For 75 years, America’s most powerful politicians have come to New York for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. Presidents Obama, Clinton and Trump were all keynote speakers at the A-list charity event, but Smith’s remarkable biography and accomplishments as governor today are largely forgotten. Smith, however, deserves a special place in the pantheon of great Irish-American New Yorkers.
Part of what makes Smith such an extraordinary success is the humility of his birth. Born in 1873 in an apartment building in one of Manhattan’s poorest neighborhoods, the infamous Fourth Ward, Smith was always proud to have grown up there and chose to live in the neighborhood, even after becoming governor of New York. The grandson of immigrants from Westmeath and Cavan on his mother’s side, Smith has always considered himself to be of Irish descent, although he is also part German and part Italian. Smith, who spoke with his distinctive New York accent, epitomized the working-class Irish-American New Yorker.
The future governor experienced poverty and hardship from an early age. His father, who owned a small trucking business, died when Al was only 13 years old. So he dropped out of school to work to support his mother and sister. Smith’s mother, who had a profound influence on her son, always insisted that Al have fun in everything he did in life, whether he was running for president or working at the fish market. , a lesson Al never forgot. Despite the poverty of his youth, Smith displayed liveliness, humor and concern for others, traits that made him a natural politician. His “well-timed humour” won him plenty of political debate and Republicans and Democrats alike recalled that when his speaking time was up and the gavel fell, Smith would laugh with “childlike surprise” and carry on talking while the members laughed and shook their heads. His former friend and political ally Franklin Roosevelt dubbed Smith, “The Happy Warrior”, a nickname that fit the gregarious and witty son of the Fourth Ward.
Never having attended high school or college, Smith always claimed he learned about people by studying them during his first job at Fulton Fish Market. Years later, when he was a member of the State Assembly, a group of his fellow legislators, discussing their elite social and educational backgrounds, inquired about his academic pedigree: Smith replied : “FFM”. Greatly confusing his fellow legislators. Then Smith replied, “Fulton Fish Market!” It was this “diploma” that made Alfred E. Smith the man he was, a man who learned to understand the workings of human nature and made him a “man of the people” and s is identified with the working class and immigrants who came to the United States with hope in their hearts.
Smith also performed on the Vaudeville stages where he developed the oratorical skills that would later make him a successful politician. He got his start in politics campaigning for the Tammany machine, which rewarded him with a job as a bailiff for the commissioner of jurors, when he was 21. Eight years later, Tammany successfully led him to the State Assembly. When Smith arrived in Albany he was intellectually overwhelmed with the demands of being a legislator, but Smith decided to understand how the legislative process worked. He began going through the bills on his desk and reading them late into the night at the New York State Library, quickly becoming one of Albany’s most capable lawmakers. The leader of the Citizens’ Union, a good government group that doesn’t usually praise Tammany’s men, said Smith “displayed a working knowledge of how state government works without rival with no one else”.
Although Smith began as a machine politician from Tammany Hall, he helped transform the machine into a force for improving the lives of the urban poor and working class. He quickly befriended another Tammany Hall politician, Robert Wagner, who would become Smith’s ally in reform efforts. When the Democrats took control of the state legislature in 1911, Smith became Majority Leader and chairman of the all-important Ways and Means Committee. Smith and Wagner began to emerge as champions of progressive legislation to help New York’s poor and vulnerable. When the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of March 1911 claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant women, Wagner and Smith led a factory inspection commission that investigated hundreds of factories and led to thirty-eight new labor laws. Smith combined compassion for the working poor with a rare skill in crafting and passing laws, and in doing so he turned Tammany’s reputation for mere corruption into a force to help protect state workers.
In 1915, Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy began grooming Smith for higher office. In 1917, he was elected president of the council of aldermen of the city. The following year, Smith narrowly defeated a powerful Republican incumbent to become the state’s first Irish Catholic governor, with wild celebrations erupting in Irish neighborhoods across the state. He served from January 1, 1919, to December 31, 1920. After losing in the Republican landslide of 1920, he was reelected three times and served from January 1, 1923, to December 31, 1928. In his eight years in office, Smith proved to be one of the most effective governors in the state’s history, passing dozens of reform bills that established New York as a model of progressive government. His reforms included equal pay for female teachers; building reform; public funding for education increased from $9 million to $82 million; strengthen workers’ compensation; expansion of the public service; streamlining state government, combining 129 agencies into 20; adoption of cabinet government; and the creation of a massive state park program.
In 1924, there was a movement to nominate Smith as a Democratic presidential candidate, but this era was at the height of the Ku Klux Klan, and many Democrats were also Klansmen and called themselves anti-Catholics. After more than 100 ballots, Smith lost the nomination. Four years later he was even more popular, and when the convention met in the summer of 1928, it was impossible to deny him the nomination.
In 1928, Smith became the first Catholic ever nominated by a major party to be president, but he still faced enormous obstacles. The Klan had millions of adherents across the country, and many Protestants were horrified not only by Smith’s religion, but also by his working-class New York accent. Jovial by nature, Smith was stunned by the editorials and vicious rhetoric of anti-Catholic demagogues. In the spring of 1927, the prestigious Atlantic Monthly published “An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith”. Written by Charles C. Marshall, a prominent lawyer and member of the Episcopal Church, who relied on 19th century papal encyclicals condemning separation of church and state and freedom of religion, it suggested that t was impossible for a faithful Catholic to adhere to the Constitution. and take the oath as president. On the campaign trail outside major cities, Smith was sometimes greeted by crowds of admirers, but also by flaming crosses and crowds of hostile fanatics.
On Election Day, the Democrat was crushed. Hoover garnered 58% of the popular vote (and 444 electoral votes) to Smith’s 41% (87). Even his home state of New York opted for Hoover, leaving Smith victorious only in Massachusetts and six Southern states that after the Civil War still couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican. To run for president, Smith had to resign as governor. On the day Smith lost the presidency, Franklin Roosevelt had won the race for governor. Smith had acted as FDR’s boss but always struggled to take him seriously; Roosevelt seemed to Smith intelligent and charming, but also timid and insubstantial. Out of office, Smith appears to have considered an arrangement under which Smith would maintain power in Albany while Roosevelt served as the figurehead. Roosevelt balked at this idea, which caused bitterness between the two men.
After losing the presidential race, Smith needed a job, so he created the position of president of the Empire State Building Corporation for himself. With great fanfare, Smith announced, on August 29, 1929, plans for the construction of the tallest building in the world. However, two months later, following the stock market crash, Smith lost his personal savings and the Empire State Building turned out to be a white elephant. In its first year, it had a 75% vacancy rate and was on the verge of foreclosure.
In 1932, he decided to run against Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination and lost. FDR was only in office a few months before Smith began attacking the New Deal. It was too academic, he wrote in a magazine column—the effort of a “man who sat in the library, writing books and lecturing students.” He was concentrating too much power in Washington. It wouldn’t work. Smith said. His attacks on Roosevelt and his New Deal alienated many Democrats.
Smith died in 1944, but few Democrats mourned his demise because of the enmity he showed President Roosevelt, and the New Yorker’s extraordinary legislative accomplishments were also barely mentioned. In Smith’s honor, however, the Diocese of New York established a foundation to benefit Catholic charities, and since then one of the major political events in New York has been the foundation’s annual fundraiser, the Al Smith Dinner, held every fall during election season. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, speaking at the 1960 dinner, praised Smith best, saying, “The bitter memory of 1928 will fade, and all that will remain will be the figure of Al Smith, tall on the horizon.”