Smith was the foremost urban leader of the Efficiency Movement in the United States and was noted for achieving a wide range of reforms as governor in the 1920s. The son of an Irish-American mother and a Civil War veteran father, he was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge, where he resided for his entire life. Like many other New York politicians of his era, he was also linked to the notorious Tammany Hall political machine that controlled New York City's politics, although he remained personally untarnished by corruption. Smith was a strong opponent of Prohibition, which he did not think could be enforced, and viewed it as an over-extension of the government's constitutional power. He was also the first Catholic nominee for President. His candidacy mobilized Catholic votes, especially from women, who had only recently received federal suffrage. It also brought out the anti-Catholic vote, which was especially strong among white conservative Democrats in the South, although Smith was still successful within the states of the Deep South.
As a committed "wet," or anti-Prohibition, candidate, Smith attracted not only drinkers but also voters angered by the corruption and lawlessness that developed alongside prohibition. Many Protestants feared his candidacy, including German Lutherans and Southern Baptists, believing that the Catholic Church and the Pope would dictate his policies. Most importantly, this was a time of national prosperity under a Republican White House. Smith lost in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover, who gained electoral support from six southern states. Four years later Smith sought the 1932 nomination but was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, his former ally and successor as Governor of New York. Smith entered business in New York City and became an increasingly vocal opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Smith was born at 174 South Street, and raised in the Fourth Ward on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; he resided here for his entire life. His mother, Catherine (Mulvihill), was the daughter of Maria Marsh and Thomas Mulvihill, who were immigrants from County Westmeath, Ireland. His father, Alfred Emanuele Ferraro, took the anglicized name Alfred E. Smith ('ferraro' means 'blacksmith' or 'smith' in Italian). The elder Alfred was the son of Italian and German immigrants. He served with the 11th New York Fire Zouaves in the opening months of the Civil War.
Al Smith grew up with his family struggling financially in the Gilded Age; New York City matured and completed major infrastructure projects. The Brooklyn Bridge was being constructed nearby. "The Brooklyn Bridge and I grew up together," Smith would later recall. His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian, and Anglo-Irish, but Smith identified with the Irish-American community and became its leading spokesman in the 1920s.
His father Alfred owned a small trucking firm, but died when the boy was 13. At 14 Smith had to drop out of St. James parochial school to help support the family, and worked at a fish market for seven years. Prior to dropping out of school, he served as an altar boy, and was strongly influenced by the Catholic priests he worked with. He never attended high school or college, and claimed he learned about people by studying them at the Fulton Fish Market, where he worked for $12 per week. His acting skills made him a success on the amateur theater circuit. He became widely known, and developed the smooth oratorical style that characterized his political career. On May 6, 1900, Al Smith married Catherine Ann Dunn, with whom he had five children.
In his political career, Smith built on his working-class beginnings, identifying himself with immigrants and campaigning 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. It was during his early unofficial jobs with Tammany Hall that he gained renown as an excellent speaker. Smith's first political job was in 1895 as an investigator in the office of the Commissioner of Jurors as appointed by Tammany Hall.
Smith was first elected to the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 2nd D.) in 1904, and repeatedly elected to office, serving through 1915. After being approached by Frances Perkins, an activist to improve labor practices, Smith sought to improve the conditions of factory workers. He served as vice chairman of the state commission appointed to investigate factory conditions after 146 workers died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Meeting the families of the deceased Triangle factory workers left a strong impression on him. Together with Perkins, Smith crusaded against dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions and championed corrective legislation.
The Commission was chaired by State Senator Robert F. Wagner and co-chaired by Smith. They held a series of widely publicized investigations around the state, interviewing 222 witnesses and taking 3500 pages of testimony. They hired field agents to do on-site inspections of factories. Starting with the issue of fire safety, they studied broader issues of the risks of injury in the factory environment. Their findings led to thirty-eight new laws regulating labor in New York state, and gave each of them a reputation as leading progressive reformers working on behalf of the working class. In the process, they changed Tammany's reputation from mere corruption to progressive endeavors to help the workers. New York City's Fire Chief John Kenlon told the investigators that his department had identified more than 200 factories where conditions resulted in risk of a fire like that at the Triangle Factory. The State Commission's reports led to modernization of the state's labor laws, making New York State "one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform." New laws mandated better building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, the availability of fire extinguishers, the installation of alarm systems and automatic sprinklers, better eating and toilet facilities for workers, and limited the number of hours that women and children could work. In the years from 1911 to 1913, sixty of the sixty-four new laws recommended by the Commission were legislated with the support of Governor William Sulzer.
