Al Smith, the Man America Needed: Tammany “Stooge” Changed the Nation


He said “the only cure for democracy is more democracy” and he meant it. He made America a better place to live but who now remembers Al Smith?

Al Smith was associated with the infamous Tammany Hall, having grown up within its political machine. Like so many things remembered incorrectly in history, even Tammany did some good things. One the best was to produce a rarity: a politician who cared about his constituents.

When he went to Albany, NY, as an Assemblyman in 1903, many thought he would be another Tammany stooge. He turned out to be anything but.

He didn’t go to college and often said his only degree was from the Fulton Fish Market where he worked throughout his youth to support his family after his father died.

What he did in Albany was read every bill and really tried to understand every piece of legislation that came to the state capital. This paid off for him by helping him to move up the political ladder.

Tragedy at Triangle

What really made him important to America was his appointment in 1911 to the commission to look into safety in the workplace following the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire that year.

This fire killed 146 people, mostly young women, who were locked into their workplace on the eighth floor and above. There were virtually no rules for safety business owners had to follow then and they often locked workers in to keep them focused on their jobs and to keep union organizers out.

After the fire, Smith’s Factory Investigating Commission began to look into workplace conditions throughout the state. What the commissioners found mostly were dangerous conditions, rampant child labor and little or no regard for workers.

Smith and his commission managed to change the way businesses worked. They limited the work day, recommended sprinkler systems be installed, required exits be open and other safety necessities. The fire and the resulting commission also strengthened workers’ desires to join unions to make them stronger dealing with their employers.

According to Gregg Yaz, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 would change the regulation by government of business. Before the fire government had mostly stayed away from business feeling it had no power to legislate it. After the fire government could not avoid instituting laws to protect the workers. Once the New York legislature enacted safety laws, other states in the U.S. followed suit.”

A New Deal

Many of Smith’s reforms later were used by his rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became president in the Great Depression and started the New Deal.

Despite his enormous popularity in New York state, Smith lost his bid to become the first Irish-Catholic president in 1928. According to the Ric Burns’ documentary about New York City, Smith lost because of Middle Americans’ hatred of all “big city” things, especially those from NYC.

Instead, the nation got another four years of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression.

Smith is one of the most forgotten American politicians, yet he did more for Americans than many who are remembered.