December 30, 2021

AMERICA’S FIRST ROMAN CATHOLIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: On this day in 1873, Al Smith was born in a tenement on New York’s Lower East Side. His father was Italian American and his mother Irish American. The name “Smith” was an English translation of his immigrant grandfather’s surname “Ferraro.”

Smith’s father—a truck driver—died when Smith was about six years old. His widowed and impoverished mother did what widowed and impoverished mothers often did in those days: She opened a candy store. Out of that, she managed to eke out a living for herself and her children.

Smith was a proud graduate of Groton and of Harvard. No, wait … I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.  Smith attended local parochial schools until he was about 13. After that, it was the School of Hard Knocks. The story is told that while Smith was serving in the New York Legislature, a member rose to announce that his alma mater, Cornell, has just won some sporting event. That started other members to rise to announce and praise their alma mater. When it got to Smith, he declared:

“I am a graduate of F.F.M.”

“What college is that?”

“Fulton Fish Market.”

And it was true. At the age that wealthy young men were attending college, Smith had been working 12-hour shifts at the fish market, starting at 4:00 a.m. each morning.

Smith’s strong work ethic, attention to detail, sense of humor and (perhaps most important) his reputation for candor, all helped propel him into the New York Governor’s mansion.

But those qualities weren’t enough to defeat Herbert Hoover for the Presidency in 1928.   As the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee, Smith carried only Alabama,

Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Hoover got 58.2% of the popular vote to Smith’s 40.8%.  It was a landslide.

Probably nothing would have given the Democrats the White House in 1928. With the Republicans in charge, the economy was doing gangbusters (or at least so it seemed). But Smith also had the impediment of being Roman Catholic. Some of the anti-Catholic sentiment expressed at the time would be enough to make your hair curl.

Still, Smith’s campaign was likely important in helping to re-align Northern blue collar “ethnic” voters with the Democratic Party. While in recent decades the GOP is proving more and more adept at peeling those voters away, the 1928 election started what for decades was a Democratic lock on them.

It’s easy to see Hoover as Smith’s primary nemesis. But his most memorable rivalry was with FDR (who did attend Groton and Harvard). Some say this rivalry was just personal; Smith thought Roosevelt looked down on him. Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that the best way for FDR to dismiss Smith’s criticisms would have been to argue that Smith was motivated by personal animosity.

Instead, Smith at least purported to be alarmed at the New Deal’s infringements on personal liberty.   Since I’m pretty sure I would have been alarmed too, it’s hard for me to simply assume that alarm was feigned. Maybe, just maybe, he really thought the New Deal was a bad deal. As the son of a mother who ran a little store, he had a little something in common with Milton Friedman, whose mother also ran such a store. Is it too hard to believe that Smith had a better sense of the importance of free enterprise than FDR did?

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