Category: Archive

St. Patrick’s Day 2005: Reform Schooled

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It is hard to remember now, in the 21st century, just how much Franklin Roosevelt meant to Irish-Americans.
It is even harder to remember — because this part of the story has been ignored — how much Irish America meant to Franklin Roosevelt.
That is not to say that FDR knew much about Irish history, or that he appreciated a good ceili. But there can be little question (except among most of FDR’s biographers) that Irish America had a profound influence on Roosevelt’s politics and his career.
Many have tried to explain how this privileged son of the Protestant ruling class came to champion the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the disenfranchised. A common explanation has it that he came to sympathize with society’s others once he fell victim to polio. Others have suggested the influence of his wife, Eleanor, who brought her husband to the Lower East Side to see how the other half lived.
But very few note that Franklin Roosevelt came of age politically during the golden years of Alfred E. Smith, when the so-called political machine in New York — controlled by Charles Francis Murphy and other Irish-Americans — became an agent for the sort of change that reformers demanded for years but could never deliver. Likewise, it is rarely noted how many Irish-Americans FDR relied on to implement the New Deal — people like James Farley (postmaster general), Edward Flynn (White House confidante), Robert Hannegan (Democratic National chairman), Thomas Corcoran (all-purpose aide), Frank Walsh (attorney general) and others received barely a mention in most studies of the 1930s and ’40s.
It is a curious omission, made all the more so when you consider the prominence of Father Charles Coughlin in the standard New Deal narrative. Father Coughlin was, of course, the fiery Irish-American radio priest who famously turned on Roosevelt after FDR’s first term. His descent into invective (he called the president “Franklin Doublecross Roosevelt,” among other things) and anti-Semitism was deplorable. Almost as bad, however, is the forgotten part of Father Coughlin’s story. As William Shannon pointed out in his book “The American Irish,” Father Coughlin prepared the way for Irish-America’s embrace of FDR and the New Deal in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
At a time when the New Deal’s cornerstone, Social Security, is under attack, it is worth recalling how much of Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was put in place by Irish-American politicians imbued with the social teachings of the Catholic church. Indeed, those very teachings, which challenged the American Protestant tradition of rugged individualism, helped win Catholic support for the New Deal, and for Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s mentor, Al Smith, once confessed his ignorance of papal encyclicals — Smith wasn’t much of a reader — but it would be hard to find another politician from the early 20th century who better exemplified the church’s emphasis on social justice. Smith, remember, was not only a child of urban poverty. He also was a creature of dreaded Tammany Hall — two words that send so many historians into hysterics of condemnation and contempt. And yet this unapologetic product of the ultimate Irish-Catholic political machine became the most-progressive (and incorruptible) governor in America during the first half of the 20th century.
With the active cooperation of his ally and friend Charles Francis Murphy — the boss (again, the words prompt a curl of the lips) of Tammany for most of the 1920s — Al Smith changed the way New Yorkers, and Americans, viewed local politics and government itself. The unemployed, the sick, the poor no longer were forced to fend for themselves or rely on either private charity or their local political organization. Instead, an active, expanded government, acting as the agent for society, would assist them. That, Smith and others concluded, was the right thing to do, the moral thing to do. So Smith, with Tammany’s assistance, passed far-reaching social legislation to protect workers and children from the abuses of unregulated capital.
During these years, Franklin Roosevelt watched, and learned. In his early years as a state legislator in Albany, FDR took the predictable reformer’s line on the urban machine and those (like Smith) associated with it. Needless to say, Tammany was no fan of Roosevelt — if it thought about him at all, which was unlikely. From the machine’s perspective, young Franklin Roosevelt was just another Anglo-Saxon Protestant reformer with an Ivy League degree who looked down on ethnic politics in corrupt cities.
By 1920, Franklin Roosevelt believed he was ready for the national stage, thanks in part to his name, which he shared with the still-popular Republican Theodore Roosevelt. He became the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in an election that the old hands knew was a lost cause. Sure enough, voters turned to the Republican Warren Harding after eight years of insufferable lectures from Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt went back to New York and watched Al Smith and Tammany engineer a social and political revolution through the 1920s.
It would be ridiculous to assert that the Tammany crowd sat around discussing the political implications of Pope Leo XII’s famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum (translated from the Latin, “Of New Things”). But whether consciously or not, they were putting into practice Leo’s articulation of Catholic social teaching. Unregulated commerce was just as evil as communism, and workers had the right to organize to achieve a measure of social justice, Leo said. The machine, with its close ties to unions, symbolized Catholic rejection of the American Protestant ideals — rugged individualism and laissez faire.
Franklin Roosevelt was no more likely to immerse himself in papal writings than the average Tammany sachem, but he was very much an interested observer as New York became a proving ground for what would later become known as the New Deal. The onetime antagonist of Tammany took a second look at these vilified men — and even the occasional woman, like Belle Moskowitz. No doubt to his amazement, they were passing reforms that the reformers themselves could never hope to achieve.
Roosevelt and that living, breathing symbol of the machine — Al Smith — grew to become unlikely friends and allies. In the words of one Democratic operative, Smith was a “Bowery mick,” and Roosevelt was a “Protestant patrician.” When Smith’s name was placed into nomination for president at the 1924 Democratic convention, it was Roosevelt who gave the nominating speech. That speech, in which FDR called Smith “the happy warrior,” was more than the coming together of reformer and machine, of patrician and ethnic, of Protestant and Catholic. It was also FDR’s first appearance since contracting polio. With grit that Smith would always underestimate, FDR managed to “walk” to the podium on the arm of his son, smiling all the while.
Smith did not win the nomination that year, of course, but he did next time. And as he crossed the country in a vain attempt to become the first Catholic president, Al Smith hand-picked that Protestant patrician, Franklin Roosevelt, as his successor as governor.
Four years later, Roosevelt outfought his mentor, Smith, to win the nomination himself. And while Smith later turned on his onetime prot

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