FDR Among the Catholics

Once, when asked his philosophy, Franklin Roosevelt answered simply, “I am a Christian and a Democrat.”

As always with Roosevelt, there was more to it than that. He was not just a Christian, but a Protestant, an Episcopalian, a descendant of Huguenot and Yankee New Englanders on his mother’s side. And he was not just a Democrat, but a New York Democrat, whose leaders and most faithful voters were overwhelmingly Catholic, especially Irish Catholic. There was a tension, always, between this Protestant patrician and his Catholic party, a tension that this congenial country squire and shrewd politician sought to resolve, with much success, but never with finality. There remained a tension between the Democratic party he created in his own image and the Catholics who were such a large part of its constituency, until the tie between them snapped sometime in the late 1960s.

Protestant History

But that is far ahead of our story. Franklin Roosevelt grew up in the late 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century in an American patriciate that was almost entirely Protestant. There were a few rich Catholics who secured a tenuous foothold in New York society, as well as many more Jews of the type portrayed in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. None, however, were likely to gain an invitation to Springwood, Campobello, or Mrs. James Roosevelt’s houses in New York City. Years later James A. Farley complained that “the president never took me into the bosom of his family,” and “never was I invited to spend the night in the historic mansion”— although he adds with almost pathetic gratitude that Eleanor Roosevelt, presumably out of her innate courtesy, made him feel welcome at lunch in Hyde Park.

The history that the young Franklin Roosevelt absorbed was, in many ways, Protestant. It is unclear whether he read Macaulay’s History of England, though it seems likely. In any case, this story of how Protestant England was rescued from a Catholic tyrant was the basis of what Herbert Butterfield called the “whig interpretation of history,” which influenced so much of the history of the times. Kenneth S. Davis’s biography recounts how, in his early teens, Roosevelt read Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe and Alfred T. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History, both of which can be called Protestant history. Mahan showed how sea power—always a central focus of the “former naval person,” Roosevelt—determined the outcome of the great struggles between Protestant Britain and Catholic France (it ends in 1783, before France became revolutionary). And Parkman presents a history of North America in which the central struggle is between Jesuit Quebec and Puritan Boston, and in which the Revolution and Civil Wars are just incidental sortings-out of the Protestant victors.

The Democratic Party of New York was quite another thing. As a five-year-old child, Roosevelt visited the White House with his father and met his friend, President Grover Cleveland (who, in a sour mood, said, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States”). James Roosevelt was a profoundly conservative man who was attracted to the laissez faire principles of the Democratic party—low taxes and low tariffs, no interference with local custom, whether segregation in the South or the saloon in the North. But New York Democrats, in James Roosevelt’s old age, were increasingly Irish Catholics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his wonderful chapter on the Irish in his and Nathan Glazer’s 1963 classic Beyond the Melting Pot, tells the story of New York Congressman Timothy J. Campbell, a native of Cavan, calling on President Cleveland for a favor. The president refused on the grounds it was unconstitutional. “Ah, Mr. President,” replied Tim, “what is the Constitution between friends?”

Between friends—but Roosevelt opposed the Irish Catholic leaders of New York’s Democratic party at almost every turn of his career. During the whole of his lifetime, the leadership of Tammany Hall—the Manhattan Democratic party—was Irish Catholic. The most notable was Charles F. Murphy, leader from 1902 until his death in 1924, a grim, taciturn teetotaler with a great eye for political talent. In his first election as an adult, Roosevelt voted against the 1904 Democratic presidential nominee, Judge Alton B. Parker, and for his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. In 1910 he won election to the state Senate in heavily Republican Dutchess County by campaigning against bossism. In his first month in the Assembly, he bolted the Democratic caucus and refused to vote for Murphy’s candidate for the U.S. Senate (then still elected by the legislature), “Blue-eyed Billy Sheehan.” When Murphy sought him out and asked his support, he coolly replied, “No, Mr. Murphy.” Then he refused to vote for a compromise candidate, James A. O’Gorman, formerly president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. He also opposed Murphy’s choice for president, supporting Woodrow Wilson at the 1912 Democratic National Convention. Murphy was surely relieved when Roosevelt went to Washington in 1913 to become assistant secretary of the Navy.

But in those days a Roosevelt was not easily put down. Assemblyman “Big Tim” Sullivan spied him when he first came to Albany: “You know these Roosevelts. This fellow is still young. Wouldn’t it be safer to drown him before he grows up?”

Murphy must have thought so. In 1913 he engineered the impeachment of Democratic Governor William Sulzer when he wrested control of political appointments from Tammany. In 1914 Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring for U.S. Senator (now elected by popular vote), while Murphy championed James W. Gerard, ambassador to Germany, who beat Roosevelt in absentia, 68 percent to 25 percent. Roosevelt telegraphed Gerard that he would support him if he would declare his unalterable opposition to Murphy’s leadership.

