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Warning Against the “Roman Catholic Party”: Catholicism and the 1928 Election

Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith faced a vicious campaign of anti-Catholic innuendoes and slurs—both covert and overt—in the 1928 election. A widely distributed periodical called the Fellowship Forum declared that “The real issue in this campaign is PROTESTANT AMERICANISM VERSUS RUM AND ROMANISM.” Anti-Catholicism was not confined to fringe groups. One of the most vocal opponents of a Catholic presence in American politics was Thomas J. Heflin, the junior senator from Alabama, who delivered some of his most vicious speeches on the floor of the Senate. Heflin’s January 18, 1928, speech before his Senate colleagues blamed the defeat of 1924 Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis on Roman Catholics (“Al Smith’s crowd”) who demanded—to Heflin’s outrage—that the party denounce the Klan.

What did I see in the [1924 Democratic] convention at New York? I saw Roman Catholic delegates in the corridors of the hotels noisily demanding that the Ku-Klux-Klan be denounced by the Democratic convention. I talked to a number of them. I said, “Gentlemen, that question has got no business in this convention; you may not like the Klan, but you have got no business trying to get a National Democratic Convention to denounce it. It is a Protestant order and Protestants generally think that you want it denounced because you are Catholics. What would you think if it sought to denounce the Knights of Columbus by the convention? Nobody but Catholics can join that order.” "No,“ they replied,” we want the convention to denounce it.“ I said, ”If you do, you will tear the Democratic Party to pieces,“ and a number of them replied, ”To hell with the party if it will not denounce the Klan." So I tell you Senators again that they put Roman Catholic government above everything, above the Democratic Party, and above their country. That is plain talk, but it is the plain truth.

What happened? They proceeded with their fight. In the committee room [former Democratic presidential candidate] William Jennings Bryan—peace to his ashes, God rest his soul—struggled to keep that issue out of the convention. He and his friends defeated [it] in the committee on platform and resolutions, and then they came out on the convention floor with it, and Roman Catholics who are prominent in their party demanded that the convention put their denunciation in the Democratic platform. Five thousand lawless hoodlums, Roman Catholics from Tammany [the New York City Democratic political organization] stood in the rear of the hall, and when one Roman Catholic official, a Senator, was speaking in favor of denouncing the Klan they cheered him to the echo.

Then, when Mr. Bryan came out to try to prevent this threatened split in the party, to try to calm the element that sought to kill the hope of party success, what did they do? This bunch of Tammanyites hissed him and heckled him, and it was nearly 30 minutes before he could say a word. I, with others, putting our hands up to our mouths in this fashion (illustrating), hollered to them to desist; . . . . [Then,] an officious Roman Catholic official of some sort on the platform of the convention came up and put his hand on my shoulder and told me if I did not stop that noise he would have to put me out. Well, I wish Senators could have seen the situation. I told him, “If you do not get back where you belong, I will knock you off this platform.” And he got back. That is the situation that we found there, when they were doing what? When as Roman Catholics—not as Americans, not as Democrats—they were demanding that a Democratic convention that had nothing on earth to do with the Ku Klux fraternity, or any other fraternity, should damn it and denounce it in convention.

What happened? They called the roll and the proposition was defeated by four votes. Then they went to work from Saturday night until Monday morning to get some of the delegates to change their minds and reconsider the proposition and put it in the platform. I told some of the delegates from my state that if Alabama voted for that motion I would denounce the delegation over my signature in the state and go to the mat with them all. And the Alabama delegation did not go with them to reconsider the proposition.

Some Senators know about that. What next? John W. Davis [1924 Democratic Presidential candidate]—a very able, clever gentleman but the poorest politician that ever stood In front of a political army—permitted these gentlemen, not as Americans, not as Democrats, but as Roman Catholics, to insist that he denounce the Ku-Klux Klan and finish our chances of success at the polls after the convention had rejected that motion.

Then they sent word to Mr. [Calvin] Coolidge [the Republican candidate] so it is said, to join Mr. Davis in denouncing the Klan. A bunch of priests called on him and told him Davis was going to denounce the Klan, it is said, and that he had better denounce it, too, and they would eliminate that question as an issue.

Coolidge said he did not make a chatterbox out of his mouthabout things that were not in the platform. (Laughter.) And he got elected the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Blease) suggests. But what did John W. Davis do? . . . .

John W. Davis denounced it after this group of Catholics from Tammany, New York City, Al Smith’s crowd, insisted that he denounce it . . . . And in an evil hour Davis denounced the Klan and lost four States by that action . . . .

Mr. President, in the name of all that is dear to us as a free people I call on my countrymen to wake up. The climax of this move is Al Smith’s candidacy for President. Wake up, Americans! Gird your loins for political battle, the like of which you here not seen in all the tide of time in this country. Get ready for this battle. The Roman Catholics of every country on the earth are backing his campaign. Already they are spending money in the South buying up newspapers, seeking to control the vehicles that carry the news to the people. They are sending writers down there from New York and other places to misrepresent and slander our State, all this to build a foundation on which to work for Al Smith for President. The Roman Catholic edict has gone forth in secret articles, “Al Smith is to be made President.” Doctor McDaniel said: “Of all countries the Pope wants to control this country.” "The Knights of Columbus slogan,“ said Doctor Chapman, . . . ”is make America Catholic." Here they tell you in their book that they will force the propaganda of Protestants to cease, they will lay the heavy hand of a Catholic state upon you and crush the life out of Protestantism in America.

Source: Congressional Record (January 28, 1928), 1st Session, 70th Congress, vol. 69, pt. 2, 1654–55, 1658.

See Also:Should a Catholic Be President?: A Contemporary View of the 1928 Election
"I Will Not Be Influenced in Appointments": Al Smith Accepts the Nomination for President