Resistance to Change

Christian Fundamentalism

Christian Fundamentalists believed modernist Protestants to be in violation of the Bible’s teachings and began a movement that endures today.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the origins of Christian Fundamentalism in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Christian Fundamentalism grew out of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Protestant movement in the United States and Britain.
  • A movement and not a set denomination, Christian Fundamentalism is rooted in new interpretations of the Bible, most notably in  Dispensationalism,  Princeton Theology, and The Fundamentals.
  • Dispensationalism is a Biblical interpretation developed in the 1830s that breaks time into seven distinct stages (dispensations), each ending with God’s punishment of humanity.
  • The Fundamentals was a twelve-volume study published in the early twentieth century that promoted the inerrancy and literalist interpretation of the Bible and a belief in Creationism.

Key Terms

  • The Fundamentals: A set of 90 essays in 12 volumes published from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and edited by A. C. Dixon and later by Reuben Archer Torrey. They were designed to affirm and defend orthodox Protestant beliefs and are widely considered to be the foundation of modern Christian Fundamentalism.
  • Princeton Theology: A tradition of conservative, Christian, Reformed, and Presbyterian theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, in Princeton, New Jersey.
  • dispensationalism: A Protestant evangelical theology rooted in the writings of John Nelson Darby.

Christian Fundamentalism, also known as ” Fundamentalist Christianity,” or “Fundamentalism,” arose out of British and American Protestantism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Evangelical Christians. The founders of Fundamentalist Christianity reacted against liberal theology and militantly asserted that the inerrancy, meaning without error or fault, of the Bible was essential for true Christianity and was being violated by modernists. As an organized movement, it began in the 1920s within Protestant churches, especially Baptist and Presbyterian branches. Fundamentalist Christianity is often intertwined with Biblical Literalism, which regards the depictions and accounts in the Bible as literally true and factually accurate rather than allegorical or symbolic.

Fundamentalist vs. Evangelical

The broad term “Evangelical” includes both Fundamentalists as well as people with similar religious beliefs who do not engage outside challenges to the Bible with as much fervor. Evangelicals have a national organization called the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Fundamentalism is a movement, rather than a denomination or a systematic theology, and since 1930 has not had a national body or official statement of beliefs, although many Fundamentalist churches since then have been represented by the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (known as IFCA International since its renaming in 1996).

Fundamentalist History

Fundamentalism has roots in British and American theology of the nineteenth century. One school of thought was Dispensationalism, a new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830s in England. It was a millenarian theory that divided all of time into seven different stages, called “dispensations,” which were seen as stages of God’s revelation. At the end of each stage, according to this theory, God punished humanity for having been found wanting in God’s testing.

A second school of thought developed in the mid-nineteenth century from Princeton Theology, a conservative, reformed and Presbyterian strain of Protestantism taught at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton Theology provided the doctrine of inerrancy in response to higher criticism of the Bible. The work of Charles Hodge influenced Fundamental insistence that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God and written by men who took that dictation. This meant that the Bible should be read differently from any other historical document, while modernism and liberalism were believed to lead people to hell in the same manner as non-Christian religions.

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Princeton Seminary: Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1800s, where a school of thought called “Princeton Theology” developed that would be extremely influential in Fundamentalist belief.

A third school of thought grew out of the release of a 12-volume set of 90 essays called, The Fundamentals : A Testimony to the Truth. Published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles between 1910 and 1915, the essays were penned by 64 authors representing all of the major Protestant denominations. The Fundamentals, as it is commonly known, gives the Fundamentalist movement its name, and sponsors subsidized the free distribution of more than three million individual volumes to clergy, laymen, and libraries.

Intended to defend what was considered Protestant orthodoxy, the essays in The Fundamentals cover a wide range of topics including defenses of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Birth, the historicity of Biblical narratives, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and Biblical inerrancy against more prevalent, critical theories of the day. They also address what is considered the falsity of theological systems such as Christian Science, “Millennial Dawnism,” and Mormonism, as well as the errors of “Romanism.”

Fundamentalists in the 1920s believed that the secularism, liberalism, and immorality of the time were signs that humanity had again failed God’s testing and the world was on the verge of the last stage during which a final battle would take place at Armageddon, followed by Christ’s return to Earth and 1,000-year reign. One important sign of this final, prophesied stage is the rebirth of Israel, support for which has become the centerpiece of Fundamentalist foreign policy.

