the separation of his church and the state, his link to New York City ultimately overshadowed his political capabilities. Smith’s loss was inevitable not because of any one factor of his candidacy, but because of the image that heartland Americans had painted of him. Seen through the stark difference between the way he was portrayed and how he truly represented himself, this exaggerated view caused a widespread misinterpretation of Smith. Indeed, this is the nature of all presidential elections, but the prejudiced and propagandized view of Smith, as well as his subsequent loss, exemplify the growing tensions between conservative America and one of its more liberal counterparts: the urban capital, New York City.

Smith was a born and bred New Yorker. Born in 1873 to two immigrant parents (his mother was Irish, his father was German) Smith grew up in the slums of the Lower East Side. Upon starting his own family more than twenty years later, Smith still refused to leave this neighborhood, declaring it his home. Smith worked odd jobs for the majority of his early adult life, then began to be affiliated with Tammany politics, mostly by chance. He was a member of the Seymour Club (a smaller Democratic assembly in New York) and took part in many efforts to end corruption of the larger Democratic club, Tammany Hall. Smith, due both to his abilities as an orator and his amicable nature, was promoted quickly through the two clubs and was elected into the Tammany Assembly in 1903. By 1918, Smith had surpassed the highest echelon of Tammany politics, and was nominated, then elected, as the governor of New York. He remained, and was re-elected four terms in a row. This led to his nomination for candidacy for president of the United States in 1927. His success was not unnatural for the progressive New York City: though he lacked a formal education and much of a political background, he rose quickly because of innate talents that the country would soon come to find frightening.

At the same time, the United States was experiencing a change in political demographic. The “Solid South” (generally defined as the eleven states of what used to be the confederacy) had been entirely democratic up until the 1920s, but a swing towards conservative thought had caused the beginnings of a break in this formerly solid section of the country.The South had previously been known for its belief in “Hell, Calomel, and the Democratic party,” but an article written in 1928 for the North American Review explained that the Democrats had begun to lose their footing greatly in Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky. It also predicted that many other states would also be unfriendly to Smith as he began his campaign because he was simply too far away from their new, conservative status quo. Conversely, the New York Times was publishing articles claiming that “it [was] the perfect time to have a reformer such as Smith” in office. So why the dichotomy in opinion between New York and other states? Ironically, the New York Times unknowingly came upon the answer in another article, stating that “the governor’s supporters believe cities will defeat [the] unorganized rural opponents.” Though major cities, New York in particular, may have been prepared for Smith, rural areas that characterized a majority of the country were not. The large Protestant and Methodist communities throughout the South and West were threatened by Smith’s Catholicism, and likewise objected to his more lenient position on their “noble experiment,” Prohibition.

This conservative atmosphere proved extraordinarily conducive for an over-dramatization of Smith’s major controversial aspects: Catholicism and Prohibition. The Methodist clergy had grown in importance and influence in the South, and the Ku Klux Klan (who were Protestant) had regained power too. Against either of these institutions, Smith’s Catholicism stood starkly, and understandably, alien. For those who were unsure of their stance, the continual propaganda against Smith that was disseminated throughout the country aided in creating a strong opposition. The KKK made it their goal between 1927 and 1928 to “keep Al Smith in New York,” and focused on creating as much ill will towards Smith as possible. They circulated slander through whisper campaigns (propaganda spread by word of mouth) saying that Smith “profited from the business of NY brothels,” and sponsored public rants against Smith to highlight his ‘immorality.’ Similarly, fear grew that Smith, because of his link to the Pope, would not be as loyal to the United States as he would the Vatican.

The Ku Klux Klan also circulated many different slanderous images of Smith to promote their anti-Smith campaign. One cartoon, from the Klan’s Fellowship Forum of November, 1928, depicted Smith as an illiterate drunk, awkwardly attempting to fill “Wilson’s shoes” (referring to Woodrow Wilson and his nearly identical position on Prohibition). Smith, in the cartoon, held a newspaper whose headline read “What I love about New York!” The caricature of Smith was frightening- clad in a full suit (reminiscent of Wall Street), he still bore a strong resemblance to an animal. In another anti-Smith cartoon, the candidate was depicted attempting to carry “the wet crowd,” “alienism,” the Pope, and the tiger of Tammany Hall on his back, all of which were major popular objections to Smith. Unbalanced, the cartoon displayed Smith as incapable of holding these seemingly negative aspects of his campaign together. These cartoons are exemplary of the malicious slurs used against Smith, which left many voters scared of the prospect of Smith as president.

The poor sentiment was furthered by the reaction to Smith’s stance on Prohibition, or at least, his perceived stance. Prohibition had been spearheaded by Methodists, and supported by the KKK, so much of the South and the West can be assumed to have been very dry (proponents of prohibition). Smith was depicted as acutely anti-Prohibition and likely to actually attempt to overturn the Volstead Act as soon as he were to take office. This vilification was effective: voters in the Corn Belt (the midwest where corn was the most prominent crop) “concluded that it must be preferable to be poor and Protestant than to be prosperous with a Popish angle”, as was reported by The New York Times on November 18, 1928. Added opposition arose because, to voters both in the Corn Belt and in the South, Prohibition had become their “idea of a greater moral ideal.”The KKK used huge dramatics to perpetuate this negative sentiment: when Smith arrived in Oklahoma City to campaign, he was met by Klansmen who burned crosses to signify his approach. His time spent in Oklahoma only exacerbated public discomfort with his candidacy. He appealed to the people of Oklahoma in his speeches to be religiously tolerant, but they took this as a pejorative attack from Smith. They felt he was calling them bigoted and generally intolerant. The night after Smith’s departure, the Evangelist priest, John Roach Stratton, gave an infamous speech entitled “Al Smith and the Forces of Hell.” Stratton begged the community not to vote for Smith, contending that “bootleggers and harlots would dance on the white house lawn if he were elected” and that “if you vote for Al Smith, you’ll go to hell and you’ll all be damned.” Stratton, unfortunately for Smith, was just one of many who used theatrics to frighten rural voters away from Smith’s camp, and alternately represented a majority of the anti-Smith feeling. Voters feared the dramatic concept of harlots abound in their nation’s capital and also feared the Pope having a greater precedence than their own needs. Plus, these rural contingencies did not want the morality they saw in Prohibition to be brought down by Smith, the immigrant city-man.