Breaking the Bosses

How can we account for what seems, at this distance, such animus, and arguably such irrational animus? It seems plain that the acquiescence of Murphy and his friends was, if not absolutely essential, then at least exceedingly helpful for a young New York Democrat interested in winning higher office. And there were things to be said on Murphy’s behalf. In 1911, the same year Roosevelt bolted the caucus, the boss promoted young men of great talent and integrity to the leadership of the legislature: Al Smith in the Assembly and Robert Wagner in the Senate. He acquiesced in their efforts to enact welfare-state measures in New York that led the nation. In record time Tammany-backed mayors of New York built bridges and subways that even today, though somewhat frayed, are an essential part of the awesome infrastructure of New York City.

Roosevelt shared the view of the upper-class elite, nurtured by James Bryce in The American Commonwealth and Lincoln Steffens in The Shame of the Cities, that city governments and party machines were thoroughly corrupt and must be opposed at all turns. Underneath that notion, seldom articulated, was a sense that the mostly Catholic masses of New York were not really capable of democracy. Only Anglo-Saxon Protestants were deeply imbued with the principles of liberty and democracy that were central to the American republic. Other races—a term often used by elite spokesmen at the time—were unreliable. A contrast was often drawn between the authoritarian character of the Catholic Church, whose members were expected to defer to the authority of the clerical elite, and the Protestant tradition that seemed to emphasize the freedom of the individual conscience.

By analogy, Catholic voters were seen as slavish followers of political bosses, rather than as autonomous citizens making individual decisions. It is not clear how much Roosevelt shared these attitudes, but they were the conventional wisdom of his social class; if we can draw inferences from his actions, then we can see he shared them to some considerable extent.

Yet for the practical politician, confronted with the political map of New York, the votes of the Catholic masses were essential. The facts were simple: By 1910, New York City had 52 percent of the population of New York state; that figure rose to 54 percent in 1920 and peaked at 55 percent in 1930 and 1940; and most residents of New York City were Catholic. After his early fights with the Democratic bosses, Roosevelt seemed more disposed to cooperate with them. In 1924, Roosevelt stood up on crutches at Madison Square Garden and delivered his “happy warrior” nomination speech for Governor Alfred E. Smith, Murphy’s great ally, a Catholic of Irish and Italian descent. The recuperating Roosevelt admired Smith’s great skills and appreciated his power over Roosevelt’s future career, so he supported Smith as governor and again for the presidential nomination in 1928. His reward, of course, was his own nomination for governor and the Catholic votes that were crucial to his election.

Yet the tension with Tammany and with Catholics continued. To investigate Tammany, Governor Roosevelt appointed Samuel Seabury, the personification of the white Anglo-Saxon elite. Al Smith, despite earlier disavowals, decided to run for president, with Tammany support. Then, just after Roosevelt won the nomination, the Seabury commission forced him to hold hearings on New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, who abruptly resigned. He had “walked the political tightrope expertly,” wrote James MacGregor Burns. “He stripped the Republicans of a national issue without losing Tammany, which was divided on the matter and in any case did not dare to turn against Roosevelt openly.”

Neither Catholic voters nor Catholic bosses turned against President Roosevelt openly in the 1930s, when he became the greatest Democratic vote-winner since Andrew Jackson. The first New Deal of 1933-34 ended the downward spiral of depression and got the economy growing again, producing the only gains in off-year elections for the party in power in the 20th century until last year. Though there were no exit polls in 1934, it is apparent that Roosevelt’s Democrats were gaining votes from Catholics even as they were losing some from Protestants.

The Second New Deal of 1935-36 did not upset this pattern. The Democratic vote in congressional elections, closely tracking Roosevelt’s landslide reelection margin, also followed the 1934 results. The old Democratic minority coalition of the South and the big cities had become a majority coalition by adding the Progressive belt of the Upper Midwest and the West. Catholic voters were more heavily Democratic than in the 1920s or in Woodrow Wilson’s 1910s. But this was a different kind of Democratic party in one important way. The traditional Democratic party, that of Grover Cleveland, was a laissez faire party that believed in a minimalist federal government. The domestic programs of Woodrow Wilson and, even more, the wartime policies of the Wilson administration, were more interventionist, but they did not all prove to be popular: His decision to go to war and the government’s suppression of German culture hurt Democrats in the Progressive Upper Midwest, while Prohibition hurt in the heavily Catholic big cities. The Democratic party of the 1920s, while deeply riven, was also something of a laissez faire party: pro-saloon and pro-immigrant in the big states of the North, anti-liquor and pro-segregation in the South.

