John J. Pitney, Jr.: FDR's Birthers
John J. Pitney, Jr. is Crocker Professor of Politics at Claremont McKenna College.
President Obama is not the first chief executive who has had to deal with rumors about his ancestry. In the 1930s, there were stories that President Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish.
On March 7, 1935, FDR wrote to Philip Slomovitz, the editor of The Detroit Jewish Chronicle:
I am grateful to you for your interesting letter of March 4th. I have no idea as to the source of the story which you say came from my old friend, Chase Osborn. All I know about the origin of the Roosevelt family in this country is that all branches bearing the name are apparently descended from Claes Martenssen Van Roosevelt, who came from Holland sometime before 1648—even the year is uncertain. Where he came from in Holland I do not know, nor do I know who his parents were. There was a family of the same name on one of the Dutch Islands and some of the same name living in Holland as lately as thirty or forty years ago, but, frankly, I have never had either the time or the inclination to try to establish the line on the other side of the ocean before they came over here, nearly three hundred years ago.
In the dim distant past they may have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants. What I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God. I hope they were both.
On March 15, The New York Times reported on the exchange:
Mr. Slomovitz's letter to Mr. Roosevelt quoted an article from "Civic Echo," which in turn quoted an interview in an unnamed newspaper in St. Petersburg, Fla., in which Chase Osborn, former Governor of Michigan, was said to have sketched a supposed version of the President's ancestry as Jewish.
Why did it matter? Anti-Semitism was far more widespread in the 1930s than today. In 1937, Gallup asked this question: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Jewish, would you vote for that person?" Only 46 percent said yes, compared with 47 percent who said no.
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