Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

General Humbert: The Year of the French, 1798 and New Orleans, 1815 (Part 1 of 2)

Gen. Jean Joseph
Amable Humbert
Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

(Editor’s note: This is a two part article dealing with the story of General Humbert. Part 1 deals with the historical background, setting the stage. Part 2 deals with Humbert’s military actions
in Ireland and in New Orleans. Click the link above for Part 2.)

Part 1: The Historical Background in Ireland and New Orleans during the Age of Napoleon

There is an old saying which is often true: Fact is stranger than fiction. At the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, the last great battle of the War of 1812, three generals appeared who, oddly enough, all had direct ties to Ireland. Two of them were indeed the commanders of the opposing armies.

But it is the third man who has the most remarkable Irish story of all.

The first general was Edward Pakenham. He was born at Tullynally Castle (Pakenham Hall) in County Westmeath, Ireland; he was an English aristocrat living on lands taken from the Irish long ago.
He was the brother-in-law of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington; the Duke would ultimately defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Pakenham served with Wellington with the British army fighting Napoleon’s French army in Spain during the Peninsular War. Because of his capable service in Spain, Pakenham was chosen to lead the British land invasion of Louisiana and capture the key American port city of New Orleans, which controlled all commerce on the Mississippi River and beyond, in 1814.
Edward Pakenham
Wikimedia Commons

The second general was the leader of the American forces, General Andrew Jackson. Both of Jackson’s parents were from Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Ireland and emigrated to America.
Andrew Jackson, born in the Waxhaws in South Carolina, was Protestant Irish, also known as
Scots Irish Presbyterians or Dissenters. Many of these Ulster Scots Irish left the north of Ireland
to avoid the discrimination placed on them by the British. They came to America seeking a new and freer life. Andy Jackson, his brother, and his mother acting as a nurse, aided the American cause
during the Revolutionary War of 1776. His soldier brother and his mother died during the war, and Jackson, who was a very young army scout at the time became a prisoner-of-war.

A ruthless British officer struck young Andrew with a sword when Jackson defiantly refused to shine the officer’s boots. Now in 1815 General Jackson faced a British general on the Chalmette Battlefield just outside of New Orleans, renewing a struggle against British imperialism in the New World which had its roots in the Old.

Young Andrew Jackson refuses
to shine a British officer's boots.
Photo Wikimedia Commons

But it is the third general who had the strangest coincidences. He was buried in New Orleans, but he was not an American. He fought the British in Ireland, but he was not Irish. He fought Pakenham first in Ireland in 1798 and again in 1815 in New Orleans. He was a personal friend of Napoleon Bonaparte’s and of the Baratarian pirate Jean Lafitte. At the Chalmette battlefield he was warmly welcomed as a volunteer and praised by General Andrew Jackson. He was the French revolutionary named Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.

In Irish history Napoleon Bonaparte is seen as a hero who tried to save Ireland from British tyranny. Jean Humbert was Napoleon’s bold and daring general who almost made that happen. Humbert failed in Ireland, but he helped the Americans stop the British in Chalmette.

“Bliain n bhFrancach” -- The Year of the French

United Irishmen, a political society of
Irish Protestants and Catholics, at first wanted political reform and
later wanted independence from Britain
Photo Wikimedia Commons

This Irish rebellion had its origins in a philosophical and political organization called the United Irishmen. This was an incredible mixture of Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants who put aside their religious and cultural differences for a common cause -- and what that they saw as the solution to “The Irish Question.” Initially, they only wanted reform within the British Empire. Later they saw that the solution was independence -- remove British rule from Ireland, and let the Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, govern themselves in peace. The United Irishmen were greatly influenced by two other revolutions --- the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789.

In May of 1798 the Irish rebellion began. It attempted to put an end to British tyranny in Ireland which dated back centuries and created a society of British elites, who were Church of England and the related Church of Ireland, and second class subjects, suppressed under the Penal Laws, who were mainly Irish Catholics or non-Anglican Irish or Scots Irish Protestants, such as Presbyterians.

In addition to ethnic and religious discrimination, there was classism. People who did not own land had little, if any, political influence.

Oddly enough, the Catholic Church in Rome was opposed to the United Irishmen and their rebellion. The Church especially feared Revolutionary France which was largely anti-clerical. However, some individual clergy members did support the rebellion like the famous Father John Murphy of Wexford mentioned in the Irish Rebel song "Boolavogue."

