Smith, Alfred E.
SMITH, ALFRED E.
Alfred Emanuel Smith (December 30, 1873–October 4, 1944), who was known as the "Happy Warrior," won four terms as Democratic governor of New York from 1918 to 1928, became the first Catholic candidate nominated for president by a major party, and then opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and reelection in 1936.
In a career shot through with irony, Al Smith became the leading Democratic politician of the Republican 1920s, only to turn against his party just as it gained power during the Great Depression. Smith grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, lacking a high school education, but instilled with the virtues of hard work, strict morality, and loyalty to Tammany Hall, Manhattan's invincible Democratic machine. In 1903, Tammany's nomination gained Smith election to the State Assembly where he became the Democratic leader. He become known as a champion of the poor and working class, especially after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 and service on the investigating commission. In 1918, Smith won his first of four two-year terms as governor of New York state, losing only in the Warren G. Harding landslide of 1920.
Governor Smith earned a solid reputation as a progressive reformer concerned with both social welfare and the efficiency of government. As his crowning achievement, Smith reorganized state government and overhauled its antiquated tax structure. Although the governor sought to restrain taxation and curb needless spending, he simultaneously expanded public projects and extended workmen's compensation and mothers' pensions.
After nearly capturing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, Smith succeeded in 1928, becoming the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major American party. Smith, who did not vigorously challenge Republican economics, lost in a near landslide to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the legatee of Coolidge-era prosperity. The election was marked by an outbreak of anti-Catholicism, both scholarly and scurrilous, and a sharp division in the voting choices of Catholics and Protestants. In 1932, Smith joined a coalition of conservative Democrats in a failed effort to deny the Democratic nomination to his successor as governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith hoped to vindicate his 1928 defeat, but Democrats were not about to reignite religious conflict in what appeared to be the first winning year for their party since 1916.
Although Smith reluctantly campaigned for the Democratic ticket in 1932, he increasingly found himself at odds with New Deal policies. Pressed forward by the businessmen who were now Smith's closest associates, he became the prized recruit of the American Liberty League, formed in 1934 as an outlet for conservative criticism of Roosevelt's liberal solutions to the challenges of hard times. Smith's career came full circle in January 1936 when he addressed a Liberty League audience of millionaire couples at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., replaying the same arguments that Republicans had used against him in 1928. Most inflammatory was his charge that Roosevelt had sold out to communism: "There can only be one capital, Washington or Moscow. There can only be the pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of communistic Russia." Senator Joseph Robinson of Arkansas, Smith's running mate from 1928, lamented that his old friend was now "warring like one of the Janizaries of old against . . . the men and women with whom he fought shoulder to shoulder in the past." Smith supported Republican presidential candidates Alf Landon in 1936 and Wendell Willkie in 1940.
Smith's career illustrates the tensions within a progressivism that combined humanitarian impulse and commitment to efficient government with distrust of high taxes, redistributive spending, and government meddling in business. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt incorporated and moved beyond the progressivism of an earlier time: Al Smith did not.
Eldot, Paula. Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician asReformer. 1983.
Finan, Christopher M. Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. 2002.
Lichtman, Allan. Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928, rev. edition. 2000.
Schwarz, Jordan A. "Al Smith in the Thirties." New YorkHistory 45 (1964): 316–330.
Stayton, Robert A. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. 2001.
Allan J. Lichtman