By the late 1920s, the first two schools of thought—Dispensationalism and Princeton Theology—had become central to Fundamentalism. A fourth strand involved the growing concern among many Evangelical Christians with modernism and an increase in public criticism of the Bible. This strand concentrated on opposition to Darwinism. A fifth strand pressed the need for public revivals, a common theme among many Evangelicals who did not become Fundamentalists. Numerous efforts to form coordinating bodies failed, and the most influential treatise came much later in the 1947 book, Systematic Theology, by Lewis S. Chafer, who had founded the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924.

Bible Colleges

Much of the enthusiasm for mobilizing Fundamentalism came from “Bible Colleges,” particularly those modeled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight L. Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God that was so important to Dispensationalism. The Bible Colleges prepared ministers who lacked university or seminary experience with intense study of the Bible, often using the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, which was the King James version of the Bible with detailed notes explaining how to interpret Dispensationalist passages.

Portrait of Dwight Moody

Dwight L. Moody: Dwight L. Moody, evangelical preacher and founder of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Fundamentalist movements were found in most North American Protestant denominations by 1919. With the attack on modernism in theology launched by the Fundamentalists in the Baptist and Presbyterian churches, Fundamentalism became especially controversial among Presbyterians. Although Fundamentalism began in America’s northern regions, its greatest popular strength was in the South, especially among Southern Baptists. By the late 1920s the national media identified it with the South, largely ignoring manifestations elsewhere.

Riley Fundamentalism

The leading organizer of the Fundamentalist campaign against modernism was William Bell Riley, a Northern Baptist based in Minneapolis, where his Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School (1902), Northwestern Evangelical Seminary (1935), and Northwestern College (1944) produced thousands of graduates. Riley created, at a large conference in Philadelphia in 1919, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). It became the chief interdenominational, Fundamentalist organization in the 1920s.

Although the Fundamentalist drive of the 1920s to take control of the major Protestant denominations failed at the national level, the network of churches and missions fostered by Riley shows the movement was growing in strength, especially in the American South. Both rural and urban in character, the flourishing movement acted as a denominational surrogate and aimed at a militant orthodoxy of evangelical Christianity. Riley was president until 1929, after which the WCFA faded in importance and was never replaced.

Fundamentalist Schism

The original Fundamentalist movement split along clearly defined lines within conservative, Evangelical Protestantism as thinking on various issues progressed. Many groupings, large and small, were produced by this schism. Neo-evangelicalism, Reformed and Lutheran Confessionalism, the Heritage movement, and Paleo-Orthodoxy have all developed distinct identities, but none of them acknowledges any more than an historical overlap with the Fundamentalist movement, and the term is seldom used in reference to them.

The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan, an organization promoting white supremacy and anti-immigration, peaked in its prominence during the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the history of the Ku Klux Klan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Active in the South during the nineteenth century, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) reemerged as a prominent organization following its glorification in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. The KKK’s revival occurred at a time of rapid industrialization  and  urbanization, fueling the belief that immigrants, along with blacks, were a threat to the organization’s ideals.
  • The revival of the KKK occurred through recruitment from a variety of fraternal organizations, such as the Elks, and was fueled by post-World War I racial tensions. Despite popular belief that Klansmen came from rural areas, the organization was heavily urban.
  • Growth of the organization accelerated under two professional publicists, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, who shifted its agenda to focus on opposing Jewish, Catholic, Communist, and immigrant communities, while strongly supporting Prohibition.
  • During the 1920s, the KKK was active in political reform, particularly in Indiana, but declined in popularity following the murder trial of prominent Klansman D.C. Stephenson.

Key Terms

  • Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke: Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Tyler (1881–1924) was an Atlanta public-relations professional. Beginning in 1920, she worked with Edward Young Clarke, an advertising executive from Louisiana and the Imperial Wizard pro tempore of the Ku Klux Klan, to turn the anemic second KKK into a mass-membership organization with a broader social agenda.
  • Birth of a Nation: A 1915 silent drama film (originally called “The Clansman”) directed by D.W. Griffith and based on the novel and play, The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr.
  • D.C. Stephenson: (1891–1966) An American “Grand Dragon” (state leader) of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. state of Indiana and 22 other northern states. In 1925, he was tried and convicted in a notorious rape and murder trial.