The Irish Protestant leader of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, attempted to get the assistance of revolutionary France to help in the revolt in Ireland. In 1796 the French did attempt to land
a fairly large force of 13,000 troops in Ireland; but for many unfortunate reasons, including violent storms at sea, the expedition failed to land. General Bonaparte, as he was called -- as The Directory, a form of revolutionary council, was officially ruling France at that time -- was occupied fighting the Austrians in Italy, and in early 1798 he led a military expedition to Egypt, attempting to disrupt British commerce in the East.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Invasion of Egypt, 1798
"Battle of the Pyramids" by
Antoine Jean Gros, 1810
Wikimedia Commons

There was fighting all over Ireland between ill-armed and ill-prepared rebels and the professional British Army and their militias. Most of the Irish were armed with mere wooden pikes -- long homemade spears, while the British had firearms -- muskets with bayonets and cannons.

Pikes had some value against cavalry charges and in some hand-to-hand melees, but clearly the ancient weapons were inferior to military guns in the hands of disciplined British soldiers.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill
The Irish pikes were no match
for firearms and professional soldiers.
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Many of the major battles occurred in the Southeast of Ireland, including the important Battle of Vinegar Hill in Wexford in late June. This was the turning point of the conflict, and it appeared that the Rebel cause was doomed.

In addition to set piece battles, the British army terrorized the Irish civilian population. It is also true that the Rebels committed some atrocities against pro-British, Loyalist civilians as well. A terrible atrocity occurred at Scullabogue where pro-British Loyalist civilians were burned to death in a barn, in unjustified retaliation for the burning to death of anti-British civilians elsewhere.
Hatred and violence swept over Ireland.

Scullabogue. Loyalist civilians were
massacred in retaliation for the massacre
of Rebel civilians. Hate followed hate in
Photo Wikimedia Commons

The British Army suppressed the Irish with many brutal methods including executions, mainly by hanging, and also fiendish tortures such as “halfhanging” and “pitchcapping.”

In halfhanging a victim was hanged partly until almost dead and then quickly released. He was then halfhanged again and again in an attempt to punish him or extract information.

Half hanging, British torture of suspected
Irish Rebels
Photo Wikimedia Commons

In pitchcapping, hot tar was poured over the skull of a victim, whose hands were tied behind his back. The burning tar would cause extreme pain and any hot liquids from burned flesh or blood could pour down the victim’s face and into his eyes. Then after the tar cooled and solidified, it was ripped off the head violently, ripping off hair and skin and in effect scalping the victim. This too was a form of punishment or torture to extract information. It was also alleged that rape by the British soldiers against Irish civilian women occurred. In the British view the Irish Rebels were traitors and did not deserve legal protection.

Pitchcapping, torture of Irish
civilians by the British
Photo Wikimedia Commons

These horrors continued in Ireland as the British rounded up the leaders of the rebellion.

The only thing that could save the Irish now was immediate military assistance from a powerful ally.

Continue reading at Part 2 of 2.

Sources and Further Reading:
Shannon Selin’s website ; History of New Orleans by John Kendall*.html#note14 ; Wikipedia’s article Battle of Castlebar ; Wikipedia article on the Irish Rebellion in 1798; Old NOLA Journal article on Humbert; Wikipedia article on Jean Humbert ; Mayo County Library, Ireland article on Humbert Footsteps; article about Humbert from an Irish pub ; “He Fought Pakenham Twice” article from the New Orleans Bar Review ; All photographs and artwork are in public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Map of Ireland; Andrew Jackson painting; Humbert Monument Ballina; Castlebar Races painting; Cornwallis painting; United Irishmen painting; Battle of New Orleans painting; Pakenham painting; Pitchcapping drawing; Scullabogue Massacre Drawing; Halfhaning drawing; 
An Irish song book called "Bliain na Bhfrancach: Songs of 1798 The Year of the French" by Duchas, 1982. The book has Irish songs about 1798 and historical data. The booklet discusses General Humbert and mentions his burial in New Orleans.

General Humbert: The Year of the French, 1798 and New Orleans, 1815 (Part 2 of 2)

By Adrian McGrath

General Jean Joseph
Amable Humbert
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

(Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of the story from
Part 1. This is the second and final part. Click the link above for the Part 1.)

Part 2: General Humbert’s Military Actions in Ireland and New Orleans

The Year of the French

On August 22nd, the French arrived. Landing on the west coast of Ireland in Kilcummin, Mayo, General Jean Humbert gave new hope for the Irish cause. Humbert led a small force of 1,100 French troops supported by approximately 5,000 Irish Rebels. Ireland had one last, desperate chance for independence. This heroic but doomed adventure became known as “Bliain n bhFrancach” in the Irish Gaelic language -- The Year of the French.

