Democrat, anti-Prohibition and Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith found that many of his party had deserted him, though he did carry Massachusetts with its liquor interests, the first Democrat to do so since the War. A previous Democratic presidential candidate knowingly stated: “Smith hasn’t a chance, the Middle West does not know him and does not want him; and the South, of course, won’t have Smith.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Republicans Warn of Papist Plot
“Smith’s career had been a demonstration of the validity of Americanism. In his own mind, his success had confirmed the premise established by his life . . . that men of diverse backgrounds and different beliefs could nevertheless understand each other.
[An opposing view] . . . had begun earlier in the century, in the movement to restrict immigration . . . [and these] fears revived the Ku Klux Klan. Founded in 1915 in Georgia, the organization was still small and powerless at the end of the war. Thereafter it spread rapidly, not only in the South but everywhere in rural and small town America. It was particularly influential in Oregon and Indiana and had significant centers of strength throughout the West.
Purification was essential through a return to the old order, through fundamentalism in religion, through abstinence and restraint in personal behavior, and through the forceful exclusion from government and the economy of all alien sources of infection.
The millions of adherents of the Roman Church, held in subservience to a foreign despot by an army of priests and bishops, wielded enormous political power through the city machines. Their doctrines and rituals, like their hostility to Prohibition, were a danger to old America. It was necessary to prepare lest they insidiously assume control of the whole nation.
Smith did not take the Klan seriously, even in 1924. The “spirit of unrest” was an “unnatural consequence of war” and would soon subside.
The Klan, which had heretofore shown itself mostly on the local level, was nonetheless to be pre-eminent issue of the 1924 convention. Much of the strength of the organization was located in the Republican party, which was able to arrive at a tacit decision to evade any mention of the Klan in the campaign.
Openly and squarely he faced the religious issue [but] . . . With the covert encouragement of local Republicans, numerous fundamentalist groups spread the tale of the Papist plot to conquer America at the ballot box. Al made no pretense that the problem [of his Catholicism] did not exist. In North Carolina he insisted on speaking on immigration. In Oklahoma City, one of the centers of Klan strength, he launched into an attack upon the forces injecting bigotry “into a campaign which should be an intelligent debate of the important issues.”
But now as he looked down upon the stony faces, row upon row of bitter farmers soon to leave their parched lands, he perceived “the dull hostility in their staring at his strangeness and for a moment he felt a premonitory fear, for what had he and they in common?”
Through the rimless glasses across his thin parched face, Bishop Cannon had looked bitterly out upon the Houston convention. Control had fallen to the men from the “foreign-populated city called New York,” where “confessedly Satan’s seat is.” Now . . . he was resolved that “no subject of the Pope” should be President.”
(Al Smith and His America, Oscar Handlin, Little, Brown and Company, 1958, pp. 117-120; 131-132)