Al Smith

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Al Smith : biography

30 December 1873 – 1944-10-4

Political cartoon suggesting the Pope was the force behind Al Smith. [[The Good Citizen. November 1926. Publisher: Pillar of Fire Church.]] Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the election of 1928. 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.DeGregorio, (1984). 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.Lichtman (1979)

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.Slayton 2001; Lichtman (1979) 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.Degler (1964) 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."Lawrence (1996) p 34. 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.Lichtman (1976)

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."J. Joseph Huthmacher, Massachusetts People and Politics: The transition from Republican to Democratic dominance and its national implications (1973) p. 248.