Map of Ireland by Johann Homann, 1716
Connacht is on the west coast, in color
Wikimedia Commons

There were other attempts by the French to land raiding parties and supplies on the shores of Ireland in 1798, but they failed. Should Napoleon have attempted a larger invasion of Ireland? Most likely General Bonaparte realized the great difficulty of getting ships, men, and supplies past the powerful British Navy and dealing with the dangerous seas and storms near Ireland in the Atlantic. Fighting so close to England itself would mean the British could easily bring in their own supplies and reinforcements while the French could not. Napoleon understood that the odds heavily favored the British, so he focused on Egypt, disrupting British commerce in the East, and not Ireland but did support limited operations there.

General Humbert, despite all obstacles, successfully landed and showed great leadership skills commanding his small force and moved on the town of Killala, gathering Irish support on the march. He defeated the British at the Battle of Castlebar, routing the enemy to the point where the battle was later referred to as “the Castlebar Races.” The British militia literally ran away in panic. The Franco-Irish force had about 2,000 men against a much larger British force of about 6,000 -- composed mainly of local militia but some British regular soldiers plus artillery and cavalry. It was a great victory for Humbert.

The Battle of Castlebar
"Castlebar Races" where Gen. Humbert
defeated the British in 1798
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The vast majority of the regular British Army was to the east near Dublin, however. It was only a matter of time before thousands upon thousands of highly trained British regulars would surround and attack Humbert.

The French leader nevertheless continued forward. He proclaimed the area of Ireland he and his men liberated as the Republic of Connacht -- the name of that province in Ireland. Humbert liberated Killala, Ballina, and Castlebar, and moved to the east. If he could raise enough local support, there was a slim chance he could even approach Dublin.

But as thrilling as this was, the reality was that this small French force was now thousands of miles from home, out of supply, and in a hostile environment surrounded by tens of thousands of British soldiers. The Irish rebels were brave, but they were untrained and badly equipped.


Lord Cornwallis, leader
of the British forces in Ireland.
He surrendered to G. Washington in 1781
at the Battle of Yorktown.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British eventually mustered up enough troops and surrounded Humbert. The French and Irish -- about 2,500 strong -- were forced to surrender on September 8 at the Battle of Ballinamuck in County Longford to a much larger British force of about 25,000 (10 to 1 odds against Humbert). The French liberation of part of Ireland had lasted less than three weeks.

The British, who eventually had about 60,000 soldiers in Ireland, were led by two officers who became known for other reasons famous in American history. The overall British commander was Lord Charles Cornwallis. He was the British general who was defeated at the Battle of Yorktown by a rebel American army under George Washington and supported by a French army under General Comte de Rochambeau. Another British officer on the field at the defeat of brave Humbert was Edward Pakenham, with the 23 Light Dragoons. He would meet Humbert again in combat 17 years later in New Orleans.

Edward Pakenham,
British officer in Ireland and
British commander at New Orleans
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British treated the French prisoners properly under the code of war and eventually exchanged and released Humbert and the French troops back to France. But they did not consider the Irish to be soldiers but treasonous rebels and traitors to Britain. The British treated the Irish prisoners as criminals and summarily executed many of the Irish rebels and leaders.

Then the British Army finished off the Irish rebellion with a ruthless destruction of peasants’ dwellings and homes and indiscriminate brutalization of the Irish people, including the war crimes of murder and rape.

Pakenham’s star was now rising. He would follow his brother-in-law Wellington to fight the French again in Spain and be chosen as the man to bring ruin to America. He would sail with a huge British force, gathered from British possessions around the globe, assemble at the British base in Jamaica, and set sail for south Louisiana. The British government felt it would be a simple task now for the British to take New Orleans by force of arms.

But there were men in New Orleans who were determined to stop them. One was Andrew Jackson and the other was Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.

The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1815
Redcoats attack Line Jackson at Chalmette and are defeated.
Gen. Humbert advises Gen. Jackson on the field of battle.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The British did not take the War of 1812 seriously for a long while. Yes, they were at war with America; but America then was a new and very weak country. The enemy Britain feared was France which was led by one of the greatest military minds in human history -- Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he was a military genius, his ambition, his ego mania, could cause Napoleon to make serious mistakes. 

