Al Smith

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Al Smith : biography

30 December 1873 – 1944-10-4

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 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", 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 of the Democratic Party 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 reelection in 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position as an anti-prohibitionist; Smith offered alcohol to guests at the Executive Mansion in Albany, and actually repealed the Prohibition enforcement statute: the Mullan-Gage law.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 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

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".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 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.William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–32 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958) pp. 225–240. He defeated Smith by a landslide in the 1928 election.