By: Alfred E. Smith
Date: September 20, 1928
Source: Smith, Alfred E. "Campaign Address of Governor Alfred E. Smith, Oklahoma City, September 20, 1928." Printed in Campaign Addresses of Governor Alfred E. Smith. Washington, D.C.: Democratic National Committee, 1929. Reprinted in John Tracy Ellis, ed. Documents of American Catholic History. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1962, 613–617.
About the Author: Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944) was born in New York City. He served as governor of New York State for four terms and was noted for his progressive reforms. Smith became the first Roman Catholic nominated for the U.S. presidency in 1928, losing to Herbert Hoover. He died on October 4, 1944, at the age of seventy.
Alfred E. Smith was born in 1873 on New York City's Lower East Side. He attended Catholic school and served as an altar boy at St. James Roman Catholic Church. While an average student, he won a citywide oratory contest at the age of eleven. Smith dropped out of school after the death of his father and went to work. He became involved in the Democratic Party and was elected to his first office in 1903 in the New York State Assembly. A successful reformer, he was elected governor of New York State in 1918.
Smith's record made him a logical choice to be the standard bearer for the Democrats in the 1924 presidential election. The 1924 Democratic convention, however, was divided between the Protestant, pro-Prohibition members from the rural southern and western states, and the Catholic, anti-Prohibition members from the urban northeast. A bitter fight over whether or not to add a platform condemning the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) illustrated the intensity of the religion issue. In the end, after two weeks of stalemate and over a hundred ballots, Smith withdrew himself from consideration.
After the crushing defeat of the Democrats in 1924, losing by an almost two to one margin to the Republicans, it was widely felt that Smith would seek the nomination again. This prospect led Charles C. Marshall, a prominent Protestant layman, to argue in the April 1927 issue of The Atlantic Monthly that there was a fundamental conflict between Smith's Catholic faith and the U.S. Constitution. Smith responded in the following issue that he believed in the separation of church and state and that he saw no conflict between being a Catholic and being president. His most eloquent statement on this issue, however, came in his September 20, 1928, Oklahoma City speech.
In 1928, Smith again ran for the nomination and secured it on the first ballot. He decided to address the religion issue directly in Oklahoma, a state where crosses were burned along the railroad tracks where his campaign trains passed. His speech in Oklahoma City was passionate and touched on the core principles of American democratic values but could not overcome the religious bigotry unleashed against him. Smith lost Oklahoma to Hoover.
The election turnout was very high, 57 percent compared to 49 percent in the previous election, and this included a large number of anti-Catholic votes. Methodist bishop J.M. Cannon urged Protestants to "vote as you pray," and in the South the traditional Democratic vote was reduced. The KKK also lobbied heavily against Smith.
In addition to his Catholicism, another reason many voted against Smith was his opposition to Prohibition, a cause supported by both conservative and liberal Protestants. A publication by the Anti-Saloon League in Ohio stated, "If you believe in Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination, … if you believe in prohibition, its observance and enforcement, … then whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you will vote for Hoover rather than Smith." The Prohibition issue undoubtedly silenced those liberal Protestants who might have supported Smith as a reformer or, at the very least, on the principle of religious liberty.
The religion issue did help Smith gain two states (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) with large Catholic populations that had gone Republican in 1924, but it cost him six traditionally Democratic southern states. Even though the Democrats under Smith polled fifteen million votes compared to eight million in 1924, the loss of the southern states resulted in his gaining only eighty-seven electoral votes, the worst showing in the Electoral College for the Democrats since Ulysses S. Grant's victory in 1872.
Primary Source: "Campaign Address of Governor Alfred E. Smith, Oklahoma City, September 20, 1928" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: The following is the speech that Smith gave in Oklahoma City in which he clearly addressed the religion issue. While it did not lead to his winning the presidential election, it remains one of the most eloquent attacks on religious bigotry to be delivered by a national figure.
… In a presidential campaign there should be but two considerations before the electorate: The platform of the party, and the ability of the candidate to make it effective.