Russia, for example, was the obvious failure. Le Grand Armee was destroyed mainly by the environmental conditions in Russia rather than by battles. Afterall, Napoleon did capture Moscow. But the climate and environment and Napoleon’s boundless, even mad, ambition drove him to his own doom. He retreated from Russia with a destroyed army and a vulnerable empire.

After his loss at Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations, Napoleon was now in exile on Elba, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. The British could finally switch their attention to their other enemy -- the United States.

After a great deal of fighting near the Great Lakes on the border with Canada, and some raids along the East coast including one where the US White House was actually burned, the British felt extremely confident. American troops had fled in terror before British regulars at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland. The British commanders began to think all they needed to do was to show up, open fire, and the Americans would run away.

They turned their attention now to New Orleans. Capture that city, control the Mississippi River, control the shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and the Americans will be defeated.

In late 1814 the British sailed for Louisiana. Their leader was Edward Pakenham. He could not have possibly imagined that after all these years he would be facing General Humbert again in cypress swamps on the other side of the world.

In late December of 1814, the British troops began to assemble near Lake Borgne and march towards the river levee south of New Orleans. Pakenham, who was a smart officer, felt it would be better to try to outflank the Americans. But the terrain -- cypress swamps, the river, and lakes -- allowed little room to maneuver. 

His officers advised Pakenham to simply bombard the enemy with cannons and Congreve Rockets and then march through with musket volley and bayonet charge, and the Americans would flee as they did at Bladensburg, Maryland.

The British had “the victory disease.” Because they succeeded in the past they thought they would succeed easily again. This time, however, the Americans were an assortment of skilled marksmen with Kentucky Longrifles from Tennessee, professional American Army soldiers and Marines, an assembly of local volunteers including Choctaw Indians and Freemen of Color, and ruthless and highly experienced pirate cannoneers, Baratarian pirates under Jean Lafitte. Lafitte had supplied Jackson with gunpowder and pirate sailors in exchange for pardons for himself and his men.

But there was one other man on the American side -- General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert. He understood the British and their tactics, and he was happy to advise General Jackson.

Andrew Jackson, leader of the Americans
at the Battle of New Orleans. Both of his parents were from
Carrickfergus, Ireland. He was advised at the battle
by French general Jean Humbert.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Jackson verbally placed Humbert in command on the Westbank of the Mississippi River to prevent the British from outflanking the main American force and possibly bringing up cannon to bombard the city. 

The American officers on the Westbank, however, refused to take orders from a foreign officer, as Jackson forgot to make written orders. So Humbert re-joined Jackson on the Eastbank, on the main battlefield at Chalmette, and was a personal advisor to Jackson during the battle. All during the battle, General Humbert was under fire from the enemy.

The British Army advanced against Jackson’s line, but the Americans held. The British Army was shattered. Many British officers were killed by the accuracy of the pirates’ cannon fire and the long range rifle fire of the Kentucky and Tennessee volunteers.

More than 2,000 of the 8.000 British troops were killed. Jackson’s 5000 men held the ground and won the day.

It was a stirring success for the Americans and the most decisive victory of the war. Pakenham was killed with multiple bullet wounds. His body was sent back to Britain preserved in a barrel of rum. Humbert lived to see his British enemy from Ireland thoroughly defeated.

Andrew Jackson, of course, became a national hero and later the president of the United States.

Humbert Remembered

A monument of "Mother Ireland"
in honor of Gen. Jean Joseph Amable Humbert,
of The Year of the French, 1798
 in Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland on Humbert Street
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
and Miles O'Neill in public domain

Humbert spent the rest of his life until his death in 1823, more or less, living in New Orleans. He remained close friends with Jean Lafitte, and he was possibly even involved later on with Lafitte's "business enterprises" in Galveston, Texas.

It was said that Humbert was buried in what was then called the Girod Street Cemetery, which was near to where the Superdome is today in New Orleans. It is unsure what happened to the body. Some accounts say he was buried in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 behind the French Quarter.

Other accounts claim Humbert was a Mason and, arguably, would not be placed in a Catholic cemetery in those days. Some accounts say Humbert’s head was preserved but not the body, and that the Girod Street Cemetery itself was amended to make street repairs and then the cemetery removed, the bodies exhumed, and reburied elsewhere.

Whatever the case, Humbert lived and died and was almost certainly buried in New Orleans -- exactly where, we do not know.

Humbert was a colorful and romantic figure of the Napoleonic Era. (Indeed, he was alleged to have once had an affair with Napoleon’s sister, Pauline.)

