Smith, Alfred E(manuel) (b New York City, 30 Dec 1873; d New York City, 4 Oct 1944). Governor.
Born on the East Side of Manhattan to parents with Italian German and Irish ancestry, he lived most of his life in that crowded tenement district. He enjoyed a typical immigrant’s city childhood, watching the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from his living room windows and attending a local parochial school at St. James Roman Catholic Church. Smith was an ordinary student, but he had to leave school in the seventh grade when his father died in 1885.
Smith held a series of jobs, most notably at the Fulton Fish Market—of which he would always say he was a graduate—and he acted in amateur productions at the church. He also gravitated to the local Tammany Hall chapter, and this became his social club as well as a springboard to politics. Smith’s first political job was process server for the office of the commissioner of jurors.
In 1903 he was nominated for the New York State Assembly and won handily in the machinecontrolled district.
At first Smith neither understood nor had much to add to the work of the state assembly,which at the time was dominated by tradition, patricians, and upstate Republicanism. He considered returning to New York City politics but decided to stay and make a success of his legislative career.
Instead of falling into the comfortable role of reliable machine assemblyman, he mastered the work of the legislature, reading every bill and then checking and cross-referencing each item until he intimately knew the workings of state government. This, combined with his actor’s ability to memorize vast amounts of information easily, made him a formidable member of the lower house, and in 1913 he served as speaker of the assembly. Smith became vice chair, under Sen Robert F.Wagner Sr, of the Factory Investigating Commission established in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. His work on the commission exposed him to the horrors of industrial life, and as a result Smith joined the ranks of progressive reformers, a position he would hold for most of his political career. Smith and Wagner pushed through a host of bills that created the modern system of fire safety by enacting measures such as sprinklers, fire drills, illuminated exit signs, and panic bars on doors.
The high point of Smith’s legislative career came during the 1915 Constitutional Convention, where he displayed his unmatched knowledge of the workings of state government. Elihu Root commented that of all the men in the convention Smith was “the best informed” on the business of New York State. Smith served as sheriff of New York Co (1915–17) and as president of the New York City Board of Aldermen (1917–18).
In 1918 Smith ran for governor and won. His major accomplishment during that term was creating a reconstruction committee to plan for post–World War I society and economy. In 1920 Smith lost his bid for reelection and became a businessman, running the US Trucking Co. Two years later Smith ran again and won, as he did in 1924 and 1926. In the 20th century only Nelson A. Rockefeller would match this record of four victories. The period of 1922–28 was when Smith made his greatest mark on New York State.
Smith’s record as governor was achieved in two major fields: administrative and social reform.
Because he had been a newcomer in the legislature, Smith had little appreciation for outmoded procedures. When he became governor, there were 189 state government departments and commissions, all of roughly the same status, with no clear hierarchy or decision-making apparatus.
The budget was put together by the few legislative leaders and clerks who understood its complicated workings. Smith created a system of departments headed by secretaries who form the governor’s cabinet, a structure still used in modified form.He enacted an executive budget, whereby the governor’s office prepares a carefully compiled statement that is submitted to the legislature for approval. Getting these reforms passed was far from easy, but Smith managed because he was a great campaigner and a formidable speaker. He took his causes directly to the people, clarifying complex issues and urging his audience to pressure their legislators to back reform.
In social reform, he vastly expanded the state’s support for housing, healthcare, and parks. In the field of education, he increased the state budget from $7 million in the 1918–19 fiscal year to $70 million in the 1926–27 fiscal year.During this period, teachers’ salaries doubled in the state.He was one of few politicians to argue that urban immigrants were part of the American body politic.
In 1928 Smith ran for president but lost badly because of prejudice against his Roman Catholic faith and his city background. Voters were warned that if Smith won, all Protestant marriages would be annulled and their children would henceforth be illegitimate. They were warned that the pope would come over and run the White House. Thousands of photos of the Holland Tunnel construction were circulated, with the captions stating that it was the secret passageway being built to bring the pope from Rome.After Smith’s loss, his fortunes took a turn for the worse. He accepted a position as president of the Empire State Building, which had been planned in prosperity but opened in depression.
Smith presided over the building’s financial disaster and lost much of his own financial reserves in the crash of 1929. He joined the right-wing American Liberty League and bitterly turned on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, denouncing them in a famous speech on 25 Jan 1936. In the last years of his life, Smith returned to his core values, speaking vigorously against fascism and Nazism and supporting Roosevelt when the president spoke out against tyranny and led the effort to win World War II. Smith died seven months after the death of his beloved wife, Catherine.
Finan, Christopher. Alfred E. Smith (New York: Hill &
Handlin, Oscar. Al Smith and His America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958)
Josephson,Matthew, and Hannah Josephson. Al Smith: Hero of the Cities: A Political Portrait Drawing on the Papers of Frances Perkins (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1969)
Slayton, Robert. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York: Free Press, 2001)
Smith, Alfred E. Up to Now (New York: Viking Press, 1927)
Robert A. Slayton
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 1424-25].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.