Lot 20: John F. Kennedy Typed Letter Signed
8th November 2017
TLS, two pages, 8 x 10.5, United States Senate letterhead, January 8, 1958. Letter to Professor Oscar Handlin, who taught history at Harvard University for over fifty years. In part: "The page galleys of your forthcoming book on Al Smith have finally caught up with me on my return to Washington. I was delighted to have the opportunity to preview the book…I think that you have been remarkably successful in conveying to the reader not only an image of Al Smith as a personality but also fitting him into the broader sweep of events of which he was a part—in New York City, in New York state and in the life of the nation. Of all the major political figures of this century, Al Smith has perhaps been the least well served by biographers and historians. For the first time in my reading, I have come across a book which etches clearly the place of Al Smith. By stressing a few flashpoints in his career, you have been able to assess his leadership more skillfully than would have probably been possible in a full-dress biography. You make it clear that Smith possessed above all else a practical intelligence which responded naturally to the stress of events and to the felt needs of his environment. While distrusting idealists, the Progressive movement and fair-weather reformers, his own achievements in New York state were in themselves a remarkable reform achievement. He was able to make progress without compromising his conviction that partisanship and political compromise are essential ingredients of American politics. Moreover, he had an unusual capacity to face and absorb facts and to mobilize talents from the professions and universities. The record of his achievement in New York state in state administrative and financial reform, in conservation and welfare are all illustrations of his genius for practical achievement. You have been able to explain the sources of friction and distrust between Smith and Roosevelt better than in any other book I have read. At the same time, you have I think pointed to the reasons for the loss of influence and effectiveness which Smith suffered after 1933. For Smith was peculiarly a man who thrived on the specific challenges of politics and administration. He was unable to be an effective public figure when he was isolated from the stream of politics. As you indicate, Smith mistook Roosevelt as a wholly unprincipled politician, so that differences of degree soon became unbridgeable chasms. Roosevelt did, in fact, have certain policy objectives throughout his political life—e.g. conservation—and there is no question that the office of the Presidency was an enormous stimulus to constructive leadership and new ideas. You ask me for a comment regarding Catholicism and the Presidency. I gather from your pages that your own view of the matter is inconclusive, but that on the balance, Smith's experience has seriously impaired the chances for later Catholic aspirants, such as James Farley. On the other hand, from the evidence in your book, it would appear that during the 1920's there was a special set of factors which are unlikely to be repeated in the same combination or intensity in our own day. For the revolt against Smith was a Fundamentalist rebellion which grew out of a Nativist consciousness which was more than anti-Catholicism, from a Fundamentalist bent in much of American Protestantism, and from the Prohibition movement. All of these factors were of course inter-related, but it was clear that Catholicism by itself was not the cause of Smith's defeat. From my own political experience, I feel certain that this factor has been considerably alleviated." In fine condition, with a corner crease and staple holes to the upper left. The Democratic nominee in 1928, Al Smith was the first Catholic presidential candidate from any major party. Although Kennedy downplays it here, Smith’s religion was instrumental in the landslide defeat dealt to him by Herbert Hoover in the election. Kennedy himself would face an uphill battle in the 1960 election due to his closely held Catholicism. Even thirty years after Smith’s loss, anti-Catholic sentiment remained strong in pockets of the country—especially in the South—and Kennedy only proved himself as a viable candidate by winning the primaries in West Virginia. In his campaign, Kennedy staunchly defended the separation of church and state, allaying fears that he would ‘take orders from the Vatican’ if elected to the White House. A fascinating, detailed letter on his forerunner as a Catholic candidate.
The bookmarklet lets you save things you find to your collections.
Note: Make sure your bookmarks are visible.
Click and drag the Collect It button to your browser's Bookmark Bar.