Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 51

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 51


This is the grave of Al Smith.


A lifelong resident of Manhattan, Al Smith was born in 1873. From a poor Irish Catholic family, Smith dropped out of school at age 14 to work in a fish market. He became involved in local politics and was a young star in the Tammany machine. He managed to avoid the corruption endemic to Gilded Age machine politics and combined with his excellent speaking style and connections to the immigrant community, he rose quickly. He was elected to the New York state assembly in 1904, where he served until 1915. Among his work there was allying with Frances Perkins to get building and safety reforms passed after the Triangle Fire. He left the assembly in 1915 to become sheriff of New York County and then became governor in 1919. He did not win reelection in 1920 but campaigning openly on the repeal of prohibition, won in 1922, 1924, and 1926. He mentored people ranging from Frances Perkins to Robert Moses in his administration. He was a relative racial progressive for a Democrat of the time and spoke out against lynching. He was also close to another young New York Democrat named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Smith had run for president in 1924, but the party split between him and the prohibitionist William McAdoo. John Davis was the compromise candidate to get blown out by Calvin Coolidge. Smith managed to win the nomination in 1928, but was overwhelmed by a combination of anti-Catholicism and economic prosperity. Even with bad economic times, the deep anti-Catholicism of much of the Protestant population, especially in the Democratic southern base, probably would have doomed him. Hoover won 5 southern states that fall, something unprecedented for post-Reconstruction Republican candidates.

Roosevelt took over the governorship of New York from Smith, but this created a rivalry between the two once allies. They both wanted to be the Democratic nominee in 1932. Still, Smith worked to elect FDR after the latter won the nomination. Unfortunately, the New Deal made Smith apoplectic. At the core of Democratic Party ideology going back to the days of Jackson and Van Buren was a rugged individualism. The idea of big social programs like Social Security and laws like the National Labor Relations Act was hated by a lot of Democratic elites, and not only southerners like John Nance Garner. Smith turned on Roosevelt with embittered hatred. He voted for Alf Landon in 1936 and Wendell Willkie in 1940. Smith believed in cooperation with business and saw FDR as producing class warfare. Effectively, Smith became a man the times passed by. He died in 1944, at the age of 70.

Al Smith is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

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  • LeeEsq

    The Northern wet and Catholic part of the Democratic Party got into fist fights with the Southern, dry and Protestant part of the party at nearly every convention during the 1920s.

    • The Dark God of Time

      Couldn’t say that I’d blame the Catholics for doing so in 1928:

      But the election soon took a sickening turn. The Ku Klux Klan continued to be a powerful force in America, with a membership that historians now estimate as high as two to four million. When Smith’s campaign train headed West, it was met by burning crosses on the hills and explosions from dynamite charges echoing across the prairies. Klansmen and other religious bigots swayed ignorant voters by telling them that the Catholic Smith, having supposedly sworn fealty to the pope, would turn the United States over to “Romanism and Ruin.” Protestant ministers told their congregations that if Smith became president, all non-Catholic marriages would be annulled and all children of these marriages declared illegitimate. Preachers even warned their congregations that if they voted for Al Smith, they would go straight to hell.


      • LeeEsq

        It happened during the conventions for the 1920 and 1924 elections to. The 1924 convention seems to have been particularly feisty.

      • LeeEsq

        There was also apparently a fight between the very Catholic NYPD and White Protestants in Queens at some point during the late 1920s. A young Fred Trump was apparently involved. This might be one of the few times in American history where liberals can support the cops fighting civilians.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Some say that Fred Trump belonged to an organization that was not anti-lynching.

        • The Dark God of Time

          Violence is justified in the service of mankind.

      • CP

        Couldn’t say that I’d blame the Catholics for doing so in 1928:

        Oh Lord, no. Go Catholics.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    H.L. Mencken loved Al, maybe as much for anti-Prohibition as anything because I gather that H.L. liked to tip back a few. I have a book of his political convention journalism covering around 40 years. I don’t know how accurate or unbiased it is, but it’s great reading. The parts about Smith show what seems to be sincere warmth, which wasn’t Mencken’s normal attitude toward politicians from outside the Free State.