But what is often left out of the equation for Smith’s ultimate loss in the elections of 1928 is New York City. While both Prohibition and Catholicism led Smith to fight a losing battle against the ever-exaggerated and propagandized version of himself, his relationship to New York City is the third, and less often noted, cause of his defeat. At this point, New York City was the nation’s most populous area, and also the most progressive. New York was the center of modern culture for the country, and arguably, also for the western world. Smith had been preceded by many Catholic governors and senators, as well as two Catholic chief justices. Though this was never expounded at the time as his most prominent offense, Smith was often referred to as “New York minded” as a slur in the South. The West similarly saw New York as “dominated by Tammany Hall and Wall Street” and wanted nothing to do with this. The urban East was a frightening entity to the rest of the rural country, who did not want to be connected to the corruption and misrule that the Tammany Assembly was infamous for. Another factor was simply how successful the city had become. Throughout his campaign, Smith cited all the work he had done in New York City to bring prosperity and suggested that other cities could expect corresponding growth were he to be elected as president. To rural voters, however this meant that cities were going to expand and essentially run the country while agriculture increasingly lost importance. Despite the inaccuracy of this idea, there was a growing feeling that Smith was simply “not nationally minded.” This, in large part, was why Smith’s campaign in the west was so fruitless. As the New York Times explained, the western voters were reluctant to believe Smith’s words because he “blew in from the east.”

These stereotypes and prejudices against Smith ultimately clouded the country’s ability to see that Smith was actually quite moderate, as well as an incredibly strong candidate for the presidency. Smith’s platform was much different than what rural contingencies believed it to be. One of Smith’s major points was that, though Republicans said that the country was experiencing what would be never-ending prosperity, America needed to be very careful. It was true that Smith did call for “extensive reorganization and prudent management practices” were he to be elected, but he also promised to otherwise stay away from drastic action. Smith wanted cities to grow, but felt that agriculture should be placed “on an equality with industry” to allow for the simultaneous expansion of wealth in the South and West. The nation, however, did not hear these ideas. Rural voters heard the same thing that had been heard by their state representatives four years beforehand when Smith had exalted the progressive nature of New York City during the Democratic National Convention. While Smith praised the addition of widow’s pension, lowered taxes, and developed parks and playgrounds, the other delegates only heard confirmation of their “suspicion that New Yorkers…believed their state superior in every possible detail to the rest of the nation.” The inability to listen proliferated throughout Smith’s campaign for election in 1928.

In the same way were both Smith’s Catholicism and stance on Prohibition misinterpreted. Smith was not against Prohibition at all, but did feel that, from an economic standpoint, light wines and beers (with an alcoholic content of less than 2.75%) should be authorized for sale and consumption. Smith also felt that by converting the Volstead Act into the 18th Amendment, the country would be placing an ordinary law into the Constitution that should be left up to the discretion of each state. This in no way meant that Smith would find a way to override the 18th Amendment were he elected, nor that he was necessarily a proponent for the sale intoxicating drinks. Smith wanted to find a practical way to appease both the wet and dry factions of the country, while allowing the “habit of strong drink” to fade away on its own. In terms of his Catholicism, Smith spent much of his time explaining to the public that his religion would not become a point of conflict against his official duties. He stated in his campaign autobiography of 1927 that he “recognize[d] no power in the institutions of [his] church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land.” Even more, New York City at this point was still predominantly Protestant, yet had elected and re-elected Smith four times in a row as their governor, proving that his Catholicism had not interfered in his political actions. Though the progressive city could accept Smith for his immense political capabilities, it seemed that the rest of the country could not.

Election day, 1928, Smith lost to Hoover 444 electoral votes to 87, and received only 40% of the popular vote. Smith maintained some of the democratic South, winning South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas. Most of these states, though, were won by a vote just barely above 50% (excluding South Carolina and Mississippi). In the rural North, Smith won next to nothing, showing democratic votes only from New York City in all of New York State. The anti-Smith campaign had served its purpose: there would be no Catholic progressive in office.

While propaganda and slanderous campaigns are often characteristic of presidential elections in the United States, this particular campaign illuminates the burgeoning tensions between rural and urban America. Al Smith’s negative image was largely due to his connection to New York City. Though the city was prepared to welcome Smith as their governor, and as a candidate for the presidency, the anti-immigrant and pro-rural majority of the country could not reconcile their distrust in his Catholicism, his progressive nature, or his reputation as exceedingly wet. The extraordinary difference between the false representation of Smith and the way he truly was is clear in retrospect, but was not for the America of 1928. Smith would have been committed to finding a way to give farm relief to the mercurial markets that heartland agricultural America had to deal with and would not have “stood idly by” as the Great Depression took hold of the country. Even so, the country was experiencing a strong conservative backlash, and thus would never have accepted Smith as their president. The reaction to Smith’s campaign is not altogether surprising, but nonetheless represents the fact that the United States was not yet ready to embrace tolerance, modernity, or, in many ways, New York City.


Sara Schuster, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key

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