The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 11, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


All that Governor Smith could do in a direct legislative way would not dislodge party. There was, however, an indirect way, one to which the elected Governor now appealed very effectively. Governor Smith did not lack optimism. He did not gloomily accept legislative defeat. When an important measure seemed likely to run hopelessly against party, he had a way of taking a political question out of politics, or at least out of the paralyzing politics of the Legislature. By carrying the issue direct to the people, he had more than once forced legislative action.

Governor Smith's administrations have been outstanding in two respects: First, that he has been usually fighting against odds, with Republicans almost chronically dominant in the Assembly; second, that legislative opposition only whets his fighting qualities. What he can not get from the Legislature, he tries to get from the People. Politicians may, and do, put party before people, but when the voice of the People reaches a certain pitch of insistence, partisanship has to give way--or at least pretend to give way. Thus, a legislative matter is given a chance of being decided on its merits.

Each session, of course, produced its sheaf of legislative acts, carried through without pressure by the People. Indeed, they showered upon the Governor in such numbers during the few months of each session that one wonders how he can have time for any other public business than the study of the laws that are before him, for his approval or rejection. An average legislative year in New York State places on the desk of the chief executive about 750 new States laws. Some of the legislation is important; much of it deals with matters of only minor detail. Often, the mass of legislation that becomes law with his signature does not bulk as importantly as that which is killed in legislative committee.

Great issues initiated or furthered by Governor Smith include: the extension of the Workmen's Compensation Act; prison reform; protection of labor and capital, in the creation of the Industrial Commission; child welfare; social welfare; the Milk Commission, which has brought him under such partisan criticism but has nevertheless done so much to protect the vital commodity from contamination and adulteration, and from combination of distributors to extort prohibitive prices, also from stoppage of supply by labor strikes; health legislation; municipal home rule, a triumph of Governor Smith's second term. His part in the organization of the Port of New York Authority, bills which enable the states of New York and New Jersey to work together to develop the port area, has brought monuments in the tunnels and bridges that are spanning the Hudson River. Elimination of grade crossing is a governmental project greater even than DeWitt Clinton's "big ditch"; and Governor Smith's dogged insistence upon the utilization by the State of its immensely valuable water power resources stamps him as a determined executive of courageous enterprise.

The Democratic Convention of 1924--The greatest of all Governor Smith's plans for the betterment of the State is that which had been taking definite shape in his mind long before the Constitutional Convention of 1915, in which he showed such comprehensive understanding of the science of government, and particularly of the business affairs of New York State. That there was not his peer, in this respect, in New York State, the Democratic State convention was confident in 1924. They were sure, indeed, that the nation possessed no better governmental executive; and they were fairly confident that Democrats in general throughout the country, knew his gubernatorial record well enough to feel sure that he would make an efficient President.

Governor Smith did not concern himself much in the movement. The Democratic State convention met at Albany, on April 15, 1924, five days after the session of the Legislature had ended. The productive legislators had dumped on to the Governor's desk, before leaving for their vacation, several hundred acts, which he had to study, sign or veto, within thirty days; and as Governor Smith is in no wise a "rubber stamp" man, he had little time for other than executive duties at that time. Moreover, he was not one of those governors "who after spending a year in Albany had a spy glass on the dome at Washington." As he pointed out to the State convention, in thanking them for making him "the choice of his party in the greatest State in the Union for the highest office in all the World," he could do little to further the movement; indeed, he said he would no nothing. The affairs of the State demanded the whole of his time, so personal aspirations must be set aside. In his opinion, "the man who used one office ands neglected it, in order to climb to a higher one was not deserving of the one he had."

That there were very many Democrats who thought that he deserved to climb higher because he had so faithfully and efficiently administered the office he then held, is clear from the State Convention records. From the enthusiasm that greeted the "Al Smith for President" movement in that convention it was quite obvious the Governor Smith's cause would not flag for want of the fostering effort that he himself could not give. D. Cady Herrick, addressing the Albany Convention, recommended the delegates to let the National Convention, which would meet in New York City in June, know that they need not look beyond New York State for an ideal candidate. "Let the delegates there present," said Justice Herrick, "know that we, too, of this State, have a man, not an office-seeker, who may be drafted for that higher honor; a man of the people who, by his own efforts and long-continued, honest and splendid service, has won the confidence and esteem of the people of his own State, who have bestowed upon him its highest honors and dignities; twelve years in the legislative branch of the State; a member of a constitutional convention; and twice Governor of the State of New York. Not a lawyer by profession, but who, by his long experience and native vigor of intellect, has acquired a profound knowledge of the construction and interpretation of statutes and constitutions. A man who is a student and master of public affairs, who has the courage of his convictions. A man as clean as a hound's tooth. During a long public aggressive fighting career, well calculated to make enemies and provoke hostile criticism, the breath of suspicion upon either his personal or public integrity had never blown. A man who, if nominated, can be elected and render to the people of his country the same honest, intelligent, laborious, painstaking, courageous service that he has rendered to the people of his own State."