In this campaign an effort has been made to distract the attention of the electorate from these two considerations and to fasten it on malicious and unAmerican propaganda.
I shall tonight discuss and denounce that wicked attempt. I shall speak openly on the things about which people have been whispering to you.…
Twenty-five years ago I began my active public career. I was then elected to the Assembly, representing the neighborhood in New York City where I was born, where my wife was born, where my five children were born and where my father and mother were born. I represented that district continuously for twelve years, until 1915, when I was elected Sheriff of New York county.
Two years later I was elected to the position of President of the Board of Aldermen, which is really that of Vice-Mayor of the City of New York.
In 1918 I was elected by the delegates to the State convention as the candidate of the Democratic Party for Governor and was elected.
Running for re-election in 1920, I was defeated in the Harding landslide. However, while Mr. Harding carried the State of New York by more than 1,100,000 plurality, I was defeated only by some 70,000 votes.
After this defeat I returned to private life, keeping up my interest in public affairs, and accepted appointment to an important State body at the hands of the man who had defeated me.
In 1922 the Democratic Convention, by unanimous vote, renominated me for the third time for Governor. I was elected by the record plurality of 387,000, and this in a State which had been normally Republican.
In 1924, at the earnest solicitation of the Democratic presidential candidate, I accepted nomination. The State of New York was carried by President Coolidge by close to 700,000 plurality, but I was elected Governor. On the morning after election I found myself the only Democrat elected on the State ticket, with both houses of the Legislature overwhelmingly Republican.Renominated by the unanimous vote of the convention of 1926, I made my fifth State-wide run for the governorship and was again elected the Democratic Governor of a normally Republican State.
Consequently, I am in a position to come before you tonight as the Governor of New York finishing out his fourth term.
The record of accomplishment under my four administrations recommended me to the Democratic Party in the nation, and I was nominated for the presidency at the Houston convention on the first ballot.
To put the picture before you completely, it is necessary for me to refer briefly to this record of accomplishment.… [Governor Smith then went into detail concerning the main legislative enactments, appointments, etc., of his administrations.]
One scandal connected with my administration would do more to help out the Republican National Committee in its campaign against me than all the millions of dollars now being spent by them in malicious propaganda. Unfortunately for them, they cannot find it, because the truth is it is not there. I challenge Senator Owen and all his kind to point to one single flaw upon which they can rest their case. But they won't find it. They won't try to find it, because I know what lies behind all this, and I will tell you before I sit down to-night.…
I know what lies behind all this and I shall tell you. I specifically refer to the question of my religion. Ordinarily, that word should never be used in a political campaign. The necessity for using it is forced on me by Senator Owen and his kind, and I feel that at least once in this campaign, I, as the candidate of the Democratic Party, owe it to the people of this country to discuss frankly and openly with them this attempt of Senator Owen and the forces behind him to inject bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un-American sectarian division into a campaign which should be an intelligent debate of the important issues which confront the American people.…
A recent newspaper account in the City of New York told the story of a woman who called at the Republican National headquarters in Washington, seeking some literature to distribute. She made the request that it be of a nature other than political. Those in charge of the Republican Publicity Bureau provided the lady with an automobile and she was driven to the office of a publication notorious throughout the country for its senseless, stupid, foolish attacks upon the Catholic Church and upon Catholics generally.
I can think of no greater disaster to this country than to have the voters of it divide upon religious lines. It is contrary to the spirit, not only of the Declaration of Independence, but of the Constitution itself. During all of our national life we have prided ourselves throughout the world on the declaration of the fundamental American truth that all men are created equal.
Our forefathers, in their wisdom, seeing the danger to the country of a division on religious issues, wrote into the Constitution of the United States in no uncertain words the declaration that no religious test shall ever be applied for public office, and it is a sad thing in 1928, in view of the countless billions of dollars that we have poured into the cause of public education, to see some American citizens proclaiming themselves 100 per cent. American, and in the document that makes that proclamation suggesting that I be defeated for the presidency because of my religious belief.
