Biography

Born on December 30, 1873, Alfred Emanuel Smith was destined to become a "man for the people." His childhood playground, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, taught him much about diversity inasmuch as its population combined the immigrant cultures of the Irish, Germans, French, Polish, Italians, and Spaniards - to name but a few.

During his formative years, Governor Smith attended the local parish school of Saint James, which had the reputation of being one of the best elementary schools in the city. Additionally, by 1882, an orphanage and an industrial school to feed and teach orphans and homeless children had been built in connection with Saint James School.

Unfortunately, the Governor's education was interrupted by the untimely death of his father.

At thirteen, the young boy found himself forced to work a series of jobs in order to support his family, the most famous of which was his seven year stint at the Fulton Fish Market.

One of the early loves of Governor Smith's life was the theatre, and his experiences in theatre did much to enhance his later political career. Ultimately, the Governor abandoned his thoughts of a theatrical career and, in 1900, married his beloved wife, Catherine Dunn. The two would have five children - Alfred Jr., Emily, Catherine, Arthur, and Walter.

Governor Smith's career in politics began in 1895, with an appointment on the basis of a recommendation from a friend in Tammany Hall, as an investigator in the Office of the City Commissioner of Jurors. When he was elected to the State Assembly in 1903, he quickly proved himself to be a skilled politician and an influential reformer. Service on a 1911 commission to investigate factory conditions and as a 1915 delegate to the State Constitutional Revision Committee further expanded Governor Smith's vision. The Governor's political career began to truly flourish, however, with his 1915 Tammany Hall appointment as Sheriff of New York County and his 1917 election as President of the Board of Aldermen of Greater New York.

In 1918, to the surprise of many, he was elected Governor of the State of New York. Although he lost the 1920 election, he ran successfully again in 1922, 1924, and 1926 - making him one of three New York State Governors to be elected to four terms. While Governor, he achieved the passage of extensive reform legislation, including improved factory laws, better housing requirements, and expanded welfare services. Additionally, he reorganized the State government into a consolidated and business-like structure.

Governor Smith won the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States in 1928. During his campaign he continued to champion the cause of urban residents.

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Reading List

There is a considerable body of literature about Al Smith's life and political career, which is rather remarkable for a man who did not rise above the governorship of a state. A good place to begin is with Smith's own words. His autobiography, Up to Now (Viking, 1929), unfortunately concludes with the 1928 presidential election. Several years later he published observations on government and governing in The Citizen and His Government (Harper, 1935). In addition, there are collections of Smith's addresses and state papers as governor of New York, Progressive Democracy (Harcourt, Brace, 1928), and of his speeches during the 1928 presidential campaign, Campaign Addresses (Democratic National Committee, 1929). Using these sources but also others, Richard M. Lynch published an anthology of excerpts from Smith's speeches and writings entitled Alfred E. Smith (Vantage, 1966).

There are three biographies dating from the 1920s: Henry Moskowitz, Alfred E. Smith (Thomas Seltzer, 1924); Norman Hapgood and Henry Moskowitz, Up From the City Streets (Harcourt, Brace, 1927); and Henry F. Pringle, Alfred E. Smith (Macy-Masius, 1927). The first two were preconvention campaign biographies, though they are not without valuable information. Pringle's book is more interpretive and penetrating. The next biography did not appear until after Smith's death in 1944. This was Frank Graham, Al Smith (Putnam, 1945).

The next quarter-century brought several important works on Al Smith. The first was Emily Smith Warner's The Happy Warrior (Doubleday, 1956), a sympathetic and revealing biography by a daughter who knew her father as no one else did. Soon thereafter came the first scholarly biography, Oscar Handlin's Al Smith and His America (Little, Brown, 1958), which adroitly placed Smith in the urban, ethnic context of his era. Also worth reading is A Tribute to Governor Smith (Simon and Schuster, 1962), a brief but insightful memoir by one of Smith's closest associates, Robert Moses. These publications were followed by Matthew and Hannah Josephson, Al Smith: Hero of the Cities (Houghton Mifflin, 1969), which is strongest in dealing with Smith's earlier years, and by Richard O'Connor, The First Hurrah (Putnam, 1970).

In 1983, Garland published two valuable and complementary academic studies of Smith's political career: Paula Eldot's Governor Alfred E. Smith and Donn C. Neal's The World Beyond the Hudson: Alfred E. Smith and National Politics. More recent biographies include Empire Statesman (Free Press, 2001) by Robert A. Slayton and Alfred E. Smith (Hill and Wang, 2002) by Christopher M. Finan, each of which has its virtues.

Other sources for those seeking a comprehensive understanding of Al Smith and his times would include the memoirs of and scholarship about his closest associates (e.g., Belle Moskowitz, Joseph M. Proskauer, Robert Moses, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Charles Murphy), studies of the 1928 presidential election (principally Edmund A. Moore's A Catholic Runs for President and Allan J. Lichtman's more sophisticated Prejudice and the Old Politics), and the numerous dissertations on aspects of Smith's life and political career.

— Donn Neal

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