The Ku Klux Klan, often abbreviated as KKK and informally known as the “Klan,” is the name of three historically distinct far-right organizations in the United States. The KKK advocates extreme reactionary, and often violent, agendas such as white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-immigration, and, since the mid-twentieth century, anti-communism. The current manifestation is classified as a hate group with an estimated 2012 membership of between 3,000 and 5,000 members.

Klan History

The first Klan flourished in the southern United States in the late 1860s, and then died out by the early 1870s. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying and to hide their identities.

In the early 1900s, the KKK remerged with costumes and code words similar to the first Klan, becoming a nationwide movement by the 1920s. This second Klan was founded by William J. Simmons at Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, Georgia. It added to the original anti-black ideology with a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and Prohibitionist agenda. Most of the founders were from an Atlanta-area organization calling itself the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” which had organized around the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent convicted of murdering a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The case fueled anti-Semitism, and Frank was later kidnapped from prison and lynched. The new organization emulated the fictionalized version of the Klan presented in the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

The movie shows a hooded KKK member riding a rearing horse and holding a fiery cross.

The Birth of a Nation: Theatrical poster for The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that romanticized the Ku Klux Klan and helped inspire a renewed KKK to emerge.

Klan organizers, called “Kleagles,” signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and bought KKK costumes. The Kleagle would keep half of the money and send the rest to state or national officials. After finishing with an area, he would organize a huge rally, often with burning crosses and the presentation of a Bible to a local Protestant minister, and then leave town with the money. The local units operated like fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.

Prohibitionist and Anti-Union Sentiments

Historians agree that the Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s was aided by the national debate over Prohibition, the outlawing of alcohol sales or consumption, and created a bond between Klansmen across the nation who opposed bootleggers, sometimes violently. In 1922, approximately 200 Klan members set fire to saloons in Union County, Arkansas. Membership in the Klan and in other Prohibition groups overlapped, and they often coordinated activities.

In southern cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, Klan members controlled access to better-paying industrial jobs, but opposed labor unions. During the 1930s and 1940s, Klan leaders urged members to disrupt the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which advocated industrial unions and was open to African-American members. With access to dynamite and using the skills from their jobs in mining and steel, some Klan members in Birmingham during the late 1940s began to perpetrate bombings in order to intimidate upwardly mobile blacks who moved into middle-class neighborhoods, with one neighborhood being so frequently bombed it became known as “Dynamite Hill.” Independent Klan groups remained active in Birmingham and were deeply engaged in violent opposition to the civil rights movement.

Urbanization

A significant characteristic of the second Klan was its base in urban areas, reflecting the major shifts of population to cities in both the North and the South. In Michigan, for instance, 40,000 members lived in Detroit, which was more than half of the state’s Klan total. Most were lower- to middle-class whites trying to protect their jobs and housing from waves of newcomers to the industrial cities. These included immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who tended to be Catholic and Jewish in numbers higher than earlier groups of immigrants, as well as black and white migrants from the South. As new populations poured into cities, rapidly changing neighborhoods experienced social tensions. Due to the rapid pace of population growth in cities undergoing industrialization, such as Detroit and Chicago, the Klan grew rapidly in the Midwest, as well as in booming southern cities such as Dallas and Houston.

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A Ku Klux Klan cross burning, 1921: Robed members of the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross during a rally in 1921. Cross burning was introduced during the reemergence of the Klan in 1915.

Resistance and Decline

In the 1920s, Indiana had the most powerful Ku Klux Klan organization in America. Though it counted a high number of members statewide, with more than 30 percent of its white male citizens, its importance peaked with the 1924 election of Governor Edward L. Jackson, a Klan member who was involved in several political scandals and tried for bribery in 1927 before finishing his term in disgrace in 1929.

In that same period, the scandal surrounding the 1925 murder trial of D.C. Stephenson destroyed the image of the Ku Klux Klan as upholders of law and order. Stephenson was the “Grand Dragon” of Indiana and 22 northern states who led the separation of the area under his control from the national KKK organization in 1923. He was convicted of second-degree murder for his part in the rape and subsequent death of Madge Oberholtzer, a white, 29-year-old election official. After Stephenson’s conviction in a sensational trial, the Klan declined dramatically in Indiana.

