Why did Al Smith become such a vocal and public critic of the FDR administration?

Many historians, particularly those on the political left, tend to become confused over Al Smith. The ‘Lincoln of the tenements’, four times Governor of New York and a reformer who was personally transformed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the consensus more or less goes, was simply bitter when he reacted against FDR’s New Deal in 1934. His rich friends in the Liberty League somehow corrupted him. Al Sold out. These underlying explanations of motive are not in fact explanations at all, but rather attempts to ‘retro-fit’ Smith’s class, background and views to the assumption that the New Deal was universally supported within the progressive centre and on the left.

Though complex, Smith was in fact more consistent in his political perspective than many writers have allowed for. Smith had been a leader of the Progressive movement, and had roots in the lower East Side. He was working class, and was not a university man. He arose in the early twentieth century. His career had been marked by obstacles created by the division of his own side and its distance from business, both of which he sought to change after 1924. Smith was also a man who prized loyalty, in relatively gender-free ways; Belle Moskowitz and Frances Perkins were as much the objects of his friendship and political help as Jacob Raskob and, initially, Franklin Roosevelt.

These factors are more than descriptive. The Progressive movement, for instance, was cross-party and technocratic but it was very far from collectivist or Keynesian. Progressives had core values which they supported in a variety of combinations. One of these was that government should be made local, democratic, and efficient. This can be seen in the way in which progressivism in California or New England involved the appointment of city managers, the consolidation of local democratic powers and initiatives, and the extension of the principle of election to most offices. Progressives also believed in regulation, but only to correct or to enhance the market, not because they had an idea of market failure or of government stimulation of demand.

So, for instance, when FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act paid large farmers to take land out of circulation, and displaced sharecroppers, the creation of a vast mass of (black) unemployed appalled many Progressives. Some progressives had been keener on better race relations than others—Woodrow Wilson, for instance, who co-opted the title, segregated the federal government—but Al Smith, and Herbert Hoover, were on record as opposing the intersection of legalised violence and racism that undermined black people in the South. Indeed, opposition to lynching was the principal reason that Smith failed to gain the Democratic nomination in 1924. FDR, as scholars are now beginning to realise, in essence validated Southern racism in return for congressional cooperation during the New Deal.

By 1934, Progressives could also point to the simple fact that the New Deal had created makework jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps, but displaced farmers via the AAA and failed to provide jobs for more than ten million people (20% of the workforce). The New Deal had also removed America from the gold standard, which many, including Al Smith, believed would guarantee future inflation and borrowing. As Bruce Jansson pointed out in 2001, the New Deal marked the beginning of seventy years during which the federal government would spend over $50 trillion and federal spending as a proportion of GDP would triple whilst the purchasing power of the dollar would decline. FDR’s solution to the breakdown of 1927-33 was to take federal spending up from 8% of GDP, (some $4 billion) via off-budget ‘emergency spending’ whilst at the same time cutting benefits for veterans, borrowing, demanding lump sums from Congress for spending before costings had taken place, and lying about deficits. Corporate revenues and resources, contrary to FDR’s rhetoric, were largely untouched by the Roosevelt administration, whilst state and local bureaucracies and conservation projects outside of the federal government’s spending were slashed. To Smith, as to others of slightly different progressive backgrounds (like, for instance, Herbert Hoover, or Smith’s young aide Robert Moses) this inefficient sleight-of-hand must have been appalling.

It is not enough to note that things worked out by the end of the FDR administration in 1945. Had the nineteen thirties not seen a massive transfer of European resources via gold shipments to America and an eventual rearmament, FDR’s byzantine and duplicitous mixture of alphabet soup agencies (Smith’s words) and contradictory policies could well have resulted in inflation and economic collapse. As it was, the ‘depression’ in terms of unemployment was not solved until 1941, and a second 1937 ‘Roosevelt recession’ followed on the failure of both the 100 days and the second new deal of 1935. This second New Deal created Social Security—a generational transfer of wealth from individuals who were forced to save to government coffers, where the funds were used for spending and as collateral for more borrowing at the same time.

Smith’s New York administration before 1928 had not engaged in such policies. In fact, Smith had made an effort to balance budgets, and to create clear lines between efficient government and the voluntary sector, which was almost wiped out during the New Deal. This was in part a consequence of Smith’s tendency to work with and to promote exceptionally talented women who had emerged through the sector, such as Mary Dewson, Florence Kelley, Belle Moskowitz, and Frances Perkins. In this, Smith revealed early differences with the later New Deal; the women, such as Perkins (who went on to be the first female Cabinet minister and to create the federal social security programme) tended to want to go further than Smith did in New York, whilst realising that he was constrained by both his beliefs about the limits of government and by political limitations.