    • Keaaukane

      I am a Mencken fan, and never heard of this book. What is it called? I want one!

      • N__B

        A Carnival of Buncombe.

        • Dennis Orphen

          A lot of band name lists just becambe one item longer.

      • No Longer Middle Aged Man

        I mis-remembered. It’s a section in “The Impossible H.L Mencken” Runs about 170 pages consisting of his newspaper articles and columns reporting on national political conventions from 1904 to 1948.

        • Keaaukane

          Both sound good. Mahalo plenty, Brah.

  • dl

    How many “Al Smith” graves did you have to travel to, before you found the right one?

    • Bill Murray

      of the 4 MLB Al Smith’s two were cremated, one is buried in Indiana and one died in Louisiana but nothing else is listed

  • sleepyirv

    There are a lot of perfect sections in The Power Broker, but my favorite might be the short biography of Al Smith.

    • CP

      I liked the way it described the world around Robert Moses, the way he rose to prominence during the last years when Tammany Hall was still hot shit. Puts into perspective the way the rest of the book describes him building what’s basically his own machine. Moses’ power circle comes off like a more streamlined, efficient, discrete, sort of successor to the old machine politics.

  • prufrock

    Apropos of nothing, but watching old news reels of Al Smith speaking lead me to wonder if he is the last presidential candidate from either party who had genuinely bad teeth. Seriously, they’re awful!

    • Woodrowfan

      in black & white? too bad, he had gold-capped teeth.

    • skate

      The teeth I didn’t notice. The accent? Pure New Yawk gold.

    • ChrisTS

      Well, Rudy is not a prez candidate, but his teeth give my retired dentist sis serious gross out willies.

  • Harkov311

    I never did understand how someone as intimately involved with the Democrats’ progressive faction in 1928 could do such a complete 180 only eight years later.

    • LeeEsq

      Many of the earlier liberal/progressive policies that Al Smith supported could be seen as protecting vulnerable groups unsuited for rugged individualism, women and children, or advancing rugged individualism to those excluded from it, immigrants, Catholics, and I guess African-Americans. The New Deal was many things but you can’t really see it about being rugged individualism at all. It might have been a step to far for Smith.

      • CP

        That makes sense. From what I understand, that was a thing throughout the Progressive movement whether Democrat or not. It started out as the Reasonable Middle Ground between radical populists like William Jennings Bryan and hardcore conservatives who refused to budge an inch from the status quo. But come the Great Depression, it was clear that the country needed reforms to go a lot further, and for many Progressives that was too far.

        (Teddy Roosevelt’s branch of the family, after spawning the original Progressive president, became bitterly opposed to FDR’s brand of politics).

    • Woodrowfan

      I think a lot of it was his rivalry with FDR> But also Smith had become close friends with John Jakob Raskob (GM and DuPont) who made sure Smith became President of the company that built the Empire State Building. Raskob was a reactionary pro-big business Democrat, and member of the Liberty League, and I suspect he influenced Smith a lot.

    • Well, in many ways the Democratic Party did the complete 180 more than Smith. The move from individualism to collective security was incredibly popular with the American people. But for Democratic Party ideologues, whether Garner or Smith, it was a complete betrayal. In related news, FDR running for the 3rd term in 1940 is the greatest decision he ever made.

      • CP

        I always got the sense that, while they might not have been quite on the same level as the Yankee-WASP Republican elites, a lot of the Democratic leadership had spent decades carving out their own comfortable little fiefdoms in machines like Tammany Hall (or more nastily the Southern Democratic establishment) and making their own relationships with the rich and powerful… and that in the end, while they might theoretically represent poorer and more disenfranchised demographics, a lot of these people were as uncomfortable with the prospect of real change as anyone in the GOP.

