By Edward T. O’Donnell
Seventy-two years ago this week, on Nov. 6, 1928, Al Smith’s American Dream collided with reality. Having risen from the mean streets of New York to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, he was one of the most effective and highly regarded politicians of the 1920s. He accepted the Democratic nomination for president with high hopes, but election day brought profound disappointment. It wasn’t his first defeat, but it proved to be his last.
Few decades in American history have been so characterized by prosperity and optimism as the 1920s. Irish Americans, with rising levels of education, income, and membership in the professions, enjoyed the good times as much as any other group. For many of them, the man who embodied their rising fortunes was Al Smith. Soon after he became governor of the nation’s most populous state in 1918, people began whispering about the White House.
Smith nearly won his party’s nomination in 1924 in what proved to be one of the most contentious political conventions in history. Four years later, there was no denying him. No Catholic had ever been nominated for president by a major political party. Perhaps, thought many Irish Americans, our moment had finally come. Maybe America was ready to see us as fully American as themselves.
Unfortunately for Smith and his supporters, they were about to discover that while the economy of the Twenties was indeed "Roaring," its politics were decidedly reactionary. This was the same decade, after all, of the Red Scare (1919-20), immigration restriction (1924), the Scopes "Monkey Trial" (1925), and Sacco and Vanzetti (1927). More broadly, it was a decade that saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. No longer confined to the Deep South, the organization had broadened its message of hate to include Catholics and Jews as well as African Americans. By 1928 the Klan boasted a nationwide membership of nearly five million.
Smith also faced a larger problem: 1928 belonged to the Republicans. The popular image of Herbert Hoover as the grim man in the gray suit presiding over the onset of the Great Depression obscures the fact that in 1928 he was one of the nation’s most accomplished and respected public servants. The public also identified his party with prosperity. Why, many asked, change horses now?
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But if any Democratic nominee was destined to lose in 1928, they were not destined to lose in the manner that Al Smith did. Optimistic and jovial by nature, Smith was stunned by the cold response he received in the American Heartland. Vicious editorials and speeches by anti-Catholic demagogues hurt even more. The man urban Americans saw as the epitome of the self-made man and big-hearted public official was elsewhere viewed by evangelical Protestants, prohibitionists, and anti-Catholics as the representative of big-city corruption and immorality. Smith didn’t lose the election of 1928 because he was Irish Catholic, but he lost ugly and lost big because of it.
Hoover garnered 58 percent of the popular vote (444 electoral votes) to Smith’s 41 (87 electoral votes). Even his home state of New York went for Hoover, leaving Smith with victories in only Massachusetts and six Deep South states. His strong showing in the South had nothing to do with his policies and everything to do with the fact that 63 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, most Southerners still couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican.
Just as Smith’s nomination in the summer of 1928 had thrilled Irish Americans, so his crushing defeat in November left them stunned and disillusioned. Maybe, many wondered, we haven’t arrived after all. It was a bitter experience many Irish Americans did not soon forget.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 1, 1884: The Gaelic Athletic Association is founded in Ireland.
Nov. 2, 1920: James Daly, leader of the India Mutiny, is executed.
Nov. 5, 1946: 29-year-old John F. Kennedy begins his political career winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nov. 7, 1990: Mary Robinson is elected Ireland’s first woman president.
Nov. 1, 1625: Saint Oliver Plunkett born in Loughcrew, Co. Meath.
Nov. 2, 1795: President James K. Polk born in Mecklenburg County, N.C.
Nov. 3, 1815: Nationalist John Mitchel born in County Derry.
Nov. 4, 1918: Actor Art Carney born in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
Nov. 6, 1955: Broadcast journalist Maria Shriver born in Chicago.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.