In 1911, the Democrats obtained a majority of seats in the State Assembly; and Smith became Majority Leader and Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means. In 1912, following the loss of the majority, he became the Minority Leader. When the Democrats reclaimed the majority after the next election, he was elected Speaker for the 1913 session. He became Minority Leader again in 1914 and 1915. In November 1915, he was elected Sheriff of New York County, New York. 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, a daughter of Jewish immigrants.
After serving in the patronage-rich job of Sheriff of New York County, Smith was elected President of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York in 1917. Smith was elected Governor of New York at the New York state election, 1918 with the help of Murphy and James A. Farley, who brought Smith the upstate vote.
In 1919, Smith gave the famous speech, "A man as low and mean as I can picture", making a drastic break with William Randolph Hearst. Publisher Hearst, known for his notoriously sensationalist and largely left-wing position in the state Democratic Party, was the leader of its populist wing in the city. Hearst 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 at the New York state election, 1920, but was again elected governor in 1922, 1924 and 1926, with James A. Farley managing his campaign. In his 1922 re-election, he embraced his position as an anti-prohibitionist. Smith offered alcohol to guests at the Executive Mansion in Albany, and repealed the Prohibition enforcement statute: the Mullan-Gage law. Governor Smith became known nationally as a progressive who sought to make government more efficient and more effective in meeting social needs. Smith's young assistant Robert Moses built the nation's first state park system and reformed the civil service, later gaining appointment as Secretary of State of New York. During Smith's term, New York strengthened laws governing workers' compensation, women's pensions and children and women's labor with the help of Frances Perkins, soon to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Labor Secretary.
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." Smith represented the urban, east coast wing of the party as an anti-prohibition "wet" candidate while his main rival for the nomination, California Senator William Gibbs McAdoo, stood for the more rural tradition and prohibition "dry" candidacy. The party was hopelessly split between the two. An increasingly chaotic convention balloted 100 times before both men accepted that neither would be able to win the two-thirds majority required to win, and so each withdrew. The exhausted party nominated the little-known John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis lost the election by a landslide to the Republican Calvin Coolidge, who won in part because of the prosperous times.
Undeterred, Smith returned to fight a determined campaign for the party's nomination in 1928.
Reporter Frederick William Wile made the oft-repeated observation that Smith was defeated by "the three P's: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity". The Republican Party was still benefiting from an economic boom, as well as a failure to reapportion Congress and the electoral college following the 1920 census, which had registered a 15 percent increase in the urban population. The party was biased to small town and rural areas. Their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover did little to alter these events.
Historians agree that prosperity, along with widespread anti-Catholic sentiment against Smith, made Hoover's election inevitable. He defeated Smith by a landslide in the 1928 election, carrying five southern states in crossover voting by conservative white Democrats (since disenfranchisement of blacks in the South at the turn of the century, whites dominated voting.)
The fact that Smith was Catholic and the descendant of Catholic immigrants was instrumental in his loss of the election of 1928. Historical hostilities between Protestants and Catholics had been carried by national groups to the United States by immigrants, and centuries of Protestant domination allowed myths and superstitions about Catholicism to flourish. Long established Protestants had viewed the waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy and eastern Europe since the mid-19th century with suspicion. In addition, many Protestants carried old fears related to extravagant claims of one religion against the other dating from the European national wars of religion. They feared that Smith would answer to the Pope and not the US Constitution. White rural conservatives in the South also believed that his close association with Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine in Manhattan, showed he tolerated corruption in government (and overlooking their own brands). Another major controversial issue was the continuation of Prohibition, which was widely considered a problem to enforce. Smith was personally in favor of relaxation or repeal of Prohibition laws, as they had given rise to more criminality. The Democratic Party split North and South on the issue, with the more rural South continuing to favor Prohibition. During the campaign Smith tried to duck the issue with noncommittal statements.