        I also get the sense that the Great Depression backlash that powered the New Deal slammed into pretty much all of those elites regardless of party. That’s certainly how it played out in New York City, with a reformist Republican mayor allied to a reformist Democratic president crusading against both Tammany Hall and the Republican Wall Street types. And Al Smith was still a Tammany Hall man. I don’t imagine there were a lot of kind words for That Man In The White House in the circles he ran in.

        • I’m not going to claim any meaningful expertise in the internal Democratic Party dynamics of that era. But I do find it somewhat remarkable that the Democratic elites were basically used to losing at the presidential level for 70 years and clung more to ideals of a pre-Civil War past, not to mention pre-New Deal, more than adjusting to serve the needs of the modern populace.

          • LeeEsq

            Many politicians might actually believe what they say they believe in. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom hung on to a rapidly unpopular platform and ideology even as it became more and more unpopular with the British electorate for years.

            • EliHawk

              The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is hanging on to a rapidly unpopular platform and ideology even as it became more and more unpopular with the British electorate for years.


          • CP

            Well, why wouldn’t they? It was working out fine for them. That’s basically what the Tilden-Hayes compromise was – we recognize that you Republicans are now in charge in the rest of the country, and in exchange, you leave us alone down here in the South to run things pretty much the way we’ve always run them.

            Southern Democratic elites might not have been ruling the biggest men in the country anymore, but in their own territory they were still all-powerful. And they had no reason to think they’d need to change.

            Not quite the same thing for the Northern Democratic faction, but, well, that’s the faction where the notion of adapting to modern times ended up making a lot more headway.

  • Woodrowfan

    Al was a fascinating character. Took his life in his hands in Oklahoma City in 1928 denouncing the Klan (which effectively ran that state). I have a small bust of him I keep on a shelf with books on Prohibition. I keep it away from my bust of FDR, just on general principal :)

    • Bruce Vail

      A bust of Al Smith.

      Now I know what to get my history student son for Christmas.

  • ThrottleJockey

    Off topic: Damn did Kaine wipe the floor with Pence. Absolutely demolished him. Pence was punch drunk by the end #AssWhupping. # NoMasNoMas.

    • LosGatosCA

      Any graduate of Norwood University could have told you that was coming.

      ETA – I wonder if Yglesias will retract his retraction of his observation that Pence is dumb as a post.

      • LosGatosCA

        CNN instant poll calls it closely for Pence – they (the poll respondents) thought he over performed expectations and Kaine underperformed.

        • Murc

          … even if true, irrelevant. Or should be.

          Christ, people are dumb.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Even before the opening bell Pence looked to me like a smarmy, smug televangelist. I kept waiting for him to cry out like Jimmy Swaggert, “Please forgive me, I’ve sinned!”

        • Warren Terra

          I heard of 2 focus groups:

          For CBS, Frank Luntz had 25 (26?) “Undecided Ohio voters” (you will be shocked that some of them were not especially undecided). Essentially all of them thought Pence did better. On the other hand, the debate moved none of them towards supporting Trump.

          CNN had (I hear second-hand through Twitter or blog comments) a focus group of Virginia voters (so, local to the debate, but also with decades of exposure to Tim Kaine); they apparently liked Kaine more.

      • Murc

        He shouldn’t, because Pence played the debate as smart as it was possible to play it.

        That doesn’t mean he did well, because Kaine hung Trump around his neck every chance he got and you could be Daniel Webster and have no earthly way of convincingly talking your way out of that. But compared to his boss it was night and day; Pence rarely got rattled, he ignored questions he found inconvenient to answer, and attacked Kaine with such meager weapons as were available to him.

        That doesn’t mean Pence didn’t get the shit kicked out of him. He did, especially substantively. But he did about as well as anyone in his position could have, which means he can’t be a total dummy.

