I contend that democracy is a caveat emptor proposition, and if more voters realized that going into the voting booth, there would be a lot fewer jaded citizens disengaging from the system on the other end. Allow me to provide you with an example. In January of 1921, the Committee on Elections of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, chaired by the appropriately named Loyd Makepeace, from Malden, took up the case of challenger John Callahan verses incumbent James Sweeney. The prize in this election was the Eleventh District in Hampden County, comprising sections of the 5th and 7th wards of Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the Irish names of both Sweeney and Callahan fit in well. For sixty years the state legislature, also known as the General Court, had been controlled by the Anglo-Protestant Republican party. The industrial revolution was beginning to change that, but the transition was not proving comfortable for anybody.
Located just north of Springfield, Holyoke (above) was one of the first planned industrial communities in America. The town drew power for her textile industry and 25 paper mills from canals and a falls of the Connecticut River. That year the town's population topped 60,000, the vast majority of them first generation Irish Catholic emigrants. And in 1920 first term state Representative, Democrat James Sweeney, had sent out an aggressive campaign mailing to his constituents.
Most of it was pretty standard propaganda. “After serving you honorably and faithfully for the past year”, wrote Representative Sweeny, “I am a candidate for re-election, and seek your consideration at the polls Tuesday, November 2”. Sweeney went on to take credit for getting state money for a new bridge across the Connecticut River, and for supporting aid for expectant mothers. But then, in bold black type, he turned to “Chamberlain's Sex-Hyiegne and Birth Control” bill.
The proposed law's namesake was Republican State Senator George Dudly Chamberlain. He was, by all accounts, the kind of a man who gave politicians a good name. An accountant, in his spare time he had created a “playground association” in his home town of Springfield, obtaining and constructing safe places for all of Springfield's children to play. He volunteered untold hours at the Boy's Club and the Young Men's Christian Association. He was a deacon of the Episcopal Church. He had recently gotten into politics because he wanted to improve education statewide, and was pushing for free kindergarten classes for all children.. But in the eyes of many Catholic voters, all of those marvelous things were marks against George Chamberlain.
The Catholic Church simply did not trust a Protestant power structure to educate Catholic children. Irish emigrants, with fresh memories of the charnel house of English occupied Ireland, did not trust a man who could trace his blue blood back to tenth century English nobility, to John Saukerville, Lord Chamberlain to King Henry I of England. And having tithed to their own Church schools, Irish voters felt put-upon to be taxed again to support the public schools as well.
It did not matter to the Irish working classes that the bill was actually a compromise, nor did it matter that in section one of the bill the (state) department of education was instructed to, “...establish minimum rules and regulations...for the practice and education of health education in public schools...This shall include instruction in personal and community health...” In section four the bill required “School Committees in cities and towns...(to) appoint a supervisor of health education and necessary associates who shall...supervise and direct courses of instruction in health and of physical activity”
The bill had been voted down in the house, but James Sweeney warned his constituents that it was likely to come back. This bill meant “compulsory teaching of sex-hygiene and birth control to children, ten and twelve years old, against the parents' wishes....(it) would take the child away from the parent and put them under the direct supervision of the State....(and) would disrupt the morals of your children.”
The mailer end this way; “My opponent is also a (in italics) sexagenarian, and in my opinion would not be able to serve your district properly. And so I make this personal appeal to your reason,...Yours very truly, Representative James F. Sweeney.” To modern, and disinterested, eyes, the mailing may seem to be crude, but it was effective. The results of the election were 3,497 votes for James F. Sweeney, and 3, 091 for John A. Callahan, with 214 ballots either blank or unreadable. Sweeney was declared the winner by 399 votes.
Mr. Callahan was outraged. He saw Sweeney's mailing as false and malicious. First the actual title of Chamberlin's bill had been “To provide Physical Training in the Public Schools and Normal Schools”. It said nothing about birth control, let alone sex. And secondly, Mr.Callahan felt the use of the term “sexagenarian” was meant to imply to the uneducated and unsophisticated citizens of Holyoke, that Mr. Callahan was some kind of sex fiend, which he was probably not. So, since, under the Massachusetts's Constitution, “The house of representatives shall be the judge of the returns, elections, and qualifications of its own members”, he appealed to the House to over turn the election.
A simple reading of the names on the committee would seem to have given the Republican Callahan the edge. Beside Chairman Makepeace, there was Brimblecom, Rolander, Hale, Whiting, Gradt and Winnett, with not a hint of Ireland in the bunch. But besides being Protestants all, the members were also, first and foremost, politicians. And on January 27, 1921 the Committee, issued its findings. First it found that since John Callahan was 62 years of age, he was, by definition, a sexagenarian. If the voters were too stupid know that was what the word meant, that was their problem - not the politicians. And as far as the other exaggerated claims made in the circular, the committee decided that to assume the voters had been mislead by the rabble rousing clap trap in Sweeney's mailing would “constitute a denial of the possession of ordinary intelligence on the part of...voters of the Eleventh Hampden District. The committee have therefore come to the conclusion that the election....was the expression of the will of the majority of the voters...(and) thus manifested should prevail. The petitioner is therefore given leave to withdraw” which was a political way of telling the outraged Mr. Callahan to grow up and get lost.
The press, of course, turned the entire affair into a farce. The Boston Herald headline read, “Complains He Was Called Sexagenarian – Candidate Says Many Voters Thought It Had to Do With Sex.” A month later the Wall Street Journal got most of the details of the election right, except for the location, which it moved to downtown Boston. Thirty years later, the joke about sexagenarian was about all that remained of the story, and was even adapted to the Pepper-Smather Florida Senate election of 1950.
But this contested 1920 Massachusetts election is not a story about a quasi-maledictive phrase, its about the freedom to be stupid. To put it in more modern terms, if voters, for whatever reason, are dumb enough to elect Michelle Bachmann or Newt Gingrich to public office, that is still a good thing - because whether a monumental mess is made by the ruling money class or the working class, its the working class who has to clean it up. So it's at least better that they should be the ones responsible for making it - which is the theory behind democracy.
- 30 -