Less than a month after he failed to win recognition of the Irish Republic at the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention in Chicago, Éamon de Valera tried for a better outcome at the Democratic Party gathering in San Francisco. His effort was doomed from the start.
“Even before he’d gotten off the train, the local papers were speculating that his chances of getting the type of resolution he desired were almost nonexistent and that he well might end up with no resolution,” Dave Hannigan wrote. 1
The Democrats were the party of President Woodrow Wilson, who disdained the Irish independence movement and denied their repeated requests for support since the 1916 Rising. The GOP’s earlier rejection of an Irish plank in their party platform gave the Democrats additional cover with their Irish voters.
Read Part 1 about the Republican Convention
“We shall have our hands full for some time attending to the affairs of America without going farther afield,” U.S. Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia, chairman of the Democrats’ resolutions committee and Wilson’s former Treasury secretary, said of the prospects for an Irish plank.2 A few days later, the request for “full, formal and official recognition” of the Irish Republic failed 31-17 in the committee, “another resounding defeat for de Valera.”3
Unlike Chicago, however, where the issue died in committee, the full assembly of Democratic state delegates considered a compromise Irish plank on the convention floor. It also was defeated, but The New York Times reported the second Irish plank “was debated at some length, and finally got more than 400 votes. This is considered an impressive showing, and particularly so in a convention so thoroughly determined as this one to support the policies of the [Wilson] administration.”4
The Times noted the Irish effort would have had more success if operated internally by party leaders instead of being “managed chiefly from the outside.” The paper’s analysis said nothing about the opposition.
The 665-402 state delegate vote against recognition reveals the geographic limits of de Valera’s efforts to win American support for Ireland. Backing remained confined to the Northeast and Midwest regions, to states with thick Irish and Irish-American populations, such as Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Irish plank received unanimous support from the Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., delegations.
The plank failed, however, to win even one Democratic delegate vote from 16 states, all but one — Delaware — in the American South and West. This accounted for 270 opposition votes, nearly 41 percent of the total. Another 21 states from the same regions, including convention host California, cast the majority of their ballots against the Irish plank, most by high margins.
“It is not an American issue at present,” said former Texas Gov. Thomas M. Campbell, whose entire 40-member delegation voted against the measure. “Ireland is premature in her demands, we believe.”5
Many Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, were reluctant to cross war ally Britain on the Irish issue, which they considered an internal matter. Perhaps some remained suspicious of Irish republican connections to Germany. At least a few of the state delegations probably voted en bloc against Irish recognition simply to please their chairman or other party arm-twisters. It was not a wrenching choice.
“For traditional and practical reasons, sympathy for the Irish problem remained strong within the Democratic Party, but not so strong as to tie the party or presidential candidate to any action on the matter,” Bernadette Whelan observed.6
The Irish Press, the Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the separatist Dáil Éireann in Dublin, quoted the Times’ “impressive showing” analysis of the 400 pro-recognition votes. The Press suggested that “even those who voted against the Irish recognition plank are ill at ease since witnessing the mighty demonstration of popular support accorded the Irish president on his arrival here.”7
De Valera believed the Democratic Party had underestimated “the great volume of public sentiment in this country behind the demand for justice in Ireland.” He vowed to create “a more systematic and thorough organization of the friends of the cause in America” and “an intensive campaign of education will be carried into every state and will reach every citizen.”
This was a remarkable statement from a man who had spent the past year traveling across America, holding hundreds of public rallies and private meetings, to promote Irish independence. His efforts generated substantial local and national media coverage, much of it favorable. A massive bond drive to raise U.S. dollars for Ireland had been underway since January. Nevertheless, de Valera and his supporters soon launched a new organization, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, in a split from the established Friends of Irish Freedom.
More about the new group and the impact of Irish voters in the 1920 U.S. presidential election in future posts.
De Valera’s departure from San Francisco also became the first step of his December 1920 return to Ireland. The Democratic convention failure faded into a few bad days in a political career that would span more than 50 years. In his two-volume biography of the Irish leader, totaling more than 800 pages, David McCullaugh reduced the episode to just one sentence.8