By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
New Deal Coming
Progressives and the Origins of the New Deal
III. The Sidewalks of Albany
In previous decades, urban progressives and ethnic political machines had almost invariably looked warily at one another. Smith, notes one of his biographers, Robert Slayton, "came from an era of polar choices: elite reformers who would handle the budget with integrity and honesty, but often ignored the needs of many of their constituents, or machine bosses, who approached the city's coffers as a starving man would a Roman bacchanal, but assiduously made sure that the poor and working classes were cared for. Al Smith pursued a third vision, and eventually realized it. In this version, administrative reform became the servant of social justice, because it permitted more money to be spent on the poor and fostered support for a fair and effective government." As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put in The Crisis of the Old Order, "Smith stood for a social welfare liberalism, indifferent to the concentration of wealth, uninterested in basic change, but concerned with protecting the individual against the hazards of industrial society."2
In the words of the Governor himself, as he put it to readers of The Survey in 1923, "[i]t has been my thought that within the limits of constitutional government there is much room for adaption to the daily, homely needs of those who are really the backbone of the state - its men women and children. I have expressed many times my conviction that the state is not its rivers or forests or railroads or properties, but that it is made up of living, breathing, thinking human beings, and that it is the duty of the state to do everything in its power to make life more livable and conditions more equitable for them."3
Of course, Al Smith was not the only urban progressive moving towards a new paradigm in government. In his 1913 book A Preface to Politics, Walter Lippmann had scandalized his progressive readers by arguing that "Tammany has a better perception of human need, and comes nearer to being what a government should be, than any scheme yet proposed by a group of 'uptown good government' reformers.'" And Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, another urban progressive hailing from the Sidewalks of New York, also argued that the true worth of government was not based solely on efficiency, the moral uplift of citizens, or its ability to uphold abstract values by enlightening public opinion, but on how well that government actually responded to real human problems and fulfilled real human needs.4
At one point in the decade, La Guardia asked Coolidge Secretary of Agriculture (and Herbert Hoover protégé) William Jardine to look into the high cost of meat. When Jardine responded with information on how to conserve meat, La Guardia flew into a rage. "I asked for help and you send me a bulletin. The people of New York City cannot feed their children on Department bulletins." This attempt to enlighten public opinion on meat usage, La Guardia remonstrated, "are of no use to the tenement dwellers of this great city. The housewives of New York have been trained by hard experience on the economical use of meat. What we want is the help of your department on the meat profiteers who are keeping the hard-working people of this city from obtaining proper nourishment." When appearing before a housing commission at which two Catholic priests testified about the horrors of the slums, La Guardia told the committee their testimony "stands outs in glaring contrast to the learned college professors, scientific experts, figure-jugglers, and truth-distorters who attempted to confuse the issues and make the Commission believe that there is no shortage in housing. You cannot feed babies on statistics, nor house families in blue prints, no better conditions on theories. The time has come when housing must be regulated as a public utility." "The State is a living force," Al Smith had argued similarly. "It must have the understanding to clothe itself with human understanding of the daily, living needs of those whom it is created to serve."5
In any case, while this new urban liberalism was not embodied by any one person, Governor Al Smith was the right man at the right time to apply this philosophy statewide. His political education for that job had arguably begun in 1911, when, as Assembly Leader, he played a central role in orchestrating New York's response to the readily preventable Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which had claimed 146 lives mainly because of locked doors and a lack of fire safety. As noted in Chapter Eight, up to that point Smith had been considered by most to be just another machine politician. But working alongside his fellow urban progressive Robert Wagner (who became a Senator from New York in 1926, and is best remembered for the pro-labor Wagner Act of the New Deal), labor leader Samuel Gompers, and social reformer Frances Perkins on the state commission investigating the tragedy, Smith showed that -- if given leeway -- a Tammany man could also lead the vanguard of reform. Fifty-six labor laws were passed in the four years after the Triangle fire.6
