Al Smith (1873-1944), was the dominant Democratic politician in New York State in the 1920s and was elected governor five times. He was defeated in the 1928 Presidential Election. Smith was a leader of the Progressive Era because of his efficiency-oriented, growth-promoting pro-business policies as governor. He moved from a leader of liberals in the 1920s to a leader of conservatives in the 1930s.
His name became best known a generation later for the "Al Smith dinner," an often-awkward charitable Catholic fundraising gala at which the two presidential nominees traditionally appear together shortly before the election, to joke about themselves and their opponents.
Smith was defeated in 1924 for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, but won the nomination easily in 1928. He was the first Catholic to win a presidential nomination, Smith's was a highly visible Catholic and religion rallied millions of new Catholic voters, while alienating Southern Baptists and German Lutherans.
Smith lost the 1928 election to Republican Herbert Hoover because of national prosperity, and Smith's leadership of Catholics and wet opponents of Prohibition. Although he was personally honest, people distrusted his close ties with the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic machine in Manhattan. Smith was a model Progressive reformer in his ability to master the technical details of government as an expert, and pursue constitutional, statutory, and administrative changes to make government more efficient. Smith reached out to Republicans including Charles Evans Hughes, Elihu Root, Joseph Proskauer, John Raskob, and others when it furthered these goals, and he won their genuine admiration for his intellectual ability. He broke with Franklin D. Roosevelt after 1928, lost the Democratic nomination to Roosevelt in 1932, and helped form the American Liberty League to rally conservative Democrats in opposition to the New Deal and in favor of Jeffersonian Democracy.
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, New York City. His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian, and English, but Smith, a devout Catholic, identified with the Irish Catholic community and became its leading spokesman in the 1920s. He was thirteen when his father Alfred, a Civil War veteran who owned a small trucking firm, died; at fourteen he had to drop out of parochial school, St. James School, to help support the family. He never attended high school or college, and claimed that his higher education came from studying studying all manner of people at the Fulton Fish Market, a job for which he was paid $12 per week to support his family. 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.
In his political career, he emphasized his lowly 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.
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 disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. 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 he became the majority leader, and in 1913 he was elected as Speaker of the Assembly. By now he was a leader of the Progressive movement in New York City and state. His campaign manager and top aide was the Jewish leader Belle Moskowitz.
After serving in the patronage-rich job of sheriff of New York County (Manhattan) beginning in 1915, Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918. William Randolph Hearst, a leading newspaper publisher, was the leader of the left-wing of the Democratic party in the city, and had combined with Tammany Hall in electing the local administration; he had been attacking Smith for "starving children" by not reducing the cost of milk. Smith effectively destroyed Hearst's political career, denouncing him as, "A man as low and mean as I can picture". Hearst swore revenge.
Smith was the expert in politics who mastered all the details of legislation and administrative procedure. Furthermore, he could negotiate in the back rooms with politicians, and give a speech that swayed the voters by communicate his goals. He learned by explaining things to himself, and using his own rich vocabulary he used homely parallels and examples that smoothly conveyed his meaning his attentive audiences. One weakness was not building a strong statewide party using his patronage powers. Smith won elections on his own popularity; since he was indispensable to party victory, the various factions and organizations always followed him, until Roosevelt became governor in 1928 and did build a patronage machine.
Smith lost his bid for reelection in 1920, but was reelected as governor in 1922, 1924 and 1926. As governor he 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; Smith later appointed him New York State Secretary of State. During Smith's 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 FDR's Labor Secretary, and ahead of many states.
In 1924 Smith was ready for the White House, but the Democratic party was bitterly split along regional lines, North versus South, and issues involving prohibition and nativism. Roosevelt made the nominating speech in which he saluted Smith as "the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield." The Democratic convention was deadlocked between the big city "wets" (led by Smith) and the rural and Southern "dries" led by William McAdoo. A dark horse was nominated, who lost in a landslide to incumbent Republican Calvin Coolidge.
The 1928 election
The Republican Party was riding high on the economic boom of the 1920s, which their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover pledged to continue.
Smith finally secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. He was the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination. A major controversial issue was the continuation of Prohibition. Smith was personally in favor of relaxation or repeal of Prohibition laws, which were embedded in 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.
