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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