Alfred Emanuel "Al" Smith (1873-1944)

Alfred E. Smith was the dominant Democratic politician in New York State during the years when FDR and ER emerged as political leaders. Although Smith grew up in relative comfort on the Lower East Side, he quit school and began work at the age of fourteen, after his father's death. In his political career, he emphasized his lowly beginnings, identified himself with immigrants, and campaigned as a man of the people. Although indebted to the Tammany Hall political machine for his entry into politics and for its ongoing support, he remained untarnished by corruption and worked for the passage of progressive legislation. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1903 and his oratorical gifts and skill at drafting legislation helped him become the majority leader. When he served as vice-chairman of the commission appointed to investigate factory conditions after the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, he became acutely aware of the dangerous and unhealthy conditions under which many laborers worked and championed legislation to protect workers.

After serving as sheriff of New York County for several years beginning in 1915, Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918. He lost the election of 1920 in the Republican landslide of that year, but was re-elected governor in 1922 and served three more terms. As governor, he became known nationally as a progressive who sought to make government more efficient and more effective in meeting social needs. Under his leadership, New York strengthened laws governing workmen's compensation, women's pensions, and child and women's labor, issues ER's also fervently supported. In 1924, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president and FDR made the nominating speech in which he called Smith "the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield." ER, impressed with Smith's politics and his down-to-earth manner, threw herself into the 1924 election, and followed Smith's rival, her cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., around in a car with a steaming teapot on its roof to remind voters of the Teapot Dome scandal.

Smith finally secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. He then asked, with ER's help, FDR to run for governor of New York, believing that FDR would help him carry the state. ER worked even harder for Smith in 1928 than she did in 1924. She wrote articles praising his candidacy for popular journals and directed women's activities for the Democratic National Committee. Smith lost his bid for the presidency, partly because of anti-Catholic sentiment, but FDR won. During FDR's governorship, Smith felt ignored. FDR did not consult him or appoint Smith's associates to his administration. They also became rivals for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. When FDR won and began pursuing the policies of the New Deal, Smith became even more bitter and disaffected. He became a leader of the Liberty League, a leading opponent of the New Deal, and supported the Republican presidential candidates, Alf Landon in 1936 and Wendell Wilkie in 1940, against FDR. ER, who always considered Smith a friend, tried to bridge the gap politics caused in their friendship by inviting Smith to stay in the White House when he came to Washington to attack the New Deal in 1936. Smith refused, sadly responding how political differences damaged good friendships. Smith died on October 4, 1944. ER went to his funeral.


Black, Allida. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 12-18.

Graham, Otis L., Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander. Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, 387-388.