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Alfred E. Smith

For other uses, see Al Smith (disambiguation).

Al Smith
42nd Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1923 – December 31, 1928
Lieutenant George R. Lunn (1923–1924)
Seymour Lowman (1925–1926)
Edwin Corning (1926–1928)
Preceded by Nathan L. Miller
Succeeded by Franklin D. Roosevelt
In office
January 1, 1919 – December 31, 1920
Lieutenant Harry C. Walker
Preceded by Charles S. Whitman
Succeeded by Nathan L. Miller
8th President of the New York City Board of Aldermen
In office
January 1, 1917 – December 31, 1918
Preceded by Frank L. Dowling
Succeeded by Robert L. Moran
Personal details
Born Alfred Emanuel Smith.
(1873-12-30)December 30, 1873
Manhattan, New York City
Died October 4, 1944(1944-10-04) (aged 70)
New York City
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Catherine Ann Dunn
Children 5
Residence Manhattan, New York City
Religion Roman Catholicism

Alfred Emanuel "Al" Smith (December 30, 1873 – October 4, 1944) was an American statesman who was elected Governor of New York four times and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. He was the foremost urban leader of the efficiency-oriented Progressive Movement and was noted for achieving a wide range of reforms as governor in the 1920s. He was also linked to the notorious Tammany Hall machine that controlled Manhattan politics; was a strong opponent of Prohibition and was the first Roman Catholic nominee for President. His candidacy mobilized Catholic votes—especially women who previously had not voted. It also mobilized the anti-Catholic vote, which was strongest in the South.

As a committed "wet" (anti-Prohibition) candidate, he attracted millions of voters of all backgrounds, particularly those concerned about the corruption and lawlessness brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment.[1] However, he was feared among Protestants, including German Lutherans and Southern Baptists, who believed that the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XI would dictate his policies. Most importantly, this was a time of national prosperity under a Republican Presidency, and Smith lost in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover. Four years later Smith sought the 1932 nomination but was defeated by his former ally and successor as New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith entered business in New York City and became an increasingly vocal opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Early life

Smith was born and raised in the Fourth Ward on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and it was here he would spend his entire life.[2] His mother Catherine Mulvihill's parents, Maria Marsh and Thomas Mulvihill, were from County Westmeath, Ireland,.[3] His father, Alfred Emanuele Ferraro, took the name Alfred E. Smith ('ferraro' means 'blacksmith' or 'smith' in Italian). The elder Alfred was the son of Italian and German[4][5] immigrants. Al was their first son. His father, a widower with a daughter, served with the 11th New York Fire Zouaves in the opening months of the Civil War.

Al Smith grew up in the Gilded Age as New York itself matured. The Brooklyn Bridge was being constructed nearby. "The Brooklyn Bridge and I grew up together," Smith would later recall.[6] His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian, and Anglo-Irish,[7] but Smith identified with the Irish American community and became its leading spokesman in the 1920s.

His father, Alfred, a Civil War veteran who owned a small trucking firm, died when the boy was 13; at 14 he had to drop out of St. James parochial school to help support the family, working at a fish market for seven years. Prior to his dropping out of school, he spent time as an altar boy.[8] 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. On May 6, 1900, Al Smith married Catherine Ann Dunn, with whom he had five children.[9]

Political career

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 Murphy, he remained untarnished by corruption and worked for the passage of progressive legislation.[9] It was during his early unofficial jobs with Tammany Hall that he gained notoriety as an excellent speaker.[10] Smith's first political job was in 1895 as an investigator in the office of the Commissioner of Jurors as appointed by Tammany Hall.

He was a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 2nd D.) in 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1915.[8] After being approached by Frances Perkins, he sought to improve the conditions of factory workers. He served as vice chairman of the 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, and together with Perkins, Smith crusaded against dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions and championed corrective legislation.[10][11]

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. 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 Prussian-Jewish immigrants.[9]

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. 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. Edward Kavanagh of Maine. Nor was Smith the first Catholic to govern New York. Lord Thomas Dongan had governed the Province of New York in the 1680s and Martin H. Glynn served from 1913 to 1914 after Governor William Sulzer was impeached.

In 1919, Smith gave the famous speech, "A man as low and mean as I can picture",[12] 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.[13]

Smith lost his bid for re-election at the New York state election, 1920, but was again elected governor at the elections 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 actually repealed the Prohibition enforcement statute: the Mullan-Gage law.[14] 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."[9] 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.[15] The party was hopelessly split between the two and an increasingly chaotic convention balloted 100 times before both accepted they would not be able to win the two-thirds majority required to win and so withdrew. The exhausted party then nominated the little-known John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis went on to lose the election by a landslide to the Republican Calvin Coolidge. Undeterred, Smith fought a determined campaign for the party's nomination in 1928.

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".[16] The Republican Party was still benefitting from an economic boom and a failure to reapportion congress and the electoral college with the results of the 1920 census which registered a 15 percent increase in the urban population. Their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover did little to alter these events.

The Republican Party was benefitting from an economic boom and historians agree that the prosperity along with anti-Catholic sentiment made Hoover's election inevitable.[17] He defeated Smith by a landslide in the 1928 election.

Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the election of 1928.[8] Many feared that he would answer to the pope and not the constitution. His close association with Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine in New York, opened the issue of tolerating corruption in government.[18] 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.[19]

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 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.[20] 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

Some political scientists believe that the 1928 election started a voter realignment that helped develop the New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt.[21] 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."[22] 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.[23]

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 and the New Deal

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, 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 and instead maneuvered to make himself 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."[24]

Smith became highly critical of Roosevelt's New Deal policies and joined the American Liberty League, an 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 who disapproved 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.[25]

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).[9] Although personal resentment was one 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

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 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 was elected as President of the Board of Trustees of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University, in 1929.[26]

Like most New York City businessmen, Smith enthusiastically supported World War II, but was not asked by Roosevelt to play any role in the war effort.[9]

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 Gentleman of His Holiness.

Smith died 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, on May 4, 1944.[27] He is interred at Calvary Cemetery.[28]


Electoral history

United States presidential election, 1928

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote Electoral
Running mate
Count Pct Vice-presidential candidate Home state Elect. vote
Herbert Hoover Republican California 21,427,123 58.2% 444 Charles Curtis Kansas 444
Alfred E. Smith Democratic New York 15,015,464 40.8% 87 Joseph Taylor Robinson Arkansas 87
Norman Thomas Socialist New York 267,478 0.7% 0 James H. Maurer Pennsylvania 0
William Z. Foster Communist Illinois 48,551 0.1% 0 Benjamin Gitlow New York 0
Other 48,396 0.1% Other
Total 36,807,012 100% 531 531
Needed to win 266 266

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (July 28, 2005).

Source (Electoral Vote): Official website of the National Archives. (July 28, 2005).

New York gubernatorial elections, 1918–1926

1926 General election results
Governor candidate Running Mate Party Popular Vote
Alfred E. Smith Edwin Corning Democratic 1,523,813 (52.13%)
Ogden L. Mills Seymour Lowman Republican 1,276,137 (43.80%)
Jacob Panken August Claessens Socialist 83,481 (2.87%)
Charles E. Manierre Ella McCarthy Prohibition 21,285 (0.73%)
Benjamin Gitlow Franklin P. Brill Workers 5,507 (0.19%)
Jeremiah D. Crowley John E. DeLee Socialist Labor 3,553 (0.12%)

1924 General election results
Governor candidate Running Mate Party Popular Vote
Alfred E. Smith George R. Lunn Democratic 1,627,111 (49.96%)
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Seymour Lowman Republican 1,518,552 (46.63%)
Norman Mattoon Thomas Charles Solomon Socialist 99,854 (3.07%)
James P. Cannon Franklin P. Brill Workers 6,395 (0.20%)
Frank E. Passonno Milton Weinberger Socialist Labor 4,931 (0.15%)

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.

1922 General election results
Governor candidate Running Mate Party Popular Vote
Alfred E. Smith George R. Lunn Democratic 1,397,670 (55.21%)
Nathan L. Miller William J. Donovan Republican 1,011,725 (39.97%)
Edward F. Cassidy Theresa B. Wiley Socialist,
109,119 (4.31%)
George K. Hinds William C. Ramsdell Prohibition 9,499 (0.38%)
Jeremiah D. Crowley John E. DeLee Socialist Labor 9,499 (0.38%)

1920 General election results
Governor candidate Running Mate Party Popular Vote
Nathan L. Miller Jeremiah Wood Republican 1,335,878 (46.58%)
Alfred E. Smith George R. Fitts Democratic 1,261,812 (44.00%)
Joseph D. Cannon Jessie Wallace Hughan Socialist 159,804 (5.57%)
Dudley Field Malone Farmer-Labor 69,908 (2.44%)
George F. Thompson Edward G. Deltrich Prohibition 35,509 (1.24%)
John P. Quinn Socialist Labor 5,015 (0.17%)
  • The New York Times of September 13, 1920

1918 General election results
Governor candidate Running Mate Party Popular Vote
Alfred E. Smith Harry C. Walker Democratic 1,009,936 (47.37%)
Charles S. Whitman Edward Schoeneck (Republican),
Mamie W. Colvin (Prohibition)
995,094 (46.68%)
Charles Wesley Ervin Ella Reeve Bloor Socialist 121,705 (5.71%)
Olive M. Johnson August Gillhaus Socialist Labor 5,183 (0.24%)


  • 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.[29]

In fiction and film

See also



  • 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"
  • ; review of Lichtman
  • 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.

Primary sources

  • Alfred E. Smith. Progressive Democracy: Addresses & State Papers. (1928) online edition

External links

  • Al Smith Grave
  • A film clip ]
  • , May 13, 2001.
  • The Contenders
  • Finding aid for the Alfred E. Smith Papers at the Museum of the City of New York\
  • Museum of the City of New York Collections blog
Preceded by
Joseph P. Bourke
New York State Assembly
New York County, 2nd District

Succeeded by
Peter J. Hamill
Political offices
Preceded by
Edwin A. Merritt, Jr.
Majority Leader in the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Frank L. Young
Preceded by
Edwin A. Merritt, Jr.
Minority Leader in the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Harold J. Hinman
Preceded by
Edwin A. Merritt, Jr.
Speaker of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Thaddeus C. Sweet
Preceded by
Harold J. Hinman
Minority Leader in the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Joseph M. Callahan
Preceded by
Frank L. Dowling
President of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York
Succeeded by
Robert L. Moran
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
Party political offices
Preceded by
John W. Davis
Democratic presidential nominee
Succeeded by
Franklin D. Roosevelt

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