Smith was an articulate proponent of good government and efficiency, as was Hoover. Smith swept the entire Catholic vote, which had been split in 1920 and 1924 between the parties; he attracted millions of Catholics, generally ethnic whites, to the polls for the first time, especially women, who were first allowed to vote in 1920. He lost important Democratic constituencies in the rural North and in southern cities and suburbs. He did succeed in the Deep South, thanks in part to the appeal of his running mate, Senator Joseph Robinson from Arkansas, but he lost five southern states to Hoover. Smith carried the ten most populous cities in the United States, an indication of the rising power of the urban areas and their new demographics. In addition to the issues noted above, Smith was not a very good campaigner. His campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York", had little appeal for rural folks, and they found his 'city' accent, when heard on the "raddio," seemed slightly foreign. Smith narrowly lost New York state, whose electors were biased to rural upstate and largely Protestant districts. But in 1928 his fellow Democrat Roosevelt (a Protestant of Dutch old-line stock) was elected to replace him as governor of New York. 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.
Some political scientists believe that the 1928 election started a voter realignment that helped develop the New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 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." However, Allan Lichtman's quantitative analysis suggests that the 1928 results were based largely on religion and are not a useful barometer of the voting patterns of the New Deal era.
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, although many states had legislatures and congressional delegations biased toward rural areas because of lack of redistricting after censuses. Smith was connected to the hopes and aspirations of immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews from eastern and southern Europe. 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.
Smith felt slighted by Roosevelt during the latter's governorship. They became rivals for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. At the convention, Smith's animosity toward Roosevelt was so great that he put aside longstanding rivalries and managed to work with William McAdoo and William Randolph Hearst to try to block FDR's nomination for several ballots. This unlikely coalition fell apart when Smith refused to work on finding a compromise candidate; instead he maneuvered to become the nominee. After losing the nomination, Smith eventually campaigned for Roosevelt in 1932, giving a particularly important speech on behalf of the Democratic nominee at Boston on October 27 in which he "pulled out all the stops."
Smith became highly critical of Roosevelt's New Deal policies, which he deemed a betrayal of good-government progressive ideals and ran counter to the goal of close cooperation with business. Smith joined the American Liberty League, an organization founded by Conservative Democrats who disapproved of Roosevelt's New Deal measures and tried to rally public opinion against Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1934, Smith joined forces with wealthy business executives, who provided most of the League's funds. The League published pamphlets and sponsored radio programs, arguing that the New Deal was destroying personal liberty. However, the League failed to gain support in the 1934 and 1936 elections, and rapidly declined in influence. It was officially dissolved in 1940. Smith's antipathy to Roosevelt and his policies was so great that he supported Republican presidential candidates Alfred M. Landon (in the 1936 election) and Wendell Willkie (in the 1940 election).
Although personal resentment was one factor in Smith's break with Roosevelt and the New Deal, Christopher Finan (2003) argues that Smith was consistent in his beliefs and politics—suggesting that Smith always believed in social mobility, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and individualism. Despite the break between the men, Smith and Eleanor Roosevelt remained close. In 1936, while Smith was in Washington making a vehement radio attack on the President, she invited him to stay at the White House. To avoid embarrassing the Roosevelts, he declined. Historian Robert Slayton notes that Smith and Franklin Roosevelt did not reconcile until a brief meeting in June, 1941, and suggests that during the early 1940s the antipathy Smith held toward his former ally had waned. Upon the death of Smith's wife Katie in May, 1944, FDR sent Smith a note of personal condolences; Smith's grandchildren later recalled that Smith was "greatly touched by it."
After the 1928 election, Smith became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation that built and operated the Empire State Building. Construction for the building began symbolically on March 17, 1930, St. Patrick's Day, per Smith's instructions. Smith's grandchildren cut the ribbon when the world's tallest skyscraper opened on May 1, 1931, which was May Day, an international labor celebration. It had been completed in a record 13 months for such a large project. As with the Brooklyn Bridge, which Smith had seen 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.
In 1929 Smith was elected as President of the Board of Trustees of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University.
Smith was an early and vocal critic of the Nazi regime in Germany. He supported the Anti-Nazi boycott of 1933 and addressed a mass-meeting at Madison Square Garden against Nazism that March. His speech was included in the 1934 anthology Nazism: An Assault on Civilization. In 1938, Smith took to the airwaves to denounce Nazi brutality in the wake of the Kristallnacht.