Portrait of D.C. Stephenson

D.C. Stephenson: Indiana Ku Klux Klan leader D.C. Stephenson was convicted in 1925 of the rape and murder of a 29-year-old state employee, which led to the discrediting of the Klan as upholders of law and order.

Many groups and leaders, including prominent Protestant ministers such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit, spoke out against the Klan. In response to blunt attacks against Jewish Americans and the Klan’s campaign to outlaw private schools, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League was formed following the lynching of Leo Frank. When one civic group began to publish Klan membership lists, the membership quickly declined. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People carried on public education campaigns to inform people about Klan activities and lobbied against Klan abuses in Congress. After its peak in 1925, Klan membership in most areas of the Midwest began to decline rapidly, and by 1926, the Ku Klux Klan as a whole was discredited and suffering from what has been observed as a failure in its leadership.

The Klan’s national leader, Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans, sold the organization in 1939 to James Colescott, an Indiana veterinarian, and Samuel Green, an Atlanta obstetrician. They were unable to staunch the declining membership. In 1944, the IRS filed a lien for $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, and Colescott was forced to dissolve the organization in 1944. Local Klan organizations closed over the following years, although many groups remained scattered throughout the United States, especially in the South, and still have members today.

The Scopes Trial

The Scopes trial of 1925 brought to national attention the debate over teaching evolution in public schools.

Learning Objectives

Describe the issues at stake in the Scopes trial

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Scopes trial was a landmark American legal case in 1925, in which a high-school science teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act that made it unlawful to teach the theory of evolution in any state-funded school.
  • The trial pitted Modernists, who supported the teaching of evolution, against Fundamentalists, who believed their interpretation of the Bible trumped all human knowledge.
  • William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, defended Scopes.
  • The jury found Scopes guilty, although the verdict was appealed and the conviction overturned on a legal technicality. In the wake of the trial, the antievolution movement waned as the teaching of evolution expanded throughout U.S. schools.

Key Terms

  • John Scopes: (August 3, 1900–October 21, 1970) A substitute biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who was charged on May 5, 1925, with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools.
  • Clarence Darrow: (April 18, 1857–March 13, 1938) An American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, who headed the short-lived and highly critical National Recovery Review Board.
  • William Jennings Bryan: (March 19, 1860–July 26, 1925) A leading American politician from the 1890s until his death. He was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and served as President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state until his resignation in frustration over Wilson’s war efforts.

Formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 was a landmark American legal case in which John Scopes was accused of violating the state’s Butler Act by teaching evolution in a state-funded school. The trial initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union was mostly for show, but it had major implications for the issue of whether modern science could be taught in public schools by pitting the Fundamentalist Christian belief of creationism against the theory of evolution.

The Butler Act

Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, a farmer and head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, lobbied for the passage of antievolution laws, and in 1925, the Butler Act passed the state legislature as “Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 (Education) Section 1922.” The law prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man’s origin, namely that God had created the world and everything in it in seven days. The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as, “lower orders of animals,” rather than the Biblical account of man appearing fully formed in the person of Adam, closely followed by Eve. Butler admitted, “I didn’t know anything about evolution… I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signed the law to solidify his support among rural, Christian conservatives in the state legislature, but did not believe the law would ever need to be enforced or would interfere with Tennessee public school education.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, staged a scenario that challenged the governor’s assumptions. The nonprofit legal organization, whose stated mission is, “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” financed a case to test the legality of the Butler Act in a court proceeding that would deliberately attract publicity to the issue. In order to have a defendant, the ACLU recruited Scopes, 25, to purposefully incriminate himself by using a textbook chapter that described the theory of evolution. Substituting for the regular biology teacher at the high school in Dayton, Tennessee on May 5, 1925, Scopes said he was unsure whether he actually had taught evolution.

