Al Smith

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For other uses, see Al Smith (disambiguation).

Alfred Emanuel "Al" Smith (December 30, 1873October 4, 1944) was Governor of New York and a U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. He lost the election to Herbert Hoover.

Al Smith waves to crowds, 1928
Al Smith waves to crowds, 1928


Early life

Smith was born to Irish Catholic immigrants (Alfred Emanuel Smith and Catherine Mulvihill) and initially grew up in relative comfort on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Oliver Street, New York City, before he quit school and began work at the age of fourteen, after his father's death, who was a lorrie driver and veteran of the Civil War.

On May 6, 1900 Alfred Smith married his childhood sweetheart, Catherine A. Dunn (died on May 4, 1944) with whom he had five children:

  • Emily (Mrs. John Adams Warner)
  • Catherine (Mrs. Francis J. Quillinan)
  • Alfred E., Jr.
  • Arthur
  • Walter

Political career

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. When he served as vice-chairman of the commission appointed to investigate factory conditions after the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, where scores of immigrant sons and daughters perished, he became acutely aware of the dangerous and unhealthy conditions under which many laborers worked and championed legislation to protect workers. In 1911 the Democrats obtained a majority of seats in the Assembly and Smith became chairman of the important Ways and Means Committee. The following year due to his oratorical gifts (a gift he developed acting in various plays put on by St. James Catholic Church) and skill at drafting legislation he became the majority leader and in 1913 he was elected as Speaker of the Assembly.

After serving as sheriff of New York County for several years beginning in 1915, Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918. He lost the election of 1920 in the Republican landslide of that year, but was re-elected governor in 1922 and served three more terms. As governor, he became known nationally as a progressive who sought to make government more efficient and more effective in meeting social needs. His parks czar, 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 his term, New York strengthened laws governing workers' compensation, women's pensions, and child and women's labor, ahead of many States and became the model for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1924 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president, advancing the cause of civil liberty by decrying lynching and racial violence in his nomination acceptance speech. Franklin D. Roosevelt made the nominating speech in which he called Smith "the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield."

Al Smith finally secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. His acceptance speech was the first live broadcast of a political event on television, although few saw this experimental early broadcast; a great many more heard it on radio.

Smith was the first major-party presidential candidate of the Roman Catholic faith. (See also John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. President.)

A major controversial issue was the continuation of alcohol Prohibition. Smith was personally in favor of relaxation or repeal of Prohibition since it was aimed at his immigrant constituency more than those who could afford to purchase bootlegged liquor from rum runners, but the Democratic Party refused to back him on the issue. During the campaign Smith tried to duck the issue with noncommittal statements. A satire portrayed Smith being asked, "Are you wet (anti-Prohibition) or dry (pro-Prohibition)?" with Smith replying, "I can't remember. Maybe I'll know better by November."

The 1928 election

Cover of Time Magazine (July 13, 1925)
Cover of Time Magazine (July 13, 1925)

The Republican Party was riding high on the economic boom of the 1920s, which their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover vowed to continue. Hoover defeated Smith by a significant margin in the 1928 Election.

Part of Smith's especially poor showing can be attributed to anti-Catholic bias, anti-New York City bias, unprogressive forces who did not see the benefit of social harmony among the races and ethnic groups, and Smith's own bad campaigning. Smith's campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York", was not likely to appeal to people in Missouri, although it was emblematic to those who saw the kind of society he hoped to build, and Smith's own brogue seemed foreign to many people. Some nativist newspapers outside major cities even publicly condemned him as an "alien" because of the foreign origin of his parents (both were immigrants from Ireland) and the large number of immigrants living in his state.

Smith felt slighted by Roosevelt during Roosevelt's governorship. They became rivals for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. When Roosevelt won and began pursuing the policies of the New Deal, Smith began to work against Roosevelt more. He became a leader of the American Liberty League, a leading opponent of the New Deal, and supported the Republican presidential candidates, Alfred M. Landon in the 1936 election and Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election. His son, Al Smith, Jr.. endorsed Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.

Later life

After the 1928 election, when a friend of Smith encouraged him to invest in a real estate company that was constructing the world's tallest building in New York's Midtown Manhattan, he became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation which built and operated the Empire State Building. Smith was present at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the building opened for business in May 1931, built in only 18 months by men and women who were left penniless by the 1929 Great Depression. In 1936, having become a right-wing industrialist Republican, Smith campaigned against the liberal "Wasp", Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although Smith maintained good relations with Winston Churchill and supported the WWII effort.

He died on October 4, 1944, at the age of 70, broken-hearted ever since the death of his wife from cancer five months earlier; he is interred at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

External links


  • Adapted from the public domain text at Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. The original authors cited the following sources:
    • Black, Allida. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 12-18.
    • Lichtman, Allan J. "Alfred E. Smith" in Franklin D Roosevelt: His Life and Times. New York: DaCapo Press, 1985, 387-388.

Preceded by:
Edwin A. Merritt
Speaker of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by:
Thaddeus C. Sweet
Preceded by:
Charles S. Whitman
Governor of New York
Succeeded by:
Nathan L. Miller
Preceded by:
Nathan L. Miller
Governor of New York
Succeeded by:
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded by:
John W. Davis
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1928 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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