Like most New York City businessmen, Smith enthusiastically supported American military involvement in World War II. Although he was not asked by Roosevelt to play any role in the war effort, Smith was an active and vocal proponent of FDR's attempts to amend the Neutrality Act to allow "Cash and Carry" sales of war equipment to the British. Smith spoke on behalf of the policy in October, 1939, to which FDR responded directly: "Very many thanks. You were grand."
In 1939 Smith was appointed a Papal Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape, one of the highest honors the Papacy bestowed on a layman. In the early 21st century, this honor is styled a Gentleman of His Holiness.
Smith died at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital on October 4, 1944, of a heart attack, at the age of 70. He had been broken-hearted over the death of his wife from cancer five months earlier, on May 4, 1944. He is interred at Calvary Cemetery.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
Governor Alfred E. Smith, a former front line and current reserve fireboat in the New York City Fire Department fleet.
Governor Alfred E. Smith Sunken Meadow State Park, a state park in the Town of Smithtown, Suffolk County
Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center, a youth activity center in the Two Bridges neighborhood, Manhattan.
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.
Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the South Bronx.
Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a fundraiser held for Catholic Charities and a stop on the presidential campaign trail
Smith Hall, a residence hall at Hinman College, Binghamton University.
Smith Hall, a residence hall at Farmingdale State College
Camp Smith, a State owned military installation of the New York Army National Guard in Cortlandt Manor near Peekskill, NY, about 30 miles (48 km) north of New York City, at the northern border of Westchester County and consists of 1,900 acres (7.7 km2).
Notes:1918 was the first time women voted for governor of New York, and Alfred E. Smith was the first governor elected with more than 1 million votes. But, given the much-expanded electorate, his historic total still represented only a plurality of votes.
For comparison, in the New York Gubernatorial Election of 1916, Charles S. Whitman (whom Smith defeated in 1918) had won a 52.63% majority with 850,020 votes.
The total ballots cast for governor in 1918 was 2,192,970. Besides the votes for the above candidates, there were 43,630 blank votes; 16,892 spoilt votes; and 530 scattering votes.
List of candidates, (.pdf) in The New York Times of September 13, 1920
Note: This was the last time the running mate of the elected governor was defeated, Democrat Smith having Republican Lowman as lieutenant for the duration of this term.Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. "1928 Presidential Election Results". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved July 28, 2005.
Source (Electoral Vote): "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 28, 2005.
Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt were filmed by Lee DeForest in his DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process during the 1924 Democratic Convention, which ran from June 21 to July 9. This film is now in the Maurice Zouary collection at the Library of Congress.
In Sinclair Lewis' 1928 novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, Smith is cited as an example of the opportunities "in this new and increasingly practical America for any bright fellow today!" (p. 269).
In a flashback scene in Frank Capra's classic 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, the character of Bert can be seen with a newspaper whose front-page headline reads "Smith Wins Nomination".
Smith was portrayed by Alan Bunce in the 1960 film Sunrise at Campobello, and by Wilbur Fitzgerald in HBO's 2005 TV-movie Warm Springs. Both of these movies focus on Franklin D. Roosevelt's struggle with polio, and end with the 1924 Convention Speech.
Smith is featured in several chapters of Michael Chabon's 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in his role as "President" of the Empire State Building.
In Episodes 3–5 of Ric Burns' PBS mini-series, New York: A Documentary Film (1999).
An episode of The West Wing is called "The Al Smith Dinner." One staffer asked, "Who is Al Smith?" Someone answered, "The first Catholic to run for President."
In Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, Al Smith is mentioned as having been a Populist President during the Nineteen Twenties.
In Harry Turtledove's alternate history Southern Victory Series, in which the Confederate States of America wins the American Civil War in 1862, Al Smith is elected President of the United States in 1936 on the Socialist Party ticket, defeating Democratic incumbent Herbert Hoover. He serves until 1942, when he is killed in a bombing raid on Philadelphia.
Campaign Addresses of Governor Alfred E. Smith, Democratic Candidate for President 1928. Washington, DC: Democratic National Committee, 1929.
Progressive Democracy: Addresses & State Papers. 1928.
Up to Now: An Autobiography (The Viking Press, 1929)