Al Smith

Al Smith

Infobox Governor
name = Alfred Emanuel Smith

order = 42nd
office = Governor of New York
term_start = January 1, 1919
term_end = December 31, 1920
lieutenant = Harry C. Walker
predecessor = Charles S. Whitman
successor = Nathan L. Miller
term_start2 = January 1, 1923
term_end2 = December 31, 1928
lieutenant2 =George R. Lunn (1923-1924)
Seymour Lowman (1925-1926)
Edwin Corning (1926-1928)
predecessor2 = Nathan L. Miller
successor2 = Franklin D. Roosevelt
birth_date = birth date|1873|12|30|mf=y
birth_place = New York City, New York
death_date = death date and age|1944|10|4|1873|12|30|mf=y
death_place = New York City, New York
party = Democratic
spouse =
profession =
religion = Roman Catholicism

Alfred Emanuel Smith, Jr., known in private and public life as Al Smith, (December 30, 1873 - October 4, 1944) was elected Governor of New York four times, and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. He was the first Roman Catholic and Irish-American to run for President as a major party nominee. He lost the election to Herbert Hoover. He then became president of the Empire State, Inc. and was instrumental in getting the Empire State Building built during the Great Depression.

Early life

Smith was born to Alfred Emanuel Smith and Catherine Mulvihill, and initially grew up in the multiethnic Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Oliver Street, within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge, then under construction. His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian, and English, but Smith identified with the Irish American community and became its leading spokesman in the 1920s.

He was thirteen when his father Alfred died; he was a Civil War veteran who owned a small trucking firm. At fourteen he had to drop out of parochial school, St. James School in Manhattan located at 37 James Street, to help support the rest of his family. He never attended high school or college, and claimed that he learned about people by studying them at the Fulton Fish Market, a job for which he was paid $12 per week. An accomplished amateur actor, he became a notable speaker. On May 6, 1900, Alfred Smith married Catherine A. Dunn, with whom he had five children. [ Slayton 2001]

Political career

In his political career, he traded on his working-class beginnings, identified himself with immigrants, and campaigned as a man of the people. Although indebted to the Tammany Hall political machine, particularly to its boss, "Silent" Charlie Murphy, he remained untarnished by corruption and worked for the passage of progressive legislation. [ Slayton 2001]

Smith's first political job was as a clerk in the office of the Commissioner of Jurors in 1895. In 1903 he was elected to the New York State Assembly. He served as vice chairman of the commission appointed to investigate factory conditions after a hundred workers died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Smith crusaded against dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions and championed corrective legislation.

In 1911, the Democrats obtained a majority of seats in the State Assembly, and Smith became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In 1912, following the loss of the majority, he became the minority leader. When the Democrats reclaimed the majority in the next election, he was elected Speaker for the 1913 session. He became minority leader again in 1914 when the Republicans won the majority again, and remained in that position until his election as sheriff of New York County in 1915. By now he was a leader of the Progressive movement in New York City and state. His campaign manager and top aide was Belle Moskowitz, daughter of Prussian-Jewish immigrants. [ Slayton 2001]

After serving in the patronage-rich job of sheriff of New York County beginning in 1916, Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918 with the help of Tammany Boss Charles F. Murphy and James A. Farley, who brought Smith the upstate vote. He was the first Irish-American to be elected governor of a state, though Martin H. Glynn was New York's first Catholic governor, serving in 1913-1914 when he succeeded Governor William Sulzer, who had been impeached.

In 1919, Smith gave the famous speech, "A man as low and mean as I can picture", making an irreparable break with William Randolph Hearst. Newspaperman Hearst, known for his notoriously sensationalist and largely (except on some economic matters) right-wing newspaper empire, was the leader of the populist wing of the Democratic Party in the city, and had combined with Tammany Hall in electing the local administration. Hearst had attacked Smith for "starving children" by not reducing the cost of milk.

Smith lost his bid for re-election in 1920, but was reelected as governor in 1922, 1924 and 1926 with James A. Farley serving as his campaign manager. As Governor Smith became known nationally as a progressive who sought to make government more efficient and more effective in meeting social needs. His young assistant Robert Moses constructed the nation's first state park system and reformed the civil service system; later he was elected Secretary of State of New York. During his term New York strengthened laws governing workers' compensation, women's pensions, and child and women's labor with the help of Frances Perkins, soon to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Labor Secretary, and ahead of many states. At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, Smith unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president, advancing the cause of civil liberty by decrying lynching and racial violence. Roosevelt made the nominating speech in which he saluted Smith as "the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield". [Slayton 2001]

The 1928 election

It was reporter Frederick William Wile who made the oft-repeated observation that Smith was defeated by "the three P's: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity" [ reprinted 1977, John A. Ryan, "Religion in the Election of 1928," "Current History", December 1928; reprinted in Ryan, "Questions of the Day" (Ayer Publishing, 1977) p.91 ] .

The Republican Party was still benefitting from the economic boom of the 1920s, which their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover pledged to continue. Historians agree that the prosperity along with anti-Catholic sentiment made Hoover's election inevitable, although he had never run for office. He defeated Smith by a landslide in the 1928 election.