The Grand Dragon of the Realm of Arkansas, writing to a citizen of that State, urges my defeat because I am a Catholic, and in the letter suggests to the man, who happened to be a delegate to the Democratic convention, that by voting against me he was upholding American ideals and institutions as established by our forefathers.
The Grand Dragon that thus advised a delegate to the national convention to vote against me because of my religion is a member of an order known as the Ku Klux Klan, who had the effrontery to refer to themselves as 100 per cent. Americans.
Yet totally ignorant of the history and tradition of this country and its institutions and, in the name of Americanism, they breathe into the hearts and souls of their members hatred of millions of their fellow countrymen because of their religious belief.…
I would have no objection to anybody finding fault with my public record circularizing the whole United States, provided he would tell the truth. But no decent, right-minded, upstanding American citizen can for a moment countenance the shower of lying statements, with no basis in fact, that have been reduced to printed matter and sent broadcast through the mails of this country.
One lie widely circulated, particularly through the southern part of the country, is that during my governorship I appointed practically nobody to office but members of my own church.
What are the facts? On investigation I find that in the cabinet of the Governor sit fourteen men. Three of the fourteen are Catholics, ten Protestants, and one of Jewish faith. In various bureaus and divisions of the Cabinet officers, the Governor appointed twenty-six people. Twelve of them are Catholics and fourteen of them are Protestants. Various other State officials, making up boards and commissions, and appointed by the Governor, make a total of 157 appointments, of which thirty-five were Catholics, 106 were Protestants, twelve were Jewish, and four I could not find out about.
I have appointed a large number of judges of all our courts, as well as a large number of county officers, for the purpose of filling vacancies. They total in number 177, of which sixty-four were Catholics, ninety were Protestants, eleven were Jewish, and twelve of the officials I was unable to find anything about so far as their religion was concerned.
This is a complete answer to the false, misleading and, if I may be permitted the use of the harsher word, lying statements that have found their way through a large part of this country in the form of printed matter.
If the American people are willing to sit silently by and see large amounts of money secretly pour into false and misleading propaganda for political purposes, I repeat that I see in this not only a danger to the party, but a danger to the country.… [Here other instances of bigotry in the campaign were cited.]
I have been told that politically it might be expedient for me to remain silent upon this subject, but so far as I am concerned no political expediency will keep me from speaking out in an endeavor to destroy these evil attacks.
There is abundant reason for believing that Republicans high in the councils of the party have countenanced a large part of this form of campaign, if they have not actually promoted it. A sin of omission is some times as grievous as a sin of commission. They may, through official spokesmen, disclaim as much as they please responsibility for dragging into a national campaign the question of religion, something that according to our Constitution, our history and our traditions has no part in any campaign for elective public office.…
One of the things, if not the meanest thing, in the campaign is a circular pretending to place someone of my faith in the position of seeking votes for me because of my Catholicism. Like everything of this kind, of course it is unsigned, and it would be impossible to trace its authorship. It reached me through a member of the Masonic order who, in turn, received it in the mail. It is false in its every line. It was designed on its very face to injure me with members of churches other than my own.
I here emphatically declare that I do not wish any member of my faith in any part of the United States to vote for me on any religious grounds. I want them to vote for me only when in their hearts and consciences they become convinced that my election will promote the best interests of our country.
By the same token, I cannot refrain from saying that any person who votes against me simply because of my religion is not, to my way of thinking, a good citizen.…
The constitutional guaranty that there should be no religious test for public office is not a mere form of words. It represents the most vital principle that ever was given any people.
I attack those who seek to undermine it, not only because I am a good Christian, but because I am a good American and a product of America and of American institutions. Everything I am, and everything I hope to be, I owe to those institutions.
The absolute separation of State and Church is part of the fundamental basis of our Constitution. I believe in that separation, and in all that it implies. That belief must be a part of the fundamental faith of every true American.…
Finan, Christopher M. Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.
Handlin, Oscar. Al Smith and His America. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.
Moore, Edmund Arthur. A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith, 1968.
Slayton, Robert A. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. New York: The Free Press, 2001.