Smith was an articulate exponent of good government and efficiency— and so 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 Catholic ethnics 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 of Arkansas. Part of Smith's losses can be attributed to Protestant 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, and to Smith's own mediocre campaigning. Smith's campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York", was not likely to appeal to rural folk, and his city accent on the "raddio" seemed a bit foreign. Although Smith lost New York state, his ticket-mate Roosevelt was elected to replace him as governor of New York. Historians agree that the prosperity made Hoover's election inevitable, as he was a national symbol of efficiency and prosperity. He defeated Smith by a landslide in the 1928 election, the third consecutive GOP landslide.
In long-term perspective Al Smith started a voter realignment — a new coalition — based among ethnics and big cities that spelled the end of classless politics of the Fourth Party System and helped usher in the Fifth Party System or New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Catholic ethnics for the first time turned out in huge numbers, and brought their women to the polls as well. However the wet Lutherans voted for Hoover with anti-Catholicism a factor. In the South the more modernized cities and middle classes voted for Hoover, while the traditional strongholds and Black Belt (where only whites voted) remained loyal to the Democratic party. As one political scientist explains, "The election of 1896 ushered in the Fourth Party System.... [but] 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." Finan (2003) portrays Smith as an underestimated symbol of the changing nature of American politics in the first half of the 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 the 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 Roosevelt's governorship. They became rivals for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination, but Smith's old enemy Hearst used his influence to help swing the nomination in favor of Roosevelt. After losing the nomination, Smith begrudgingly campaigned for Roosevelt in 1932 but was not offered any post in the new administration. When President Roosevelt began pursuing the liberal policies of his New Deal, Smith began to work with the conservative opposition. Roosevelt's heavy spending was a betrayal of Smith's good-government Progressive ideals, and ran counter to the goal of close cooperation with business. Above Smith was committed to a society with unlimited opportunity and he feared Roosevelt was putting a ceiling on that opportunity. He had warned in 1932, against the "Demagogic appeal to the masses of the working people of the country to destroy themselves by setting class against class and rich against poor." He joined other prominent conservative Democrats in 1934 to form 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.
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
After the 1928 election, Smith became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation which built and operated the Empire State Building. Smith cut the ribbon when the world's tallest skyscraper opened in May 1931, 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 Two, but was frozen out by Roosevelt and not alllowed to play any role in the war effort.
Smith died on October 4, 1944, at the age of 70, broken-hearted over the death of his wife from cancer five months earlier.
- Burner, David. The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918--1932 (1968).
- Craig, Douglas B. 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"
- Degler, Carl N. "American Political Parties and the Rise of the City: An Interpretation," Journal of American History, 1964 51:1 pp 41–59. in JSTOR
- Eldot, Paula. Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician as Reformer, (1983)
- Finan, Christopher M. Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. (2003) excerpt and text search
- Hostetler, Michael J. "Gov. Al Smith Confronts the Catholic Question: The Rhetorical Legacy of the 1928 Campaign," Communication Quarterly 1998 vol 46
- Moore, Edmund A. A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928 (1956) online edition
- Neal, Donn C. The World beyond the Hudson: Alfred E. Smith and National Politics, 1918-1928, (1983)
- Neal, Donn C. "What If Al Smith Had Been Elected?" Presidential Studies Quarterly (1984) 14#2 pp 242–248
- Pietrusza, David 1932: The Rise of Hitler & FDR: Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal & Unlikely Destiny (2015)
- Pringle, Henry F. Alfred E. Smith: A Critical Study (1927) online edition
- Slayton, Robert A. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, (2001), 480pp, the standard scholarly biography; excerpt and text search
- Smith, Alfred E. Progressive Democracy: Addresses & State Papers. (1928) online edition
- John F. Kennedy was the second, in 1960. John F. Kerry, a Catholic, was the Democratic nominee in 2004, but lost.
- Compare John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 was the first and only Catholic elected U.S. President.
- Degler (1964)
- David G. Lawrence, The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority (1996) p 34.
- Raymond Moley, 27 Masters of Politics (1949) p. 22