Judge Herrick did not name the man of whom he spoke. He asked the convention to mane him; and not even the dullest delegate was in doubt. "Al Smith" was on all lips, even though another New Yorker--Former Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo--was in the running for the Presidential nomination, more in favor outside New York State, it seemed than Governor Smith was. There was no clashing in the State Convention. Up-State and down-State Democrats were as on in rallying behind Smith. "Smith was the tie that bound the Democracy as no figure in New York State since Samuel Tilden." Through all the days and weeks of balloting that followed the opening of the National Convention at Madison Square Gardens, the New York delegation held loyally to "Al" until he, himself, released them.

The Democratic National Convention of 1924 was possibly the most exciting as well as the longest of American history. It opened on June 24, and did not reach its weary end until the small hours of July 10. At the most sultry season of the year, in a city whose asphalted pavements seem to hold, to exude at night, all the heat that the sun blazes down upon them by day, almost 1,500 delegates held swelteringly to their mission of finding the Democrat who could lead their party to power in the Presidential election. Day after day, week after week, balloting continued, twenty-nine sessions and 103 ballots making up the sum total that brought the nominators to the end of their labors and tot he end of the most protracted convention of political history. The longest in Democratic history up to that time was that of 1860, when, after fifty-seven indecisive ballots at Charleston, South Carolina, the convention broke up to meet again at Baltimore six weeks later, the Baltimore convention increasing the number of ballots to fifty-nine. The next highest was also a Baltimore convention, that of 1912, which, after forty-six ballots, gave the nomination to Woodrow Wilson.

To the Democratic National convention of 1924 came 1,446 delegates and as many alternates. Many delegates, however had only fractional votes. The full number of convention votes was 1,098, and number necessary to nominate, under the two-thirds rule, was 732. The two-thirds rule has been the curse of more than one Democratic convention since its first adoption of 1828; and, as a close struggle was anticipated between the two candidates, Smith and McAdoo, an unsuccessful attempt was made to abandon the two-thirds rule. Both that and the unit rule were continued. More than half the State delegations, however, came uninstructed, only nineteen State delegates being bound by the unit rule. The latter rule did not enter so importantly into the fortunes of the two New York candidates as did the two-thirds rule. With only a majority to find, either McAdoo or smith might have had the nomination, but with two-thirds to sweep in, both ultimately realized that it could not be done; hence, the nomination went to a "dark horse."

The balloting opened on June 30. There was plenty of enthusiasm for "Al" Smith, but the opening demonstration for him hardly had the charm and thrill that had stirred the 1920 convention as the band struck up the "Sidewalks of New York":

East side, West side,

All about the town. . . . .


The song was typical of the man, the spirit characteristic of the kindly Governor whose very presence ever seems to radiate good will and fellow-feeling. Bourke Cochran, who had presented the name of "Al Smith" to the 1920 convention and was not destined to live to do the same in 1924, had no need to use his great oratorical powers to sir enthusiasm for Smith. The Nation knew him as a genuine Democrat, a man of the people. "He has never lost a friend and never ceased to make new ones," said Cochran. "All of them, from his playmates on the sidewalks of the Eat Side to the statesmen he has moved among as Governor, call him Al Smith, I venture to say he is the only man who could be called by such a diminutive without in any way debasing the dignity of so high an office. Al Smith is in no way different from the rest of us, and that is why we love him." The strains of the song seemed to fit the Smith spirit, and most delegates in 1920 had thought kindly of him, though bound to some other candidate. Four years later, the spirit was not so spontaneously strong. Nevertheless, in 924 Governor Smith was nearer the head of the ballot; and for very many days his supporters were quite confident that he would eventually head it.