Photograph of John T. Scopes

John Thomas Scopes: Teacher John T. Scopes was the defendant in the famous Scopes trial of 1925 that provided a forum in which to argue the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The Monkey Trial

The trial drew intense publicity and was followed by the press and on the radio throughout America. Reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton to cover the famed attorneys representing each side. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate for the Democrats, argued for the prosecution’s case supporting creationism, the idea that God, in a manner beyond our understanding, made the world and everything in it over the course of seven days. Prominent attorney Clarence Darrow spoke in defense of Scopes by presenting the Modernist argument in favor of the theory of evolution. Based on research in Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On the Origin of Species , the theory contends that man developed over millions of years from other biological organisms, including apes (hence the nickname “Scopes Monkey Trial.”)

Photograph of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan sitting next to each other and conversing with each other in a courtroom. Clarence Darrow smokes a cigarette and William Jennings Bryan holds a fan.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan: Defense attorney Clarence Darrow, left, and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan argued the Scopes trial in 1925, making opposing arguments regarding the teaching of evolution.

The trial, therefore, was both theological and scientific, testing the faith-based belief that the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge, or whether religion was consistent with evolution as argued by scientists and other intellectuals. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the verdict was eventually overturned on a technicality.

The Legacy of the Trial

The trial had both short- and long-term effects 0n the teaching of science in U.S. schools. The immediate effects of the trial are evident in the high-school biology texts used in the second half of the 1920s and the early 1930s. Of the most widely used books, only one contains a listing for evolution in the index, and in the wake of the trial, under pressure from Fundamentalist groups, the entry is offset by Biblical quotations. As the antievolutionist movement died out in the mid-1930s, biology textbooks began to include the previously removed evolutionary theory.

Though often upheld as a blow for the Fundamentalists, the Scope trial victory was not complete. The ACLU had taken on the trial as a cause, but in the wake of Scopes’s conviction, the organization was unable to find addition volunteers to oppose the Butler Act. By 1932, the ACLU gave up its legal strategy, and the antievolutionary legislation was not challenged again until 1965. Still, the teaching of evolution expanded, while efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend failed in the court of public opinion.

The case also lived on in popular culture when it was dramatized in the play and subsequent movie, Inherit the Wind. The 1960 film version—starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly—was nominated for four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes.

The image is a screenshot from a movie trailer for Inherit the Wind. It shows Spencer Tracy, who played lawyer Henry Drummond.

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind, a 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy, dramatized the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925.

Al Smith and the Election of 1928

Democrat Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee, lost the 1928 election in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover.

Learning Objectives

Summarize Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Al Smith was the foremost urban leader of the efficiency -oriented Progressive movement and the first Roman Catholic nominee for U.S. president in 1928. He attracted millions of voters of all backgrounds, particularly those concerned about the corruption and lawlessness brought about by the Eighteenth  Amendment, commonly known as ” Prohibition.”
  • The  Republican Party and its candidate, U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, held an advantage by being identified with the thriving economy  of the 1920s, whereas Smith suffered politically from anti-Catholic prejudice. Influential Lutherans and Southern Baptist ministers believed that the Catholic Church and the Pope would dictate Smith’s policies.
  • A trained engineer, Hoover believed strongly in the  Efficiency movement, which held that the government and the economy were riddled with inefficiency and waste, and could be improved by experts who could identify and solve the problems. He was known for promoting relations between business and government.
  • Hoover defeated Smith in the election of 1928 in a landslide victory by pledging to continue the economic boom of the preceding Calvin Coolidge administration.

Key Terms

  • Eighteenth Amendment: U.S. Constitutional amendment that established the prohibition of alcohol in 1920.
  • Herbert Hoover: (1874–1964) The 31st president of the United States (1929–1933), and the director of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI. Hoover was formerly a professional mining engineer and author.
  • Tammany Hall: A New York City political organization founded in 1786 and incorporated on May 12, 1789, as the Tammany Society. It was the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in controlling New York City and New York State politics and helping immigrants, most notably the Irish, rise up in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s.
  • Al Smith: (1873–1944) An American politician who served as governor of the state of New York four times and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928, a race he lost to Republican Herbert Hoover.

Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith was the Democratic Party ’s candidate for president in the election of 1928. A four-time governor of New York, Smith was the foremost urban leader of the efficiency-oriented Progressive movement and was noted for achieving a wide range of reforms as governor in the 1920s. He was also a strong opponent of Prohibition and the first Roman Catholic nominee for U.S. president, which pitted him against Republican Herbert Hoover.

