Alfred E. Smith, who served four terms as New York governor and was the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, is inexorably associated with New York City.
A child of the Lower East Side, Catholic grandson of immigrants and product of Tammany Hall, Smith was as much a symbol of Gotham in the 1920s as the Empire State Building (of which he was the first corporate president) would be in the decades to follow. Yet a review of Smith’s influential tenure reveals the significance of Long Island in shaping his philosophy about the role of government in promoting public welfare.
Smith’s reform resume is substantial: as governor, he instituted forceful industrial safety and work-hours regulations, broadened workers’ compensation and widows’ pensions, enhanced investment in maternal and infant health, expanded the state’s hospital construction program, and achieved a ninefold increase in state funding for public education — all while streamlining state administration and modernizing government finances. During debates over one of his most controversial initiatives, promotion of Robert Moses’ state parks plan for Long Island, Smith articulated the driving credo behind this sweeping agenda for the Empire State.
At a time when much of Long Island’s natural splendor was monopolized by elites, affluent residents vociferously opposed Smith’s proposal for “a breathing spot on the south shore of Long Island for the millions of people” residing throughout the metropolis. In 1925, under intense lobbying, the State Assembly moved to thwart the activities of Smith’s new Long Island State Park Commission, withholding appropriations for land acquisitions.
Smith responded with a radio address, denouncing “wealthy residents and golf club members” who feared “the hordes of people from New York” and who greedily insisted that “a public park to serve all the people was not desirable in that section of Long Island.”
For Smith, the choice was clear: “As between the few and the many to be benefited, I cast my lot with the many and I signed the papers necessary to acquire the property.” With “high-priced legal talent” deployed by private interests to stall progress, the Long Island controversy became a question of fundamental principle. And Smith asked, “Will the law of this State be so shaped to give power and influence to a small group of selfish men as against the best interests of the great mass of our people?”
Ultimately, despite legislative recalcitrance, the state purchased nearly 1,500 acres on the Great South Bay in East Islip and named the park after philanthropist August Heckscher, whose donation funded the acquisition.
More significantly, the Long Island episode compelled Smith to crystallize his thinking on the role of a progressive state in promoting the public good and to articulate his affirmative vision of government. He applied similar notions to preserving the Adirondacks, upstate hydroelectric development, taxation and bonded debt to promote social welfare, and sundry other questions — and employed comparable rhetoric as a national candidate.
Meanwhile, many state parks were created on Long Island during the Smith regime, including Belmont Lake, Valley Stream, Wildwood, Jones Beach, Montauk Point and Sunken Meadow, which was renamed Gov. Alfred E. Smith/Sunken Meadow State Park in 1992. Ironically, within two generations, the grandchildren of those much-feared “hordes from New York” were becoming the preponderant population of Long Island itself.
Thanks largely to Smith’s initiatives, despite sprawling development, there remain today pristine “breathing spots” for the masses all over Long Island.
Robert Elliot Chiles is senior lecturer in history at the University of Maryland and author of “The Revolution of ’28: Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal.”