The existence of the Tammany machine, which nurtured Smith, for instance, made it difficult to reorganise or deploy ‘government’ except as a blunt weapon in New York, and Smith was also close to senior Wall Street figures. It is not so much that Jacob Raskob bought Smith’s loyalty with donations to his campaign for president in 1928, as that Smith charmed him into spending and then felt loyal to him as a friend in a very Irish way. The Liberty League, which Smith joined in 1934 and became a spokesman of, was a little like that; a mixture of former Smith enemies like William Gibbs McAdoo, whose rivalry had blocked him in 1924, and William Randolph Hearst, whom Smith had decried in 1919. In part, they represented a coalition of men who had come together after enmity, and who reacted against the administration’s divisive rhetoric. Perhaps Smith hoped to bring FDR ‘back’ or to use the league as a vehicle to replace him either with himself or Joe Kennedy in 1940. It certainly wasn’t personal, since Smith was throughout in warm communication with Eleanor Roosevelt, to the point where she invited him to stay at the White House in 1936 before a scheduled anti-FDR speech.

Albert Fried, in his survey FDR and His Enemies, also does Smith the credit of placing his reaction against Roosevelt in the context of Roosevelt’s other enemies, most of whom Smith was not associated with. America in the 1930s was in ferment. By 1934, Lorena Hicock, the Chief Investigator of the Federal Emergency Relief Organisation and a woman on intimate terms with the First Lady, was privately wondering if America should not seek to be a fascist state in the face of persistent unemployment. Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth programme, Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic Social Justice perspectives, the radicalisim of the LaFollettes and Talmadges, Communism, Lindbergh-style fascism, and Upton Sinclair’s big government proposals were all running together in the political air.

Smith saw this as a consequence of FDR’s failure to set a clear course on traditional lines out of the depression, and indeed condemned FDR’s tendency to tack towards extremists. Smith was famously for ‘gold dollars not baloney dollars’, against the confiscation of gold and silver and against what he (and the Supreme Court) seemed to view as unconstitutional demagoguery. In 1935, Smith famously counterpoised Marx, Lenin and (implicitly) FDR against Jackson and Cleveland, in whose tradition he argued he stood. America had been through recessions before; the solution, Smith thought, was efficiency, balanced budgets, hard money, and creative destruction with government coordination of private and public relief efforts.

So it is therefore wrong to see Al Smith’s objections to the Roosevelt administration as unprincipled. At the same time, however, it makes sense to put Smith in a personal context. This is not just that of the man who was nominated by FDR as the ‘Happy Warrior, and to whom FDR owed his elevation (a fact FDR, not being Irish, treated with non-Irish disloyalty in Smith’s mind). Smith’s university had been the Fulton Fish market, and the backgrounds of those with whom he worked most closely—such as Belle Moskowitz, for instance—were similarly humble ones. It is perhaps revealing that Smith could work with the duPonts, Morgans, Raskobs, Sloans and Pews when accepted on his own terms, but reacted against what he saw as the condescension of the Massachusetts Perkins or the patrician FDR. Smith’s New York, as at many times in its history, was a largely working-class or classless City-State surrounded and occasionally colonised by Upstate people of aristocratic pretensions.

To be accused, because he put himself in the position to be accused by 1936, of working with exactly those upstate people, to the point of supporting the same individuals who may have supported the sort of fascist coup envisaged by Smedley Butler, must have been maddening. To have been out-campaigned, as the great ‘raddio’ campaigner reported to sing the paternoster whilst shaving with a cut-throat razor on moving campaign trains, must have been equally maddening. To have seen the likes of Charles Coughlin and Joe Kennedy brought into Roosevelt’s home on Hyde Park in 1935 in a ‘catholic rebuke’ to Smith, the first serious Catholic nominee for president, and to see them assisted by former employees of his may well have driven anyone, however principled their opposition, over a personal edge.

Certainly a mixture of the private and the public would be required to explain Smith’s ultimate apostasy as a Tammany Democrat in endorsing Alf Landon nationally in 1936. Ticket-switching was not so unusual in New York itself—John Hughes, the great Irish archbishop who organised the Catholic schools there, had admired Henry Clay and William Seward clear over Tammany, for instance. Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsay in the future were not really of any fixed political abode (LaGuardia was a Republican, in fact). Nathan Miller, who punctuated Smith’s terms as Governor with one of his own, was a Republican and eventual Catholic, and a colleague of Smith’s in the Liberty League. The unusual thing was to take arguments out of what Joe Kennedy would later call the ‘byzantine morass’ into the national sphere.

Given what Smith believed the stakes to be, it was perhaps understandable that he did so, but nevertheless a little sad. In 1924, FDR himself had used Wordsworth’s ‘Happy Warrior’ to attempt the nomination of Smith at the Democratic Convention in New York City itself. After 103 ballots, Smith’s effort failed. From 1929, on, Wordworth’s Happy Warrior became that of Sir Herbert Read instead; a strained, aching man who could not shriek, stabbing again and again at a well-killed and by now pointless target.