Alfred Emanuel Smith, Jr.
(December 30, 1873 –
October 4, 1944), known in private and public life as Al
, was an American politician who was elected Governor of New York
times, and was the Democratic
presidential candidate in 1928
. He was the first Roman Catholic
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 at the onset of the Great Depression.
Smith was born to Catherine Mulvihill and Alfred Emanuel Smith,
Sr., a Civil War
owner of a small trucking firm. Smith initially grew up on Oliver Street in
the multiethnic Lower East
Side of Manhattan, within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge as it was under construction.
grandparents were Irish
, but Smith identified with the
community and became
its leading spokesman in the 1920s.
Smith was thirteen when his father died. At fourteen he dropped out
of St. James School in Manhattan to help support the family.
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.
accomplished amateur actor, he became a notable speaker. On May 6,
1900, Alfred Smith married Catherine A. Dunn, with whom he had five
In his political career, Smith traded 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
, he remained untarnished by corruption and worked for
the passage of progressive legislation.
Smith's first political job was in 1895 as clerk in the office of
the Commissioner of Jurors. 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
. 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. 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 reclaimed the majority, and remained in that
position until 1915, when he was elected sheriff of 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
, daughter of Prussian-Jewish
Al Smith with his wife.
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 in
with the help of
Murphy and James A. Farley
, who brought Smith the upstate vote.
Smith is sometimes erroneously said to have been the first Irish-American
elected governor of a state.
There had been many, Catholics included, in other states, e.g.
of Maine. Nor was
Smith the first Catholic to govern New York. Lord Thomas Dongan
had governed the
Province of New York
1680s, and Martin H. Glynn
served from 1913-1914 after Governor
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 again elected
governor in 1922
with James A. Farley
managing his campaign. As 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
built the nation's first state park system and reformed
the civil service, later gaining appointment as Secretary of State of New
. 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
, soon to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt
's Labor Secretary
At the 1924
Democratic National Convention
, Smith unsuccessfully sought the
, advancing the cause of civil liberty by decrying
and racial violence. Roosevelt
made the nominating speech in which he saluted Smith as "the Happy
Warrior of the political battlefield".
The 1928 election
Al Smith giving a speech.
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".
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
Smith was the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential
nomination. (See also John F.
, the first Catholic elected U.S. President, and
, first Catholic
nominee for President.) Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role
in his loss of the Election of
. Many feared that he would answer to the pope and not the
constitution. The people also criticized him for being a drunkard
because of the stereotypes placed on Irish Catholics of the day.
Another 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.
Smith was an articulate exponent of good government and efficiency,
as was Hoover. 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
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. James A.
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
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. 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
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
Opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal
Smith felt slighted by Roosevelt during the latter's governorship.
They became rivals for the 1932 Democratic
. At the convention, Smith's animosity
toward Roosevelt was so great, he put aside longstanding rivalries
and managed to work with William
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
At the start of the depression of the 1930s, Smith supported
federal spending. Later, Smith broke with Roosevelt, who was
elected president in 1932. Smith became critical of Roosevelt's
policies and joined the American Liberty League
anti-Roosevelt group. Smith believed the New Deal was a betrayal of
good-government Progressive ideals, and ran counter to the goal of
close cooperation with business.
The Liberty League was an organization that tried to rally public
opinion against Roosevelt's New Deal. Conservative Democrats
of Roosevelt's New Deal measures founded the group. 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 it rapidly declined in influence. The league
was officially dissolved in 1940.
Smith's antipathy of 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
). 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. Strangely enough, 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.
Business life and later years
1928 election, Smith became the president of Empire State, Inc.,
the corporation which built and operated the Empire State
Construction for the building was commenced
symbolically on March 17, 1930, per Smith's instructions. Smith's
grandchildren cut the ribbon when the world's tallest
skyscraper—built in only 13 months—opened on May 1, 1931--May Day
. 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
, but was not asked by Roosevelt to play any role in the war
In 1939 he was appointed a Papal Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape,
one of the highest honors the Papacy bestowed on a layman, which
today is styled a Gentlemen of His
at the Rockefeller
Institute Hospital on October 4, 1944 of a heart attack, 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
- 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
Memorial Foundation Dinner, a fundraiser held for Catholic
Charities and a stop on the presidential campaign trail
Hall, a residence hall at Hinman College, SUNY
- Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School in the South Bronx.
United States presidential election, 1928
Source (Popular Vote):
Source (Electoral Vote):
New York gubernatorial elections, 1918-1926
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.
- This 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. However given the much-expanded electorate, his
historic total won him 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 only 850,020 votes.
- The total ballots cast for governor 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.
In Fiction and Film
- About St. James School
- Slayton 2001
- 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
- Hostetler, (1998).
- DeGregorio, (1984).
- Lichtman (1979)
- Slayton 2001; Lichtman (1979)
- Degler (1964)
- Lawrence (1996) p 34.
- The Complete Book of U.S.
- Election result in NYT on December 31,
- 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
- online edition
- 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
- , 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.
- Alfred E. Smith. Progressive Democracy: Addresses &
State Papers. (1928) online edition