Happy Presidents Day! The usual tradition this time of year is to honor the occasion by having furniture sales. Of course, it's unlike the furniture sales are doing too well around Chicago with the massive snowfall that has struck us in 2014. But thanks to the lack of furniture sales, perhaps we can actually focus on what the holiday is supposed to be about: American Presidents. The vast majority of Americans are familiar with our nation's first and only Catholic President: John F. Kennedy. Since I'd rather not write a column rehashing what my audience is already aware of, I decided to take a look at the “would be Presidents”. So which Catholics could have ended up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
You might have heard that Al Smith was the first Roman Catholic ever to be nominated for President. If so, you've heard it wrong. The honor actually goes to Charles O'Conor, way back in the 1872 U.S. presidential election.
His name is largely forgotten in American politics today, but O'Conor was pretty well known to Americans at the time. He was a lawyer who served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and came to prominence during the prosecution of corrupt New York political figure “Boss Tweed” and members of the "Tweed Ring". This investigation began in 1871, when the Tweed Ring was at the height of its power and corruption in New York City. It eventually lead to their undoing and Tweed became a shadow of his former self.
Charles O'Conor had been active in party politics for years, and was a card-carrying Democrat, but he had made lots of enemies within the Democratic Party. In 1848, he ran for Lieutenant Governor of New York, but was defeated. In 1852, he served as a presidential elector from New York, pledged to Franklin Pierce. After the civil war, he became senior counsel for Jefferson Davis when the former Confederate President was indicted for treason. His signature also appeared upon Davis's bond when Davis got bail. The latter actions came back to haunt him, as well as the fact he was a practicing Roman Catholic and a member of the Directory of the Friends of Ireland. Catholics and Irish-Americans were particularly disliked and distrusted during the 19th century.
In the election of 1872, a rogue branch of the GOP known as the “Liberal Republicans” nominated Horace Greeley for President against incumbent President U.S. Grant. The Democrats, not wanting to split the anti-Grant vote, followed suit and nominated Greeley on the Democratic ticket as well. Since Greeley was a polarizing, controversial figure, as well as the fact he wasn't even a member of the Democratic Party, several conservative Democrats, known as "Bourbon Democrats", refused to support the party nominee. They got together and nominated Charles O'Conor as President as a more conventional Democrat candidate. They even found a descendant from a famous political family, naming John Quincy Adams II as his running mate. These Bourbon Democrats then filed paperwork to get O'Conor/Adams on the ballot in numerous states as an alternate to the Greeley/Brown ticket that disgruntled Democrats could vote for. The alternate backfired, however, when O'Conor declined the nomination and refused to campaign for the office. Nevertheless, 18,602 Americans voted for the nation's first Catholic Presidential nominee, and he finished with 0.3% of the popular vote – coming ahead of the Prohibition Party candidate who actually campaigning to be President.
The second would be Catholic President – and the first to actually campaign for the job – was Al Smith in 1928. He was Governor of New York at the time, and won the nomination for President overwhelmingly at the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas. Unlike O'Conor, he happily accepted in the nomination and campaigned vigorously in the general election as “the happier warrior”. Smith competed in an open race for President, since incumbent President Calvin Coolidge declined to run again. Smith was up against Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the Republican nominee.
Unfortunately for Smith, the general election was a blowout victory for Hoover. It was thought that a Catholic nominee would do poorly in the heavily protestant southern states, though Smith carried most of the deep south while losing everywhere else in the country – including in his home state of New York. Many voters were turned off by his opposition to Prohibition, and feared he would take orders from the Pope if he was elected President. (A popular joke at the time was that if Smith won, he would send a one-word telegram to Pope Pius XI reading "Unpack"). Despite his heavy loss in the electoral college, Smith actually waged a close contest in most states. As the first Catholic nominee, he was especially popular with Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. When the final numbers were in, Smith had won nearly as many votes as Coolidge had in 1924, and he had exceeded the vote total of the previous Democrat nominee, John Davis, by more than 6.5 million votes.
Smith sought the Democrat Party nomination again in 1932, where he was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt at the convention. Smith came in second place for the nomination, and still had many loyal supporters in the Democratic Party, especially among Chicago Democrats. Chicago mayor Anton Cermak packed the hall with Smith supporters. Smith campaigned for Roosevelt in the general election, with a particularly important speech on behalf of FDR in Boston on October 27. However, after Roosevelt was elected, Smith became increasingly alienated from him, and criticized FDR's New Deal policies. Smith eventually became a vehement opponent of Roosevelt when he joined the American Liberty League, a conservative group dedicated to overturning the New Deal. In 1934, Smith helped fund numerous pamphlets and radio spots that argued that the New Deal was destroying personal liberty. Smith endorsed the Republican candidates against Roosevelt in 1936 (Alf Landon) and in 1940 (Wendell Willkie). He argued that he hadn't changed his views, and had always believed in social mobility, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and individual freedom.
While Charles O'Conor and Al Smith were two very different politicians from two very different eras, they give us an interesting idea of the role Catholicism played in shaping the Presidency prior to the first Catholic president, and they certainly set the stage for Catholics to run for President at a later time. Interestingly enough, both O'Conor and Smith came from New York and could be described as very conservative Democrats, a type of political label that is virtually extinct in modern American politics, as the 21st century Democrat Party is almost uniformly left-wing. What we can learn about the past can certainly show us what direction the future is headed.