        • Sly

          I honestly didn’t predict that Pence would be the one on the Republican ticket to benefit from woefully diminished debate expectations.

      • Warren Terra

        I wonder if Yglesias will retract his retraction of his observation that Pence is dumb as a post.

        Yggy retracted that months ago, essentially saying that he was young and naive when he described Pence as being unusually stupid, and has since come to realize that most Congresspeople are no smarter than Pence; also, that the benchmarks he was using for intelligence (honesty, interest in and knowledge about the policies they were voting on) turn out not to be prized on Capitol Hill.

    • bender

      The post debate coverage on MSNBC gave it to Pence on points, but said that Pence gave the Democrats a lot of damning clips to use in attack ads.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Its funny because after Kaine’s first interruption of Pence I looked over and said to pop, “Meh, he shouldn’t have done that.” (Marquess of Queensbury Rules)…And its true that he interrupted Pence too much, and in fact, interrupted so much that he prevented the moderator* from better making points that he was attempting to make with his interruption. That said, I thought on the whole he came across as articulate, likable, decisive, authentic, and knowledgeable–the 5 key traits you want in a future president.

        People here know I hated him as Hill’s pick. I can see why she picked him now. Good choice. I emerged a fan.

        *btw, hat’s off to Elaine Quijano. I thought she did a fantastic job of managing the 2 boys, far better and more assertive than Lester Holt had been.

    • Pence lied with a gentle grin and unworried brow, and he also refused to defend the actual Donald Trump. This might have been a win on “style”, whatever the hell that means, but it was one empty of any actual meaning.

    • Warren Terra

      I think Pence had the more effective style and Kaine did an abysmal job of explaining or defending any policy ideas, even though he had the facts on his side. His attacks on Pence directly often failed to land with any effect, because of Pence’s cheerfully dismissive demeanor.

      On the other hand: Kaine was very effective in attacking Trump, even if the attacks were often obviously scripted. And his transitioning to pointing out that Pence was unable or unwilling to defend Trump will have left a mark.

      Basically, I think Kaine really didn’t help himself at all, while Pence helped himself significantly. On the other hand, there’s very little evidence a veep nominee can help the ticket by looking good (they can hurt it by looking bad), so even though Kaine didn’t help himself he probably did help the ticket, by hurting Trump. Assuming this was deliberate, that was a brave choice. I’ve seen this described as Kaine trying to help Clinton in 2016, while Pence was trying to boost Pence in 2020. Trump will have seen that same interpretation, which could inspire an entertaining reaction.

      Also: I’ve said Pence had the more effective style, that he was smoother and connected better most of the time – but he also lied his ass off, about specific things and in ways that can be demonstrated using brief video clips. Some web ads are already pointing this out, and it gives a new twist with which to hammer home how crazy some of Trump’s ideas are. This will also matter because all those lies give the pundits something to talk about until Sunday’s debate.

      PS I was amazed and appalled that Pence resurrected the “fewer ships than in 1916” line. We have fewer ships, but we have a lot more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. We have 80% of the world’s naval tonnage, and our very closest allies have a majority of the remainder. We face no national-security issues for which any significant part of the answer is More Ships (Different Ships, maybe; I’ll leave that to the experts).

      • JonH

        ” I was amazed and appalled that Pence resurrected the “fewer ships than in 1916” line. We have fewer ships, but we have a lot more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.”

        We also have force projection capabilities that come from long-range bombers, which can get on target long before a boat can.

        • We also have force projection capabilities that come from long-range bombers, which can get on target long before a boat can.

          Time for ultrasonic hydrofoils!!!

  • Bruce Vail

    Mencken is always a fun read.

    Stay away from the 1948 election though. He had become a viscous old crank by that time of life and was a serious supporter of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’ve always thought they should move Smith’s grave to Manhattan and have a nice memorial in Union Square. Or in an Irish bar on Third Ave.

  • JonH

    Interesting that he and his wife died just months apart.

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