(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alfred Emanuel Smith, Jr., is unquestionably the hero of this highly favorable biography of a political leader the author believes has been underestimated and unjustly forgotten. Slayton asserts that Smith’s major claim to fame was his role in expanding American democracy. America in the 1920’s, Slayton contends, was a nation torn apart, split between an older, rural society and the modern, urban age. In a period of intolerance and ignorance, marked by the Ku Klux Klan and the Scopes trial, no other politician at this high a level did more to demand that the new generation of immigrants be included as Americans. Today this is called “pluralism,” and it is a standard part of our credo. This victory came about in large part because Al Smith, more than any other national politician of his day, bucked the conflicts of the time and defended the idea of an inclusionary society.

Slayton’s well-written and heavily documented study—sixty-three pages of endnotes identify his sources—proceeds chronologically from Smith’s birth on December 23, 1873, to his death on October 4, 1944.

Slayton sees Smith’s worldview as being shaped by his experiences growing up in the Fourth Ward on the lower East Side of Manhattan, where he learned to respect people of different ethnic groups. Children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants predominantly populated the ward, which also included significant numbers of Jews, Germans, and Italians; Chinatown bordered it on the north. The area’s overcrowded tenements had no hot water or electricity; its shared toilets were located in hallways or outhouses in the backyard.

Smith identified himself as an American of Irish descent, though his heritage was mixed. His paternal grandfather, Emanuel Smith, was an Italian from Genoa (the last name probably acquired upon entering the United States); his paternal grandmother was born in Germany. Their son, Alfred Smith, Sr., died when Smith was young, and had relatively little influence on him. Smith’s mother, Catherine Mulvihill Smith, a pious Catholic of pure Irish descent, raised him, provided him with his Irish identity, and taught him to be honest and loyal. Although the saloons and prostitutes of the Bowery were only a few blocks away, life for young Smith centered on his parish church. In the spring of 1888, a few months short of graduating from the eighth grade, Smith quit school to work full-time and help support his family. In 1892 he found a job in the Fulton Fish Market (which he later called his university), remaining there four years.

Smith first became active in politics in 1894, when he vigorously supported an opponent of Tammany Hall, the political machine then dominating the Manhattan Democratic Party. Although his candidate lost, when another anti-Tammany Democrat became mayor, Smith received the post of process server for the commissioner of jurors. Smith soon made his peace with Tammany, and in 1903 the local ward leader nominated him for state assemblyman. Initially ill at ease in the legislature, Smith carefully studied proposed legislation, familiarizing himself with the structure and operation of state government, gaining a positive reputation with his fellow legislators, and winning the enthusiastic support of Tammany. In 1911, Smith was elected Democratic leader of the Assembly; in 1913, when the Democrats gained a majority, he became speaker.

Slayton asserts that Smith’s support for social and industrial reform grew out of his sense of responsibility to his constituents. In 1910, after a long fight, he finally convinced New York State to adopt a Workmen’s Compensation Law. In 1911, Smith served on the Factory Investigating Commission formed in response to public outrage at the death of 146 girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When fire broke out in the ninth- and tenth-floor workrooms, exits proved inadequate, partly by design—the back entrance was chained shut to prevent workers from sneaking out—and partly by negligence—fire hoses were cracked and unusable, and the fire escape collapsed as soon as someone tried to use it. Commission members traveled across New York State inspecting factories and were shocked by the conditions they found. Smith supported thirty-two bills prescribing improvements in safety and health, making New York the leader in factory regulation.

Smith’s work on industrial regulation won him the admiration of social reformers. His performance at the 1915 state constitutional convention gained him the respect of political reformers, including leading Republicans. Smith demonstrated his detailed knowledge of how state government actually worked, suggesting precisely how to make it more efficient and responsible to citizens. Voters rejected the proposed...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)