Alfred E. Smith, the former governor of New York and Democratic nominee for president in 1928, declared his support for Republican Wendell L. Willkie for the presidency seventy years ago today. It was the second consecutive presidential election in which the aging Smith refused to support his party’s nominee.
Smith’s announcement came as little surprise given his public criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his longstanding opposition to the New Deal. Earlier that summer, Smith’s wife, Catherine, and his son, Alfred E. Smith, III, a New York city councilman, had been seen sporting “Willkie-for-President” buttons at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.
Thoroughly convinced that the American people would never tolerate a third term for Roosevelt — or anybody else — Smith believed that the Wall Street lawyer was destined to win. It’s a “sure bet,” he told reporters visiting his office in the Empire State Building.
Willkie, who had unexpectedly captured the GOP’s presidential nomination in Philadelphia a month earlier, welcomed Smith’s support. Noting that the former governor had “started from the sidewalks of New York,” the Republican nominee praised Smith’s recent deeds as a humanitarian and philanthropist while describing him as one of the greatest chief executives in the history of the state.
Smith, who had campaigned half-heartedly for FDR in 1932, parted company with Roosevelt shortly after his inauguration in March 1933. A hard-money advocate, he grew increasingly unhappy with the New Deal in the years that followed, frequently railing against the “baloney money” fueling the nation’s economic recovery.
Unlike other New Deal critics, Smith was one of the few Democrats in the country willing to publicly speak out against the man who had dubbed him the “Happy Warrior” when placing his name in nomination for the presidency at the Democratic national convention in Houston in 1928.
An increasingly vocal critic of the party to which he had devoted so much of his life, the former four-term governor and longtime champion of working-class Americans had actively campaigned for Republican Alf Landon in 1936.
Smith, who was serving on several corporate boards and had apparently grown comfortable in his $50,000-a-year position as president of the Empire State Building, had been persuaded to come out of political retirement earlier that year to give the American Liberty League a much-needed public boost.
Headed by former congressman Jouette Shouse of Kansas, a newspaper publisher and former assistant Secretary of the Treasury, the League’s stated purpose was to “defend and uphold the Constitution” and to “foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property.”
League membership, which peaked at 124,856 members at the height of its popularity, included such luminaries as General Motors chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis, future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and former Democratic National Committee chairman John Jacob Raskob, one of the country’s leading opponents of prohibition. The League’s roster also boasted some of the nation’s leading industrialists, including J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil Company, Prescott Bush and several members of the Du Pont family.
The League, which reportedly spent more than a million dollars between 1934 and 1936 in an effort to defeat Roosevelt, supported anti-New Deal candidates of both major parties in the 1934 mid-term elections. The following year, it stepped up its attack on the entire New Deal program, calling it extravagant, socialistic and unconstitutional. Incredibly, some of the League’s more incendiary pamphlets compared Roosevelt’s governing style to that of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
The Roosevelt administration was deeply concerned about the growing influence of the conservative Liberty League, a well-funded organization whose national headquarters in Washington, D.C., was eventually staffed by fifty paid employees, occupying some thirty-one rooms in the National Press Building. The Republican National Committee, by comparison, employed only seventeen people at its national headquarters.
Unfortunately, as the keynote speaker at a widely-covered tuxedo and gown fundraising dinner for the League at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in January 1936, the 62-year-old former governor, donning a high silk hat, launched into such an embittered diatribe against Roosevelt that it not only damaged his own reputation, but that of the conservative organization he was trying to promote.
Smith, growing angrier by the moment, worked himself into a frenzy during his speech, furiously accusing FDR of fomenting class warfare while creating the largest public debt in U.S. history. He also demanded that the Roosevelt administration return to the fundamentals of the Democratic Party and the Constitution.
“The young brain-trusters,” he remarked in one of the few throw away lines in his otherwise angry and bitter speech, “caught the Socialists in swimming and ran away with their clothes.”
He then unleashed a litany of complaints against the administration.
“Where does that leave us Democrats?” he asked. “The convention is nearing. We can either shake off the mantle or take a walk.”
Answering his own question, Smith opted to take a stroll that year, actively stumping for Alf Landon’s hopeless presidential campaign in several eastern cities that autumn. The press hung on every word uttered by the former New York governor, but it didn’t help — Landon was buried in a landslide.
His influence clearly waning, it came as little surprise that the former governor’s endorsement of Willkie in 1940 received far less attention than had been the case four years earlier.
Yet he wasn’t alone. While a number of prominent southern Democrats toyed with the idea of nominating Willkie on a Democratic Constitutional ticket that fall, several well-known Democrats, including New York Judge Samuel Seabury, colorful ex-Governor William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray of Oklahoma and ex-New York congressman John J. O’Connor — a victim of FDR’s 1938 purge — joined Smith in endorsing Willkie‘s candidacy.
Almost all of them, however, were considered political has-beens and their endorsements — like that of the aging and increasingly irrelevant Happy Warrior — were considered of dubious value to the Willkie campaign.
Excerpted from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming book, Others: Third Parties during the Great Depression, the fifth in a seven-volume series on independent and third-party politics in the United States.