The Triangle Commission was important in other regards as well. It brought Smith into contact with a host of prominent women reformers, among them Florence Kelley and Rose Schneiderman of New York's WTUL. It made real -- to Smith and everyone else involved -- how directly and decisively government laws and regulations, or the lack thereof, could impact the lives of those in need. And it cemented Smith's lifelong friendship and reliance upon Perkins, who had come to Albany in 1910 to advocate for protective legislation on behalf of the National Consumers League, and who ended up serving as Smith's chief investigator during the Triangle proceedings. During those investigations, Perkins brought Smith to the factories at early morning so he could meet and talk with the women coming off the ten-hour night shift. Until his withdrawal from public life, Smith would seek out Perkins's advice on countless issues involving labor and human welfare, and in 1920 he appointed her to New York's Industrial Commission to serve as his go-between with New York's labor community. When people asked the key to Smith's success, wags would remark that "he knew Frances Perkins and she was a book."7
Perkins knew other books too. It was she who, in 1918 -- near the end of Smith's first run for governor, against Republican Charles Whitman -- introduced him to Belle Moskowitz, "an able, high-minded woman of energy and shrewdness" that would become arguably the most influential of his inner circle of advisors. (The only other person who came close, Judge Joseph Proskauer, thought Moskowitz "one of the most brilliant women I ever knew.") One New York political observer thought Moskowitz the "quintessential secretary," but he had fallen for the ruse that Moskowitz liked to project. A former social worker who had been active in the progressive movement to reform New York's dance halls, "Mrs. M," as Smith called her, in fact served as the Governor's unofficial brains trust, policy advisor, speechwriter, campaign manager, and publicist as needed. "What do you think, Mrs. M?" became a common refrain at any meeting with the governor. Indeed, when Moskowitz perished in January 1933 of an embolism at the relatively young age of 55 , Smith - by then a private citizen once more - was shattered, and emotionally withdrew from a possible campaign for the New York mayoralty. She, he told reporters, was "the greatest brain of anybody I knew")8
Smith's Tammany background notwithstanding, it is likely not a coincidence that the American governor whose tenure most augured the shape of the later New Deal was also the one who had worked alongside women reformers for a decade before taking the State House, and who placed both his trust and the formation of his policy in the hands of Perkins and Moskowitz, both of whom shared close ties to larger networks of suffragists and social reformers. One of the largest was the Women's Joint Legislative Conference (WJLC), a consortium of New York's women's groups organized in 1918 to promote social welfare legislation "as a remedy for the existing deplorable conditions under which one-half of the women are working." Among the leading lights of the WJLC over the course of the Twenties were the WTUL's Rose Schneiderman, Florence Kelley aide Molly Dewson, and Eleanor Roosevelt, all of whom would help to inform the governor's policies.9
Their influence is reflected in Governor Smith first-term agenda, which called for a minimum wage, maternity insurance, an inquiry into the high cost of milk, extended workmen's compensation to cover occupational diseases, prison reform, improving access to health care professionals in rural areas, and the eight-hour day for women -- Ultimately, with a strong push from the WJLC, the nine-hour day (and 54 hour week) passed in Smith's first term. "Probably in no other state," argues historian Clarke Chambers, "was there such a vigorous proponent of protective labor legislation as Governor Alfred E. Smith." "We must enact more stringent and more universal laws for the protection of the health, comfort, welfare, and efficiency of our people," Governor Smith said, echoing the words of countless social reformers.10
In fact, one of Smith's most notable achievements in his first term (1918-1920) arose from a meeting between Moskowitz and Perkins. Then, Moskowitz suggested that Smith put forward a comprehensive post-war reconstruction plan for the state of New York. The Reconstruction Commission which resulted, chaired by Smith protégé Robert Moses and with Moskowitz as Executive Secretary (and architect), included such luminaries as Bernard Baruch, Felix Adler, the head of the Federal Reserve, and the head of General Electric. Among the issues it covered were health, education, labor, and -- particularly important to former Assemblyman Smith -- the reorganization of New York's state government. ("Of all the men" in attendance, Elihu Root had said while presiding over New York's 1915 constitutional convention, "Alfred E. Smith was the most informed on the business of the State.") While very few of Smith recommendations would become law in that first term, the commission gave the Governor a blueprint to follow over the rest of the twenties, and helped solidify his national reputation as a canny administrator with a vision.11
Re-elected in 1922 after the two-year Nathan Miller interregnum, Smith served as Governor of New York for the next six years. From $7 million in 1918-1919, his first year in office, Smith increased the state's spending on education to $70 million in 1926-1927, a factor of ten. By 1928, it took up close to half the budget. With education a state priority, both the average salary of New York teachers and the enrollment of high school students doubled, and rural areas saw their school infrastructure drastically improve. Governor Smith (and Moskowitz, who headed the public relations drive) also fought for and got passed a $50 million bond measure to improve the state's hospitals and asylums and a $100 million bond to develop a public works program. With Frances Perkins' aid, he hired the largest team of labor inspectors in America - more than Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania combined -- and ensured that labor regulations were respected in New York's workplaces and factories.12
