In Ages Past
"Rabble? That's Me!": Alfred E. Smith
He liked to say he "grew up with the Brooklyn Bridge" on the Lower East Side. As the first Catholic to run for president on a major party ticket, Al Smith's was the classic rags to riches story. It began in gaslight era New York, when Trinity Church was the city's tallest building, and ended in the Empire State Building. Rising from clerk to CEO, Al Smith always considered himself an Irish Catholic kid from the Fourth Ward. He believed it was the best place in the world to grow up, a diverse community where everyone knew and looked out for each another.
An icon of Irish America, Smith was also Italian and German. For his family, the neighborhood's centerpoint was St. James Church, founded fifty years earlier by Felix Varela. From cradle to grave, St. James met every need: religious, educational, and social. Although Al left the parish school early (after his father's death), he was active in the theater group, learning public speaking techniques that served him well in politics.
These were the days of Tammany Hall, the political machine that dominated New York for a century. Although popularly associated with forces of corruption, by Smith's time it was embracing reform. As a young man, Smith would work his way up from the Fulton Street Fish Market through minor offices into the State Assembly. Although his formal education was limited, he committed himself to learning the art of lawmaking, and he succeeded.
The Triangle Fire of 1911, in which 146 factory workers died, marked a turning point for Smith: from politician to advocate. As part of the investigative commission, what he saw changed his life: single mothers working 120 hours a week and children working eighteen hours a day. When one child was asked how long she had been working, she answered "Ever since I was." Among other things, the commission helped ban child labor under fourteen, made sprinklers mandatory in factories, and required seats for all, irrespective of gender or color.
Imbued with what one biographer calls "common sense and a belief in decency," Smith became an identifiable public figure, with his brown derby and cigar, his ability to captivate a crowd, and what a peer called "his 100 percent frankness." A biographer notes that "the stage was his to command." A friend said that "vitality goes out from him like a flood." From the assembly he aspired to the governorship. Beginning in 1918, he served four terms. Here he came into his own politically, as a champion of the common man and woman.
As governor, he fought against discrimination, for workers' rights, and for decent housing. When a colleague complained about "rabble" moving into his community, Smith replied: "Rabble? That's me you're talking about." By 1924, he was emerging as a national leader in the Democratic Party during a Republican-dominated decade. (Taking credit for the era's prosperity, Republicans promised a "chicken in every pot.") Although Prohibition was the law of the land, Smith supported its repeal. And he unsuccessfully fought to have the Ku Klux Klan outlawed.
Anti-Catholicism was sweeping the nation at a level unseen since the days of the Know-Nothings. Oregon attempted to ban Catholic schools. Florida's governor warned of a Vatican takeover, and the Klan spread nationwide, stressing the Catholic "menace" to America. (At its height, national membership reached five million.) But nothing typified the era's religious hostility like the 1928 presidential campaign, when Alfred E. Smith dared run for the nation's highest office.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.