In the records of this convention McAdoo is shown as of California, not New York. In the opening ballot he had first place, having 431-1/2 votes; Governor Smith was next with 241 votes; Senator Oscar W. Underwood was third, with 42-1/2 votes and Ambassador John W. Davis fourth, with 31 votes. Smaller numbers were cast for thirteen other candidates, but obviously the fight was between McAdoo and Smith. For a hundred ballots nothing could shake McAdoo from first place, or Smith from second, with no chance of either being elected unless the other withdrew, or the majority rule prevail. McAdoo. On the 69th ballot, reached 530, his highest figure; but even this was twenty less than a bare majority, and more than 200 less than two-thirds. This figure he reached on July 5. On July 7 smith and the other candidates, with the exception of McAdoo, were prepared to release their instructed delegates. McAdoo held on grimly for another two days, but at last he also saw that the convention might continue indefinitely, with his position not appreciably bettered, or might adjourn with their work unfinished. So he too released his delegates. The course was now simple, and one ballot more ended all suspense. John W. Davis, on the 103rd ballot, received 839 votes, and Underwood, 102-1/2 votes. Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, brother of William Jennings Bryan, gained the Vice-Presidential nomination on the first ballot.

The Republican National Convention of 1924 was less sensational; indeed, by comparison, it was uneventful. There was some doubt before primary time as to the Coolidge strength, but none afterwards. President Calvin Coolidge was given the nomination on the first ballot, the vote being: Coolidge, 1,065; LaFollette, 34; Johnson, 10. Senator Hiram Johnson had withdrawn before the convention began, and the vote for LaFollette was merely the tribute of his own State. Governor Lowden, of Illinois, had had Presidential aspirations, and was somewhat disappointed that he had not been considered. He was thought of for Vice-President; indeed, on the second ballot he received enough votes to nominate him; but he immediately telegraphed, refusing the nomination. The next ballot, however, brought the nomination to another leading Republican of Illinois, General Charles Gates Dawes.

A remarkable fact in connection with the National conventions of 1924 is that for the first time in history the proceedings, minute by minute, were communicated by radio to the public. During the autumn campaign, both of the National candidates made campaign speeches through the microphone to audiences whom they could not see.

Smith is Given Third Term--After the Democratic convention, Governor smith returned to his executive work in Albany. For a while, however, it was feared that he would not accept re-nomination for the Governorship. Twenty years of public service had left Governor Smith no richer--in monetary wealth, though far richer in public esteem and in knowledge of the public service--than when he had first appeared in Albany as an Assemblyman. In commercial activities, he could have earned many times a Governor's stipend. was he fair to his family, in holding to the public service, and impoverishing them--in a pecuniary sense? These were thoughts that would come to most men so placed, but no all men have such grit as that which had held Governor Smith to his public aims in the face of family poverty and chronic political opposition. For private gain, he could not abandon his public work. Still harder would it be to give up a battle half won. The re-organization of the State Government was a project that had made some headway. It must be carried through and he was the executive best fitted for the task. Governor smith resolved to stick--stick to the Governorship, and to the great project. So the autumn campaign found him at the head of the State Democratic ticket.

The Republican candidate was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who had of late come into public life after his return from war service with an excellent record. The younger Roosevelt, in entering public life, had also followed in the footsteps of his father. Both had been in the State Assembly, and both had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The elder Roosevelt had been Governor of New York; now the younger Roosevelt was nominated for the office. Against man another Democrat than Governor Smith, the younger Roosevelt might have won, but against "Al" Smith, the most likable, the most efficient, and the most effective Governor that has ever been entrusted with the public affairs of New York State, Roosevelt had little chance.

It was a Republican year, and Governor Smith was the exception in New York that proved the rule. The Republicans captured every elective office except that of Governor, Roosevelt being beaten by Smith by nearly 100,000 votes. #12 Coolidge won the State by almost 900,000, #13 and swept the country, gaining a greater plurality #14 than had ever been given a presidential candidate.

Back in Albany more isolated, yet stronger than ever, Governor Smith settled down with greater determination and increased hope to his administrative duties and to his constructive plans. One would imagine that there was not much justification for optimism. The Lieutenant-Governor--Seymour Lowman--was a Republican; the Senate was Republican with majority of seven; the Assembly was Republican 96 to 54; and the elective State offices were all headed by Republicans. So situated, a Democratic Governor would seem too likely to have an awkward time ahead. Still, it was "nothing new" to Governor Smith, and he "went on with the work," never forgetting his great projects.