Smith was the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination. [Hostetler, (1998).] (See also John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected U.S. President, and Charles O'Conor, first Catholic nominee for President.) A major controversial issue was the continuation of Prohibition. Smith was personally in favor of relaxation or repeal of Prohibition laws despite its status as part of the nation's Constitution, but the Democratic Party split north and south on the issue. During the campaign Smith tried to duck the issue with noncommittal statements. [ Lichtman (1979)]

Smith was an articulate exponent of good government and efficiency as was Hoover. But as Smith became known for saying in his campaign, "Let's look at the record." Smith swept the entire Catholic vote, which had been split in 1920 and 1924, and brought millions of Catholics to the polls for the first time, especially women. He lost important Democratic constituencies in the rural north and in southern cities and suburbs. He did carry the Deep South, thanks in part to his running mate, Senator Joseph Robinson from Arkansas, and he carried the ten most populous cities in the United States. Some of Smith's losses can be attributed to fear that as president, Smith would answer to the Pope rather than to the Constitution, to fears of the power of New York City, to distaste for the long history of corruption associated with Tammany Hall, as well as to Smith's own mediocre campaigning. Smith's campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York", was not likely to appeal to rural folks, and his city accent on the "raddio" seemed slightly foreign. Although Smith lost New York state, his fellow-Democrat Roosevelt was elected to replace him as governor of New York. [Slayton 2001; Lichtman (1979)] James A. Farley left Smith's camp to run Franklin D. Roosevelt's successful campaign for Governor, and later Roosevelt's successful campaigns for the Presidency in 1932 and 1936.

Voter realignment

In long-term perspective Al Smith started a voter realignment. He helped launch the end of classless politics that ushered in the New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. [Degler (1964)] As one political scientist explains, "...not until 1928, with the nomination of Al Smith, a northeastern reformer, did Democrats make gains among the urban, blue-collar, and Catholic voters who were later to become core components of the New Deal coalition and break the pattern of minimal class polarization that had characterized the Fourth Party System." [Lawrence (1996) p 34.] Finan (2003) says Smith is an underestimated symbol of the changing nature of American politics in the first half of the last century. He represented the rising ambitions of urban, industrial America at a time when the hegemony of rural, agrarian America was in decline. He was connected to the hopes and aspirations of immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. Smith was a devout Catholic, but his struggles against religious bigotry were often misinterpreted when he fought the religiously inspired Protestant morality imposed by prohibitionists.

Opposition to Roosevelt

Smith felt slighted by Roosevelt during the latter's governorship. They became rivals for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. At the convention, Smith's animus toward Roosevelt was so great, he put aside longstanding rivalries and managed to work with William McAdoo and William Randolph Hearst to block FDR's nomination for several ballots. This unlikely coalition fell apart when Smith refused to work on finding a compromise candidate, and instead maneuvered to make himself the nominee. After losing the nomination, Smith begrudgingly campaigned for Roosevelt in 1932. When President Roosevelt began pursuing the liberal policies of his New Deal, Smith began to work with the opposition. Smith believed the New Deal was a betrayal of good-government Progressive ideals, and ran counter to the goal of close cooperation with business. Along with other prominent conservative Democrats, in 1934 he became a leader of the American Liberty League, the focus of political opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal. Smith supported the Republican presidential candidates Alfred M. Landon in the 1936 election and Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election. [ Slayton 2001]

Although personal resentment was a motivating factor in Smith's break with Roosevelt and the New Deal, Smith was consistent in his beliefs and politics. Finan (2003) argues Smith always believed in social mobility, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and individualism.

Interestingly, in spite of the bitterness between Smith and FDR, Smith remained close to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who even invited Smith to stay at the White House in 1936 while he was in Washington, D.C. to deliver a blistering radio address against the President. To avoid embarrassing the Roosevelts, Smith politely declined the invitation, but he never forgot Eleanor's graciousness.

Business life

After the 1928 election, he became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation which built and operated the Empire State Building. Construction for the building was commenced symbolically on March 17, 1930, per Smith's instructions, as president of the corporation. Smith's grandchildren cut the ribbon when the world's tallest skyscraper opened on May 1, 1931--May Day--built in only 13 months. As with the Brooklyn Bridge, which Smith witnessed being built from his Lower East Side boyhood home, the Empire State Building was a vision and an achievement constructed by combining the interests of all rather than being divided by interests of a few. Smith, like most New York City businessmen, enthusiastically supported World War II, but was not asked by Roosevelt to play any role in the war effort. [ Slayton 2001]

After the governor had fallen from power, city planner Robert Moses heard he was depressed and lonely, prone to cages at the zoo while talking to the animals.Caro, Robert A. "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" Knopf. New York. 1974. pgs 380-383] Smith, he'd heard, was horrified to learn that in case of a fire, the animals were to be shot rather than rescued and was said to have deeply missed the small menagerie he'd kept at the governor's mansion. Moses directed funds from other projects to make the zoo a top priority, intending to make it especially attractive to children. At the Zoo's grand reopening less than eight months later, the audience watched as two large packages were opened to reveal a lion and a gorilla. Al Smith was paraded into the Zoo by a group of 300 cheering school children. He was given the title of "Honorary Night Superintendent of the Central Park Zoo," given a masterkey to the animals cages and informed that he could enter the zoo day or night as he pleased for the rest of his life.