Smith and Hoover

Smith grew up in a struggling New York City family and dropped out of school at age 13 after the death of his father. He never attended high school or college, and claimed he learned about people by studying them at the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, where he worked since he was a boy for $12 per week. Prior to leaving school, he was an altar boy and was strongly influenced by the Catholic priests under whom he worked.

Portrait of Alfred Smith

Alfred Smith: Democrat Al Smith came from humble beginnings in New York City and rose through the political ranks to become a four-time governor of New York state.

Smith built on his working-class beginnings and identified himself with immigrants and as a man of the people, gaining renown as an excellent speaker. His first political job in 1895 was as an investigator in the Office of the Commissioner of Jurors. It was a post appointed by the Tammany Hall organization, the Democratic political machine that played a major role in New York City and New York State politics. While Tammany had gained an infamous name in the mid-nineteenth century for political corruption, Smith’s reputation remained untarnished despite owing much of his political success as a county sheriff, New York City alderman, state assemblyman, and finally governor to Tammany support.

Smith became a leading spokesman for the Irish-American community in the 1920s and was a committed anti-Prohibitionist, or “wet,” who attracted millions of voters of all backgrounds, particularly those concerned about the corruption and lawlessness brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment. He first sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination at the 1924 election but was one of a number of candidates eventually defeated by John W. Davis, who went on to lose the general election to Republican Calvin Coolidge.

Photograph of Al Smith giving a speech.

1928 presidential candidate Al Smith: Smith was a strong opponent of Prohibition and the first Roman Catholic nominee for U.S. president.

The Republican Party of the 1920s was publicly identified with the thriving economy of the post-World War I period, and Herbert Hoover personified that success. A graduate of Stanford University in 1895 with a degree in geology, Hoover served as both a geologist and mining engineer while searching the Western Australian goldfields for Bewick, Moreing & Co., a London-based mining company.

After working in China for a time, Hoover set out on his own as an independent mining consultant. Eventually he had investments on every continent and offices in San Francisco, London, New York City, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Mandalay, Burma. By 1914, Hoover was extremely wealthy, with an estimated personal fortune of $4 million. He was once quoted as saying, “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”

Photograph of Herbert Clark Hoover listening to a radio

Herbert C. Hoover: Republican Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith in the election of 1928 to become the 31st president of the United States.

Hoover served as head of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I and then as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s under presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He promoted partnerships between government and business under the rubric of “economic modernization.”

He was a firm proponent of the Efficiency movement, which held that the government and economy were riddled with inefficiency and waste, and could be improved by experts who could identify and solve the problems. He also believed in the importance of volunteerism and the role of individuals in both society and the economy. Hoover was the first of two presidents to redistribute his entire salary; John F. Kennedy donated all of his presidential paychecks to charity.

Election of 1928

Smith’s candidacy for president in 1928 mobilized Catholic votes, especially those of women, who had only in recent years gained the legal right to vote. His campaign, however, also caused the Democratic Party to lose the support of the historically safe South by repelling white, conservative Democrats who were staunchly opposed to Roman Catholics.

National prosperity and widespread anti-Catholic sentiment made Hoover’s election inevitable, and he won in a landslide over Smith by pledging to continue the economic boom of the preceding Coolidge administration. Smith won the electoral votes of only the traditionally Democratic southern United States and two New England states with a large proportion of Catholic voters, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Hoover even triumphed in Smith’s home state of New York by a narrow margin.

The inroads made by the Republican ticket in the South were stunning. Texas had never been carried by a Republican before, whereas the electoral votes of North Carolina and Virginia had not been awarded to a Republican since 1872, nor those of Florida since 1876. In all, Smith carried only 6 of the 11 states of the former Confederacy.

The map shows a landslide victory for Hoover, though Smith did well in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

U.S. presidential election margin of victory results by county (1928): Results by county explicitly indicating the margin of victory for the winning candidate. Shades of red are for Hoover (Republican) and shades of blue are for Smith (Democratic), and shades of green are for “Other(s)” (Non-Democratic/Non-Republican).

Smith attempted the 1932 nomination but was defeated by his former ally and successor as New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith entered business in New York City and became an increasingly vocal opponent of Roosevelt’s New Deal.