In 1928, the Democrats nominated Al Smith of New York for President. Al Smith was the son of Irish immigrants and a self-made man. Al’s first job came when he was eleven years old selling newspapers. After his father’s death when he was thirteen, he took on a series of jobs including chaser for a trucker, oil worker, and three years working at the Fulton Fish Market. His days at the fish market began as early as 3:00 in the morning, when he would unload, clean and sell the fish. Also in his teens, he became fascinated by the theater, and began acting in plays. He also got involved in politics.
Politics in Smith’s Fourth Ward, which included the East Side tenements, meant jobs and power to the people who lived there. Smith became friendly with Tom Foley and Henry Campbell, up and coming leaders in the Tammany organization. In 1895, he was given a job as a subpoena server with a salary of over a thousand dollars a year, good money for a poor boy from the East Side. When Foley and Campbell challenged the Tammany leaders and won, Smith moved up with them. In 1903, he was elected to the state legislature where he remained until 1915. During this time, he became recognized as one of the most knowledgeable authorities on state government. For his last three years, Smith was Speaker.
In 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of a New York building. The employers had locked the doors to prevent workers from leaving early or stealing materials. The locked doors caused the death of 143 workers. Smith became a member of the committee of the legislature that investigated not only this fire, but also industrial work conditions in general. This had a great effect upon Smith, and his career. Smith, already associated as a machine politician, also became identified with leading the movement to improve conditions for the working men and women. Both identifications would help his later career.
In 1915, Smith was a delegate to the state constitutional convention, where his knowledge of state government and its needs impressed members of both parties. Charles Evans Hughes, republican leader and later presidential candidate and Secretary of State said, “Of all the men in the convention, Mr. Smith is the best informed on the business of the state of New York.”
In order to groom Smith for higher office, Tammany ran him for Sheriff of New York County. According to an old fee structure, Smith was able to earn a huge-for-its-day sum of fifty thousand dollars a year. It also allowed him to make many speeches and get a great deal of publicity. From there he was elected to a four-year term as president of the city Board of Aldermen. He did not finish this term, being elected Governor of New York in 1918.
Smith won the governorship over the incumbent Republican by less than 15,000 votes. He lost his bid for a second term in the 1920 Republican landslide led by Harding and Coolidge. He was re-elected in 1922, and re-elected by ever increasing majorities for the next three elections. In 1924, he even defeated the son and namesake of Theodore Roosevelt, an accomplishment that got him much favorable attention nationally. As governor, he became known as an advocate for working people, establishing agencies and policies similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially in the areas of rent controls and subsidies for medical care.
Smith received some votes for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1920, but he was not a serious contender at the convention. In 1924, he was a major candidate, and many thought he would get the nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, who called Smith “The Happy Warrior,” a nickname Smith would proudly carry for the rest of his career, placed his name in nomination at the convention. Franklin Roosevelt had nominated Smith in 1920 and 1924 as well as 1928. Will Rogers, the famous political humorist, said “Franklin Roosevelt, a fine and wonderful man, who has devoted his life to nominating Al Smith, did his act from memory. You could wake him in the middle of the night and he would start to nominate Al.”
At the 1924 convention, Smith and conservative William Gibbs McAdoo (President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury and son-in-law) deadlocked. Both eventually backed out allowing the convention to name a compromise candidate. In 1928, Smith was the recognized leader of the party and easily won the nomination on the first ballot.
In many ways, Al Smith and his opponent, Herbert Hoover, were very similar. Both were self-made men, both were proud of their climb to success and wealth, and both were devoted to the system that had allowed them to achieve their success. But that is where the similarities ended.
Hoover started as a farm boy, went to college and became a mining engineer. Smith grew up on the sidewalks of New York. Hoover was Protestant, represented the rural America of his youth, and was a “dry” on prohibition. Smith was from the urban East, a Catholic, and a “wet” on prohibition.
Although religion did not play a direct role in the campaign, anti-Catholic prejudice had a major impact on the election. In the usually solid Democratic South, five states left the Democratic column for the first time since before the Civil War. One story circulated that Smith favored building a tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean to connect Washington and the Vatican.
One leaflet published in New York contained the following poem:
When the Catholics rule the United States, And the Jew grows a Christian nose on his face, When the Pope is the head of the Ku Klux Klan In the land of Uncle Sam Then Al Smith will be our President And the country not worth a damn.
In Oklahoma, The Reverend Mordecai Ham told his congregation “If you vote for Smith, you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.”
The main public issue was Prohibition. Hoover referred to Prohibition as a noble experiment. Smith was opposed, and had long publicly favored repealing the 18th Amendment. This hurt him in the rural areas, which would “vote dry as long as the voters could stagger to the polls.” Republicans called him Al(cohol) Smith.
Technology became much more important in this campaign. Hoover, who sounded stiff and pompous in person, came across on the radio as a high-minded statesman. Smith, who was witty and personable before a live audience froze before the microphone, and his unusual East Side accent was not appealing in other parts of the nation.
But probably the biggest problem for Smith’s campaign was the general prosperity the nation was enjoying in 1928. In his nominating speech, Hoover said, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land.” Hoover called for “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” With all these factors working against him, Smith never really had a chance.
On Election Day, Smith carried 15 million votes (41%) to Hoover’s 21 million votes (58%). In spite of this overwhelming defeat, Smith accomplished some notable achievements. He carried almost twice as many votes as the Democratic candidate did in 1924. He also carried the twelve largest cities, which had gone Republican four years earlier, thus setting the stage for the Democratic urban power base that contributed to the great Democratic victories for the next twenty years.
In 1928, in an effort to carry his home state of New York, Smith talked his friend Franklin Roosevelt into running for Governor. Although Smith lost the state, Roosevelt was elected Governor. Roosevelt began a program of government aid and subsidies to fight the Depression, and was re-elected in 1930, one of the few incumbent to be re-elected during the Depression. This made Roosevelt the front-runner for the 1932 nomination, which Smith also wanted. When Roosevelt beat him, Smith campaigned for Roosevelt, and expected a cabinet or other major appointment.
Roosevelt froze Smith out of the government, which made Smith a bitter, disappointed foe of Roosevelt. Smith returned to business, becoming president of the company building the Empire State Building. As he became wealthier, he identified more and more with the wealthy and their interests as opposed to the working man he had represented throughout his career. In each of Roosevelt’s re-election campaigns, Smith supported the Republican opponents, but never got actively involved in politics again. When his beloved wife died in May of 1944, his health failed and he died five short months later.
Smith would have been a very different President than Hoover, and would have reacted to the Great Depression in a far different manner. His tenure as Governor had shown his support for the working class, and his conviction that the government could and should take action to help the average man. The programs he started as Governor, such as welfare, health programs and housing subsidies, would have been successful on the national scene as well. But with his defeat, the nation had to wait four years for Roosevelt to enact those programs.