Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith was an American politician who served as the Governor of New York for four times and became the first ever Catholic nominee for President. He was a very popular Governor and is credited to have brought about a wide range of reforms during the 1920s. He was a strong opponent of Prohibition and found loyal supporters in the citizens who themselves were against Prohibition. He hailed from a humble family and had struggled much through life. This enabled him to connect with the plight of the common working-class people and he strived to work towards their betterment by implementing reformatory policies while he was the governor. His story is a typical rags-to-riches tale. After losing his father as a teenager, he worked as a newsboy and a fishmonger for years before he could enter the world of politics. Blessed with a charismatic personality and powerful oratory skills, he soon worked up his way to become the Governor of New York. His successful stint as the governor endeared him to the people and he was re-elected to the post three more times. He was an ambitious man and had lofty dreams, however, he could not achieve his dream of becoming the President in spite of being a much loved and respected figure in American politics.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on December 30, 1873, in Manhattan to Alfred Emanuele Ferraro (who later took the name Alfred E. Smith) and his wife Catherine Mulvihill. He was of mixed descent though he identified most with the Irish American community.
His father, a Civil War veteran who owned a small trucking firm, died when Alfred was just 13. The young boy who was then studying at St. James school dropped out to support his family.
He found work as a fishmonger at the Fulton Fish Market. He never went to high school or college and was a self-learned man.
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He always had a keen interest in politics and his career in this field was launched in 1895 when Tammany Hall, the New York City Democratic political organization, made him an investigator in the office of the city commissioner of jurors.
From 1904 to 1915 he served as a member of the New York State Assembly. He had begun to gain reputation as a persuasive speaker during his work with Tammany Hall and polished his oratory skills even more as a member of the New York State Assembly.
In 1911, several workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a commission was set up to investigate the factory conditions in which Smith served as vice chairman. He advocated corrective legislation and protested against dangerous factory practices.
He was elected Sheriff of New York County in November 1915 due to his popularity and he led the Progressive movement in New York City and state.
In 1917, he was elected President of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York and in 1918 he was elected as the Governor of New York.
He lost the re-elections in 1920 but emerged successful in the following New York state election in 1922. He went on to win the elections in 1924 and 1926 as well, establishing his popularity as a politician.
As a governor he became a much respected figure who implemented progressive measures to make the government more efficient in meeting the needs of the society.
Several laws including the ones governing the workers’ compensation and women’s pensions were strengthened during his term. His tenure came to an end in 1928 when he lost the re-election.
His name was proposed for nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate by fellow Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, in 1924. However, the nomination eventually went to John W. Davis who then lost the election to the Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge.
In 1928, he was nominated as the Democrat candidate for the Presidential election. However, the fact that he was Roman Catholic and of Irish origin did not find favor with the electorate, and he lost the election to the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover.
He became the president of Empire State, Inc. in 1928. The company built and operated the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest skyscraper during those days.
In 1929, he was elected as President of the Board of Trustees of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University.
He returned to politics in 1938 as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Albany, and once again became one of the convention’s leading figures with his experience and made significant contributions to the provision for housing.
Personal Life & Legacy
Al Smith married his childhood sweetheart Catherine Ann Dnn in 1900. The couple had five children—two daughters and three sons. Smith remained deeply in love with his wife till the very end.
He was a leading layman of the Roman Catholic Church and was honored by appointment as a Knight of St. Gregory and a Papal Chamberlain in 1938.
His wife became ill with cancer and died in May 1944. Devastated by the loss of his life partner, his health began to deteriorate. He died of a heart attack on October 4, 1944, just five months after the death of his beloved wife.