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Why the “Happy Warrior,” Al Smith, Wasn’t Happy About the New Deal

Books on politics come and go, but a hardy perennial has remained the campaign journalist’s insider account of a congressional or presidential race. The popularity of this genre dates back to Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1960. With every election, there seem to be more and more entries in the category.

They vary in quality, naturally. A major pitfall is that journalists can easily be manipulated by their sources, which prevents them from keeping the forest in proper perspective amidst all the trees. The demand for big scoops to drive book sales exacerbates the problem, as authors sacrifice balance and historical judgment in pursuit of those eye-popping details that make for an alluring excerpt in the New York Times or Washington Post on the day of publication. These accounts mostly end up being fun to read in the moment but devoid of insight into our politics, and thus not worth keeping on the shelves. Probably the most notable exception is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), a classic gonzo-style sendup of the genre that proudly sacrifices accuracy for a ripping good yarn.

Over the last 20 years, political scientists, historians, and academic presses have taken White’s basic idea and reoriented it toward elections going back in U.S. history. In 1828, for instance, there was no reporter from the Washington Post on the campaign trail when President John Quincy Adams had his rematch against challenger Andrew Jackson. The documentary record is sufficiently rich, however, that that contest can be narrated in generous detail. With old grudges long since buried in the grave, the historian need not worry about getting played. And, far from losing sight of the big picture, historical writing of this kind can inform us about how key electoral races fit into the sweep of the historical period in question.  

The University Press of Kansas has led the way in this genre, dedicating a whole series to important elections of bygone eras. But it is hardly alone. The Cornell University Press recently published The Revolution of ’28: Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal by Robert Chiles. It is time to acknowledge Smith as a central figure of the 20th century, and this fine book helps to do just that. The Revolution of ’28 is a happy communion of author, publisher, and subject. Chiles, a senior lecturer in the History Department of the University of Maryland, is a scholar of the Progressive Era, with a particular emphasis on New York; Cornell is one of the most prestigious presses in the state; and Smith was a New York original whose memory has been too long forgotten.

Into the Archives

The first thing that stands out is the author’s use of visual sources. It is pretty clear that Chiles cut his scholarly teeth in various New York historical archives, for the text is full of old photographs and political cartoons, all of which were new to me.

The analytical rigor of the book, and its evidentiary depth, meet just as high a standard. Chiles’s narrative begins not with the presidential campaign of 1928, but more than a decade before, as he situates Smith within a unique blend of progressivism that merged “urban liberalism” and “social welfare progressivism”—the former usually promoted by machine politicians like Robert F. Wagner of New York and the latter by nonpartisan reformers like Jane Addams, the Chicagoan and Nobel laureate. Chiles demonstrates that Smith served as a kind of bridge between these socioeconomically different factions, bringing both sides into his gubernatorial administration in Albany.

This background sets the stage for Chiles’s contrarian take on Smith. Typically, his run for the presidency against Herbert Hoover has been characterized as conservative, or at least heavy on personality and light on details. Chiles disagrees, arguing that his 1928 effort was a serious progressive campaign informed by his stint as Governor.

It’s a compelling thesis, and one that is delivered with a rich, diverse data set. Particularly enjoyable for me was Chiles’s confident retelling of the politics of New York City and Tammany Hall in the 1920s. Here the author disputes the conventional wisdom that the infamous New York City machine did nothing but serve the interests of the Democratic Party and made no attempts to forward the progressive agenda. That this correction was needed came as news to me, as I had long ago learned to view Tammany as little more than a reactionary force in politics. 

Chiles’s campaign tick-tock begins in earnest in Chapter 3, and it is an interesting read. The Democratic Party during the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression was one of the most diverse, and unwieldy, coalitions in U.S. history. Smith’s quest for the White House begins in the aftermath of the disastrous 1924 campaign, which saw the Democrats hopelessly deadlocked in their convention along rural/urban and Protestant/Catholic divides. Smith, an unabashed opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and of Prohibition, was firmly in the urban Catholic camp; yet he acquired the 1928 nomination with ease, as Democrats were disinclined to repeat the battles of four years prior, and it was virtually impossible to deny a successful Governor from New York the party’s nomination.

