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Alfred Emanuel Smith

In office
January 1, 1919 – December 31, 1920
Lieutenant Harry C. Walker
Preceded by Charles S. Whitman
Succeeded by Nathan L. Miller
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

Born December 30, 1873(1873-12-30)
Manhattan, New York City, New York
Died October 4, 1944 (aged 70)
New York City, New York
Political party Democratic
Residence Manhattan, New York City, New York
Religion Roman Catholic

Alfred Emanuel Smith, Jr. (December 30, 1873 – October 4, 1944), known in private and public life as Al Smith, was an American politician who was elected the 42nd Governor of New York four times, and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. He was the first Roman Catholic and Irish-American 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.


Early life

Smith was born to Catherine Mulvihill and Alfred Emanuel Smith, Sr., a Civil War veteran and 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. His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian and English,[citation needed] but Smith identified with the Irish American 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[1] to help support the family. 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. An accomplished amateur actor, he became a notable speaker. On May 6, 1900, Alfred Smith married Catherine A. Dunn, with whom he had five children.[2]

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.[2]

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 fire. 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 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, daughter of Prussian-Jewish immigrants.[2]

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 1913-1914 after Governor William Sulzer was impeached.

In 1919, Smith gave the famous speech, "A man as low and mean as I can picture",[3] 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.[4]

Smith lost his bid for re-election in 1920, but was again elected governor in 1922, 1924 and 1926 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 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".[2]


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"[5].

The Republican Party was still benefitting from the economic boom of the 1920s, which their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover pledged to continue. Historians agree[citation needed] 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 election.

Political cartoon suggesting the Pope was the force behind Al Smith. The Good Citizen. Nov 1926. Publisher: Pillar of Fire Church.

Smith was the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination.[6] (See also John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected U.S. President, and Charles O'Conor, first Catholic nominee for President.) 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. The people also criticized him for being a drunkard because of the stereotypes placed on Irish Catholics of the day.[7] 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.[8]

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", 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.[9] 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.[10] 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."[11] 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.[12]

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 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 1932.

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 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.[13]

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 election).[2] 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

Smith golfing with baseball great Babe Ruth in Coral Gables, Florida (1930) – State Archive of Florida

After the 1928 election, Smith became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation which 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, in 1929.[14]

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.[2]

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 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. He is interred at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.[15]


Electoral history

United States presidential election, 1928

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote Electoral
Running mate Running mate's
home state
Running mate's
electoral vote
Count Pct
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. 1928 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (July 28, 2005).

Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996. 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%)
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.[16]

In fiction and film

See also

  • List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s
  • Business Plot


  1. ^ About St. James School
  2. ^ a b c d e f Slayton 2001
  3. ^ MacArthur, Brian (2000-05-01). The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Speeches. Penguin (Non-Classics). ISBN 0140285008. 
  4. ^ Procter, Ben H. (2007). William Randolph Hearst. Oxford University Press US. pp. 85. ISBN 9780195325348. 
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Hostetler, (1998).
  7. ^ DeGregorio, (1984).
  8. ^ Lichtman (1979)
  9. ^ Slayton 2001; Lichtman (1979)
  10. ^ Degler (1964)
  11. ^ Lawrence (1996) p 34.
  12. ^ Lichtman (1976)
  13. ^ The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents
  14. ^ Reznikoff, Charles, ed. 1957. Louis Marshall: Champion of Liberty. Selected Papers and Addresses. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, p. 1123.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Election result in NYT on December 31, 1918


  • 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"
  • Degler, Carl N. (1964). "American Political Parties and the Rise of the City: An Interpretation". Journal of American History 51 (1): 41–59. doi:10.2307/1917933.;2-%23&origin=historycoop. 
  • DeGregorio, William A. (1984). The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. Dembner Books. 
  • Eldot, Paula (1983). Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician as Reformer. Garland. ISBN 0824048555. 
  • Finan, Christopher M. (2003). Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. Hill and Wang. ISBN 0809030330. 
  • Hostetler, Michael J. (1998). "Gov. Al Smith Confronts the Catholic Question: The Rhetorical Legacy of the 1928 Campaign". Communication Quarterly 46. 
  • Lawrence, David G. (1996). The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Westview Press. ISBN 0813389844. 
  • Lichtman, Allan J. (1979). Prejudice and the old politics: The Presidential election of 1928. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807813583. OCLC 4492475. 
  • Lichtman, Allan (1976). "Critical Election Theory and the Reality of American Presidential Politics, 1916-40". The American Historical Review 81 (2): 317–351. 
  • Carter, Paul A. (1980). "Deja Vu; Or, Back to the Drawing Board with Alfred E. Smith". Reviews in American History 8 (2): 272–276. doi:10.2307/2701129. ISSN 0048-7511. ; review of Lichtman
  • Moore, Edmund A. (1956). A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928. OCLC 475746.  online edition
  • Neal, Donn C. (1983). The World beyond the Hudson: Alfred E. Smith and National Politics, 1918-1928. New York: Garland. pp. 308. ISBN 978-0824056582. 
  • Neal, Donn C. (1984). "What If Al Smith Had Been Elected?". Presidential Studies Quarterly 14 (2): 242–248. ISSN 0360-4918. 
  • Perry, Elisabeth Israels (1987). Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith. Oxford University Press. pp. 280. ISBN 0195044266. 
  • 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
  • Slayton, Robert A. (2001). Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. Free Press. pp. 480. ISBN 978-0684863023. , 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

  • Smith, Alfred, E. (1929). Campaign addresses of Governor Alfred E. Smith, Democratic Candidate for President 1928. Washington, D.C.: Democratic National Committee. ISBN 0404061176. OCLC 300555. 
  • Alfred E. Smith. Progressive Democracy: Addresses & State Papers. (1928) online edition

External links

New York Assembly
Preceded by
Joseph Bourke
New York State Assembly, New York County 2nd District
Succeeded by
Peter J. Hamill
Political offices
Preceded by
Edwin A. Merritt
Minority Leader of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Harold Hinman
Preceded by
Edwin A. Merritt
Speaker of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Thaddeus C. Sweet
Preceded by
Harold Hinman
Minority Leader of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Joseph 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 Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Franklin D. Roosevelt


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