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Alfred E. Smith

Governor of New York

Alfred Emanuel Smith

Alfred Emanuel Smith was born to Alfred Emanuel and Catherine Mulvihill Smith in Brooklyn, New York, on December 30, 1873. He attended St. James Parochial School until the age of 12, when the death of his father forced him to drop out and go to work to help his mother support the family. His first job was with the oil firm of Clarkson & Ford, after which he spent seven years at the Fulton Fish Market.

Smith began his political career in 1894, when he supported an anti-Tammany Hall candidate in a local election. That candidate lost, but Smith was rewarded for his support with a political appointment as a clerk in the office of the Commissioner of Jurors in 1895.

On May 6, 1900, Smith married Catherine Dunn, with whom he had five children -- Alfred Jr., Emily, Catherine, Arthur, and Walter.

By 1903 Smith had mended fences with Tammany leaders, and he was elected to the New York Assembly that same year. In his first few years in the Assembly he had little to say, but he devoted himself to intensive study of the workings of the State government and was one of the very few in that body to actually read all 300 pages of the annual appropriations bill. His status in the Assembly began to rise when he and fellow Democrat Robert F. Wagner investigated labor conditions. In 1911 he was appointed vice chairman of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, which was formed soon after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 employees. He became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that same year, Democratic floor leader in 1912, and was elected Speaker of the New York House in 1913.

In 1915, Smith was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention, where he won plaudits from friends and foes alike. While that convention was in session, as a reward for his service, Tammany Hall leaders nominated Smith as their candidate for Sheriff of New York, a position he won with relative ease. In 1917, he was elected President of the New York City Board of Aldermen, in which position he served until resigning to run for Governor in 1918; he defeated incumbent Charles S. Whitman, who was running for a third time, in that election.

During Governor Smith's first administration the workmen's compensation law was amended to prohibit direct settlement between injured workmen and insurance companies, a defect alleged to have deprived many workers of adequate compensation for just claims. Important amendments to the agricultural and health laws were passed and a measure adopted authorizing the construction of the vehicular tunnel between New York and New Jersey. Smith also supported measures enacted by the Legislature ratifying the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, increasing the salaries of teachers and granting higher appropriations for caring for the insane and building more hospitals. He urged the extension of the labor laws to protect women in industry and the passage of health insurance legislation, including provision for maternity insurance, but without full success. He succeeded in having enacted legislation to curb rent profiteering. Smith sought a state referendum to determine whether the Legislature should ratify or reject the prohibition amendment, but the Legislature ratified it without heeding his proposal. A feature of his first administration was the enactment of a state income tax law to make up for the loss of revenue sustained by the state by the suppression of the liquor traffic. Defeated for re-election in 1920, Smith became chairman of the board of directors of the United States Trucking Corporation. He reclaimed the Governor's office in 1922, and was subsequently re-elected in 1924 and 1926.

In 1924, Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Smith's name into consideration for the Democratic presidential nomination. The convention became deadlocked, however, with Southern candidate William G. McAdoo receiving almost equal support, and the nomination eventually went to a compromise candidate, who subsequently lost the general election decisively to Calvin Coolidge. He was nominated by Roosevelt again in 1928, and this time got it easily on the first ballot, but he lost the general election by a big margin to Herbert Hoover.

Following his defeat in the 1928 presidential election, Smith became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation that built the Empire State Building. In 1929, he was elected President of the Board of Trustees of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University.

By 1932 Smith had had a falling out with then-New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt and he attempted to wrest the presidential nomination from him at the Democratic National Convention. His efforts were unsuccessful, however, and he ultimately backed Roosevelt's candidacy. That support was short-lived, however, as Smith became increasingly critical of the President's New Deal policies and, in 1934, he joined with other business leaders to form the American Liberty League, which published pamphlets and sponsored radio programs, arguing that the New Deal was destroying personal liberty. However, the league failed to gain support in the 1934 and 1936 elections and it rapidly declined in influence. The league was officially dissolved in 1940.

Smith was, in fact, so critical of Roosevelt's policies that he actively supported Republican presidential candidates in 1936 and 1940, but on May 29, 1941, he joined with two other Democratic Presidential nominees, John W. Davis and James M. Cox, in a nation-wide broadcast appealing for national unity behind the President's foreign policy. And, after the entry of the United States into World War II, Smith was untiring in his efforts in behalf of war bond campaigns and war charities.

Alfred Emanuel Smith died of a heart attack at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital in New York City on October 4, 1944, five months after the death of his wife from cancer, and is interred at Calvary Cemetery.


The Alfred E. Smith Foundation
United States History

See Also

New York
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Hoover
Empire State Building
World War II

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> 1901-1960 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on December 30, 2018.