America’s First Catholic Presidential Candidate

Al Smith was Governor of New York before his nomination for President in 1928, but his path to fame was less distinguished, as he rose up through the ranks of Tammany Hall. Starting out working with the pier workers on the docks of New York City, one of the major bases of Tammany’s political machine, Smith was fully a part of the organization which regularly took bribes from immigrants in exchange for citizenship, and packed the votes of many elections to ensure that their candidates won the elections. Before the Great Depression started in 1929. political machines were the source of support for people in need of economic help, as the Federal Government was not involved in welfare, unemployment insurance or any other benefits we have grown so used to.  Smith appealed to the urban immigrants as a source of political support while campaigning for President, but he lost to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover in an election where the nation was still high on the economic boom of the 1920s. Smith was especially unique in his rebellion against Prohibition, and people knew he longed for the good old days when people could quaff beers in the saloon with impunity. Franklin Delano Roosevelt handily won the election in 1932, successfully marshaling the urban political coalition that Smith had started to organize. When Roosevelt began to Federalize aid for the needy with his New Deal program, however, Smith rebelled, feeling that such aid should stay local so that it could be more personal and less wasteful.  Perhaps he felt that Tammany Hall was not all bad, as it did more for people than pack the vote. Smith’s sympathies in this regard were not in  line with the trends of the 20th century, however, as the Federal Government established scores of programs under the Democratic Party to help the needy. In some ways, Smith’s political positions were part of the ethics of a bygone age.   

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