It is too bad that General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert is not better remembered in America or especially in New Orleans, a country and city he fought to defend.

But he is a hero in Ireland to this day where he will always be remembered for one year of his incredible life, 1798 -- The Year of the French.

Sources and Further Reading:

Shannon Selin’s website ; History of New Orleans by John Kendall*.html#note14 ; Wikipedia’s article Battle of Castlebar ; Wikipedia article on the Irish Rebellion in 1798; Old NOLA Journal article on Humbert; Wikipedia article on Jean Humbert ; Mayo County Library, Ireland article on Humbert Footsteps; article about Humbert from an Irish pub ; “He Fought Pakenham Twice” article from the New Orleans Bar Review ; All photographs and artwork are in public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Map of Ireland; Andrew Jackson painting; Humbert Monument Ballina; Castlebar Races painting; Cornwallis painting; United Irishmen painting; Battle of New Orleans painting; Pakenham painting; Pitchcapping drawing; Scullabogue Massacre Drawing; Halfhaning drawing;   An Irish song book called "Bliain na Bhfrancach: Songs of 1798 The Year of the French" by Duchas, 1982. The book has Irish songs about 1798 and historical data. The booklet discusses General Humbert and mentions his burial in New Orleans.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Election Day 1960

John F. Kennedy
First Irish Catholic
American President, 1961 -1963.
Photo from US Government and
Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

Election day in 1960 for the President of the United States began in the year 1845.  It began in 1845 because this was when a blight came over the potatoes in Ireland; this plus a long history of British oppression in Ireland, resulted in the Potato Famine which left 1,000,000 Irish dead of starvation and disease and another 1,000,000 exiled forever. Some of these devastated Irish exiles were named Fitzgerald (John Kennedy’s mother’s family), and others were named Kennedy. The Kennedys and Fitzgeralds and many, many other Irish made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to various port cities in America. The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds went to Boston. (Read more about Irish immigration to America here.)

Skibbereen, Ireland 1847
at the height of the Potato Famine (Great Hunger)
Photo by Wikimedia Commons
by James Mahoney of
Illustrated London News 1847

It was true that America in the 19th century was a land of opportunity; but it was also a land with prejudice against immigrants -- often against the Irish and especially against all Catholics.

Irish Catholic immigrants, when seeking employment, were often faced with signs saying, “No Irish Need Apply.” If some people would not hire an Irish Catholic to be a laborer, it was unthinkable that they would ever vote for an Irish Catholic to be their American president. But maybe things would change over time?

An anti-Irish immigrant political cartoon
Irishman depicted as a drunken ape on a
gunpowder keg. By Thomas Nast in
Harper's Weekly, 1871
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Al Smith: The Catholic Presidential Candidate Who Lost

Al Smith, governor of
New York, First Catholic to
run for US President
(Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Alfred Edward Smith, Jr. was born in 1873 in Brooklyn, New York; he was named after his father, but self-identified with his mother and her ancestry. His mother (Catherine Mulvihill) was Irish Catholic. His father was of Italian and German descent, and his name was originally Alfrede Emanuele Ferraro before he changed it to Smith. The father was a soldier in the American Civil War.

That horrible war, which divided America, united Irish Catholics who fought in the military -- in both the North and the South. Because of their outstanding record as soldiers, the war made the Irish more acceptable in American society which was then predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. After being soldiers, they could become police officers and firefighters ... and politicians and unite into a political bloc.

"No Irish Need Apply"
An advertisement from the New York Times in 1854
From Wikimedia Commons

With a significant Irish, Catholic, and immigrant population now in New York state, Smith rose from New York State Assemblyman to City Alderman to become the governor of New York State in the 1920s supporting various programs for the working class.  

An anti-Catholic illustration depicting
the Ku Klux Klan "defending" America
from Roman Catholicism, Pillar of Fire Church, 1928.
Prejudice was in the open and pervasive.
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Then Smith tried to become the first Catholic American president in 1928 (all the others were Protestant), winning the nomination of the Democratic Party and seeking votes nationwide. He lost. The Republican Herbert Hoover won in a landslide with 58% of the popular vote to Smith’s 41%, and 444 Electoral College votes to Smith’s 87 out of 531.

An anti-Catholic illustration depicting
the Pope plotting to rule America,
Guardians of Liberty, 1943
From Wikimedia Commons

It was clear that one of the reasons Smith lost was his opposition to Prohibition. The Bible Belt was sure to oppose him. But there was another reason -- prejudice. Smith was Roman Catholic, and some voters just would not vote for a Catholic. They feared the Vatican, and they feared people who were simply different from themselves.