Giving his ambitious aide Robert Moses loose rein, the Governor also established a State Council of Parks that worked to transform the landscape of the Empire State. From virtually nothing, New York's park system, by the end of the Smith's term, included 70 parks numbering 125,000 acres, among them 9700 acres of public beaches on Long Island. Smith also increased spending on highway infrastructure by a factor of five from his first term, leading to the creation of three thousand miles of roads across the state. After making the very savvy political choice of choosing former Governor Charles Evans Hughes to lead the commission, Smith also got his state reorganization plan passed, which included a consolidation of agencies, a streamlined budget process, and the short ballot, meaning that only the top government spots -- governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general -- ran for election. "As governor," Norman Thomas later said of Smith's eight years in the State House, "I thought him much better than Roosevelt."13
There were limits to the Governor's liberalism. Confronted with skyrocketing rents, mass evictions, and a clear housing shortage in New York City, Smith decided, in Hoover-voluntarist fashion, to work harder to "encourage capital to come back into the building field." ("There is no legislation to make houses grow on empty lots," he said, even if "home, everyone must have.") Along with tax credits and a state housing bank offering low-interest loans to encourage new construction, Smith eventually opted to create an agency "to establish a permanent housing policy for the state. Such a policy does not necessarily mean the building of homes by the state, but it does mean the establishment of housing standards and of local development." This particular strategy, however -- which borrowed Secretary Hoover's emphases on setting standards and encouraging private industry to fill the void -- did little to ameliorate the state's housing problem. A more direct intervention in the market was rent control, which passed in New York and many other states and cities after the War -- including Washington DC, where it even enjoyed the support of Calvin Coolidge -- as an "emergency" solution to the housing shortage. Most of these controls did not last the decade, however.14
Nonetheless, Smith was not only transforming New York State during the Twenties. He was winning reelection by increasingly thumping margins, and showing that, at least at the state level, his mold of urban liberalism resonated with voters. "Al Smith had demonstrated while he was the standard bearer that social and humanitarian legislation would always bring popular support," Frances Perkins wrote later in life. Little wonder that his eventual successor, Franklin Roosevelt, had been watching carefully. Roosevelt, Perkins wrote, "was to carry on those ideas. He believed in them. He wanted to do what Al had done, and perhaps do it better."15
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Slayton, 160. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 96-98. This dichotomy is also the central thesis of John Buenker's seminal 1973 study, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform.
3. Alfred E. Smith, "Goals of Government," The Survey, January 1st, 1923 (Vol. 49, No. 7), 419-420.
4. Steel, 47-48. Lippmann may have anticipated the turn towards urban or welfare liberalism, but he himself did not go along with it. "Sharing the conservative hostility to government intervention," biographer Ronald Steel wrote of his subject, Lippmann "had opposed the child-labor amendment, a federal guarantee of civil rights, and early payment of veterans' bonuses. When a bill came up to provide pensions for widows and orphans of veterans he declared that such special-interest groups posed a 'menace not only to the budget but to popular government itself.'" Steel, 288-289.
5. Zinn, The Twentieth Century, 108. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 73. Slayton, 170.
6. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 59-60. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 96-98. John Thomas McGuire, "Two Feminist Visions: Social Justice Feminism and Equal Rights, 1899-1940," Pennsylvania History, Autumn 2004 (Vol. 71, No. 4), 445-478.
7. Perkins, 22. Slayton, 181-182.
8. Perkins, 49-50. Elizabeth Israels Perry, Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (New York, Oxford University Press, 1987), 115-120. Slayton, 129-130. Kevin C. Murphy, "Lost Warrior: Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany," M.A. Thesis 2002 (http://www.kevincmurphy.com/alsmith.htm)
9. McGuire. "Favors Bill for Women," New York Times, January 26th, 1920. McGuire.
10. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 97-98. Finan, 121. Chambers, 64-65.
11. Slayton, 131-132. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 96-98.
12. Slayton, 162-163, 170-175, 180-183. Finan, 189-190.
14. Slayton, 172-173. Chambers, 35-37. Alfred E. Smith, "A Housing Policy for New York," The Survey, October 2nd, 1920 (), 3-4. In fact, it was Smith's housing commission that La Guardia was railing at when he decried the practice of trying to feed babies on statistics. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 73. Gail Radford, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 46-48.
15. Perkins, 48-49.
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