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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Before JFK There Was Al Smith

Alfred E. Smith was the first Irish American Catholic to be the Presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party.
Alfred E. Smith was the first Irish American Catholic to be the Presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, it was commonplace for Irish American Catholics to have a picture of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in a prominent place in their home. My sense, as someone who was only three when he was assassinated and, so, has no memory of him, is that they viewed Kennedy as both a source of pride and of hope. He was the first Irish American Catholic to be elected President of the United States. He was a symbol of the American Dream and of progress.

After all, less than a hundred years earlier, in the 1850s and 60s, the Irish Catholics who had immigrated to the U.S. to escape the Famine had been treated with hostility and bigotry. Their churches and neighborhoods had been burned. A political party, the Know-Nothings, had run a Presidential candidate on the promise to send every one of them, the immigrants and their descendants, back to Ireland. Despite that, by 1961 an Irish American Catholic attained the highest office in the land.

What has faded in memory and even in history is that before JFK, there was Al Smith. Most people, including Irish Americans, have never heard of him, but he paved the way for Kennedy. In 1928, Al Smith became the first Irish American Catholic to run as a Presidential Candidate for a major American political party, the same one as Kennedy, the Democrats. In honor of Irish American Heritage Month, here is his story.

Stand with Ukraine and pray for peace.
Stand with Ukraine and pray for peace.

How to Prepare for a Career in Politics

Al Smith’s childhood and early life seem to have provided an excellent education in how to be a politician. He was born in a tenement apartment in a poor section of Manhattan, New York. Like the current U.S. President, Joe Biden, the second Irish American Catholic to hold that office, Smith would never forget where he came from. Throughout his political career, he would represent himself as a champion of the working poor and, despite the wealth he accumulated, identify himself as one of them.

Smith also self-identified as an Irish American. But that wasn’t entirely true. His maternal grandmother had immigrated to the U.S. from County Westmeath, Ireland, but his paternal grandfather, Alfredo Ferraro, had immigrated from Italy. Of course, Smith is hardly the first or only “Irish American” whose ancestors weren’t all from Ireland. It’s perhaps understandable that he downplayed or ignored his Italian ancestry. Reportedly, he didn’t have a good relationship with his father and his father died when Al was only 13. On the other hand, he had a strong relationship with his mother, Catherine Mulvihill, and identified with her side of the family.

Because of his father’s death, the thirteen-year-old Al had to drop out of school and go to work to help support his mother and sister. He got a job at the Fulton Fish Market, and he says working there gave him an education in people. What better way is there to prepare for a career as a politician? Al also worked a bit in vaudeville, which gave him experience speaking in front of a crowd and learning how to captivate an audience.

Climbing the Political Ladder

Tammany Hall was the headquarters of the political machine of New York's Democratic party.
Tammany Hall was the headquarters of the political machine of New York's Democratic party.

At 21, Al Smith official entered politics. He became involved with the powerful and infamous Tammany Hall political machine which exerted a strong influence on New York City and even New York State politics. Smith campaigned for them and developed a network of allies among leaders in the Tammany Hall organization. By the time he was in his late twenties, he ran for a seat in the State Assembly and won it. He took the position seriously and set about learning how to be a legislator, how to get bills passed, and how to make a difference in people’s lives.

In 1918, Al Smith ran for New York State Governor and won. He would serve four terms as governor before making his first run for the U.S. Presidency. A political progressive with reforming zeal, Smith accomplished a great deal during his tenure as governor. Just a few of his reforms include increasing state funding for education from $9 million to $82 million, improving worker’s compensation, establishing equal pay for women teachers, creating a state parks program, and working on tenement reform.

His first attempt to run for President was in 1924. He failed to get win his party’s nomination that time but tried again in 1928. This second time he succeeded in becoming the Democratic Party’s Presidential Candidate and the first Irish American Catholic ever to become a Presidential candidate of a major political party in the U.S.

His Main Opponent: Bigotry

The 1928 Republican Party Presidential Candidate was Herbert Hoover. The main issue in the race was Prohibition. Smith wanted to repeal it. Hoover did not. Some writers attribute Al Smith’s loss to Herbert Hoover to his desire to repeal or, at least, alter Prohibition. But this ignores the anti-Irish sentiment that still existed in the U.S. and, more importantly, it ignores the strong anti-Catholic bigotry that predominated in the country. On the campaign trail, Smith’s speeches were met with burning crosses and Klan members showing up in their robes.

Ant-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry played a role in Al Smith's failed bid for the U.S. Presidency.
Ant-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry played a role in Al Smith's failed bid for the U.S. Presidency.

But it wasn’t just the radical KKK who opposed Smith. Opposition to his candidacy was coming from the pulpit too. One Oklahoma minister, The Reverend Mordecai Ham has been quoted as telling his congregation if they voted for Al Smith, they would all be damned. A prominent lawyer and member of the Episcopal Church, Charles C. Marshall, published “An Open Letter to the honorable Alfred E. Smith.” In it, he argued that a faithful Catholic could not uphold the Constitution of the United States because papal encyclicals written in the 19th century had condemned the separation of church and state. If, the letter contended, Smith could not adhere to the Constitution, how could he be faithful to the Presidential oath to uphold it?

Anti-Irish sentiment shows up in the Republican Party’s name for Herbert Hoover’s opponent. They referred to Smith as Al(coholic) Smith. While some writers argue that is a reference to his desire to repeal Prohibition, the allusion to the anti-Irish stereotype of the drunken gorilla is hard to ignore.

Hoover won the Presidential election in a landslide.


Al Smith continued trying to work in politics but he and his old friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a falling out. Roosevelt had nominated Smith for President during the Democratic conventions of 1920, 1924, and 1928, but, after their falling out, Roosevelt, who had become Governor of New York, worked to freeze Smith out of New York State politics. Smith retaliated by vociferously opposing Roosevelt’s New Deal when FDR made his first run for President. Democrats, who were angry at Smith’s criticism of Roosevelt, were happy to let him and any memory of his successes just fade into oblivion.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands at an Al Smith Dinner.
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands at an Al Smith Dinner.

The Catholic Diocese of New York has prevented that from happening. To benefit the organization Catholic Charities, it created, in 1946, an annual fundraiser, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. Now known as Al Smith Dinners, they are held each fall and have become important political events. Among the luminaries who have attended the event are JFK, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Condoleeza Rice.

In 2021, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation celebrated its diamond anniversary. According to the foundation’s website, the 75th Al Smith Dinner was held in celebration of “the opportunities granted to the generations of vulnerable children over the course of seven decades.” It goes on to say that “the foundation recommits itself to at least another hundred years dedicated to the serving the needy children of New York ‘regardless of race, creed, or culture.’”

That is, perhaps the best way for Al Smith’s name to live on since he not only was the first Irish American Catholic to be nominated for President by a major U.S. political party, he also was a man who worked hard to help the working poor.

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Slan go foil!

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