With the nomination secure, Smith then began his national campaign, which Chiles ably demonstrates was more substantive than the standard view allows. Smith endorsed a plethora of progressive reforms, which makes sense in historical retrospect. Woodrow Wilson’s electoral victory in the previous decade had been built on a coalition between urban workers, progressives, and rural populists. If Smith were to defeat Hoover, it was never going to be enough for him to run as a second-generation Catholic immigrant. He was going to have to stitch together the old Wilsonian coalition, which is why Smith emphasized conservation, labor protections, and social welfare. All of these were intended to appeal to specific parts of Wilson’s coalition. That historians had never connected these dots speaks to Chiles’s larger point that Smith has been taken for granted for too long.

Fissures Among the Progressives

Yet a Smith presidency was not to be, for the “Happy Warrior” was soundly defeated by the Republicans in 1928. As historians have long understood, and as Chides details with a rich data set in Chapter 4, this was a consequential loss. The origins of the New Deal coalition can be seen in the Smith coalition of 1928. Smith did better than any Democrat in the previous 30 years in the industrial enclaves of the Midwest and New England, and it would be these cities that swept Franklin Roosevelt to victory four years later and sustained the FDR political coalition for the next generation.

The Revolution of ’28 works on three levels. It’s an engaging narrative of the politics of the 1920s and the campaign of 1928. It also successfully recasts Smith not as a wafer-thin candidate who ran on personality, but a man of progressive substance. Most importantly, it deepens our understanding of the development of progressivism between the end of World War I and the election of FDR, casting Smith as a main character in the drama.

My lone criticism of the book involves what would come next for Smith. The next Democratic candidate would make it to the White House in 1932, whereupon the “Happy Warrior” became a seemingly embittered critic. Smith dissented significantly from the policies of the New Deal, chartering the American Liberty League to denounce FDR’s agenda. Contemporary Democrats dismissed Smith as a victim of sour grapes. Chiles, glossing over historical interpretations, agrees, writing that a  “jaundiced and resentful” Smith “had chosen a new, reactionary path.”

This certainly might be true, but the way in which Chiles makes the claim—all assertion, no evidence—is unsatisfying, and inconsistent with the depth of scholarship throughout the book’s narrative up through the 1928 campaign. Is this the only conclusion one could reach about Smith? I have my doubts. As Chides notes in his discussion of Smith’s policy preferences, “There is room for a diversity of ‘progressives’ or even ‘progressivisms’ within the working definition of that concept.” Indeed, there is—even within Roosevelt’s administration, as his “First New Deal” of 1933 to 1934 offered a different blend of progressivism than his “Second New Deal” of 1935 through 1938. That First New Deal, with its ambition for comprehensive agricultural and industrial planning, hardly resembled Smith’s fusion of urban liberalism and social welfare progressivism. And it was quite controversial, even among progressives. After all, Louis Brandeis—by that point the éminence grise of the progressive movement—joined a unanimous Supreme Court majority to declare the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional.

Smith’s Objections Weren’t Just Sour Grapes

And it is important to note that, though Smith was one of the first to oppose the President from within his own party, he was not alone. Democratic opposition to FDR in Congress can be found as early as 1933, with Virginia Democratic senators Harry Byrd and Carter Glass. The latter is especially noteworthy, as Senator Glass had been a reliable Southern ally of President Wilson and one of the authors of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, perhaps the most important piece of progressive legislation enacted outside the New Deal or the Great Society.

The very evidence we get from this book might prompt us to ask: Was this really bitterness over being eclipsed, or was Smith one of several progressives who thought the New Deal went too far? Chiles has opted for the emotional explanation (which might be right) but never fairly addresses the substantive one. 

Given that the focus of this book is on Smith’s presidential candidacy, not his later and supposedly “reactionary” phase, finding fault with this aspect might seem unfair. But Chiles’s subtitle—Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal—frames the 1928 campaign as a prologue to the New Deal. If Smith was later in earnest in standing against FDR’s policies, then perhaps this framework needs to be adjusted. Perhaps it would be better to say that Al Smith paved the way for progressivism only to see FDR assert a variety of it that was much more statist in its orientation than what Smith had pursued during his life in politics.

Still, The Revolution of ’28 is a very fine book. Chiles has managed to find the sweet spot that few professional historians ever locate. He has written a readable, engaging text that will appeal to lay readers, while offering the kinds of details and historical perspective that scholars demand. I have owned dozens of campaign histories over the years; many are disposable, but this will grace my personal library for years to come.

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