An anti-Catholic cartoon by Thomas Nast
from Harpers Weekly, 1875 depicting Catholic clergy
as crocodiles endangering America
From Wikimedia Commons

John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The crew of the PT 109, 1943
LT JG John F. Kennedy is the skipper,
on far right, standing
US National Archives, US Navy
Photo Wikimedia Commons

He was a Harvard University graduate, a descendant of Potato Famine Irish immigrants, the son of the US ambassador to Great Britain, and he was almost killed in combat during World War II fighting against the Japanese Empire.

He was the skipper of the PT 109, a US Navy Motor Torpedo Boat. In 1943 a Japanese destroyer, a large metal warship named the Amagiri, rammed the smaller PT 109, which was made of wood, at night time while both vessels were on patrol in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy's boat exploded, burned, and later sank. With serious injuries to his back, LT JG Kennedy saved the lives of his remaining crew (two died in the Japanese attack) swimming to a small island in seas controlled by the Japanese and making contact with Allied forces after several days of extreme danger. Kennedy’s heroic war record would help him later when he entered politics.

Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart from the US Government for his military actions. (Read more about Kennedy in the war here.)

LT JG John F. Kennedy on the
PT 109 in 1943
Photo from the US Navy
and Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy was elected to the House of Representatives in Massachusetts in 1947 and stayed until 1953. From then until 1960, Kennedy was elected and served in the US Senate.

Campaign 1960: “Let the word go forth …”

Richard M. Nixon,
vice president in 1960,
became president in 1969
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
and the US Government

Richard Nixon was the Vice President under the popular war leader and general, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon was a brilliant politician, public debater, and skilled lawyer. With the support of President Eisenhower, Nixon was favored to win his Republican Party’s nomination easily and had a good chance to win the presidency.

Kennedy had a major challenger for the Democratic nomination in Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a senator, and also Lyndon Johnson, a future president, and Adlai Stevenson, a long-term Democrat politician. Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary and had a good start, but a serious problem arose as he approached the West Virginia primary. It was not an issue over taxes, foreign policy, or even the economy.

The Kennedy Nixon debates, first televised presidential
 debates in American history, helped determine
the outcome of the 1960 election.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and UPI
United Press International

The issue was religion, namely, Kennedy’s Roman Catholic religion. Many people held anti-Catholic attitudes in America even in 1960. West Virginia, unlike Wisconsin, was almost totally Protestant. Could Kennedy win there? Would the Catholic issue end the chances for the Irish candidate from Massachusetts?

With superb political skills, Kennedy addressed the issue of his religion by affirming his strong belief in the American principle of religious freedom originating in the US Constitution’s First Amendment and set forth later by Thomas Jefferson -- separation of church and state. He won the West Virginia primary and went on to win the Democratic nomination.

Kennedy would restate this position on religion famously in September of 1960 in Houston before a meeting of Protestant ministers in the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He said: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me.”

With his persuasive ability and charisma, Kennedy made it clear that, although a Catholic, his political views were his own and based on American law and American political philosophy. He added, cleverly, that no one questioned his Catholic religion when he fought the Japanese in World War II serving in the US Navy.

The Campaign of 1960 was one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Many people believe that the televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were the determining factor. Although Nixon was very skilled at the debates in public speaking, in appearance on TV, Kennedy shined.

On Tuesday November 8, 1960 the votes came in at first favoring Nixon. But by early next morning, it was clear that Kennedy had won. Just barely. Kennedy won in the Popular Vote 49.7% to Nixon’s 49.5% and in the Electoral College (which is all that matters) 303 to 219. A candidate needed at that time 269 to win.

The Election map for 1960
Image from Wikimedia Commons
and National Atlas of the United States

John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first -- and so far -- the only Irish Catholic American president. His presidency lasted only three years, ended by an assassination. Yet he is regularly selected in public polls as being among the very best American presidents.

Election Day 1960 changed everything for Irish Catholic Americans. It was now impossible to seriously question their loyalty to the United States. John F. Kennedy created a “New Frontier” for Irish Catholic Americans and for all Americans.

Sources and Further Reading:; the book The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White and the film The Making of the President 1960 by David L. Wolper; Wikipedia article on Anti-Catholicism; Wikipedia article on the Presidential Election 1960 ; All photos for this article are in public domain from Wikimedia Commons or are US Government photos in public domain.