Roosevelt’s New Deals suddenly inserted the federal government into every local community. NRA set all prices and wages. AAA controlled agricultural production. The Wagner Act established huge industrial unions that became major institutions in the industrial belt from Pennsylvania to Illinois. WPA employed workers in almost every city and county. Roosevelt critic Frank Kent, an admirer of laissez faire Democrats, was not far wrong when he wrote, “What Mr. Roosevelt has done—if plain words are to be used—is adopt neither Democratic nor Republican politics, but rather he has taken over the policies of that small group of so-called Progressive Republicans, typified by Senator Norris of Nebraska and Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin.”

Keeping the Catholics

Holding a majority coalition together is not easy in American politics, and it is more difficult for an interventionist than for a laissez faire party. What is noteworthy is that Roosevelt had a high degree of success holding Catholics in the Democratic coalition. His New Deal programs (Repeal, for instance) and his evident openness to people of immigrant origin (he once addressed the Daughters of the American Revolution as “my fellow immigrants”) had special appeal to Catholics. In Joseph Alsop’s splendid phrase, “on a very wide front and in the truest possible sense, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded”—and of course many Catholics felt that they were somehow excluded from being regarded as full Americans.

Including the excluded also meant appointing Catholics to more high positions than any previous president, most visibly James A. Farley and Joseph P. Kennedy. Both had been instrumental in Roosevelt’s election in 1932; Farley was his top political organizer and Kennedy was one of two men who contributed $50,000—an enormous sum in the Depression year of 1932. Neither was a product of the New York City Democratic organization. Farley was from Stony Point on the Hudson in Rockland County—suburban territory now, but upstate then. Kennedy’s father had been a ward politician in East Boston, but he made his money in banking, and in 1927, when refused entry to Massachusetts’s posh clubs, moved his base to New York and raised his large family in Bronxville. Farley was made Postmaster General, the traditional post for dispensing patronage and also one of great interest to the philatelist-in-chief. Kennedy became the first chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission; then, when he sought to become Treasury secretary, was fobbed off with the one office Roosevelt knew an Irish-American with political ambitions could not refuse, Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

In the meantime, Roosevelt, with Farley’s help but also through WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins, stayed in close political alliance with the heavily Catholic Democratic machines in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other big cities. But in New York he opposed Tammany and backed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was elected on the Republican and American Labor Party lines, whose strongest ethnic support  was among Jewish voters.

Foreign policy produced tensions in this new Democratic coalition. Roosevelt stretched the patience of liberal advisors like Harold Ickes and Ambassador to Spain Claude Bowers with his support of the embargo against both sides in the Spanish Civil War, which worked to the detriment of the leftist Republican government. The reason, he told Ickes, was the support of the Catholic hierarchy for the Franco regime; to raise the embargo, he exaggerated, would lose the support of every Catholic voter in the 1938 election. But Roosevelt’s increasing support of Britain in 1939 and 1940 angered many anti-British Irish Catholic voters. And when Italy attacked France in June 1940, he declared, “the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor”—a comment that antagonized some Italian-Americans for years to come.

The coming of the Cold War also divided some Democrats from others, with strongly anti-Communist Catholics and their liberal anti-Communist allies coming out ahead of those liberals, personified by Henry Wallace, who favored a softer line. Later, in the ’60s and ’70s, the issue of abortion would also split the Democratic coalition along religious lines. We can only speculate on how Franklin Roosevelt would have handled these divisive issues, though with his characteristic tendency to “weave the two together” he might have made them less divisive. On education, for example, the approach of the G. I. Bill of Rights he signed was to extend aid to the student, who could then choose public or religious schools, and leave the state out of the choice altogether.

Accentuate the Positive

One of the strengths of our majority-forcing politics is that it gives politicians a strong incentive to hold together large numbers of what has always been a diverse people. From the beginning, Americans have been divided along lines of region, religion, race, ethnicity, and, in recent years, cultural values. Such coalitions have been especially hard to hold together as the federal government has become larger and more intrusive. They were especially difficult to create and hold together in the long century beginning with the massive Irish Catholic immigration in the 1840s and ending with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s—and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, which made American Catholics less religiously and culturally distinctive.

It was the achievement of Franklin Roosevelt to build a political coalition that included significant majorities of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—arguably the only such political coalition in American history. If he had trouble holding it together, and if his successors were ultimately unable to do so, it should also be said that the existence of that coalition, the highly visible effort to include the excluded, contributed greatly to the common American effort in the nation’s—and the world’s—great crisis of the 1940s. His coalition has also contributed to the strength and cohesiveness of the nation in the half-century since. Roosevelt may have started off a particular kind of Christian and a particular kind of Democrat, but in time he transcended these limitations and expanded into the happily elastic definition of what it means to be an American. That is no mean achievement, nor one that should be forgotten.


  • Michael Barone

    Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...