Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany Hall
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2002-2013, All Rights Reserved)
For recently elected Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man with Presidential ambitions himself who had held Tammany Hall at arm's length throughout his career but knew well the value of powerful allies, the hearings offered both a chance to divorce himself from Tammany's excess in the public eye and a political mine field that could result in his losing the Democratic nomination in 1932.3 And for Tammany Hall, the institution that dated back to the American Revolution and that had wielded tremendous political power in New York State since the Civil War, the Seabury investigations would prove a fatal blow, partly because of what Judge Seabury's investigative task force unearthed and partly because of the political choices Tammany men made as a result.4
And yet, there is another man at the center of this story who historically has been overlooked -- former New York Governor and 1928 Democratic Presidential nominee Alfred E. Smith. Both a renowned reformer and a product of Tammany himself, Al Smith's political career embodied the tensions between urban reform and ethnic political machines that lay at the center of the Seabury hearings. In addition, Smith enjoyed long relationships with, and was respected by, almost every one of the key players in the Seabury saga.
To many, Al Smith was a Tammany man through and through. Indeed, it is safe to say that Smith owed almost his entire political career to famed Tammany mastermind Charles Francis Murphy, who plucked him from the organization's city ranks to mold him into a state legislator, Governor, and eventually a Democratic presidential candidate. As Al Smith's Tammany Hall: Champion Political Vampire, a widely circulated anti-Smith polemic of the 1928 election, put it, Tammany was "an organization which fathered [Smith], which counted him among its sachems, and which on occasion turned somersaults at his behest, although at other times inducing or coercing him to keep hands off or even to help Tammany policies which he personally opposed."5 Historians haven't been much kinder in this regard. Even Paula Eldot's book Governor Al Smith: The Politician as Reformer, which argues in favor of Smith's considerable record in the realm of urban reform, is forced to concede that Smith "was not receptive to progressivism when it threatened the political machine. In case of conflict between the two, loyalty to the party stood higher in his scale of values."6
Moreover, it is hard to argue that Smith had lost any of his connection to Tammany by the time of the Seabury hearings. Al Smith had always been a mentor of sorts to Jimmy Walker, whom he had known since his early days in Tammany, had served with in Albany and had helped choose to run for Mayor in 1925. Indeed, the New York Times declared upon Walker's victory that although "the name of Alfred Smith appeared on no ballot...his was the chief influence" in Walker's election.7 For another, although Tammany's boss in 1932, John Curry, was a long-time rival of Smith's, his "cleaner" predecessor George Olvany was also considered by all a Smith man.8
Perhaps most importantly, Smith was still Tammany's main horse in the national arena, and they stood by him throughout his failed bid for the Presidency in 1932. In fact, it was Mayor Walker who announced Tammany's support of Al Smith over Franklin Roosevelt at the 1932 Democratic convention, an announcement greeted by Smith with an enthusiastic "Good old Jim! Blood is thicker than water!"9 Of course, this support carried a significant price -- public smiles for Tammany and public silence on the matter of the Seabury hearings. As the New York Times noted of a "Tammany on the warpath" campaign opening in 1931, Smith, "easily the central figure at the big rally":
made a speech in which he warmly praised Tammany's candidates for office [and] pleaded for the election of a Democratic assembly, one of the great objectives of Tammany Hall in this campaign; aimed in part at an effort to get rid of the Hofstadter committee when the Legislature meets next year. To the surprise of many persons in the audience ex-Governor Smith devoted a considerable part of his address to an explanation of the six constitutional amendments to be voted on at the general election in November. There was a feeling somehow that Mr. Smith devoted so much time to these to escape discussion of topics that might be a great deal closer to the heart of Tammany at this particular juncture.10Yet, despite these innumerable and unavoidable ties to the Tammany Tiger, Smith was widely regarded, even by his political opponents and even during these years of intense scrutiny into the workings of the political machine, to be a true standard bearer for reform. Newspaper reports and editorials often went to great lengths to distinguish between "Al Smith's Tammany" and the Tammany under fire, as in the Times article on Walker's resignation which declared that "the new Tammany, the Tammany of George Olvany and Al Smith, the Tammany which perceives that after all its best bet is a clean administration by a bright young man" was all-too-quickly discarded by the "old-timers."11
Indeed, even the Tiger's tamer admired Smith to some extent. Over a decade earlier, when Samuel Seabury had been the lone Democratic dissenter in a Tammany-controlled conference to nominate Al Smith as Governor, the future chief inquisitor of the Hofstadter committee noted that Smith was "a man of fine character, strong intellect, and unquestioned loyalty" and a candidate "far superior to the present Governor, both when it comes to character and capability." He summed up by noting "Smith is the best representative of the worst element in the Democratic party in this state."12
And Seabury was not alone in this grudging admiration. Prior to entering the post-Walker mayoral race in 1933, Fiorello La Guardia was one of many New York area reformers who attempted to badger Al Smith into running (on a Republican ticket) for the sake of the city.13 And Republicans weren't the only ones clamoring for Smith's attention. "Should Mr. Smith give his consent and personal encouragement," remarked the Evening Post in 1932, "civic leaders and independent groups of citizens now engaged in the Fusion movement would be only too willing to accept him as their candidate." In sum, they concluded, despite his recent loss to Roosevelt, "[f]ormer Governor Alfred E. Smith today was regarded as a man who, if he wished, could be elected mayor of New York next fall."14
2. Herbert Mitgang, Once Upon a Time in New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 226.
3. New York Times, 3 July 1932, p. 10.
4. Oliver E. Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall. (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 252-253.
5. William Allen, Al Smith's Tammany Hall: Champion Political Vampire (New York: Institute for Public Service, 1928), 156.
6. Paula Eldot. Governor Alfred E. Smith - The Politician as Reformer (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983), 5.
7. Robert A. Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 224.
8. Allen, Oliver, 235.
9. Mitgang, Once Upon a Time, 164.
10. New York Times, 15 October 1931, p. 1.
11. New York Evening Post, 2 September, 1932, p. 3.
12. New York Times, 25 July, 1918, p. 1.
13. New York Times, 11 May, 1933, p. 1
14. New York Evening Post, 2 December, 1932, p. 3.