The ‘Happy Warrior’ Was Also a Trailblazer

Robert A. Slayton, associate professor of history at Chapman University, is the author of "Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith," to be published next year

The relative calm attending Vice President Al Gore’s precedent-setting choice of a Jew, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, to be his running mate is evidence of just how far America has come in achieving tolerance. Jews, along with ethnic groups from Southern and Eastern Europe, comprised the great immigration wave that swept across America between 1890 and 1920. America’s response to them was complex. While remarkable opportunities existed, so did intense discrimination. Yet, if Lieberman’s nomination enables us to believe, so far, that one group of immigrants has been finally accepted, it does not necessarily mean America has become enlightened on the subject of immigration in general. What would have happened, for example, if Gore had chosen a distinguished Mexican American, someone who represented an immigrant group now struggling to build a new life in America?

One hint of that reaction might come from looking at the 1928 race, when Al Smith, dubbed the “happy warrior,” received the Democratic presidential nomination. Smith was the first Roman Catholic to run on a major-party ticket, the first son of immigrants to do so and a blatant symbol of the new, urbanizing America, with his thick New York accent, brown derby hat and Tammany Hall roots.

Unlike the bon mots that Lieberman has received, Smith faced a firestorm of hate in what was arguably the nastiest election in U.S. presidential history. For example, in Daytona Beach, Fla., the school board gave students a card to take home to their parents. It read: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the presidency. If he is chosen president, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” Photographs of the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel were passed around with captions explaining that this was the secret passageway being built to bring the pope from Rome to Washington.

In 1928, a great many Americans truly believed that if Smith became president, the pope would come over and rule America. Some people even claimed that preparations for the pope’s arrival were already underway. One source held that the minute the election was over, President-elect Smith would send a battleship to Rome to pick up the pope and bring him to the United States. According to this account, Smith would install the pontiff in a fortress in the Georgetown section of Washington, a citadel already built and guarded by rows of artillery.

Smith did not just face attacks over his Catholicism. In 1928, he represented the coming of age of a new generation of Americans. Throughout his long political career, Smith’s foremost issue was the right of these recently anointed citizens to be called Americans. More than any other politician of his era, he stood up in the ‘20s, a decade that witnessed the Ku Klux Klan at its height, and the Scopes and Sacco and Vanzetti trials--and said that his people should be included in the nation’s social and cultural fabric, an act of heroism that, more than anything, gave him the right to be called “statesman.”


As a result, however, bigots claimed that Smith stood for the downfall of America. A typical reaction was that of the president of the Kiwanis Club in Clarkesville, Tenn. He said that “in the last 30 years, the tide of immigration has undergone a decided and alarming change. Prior to that time, the overwhelming majority of entrants were of a racial stock akin to our own and therefore easily assimilable.” But now, “the inflow has been of a distinctly different and decidedly inferior character. . . .” No assimilation was possible because the "[new immigrants] are unable to appreciate our conceptions of political liberty. Their ideas of right and wrong are so diametrically opposed to our own that no reconciliation . . . is possible.”

Clearly, the 2000 election will be a high point of American tolerance compared with 1928. The good news is that the private religion of a candidate no longer seems to be a public issue, and Jews appear to been more accepted into the mainstream. Yet, cultural conflicts still exist, and immigration persists as a powerful, potentially divisive force in U.S. society. If there is any doubt, just consider how eagerly GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush distanced himself from anything connected with former California Gov. Pete Wilson and his Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative that passed in 1994.

Yet, voter support for Proposition 187 raises a tough question. Would America have responded differently if Vice President Gore had picked a representative of one of the immigrant groups arriving in the late 20th century? Would Americans be accepting if Gore had chosen a Mexican American Al Smith, or would such a choice evoke fears of “handing over the nation to those people”?

The response to Lieberman may indicate that the nation’s debt to Smith--the acceptance of the turn-of-the-century immigrants to all aspects of American life--will now be paid. But it is still not clear whether the nation has truly overcome all the fears that drove events in 1928 and accepted the importance of immigration--not just nostalgic but continuing--at the center of the American experience. *