In 1939 he was appointed a Papal Chamberlain, one of the highest honors the Papacy bestows on a layman.

Smith died at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital on October 4, 1944, at the age of 70, broken-hearted over the death of his wife from cancer five months earlier. He is interred at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.


* Alfred E. Smith Building, a 1928 skyscraper in Albany, New York
* Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing development in Lower Manhattan, near his birthplace
* Governor Alfred E. Smith Park, a playground in the Two Bridges neighborhood in Manhattan, near his birthplace
* Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center, a youth activity center in the Two Bridges neighborhood, Manhattan.
* Governor Alfred E. Smith Sunken Meadow State Park, a state park on Long Island
* PS 163 Alfred E. Smith School, a school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan
* PS 1 Alfred E. Smith School, a school in Manhattan's Chinatown.
* Al Smith Dinner, a fundraiser held for Catholic charities and a stop on the presidential campaign trail
* Smith Hall, a residence hall at Hinman College, SUNY Binghamton.
*Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School in the South Bronx.

Electoral history

United States presidential election, 1928

Source (Popular Vote): Leip PV source 2|year=1928| as of=July 28, 2005

Source (Electoral Vote): National Archives EV source|year=1928| as of=July 28, 2005

New York gubernatorial elections, 1918-1926

In fiction

In Harry Turtledove's alternate history series Timeline 191, in which the Confederate States of America wins the American Civil War, Al Smith becomes the third Socialist President of the United States in 1936. In 1941, during his second term, the Confederacy invades the US, starting World War II. Smith is killed by a Confederate bomber in 1942 in his bunker in Philadelphia, then functioning as the nation's capitol.



* Bornet, Vaughn Davis; "Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic: Moderation, Division, and Disruption in the Presidential Election of 1928" (1964) [ online edition]
* Douglas B. Craig. "After Wilson: The Struggle for Control of the Democratic Party, 1920-1934" (1992) [ online edition] see Chap. 6 "The Problem of Al Smith" and Chap. 8 "'Wall Street Likes Al Smith': The Election of 1928"
*cite journal
first=Carl N.
title=American Political Parties and the Rise of the City: An Interpretation
journal=Journal of American History

* cite book
title=Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician as Reformer

* cite book
first=Christopher M.
title=Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior
publisher=Hill and Wang

*cite journal
first=Michael J.
title=Gov. Al Smith Confronts the Catholic Question: The Rhetorical Legacy of the 1928 Campaign
journal=Communication Quarterly

* cite book
first=David G.
title=The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton
publisher=Westview Press

* cite book
first=Allan J.
title=Prejudice and the old politics: The Presidential election of 1928
publisher=University of North Carolina Press
location=Chapel Hill, NC
oclc = 4492475

** cite journal
first=Paul A.
title=Deja Vu; Or, Back to the Drawing Board with Alfred E. Smith
journal=Reviews in American History
; review of Lichtman
* cite book
first=Edmund A.
title=A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928
oclc =475746
[ online edition]
* cite book
first=Donn C.
title=The World beyond the Hudson: Alfred E. Smith and National Politics, 1918-1928
location=New York

*cite journal
first=Donn C.
title=What If Al Smith Had Been Elected?
journal=Presidential Studies Quarterly

*cite book
first=Elisabeth Israels
title=Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith
publisher=Oxford University Press

* Daniel F. Rulli; "Campaigning in 1928: Chickens in Pots and Cars in Backyards," "Teaching History: A Journal of Methods," Vol. 31#1 pp 42+ (2006) [ online version] with lesson plans for class
* cite book
first=Robert A.
title=Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith
publisher=Free Press
, the standard scholarly biography
* Sweeney, James R. “Rum, Romanism, and Virginia Democrats: The Party Leaders and the Campaign of 1928.” "Virginia Magazine of History and Biography" 90 (October 1982): 403–31.

Primary sources

* cite book
first=Alfred, E.
authorlink=Al Smith
title=Campaign addresses of Governor Alfred E. Smith, Democratic Candidate for President 1928
publisher=Democratic National Committee
location=Washington, D.C.
oclc = 300555

* Alfred E. Smith. "Progressive Democracy: Addresses & State Papers." (1928) [ online edition]

External links

*cite news
title=Alfred E. Smith Dies Here at 70; 4 Times Governor
date=October 4. 1944
publisher=The New York Times

*cite web
title=Happy Warrior Playground
work=New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

*cite web
title=Governor Alfred E. Smith Park
work=New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

*cite web
title=Al Smith
work=Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site

*cite web
title=Lost Warrior: Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany
first=Kevin C.

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