In one great endeavor, State control of its water power, he was to find his situation not so favorable in 1926 as it had been before. Senator Walker had been president pro tem of the Senate and had been squarely behind the Governor in his water power aims, but Walker stepped from the Senate into the mayoralty office in New York City, succeeding Mayor Hylan, and Senator knight, who succeeded Walker as president of the Senate, was a Republican. All Smith's water power plans went awry, in consequence.

Utilization of Water Power--For fifteen years the struggle for the right to use the wasted water power had been going on. Both sides of the argument are, in some respects, convincing. The advocates of private ownership argue that National or State or municipal enterprises are generally failures--from financial standpoints. Governor Smith and his supports--and they are not all Democrats--believe that the State can direct a business quite as successfully as a private corporation can. New York's water power resources double those of the New England States and Pennsylvania grouped together; yet about two-thirds of it are wasted, plunging over Niagara, flowing through the rich valleys of the St. Lawrence, Delaware and Susquehanna rivers, swirling, rushing, tearing, day in and day out, through the gulches and ravines of the Catskills and Adirondacks. While politicians wrestle--chiefly for partisan advantage-- all this natural wealth runs to waste. As an engineer of world-wide reputation remarked: "Ten years of politics has reduced $500,000,000 to ashes in coal that had been hauled from other States and consumed unnecessarily. The people foe New York have been sitting by fiddling like Nero while the State has been burning up, industrially." Of more than 5,000,000 horse-power available only 1,250,000 horse-power has yet been utilized, nearly all by private enterprise.

As far back as the Hughes administration, twenty years ago, the Governor recognized that the potentialities of the State's water power resources called for closer control by the State. "The whole question of the relation of the State to its water demands more careful attention than it has received," declared Governor Hughes in his annual message in 1907. Roosevelt was at one with Hughes in the careful conservation of the resources of the State. The conservation law of 1911 was: "To conserve the resources of the State for the use and benefit of all the people of the State." A committee was appointed by the Senate in 1913 to investigate water power. This committee reported that "the great mass of people have come to the realization that the State's greatest means for cheaper light, heat and power lies in the development of its water resources by the State itself." However, no action was taken.

Soon no action was possible; the great war was upon the world, and New York State, in common with all other States, had to think first of conserving what resources were most needed for war possibilities. The immense sum that would be necessary to harness the waters of the State could not return an advantage during the war period. Public funds were needed for other urgent uses. So the question of water power remained pigeon-holed during the terms of Governors Dix, Sulzer and Glynn.

Governor Smith was the first Chief Executive unreservedly to advocate State control of its waters. In his annual message of 1919 is the following on the subject: "I am for its development, its ownership, and its control by the State itself for the benefit of all the people." He was not then prepared to suggest the way in which this could be accomplished.

In 1920 Smith was out of office and Miller was the Governor. The water power policy was reserved. Governor Miller "recommended the retention by the State of title to all waster-power sites, but a liberal policy toward private corporations in licenses, leases and rents." Along these lines legislation was enacted, chiefly the "Miller Water Power Act" which is essentially the law of today. Encouraged by the Miller attitude, water engineers drifted into Albany, with projects for plants to be established by private enterprise on the St. Lawrence and the Niagara. Companies were named, but names were misleading; the power companies were to be, in fact, merely subsidiaries of great national corporations--the Aluminum Company, the Dupont interests, and the General Electric Company. The subsidiary companies were given authority to do preliminary work, but before they had proceeded far another governor was in office--again Governor Smith. Again water power policy was to undergo change. In a special message to the Legislature in 1923 Governor Smith urged that the Miller and all other laws "that gave State officers the power to give leases or licenses to private companies" to develop the water power be repealed; further that the State take direct action to develop the water power of Niagara and the St. Lawrence, and distribute it to municipalities. In that year the Democrats controlled the Water Power Commission, so it was possible for Governor Smith, through this body, to prevent the commitment of the State to any further private power projects. He could not succeed so well with the Legislature, however. The Assembly was Republican and Speaker Machold had no confidence in the Governor's bills. So legislative action was tardy and produced nothing definite.

In 1924 Governor Smith broached the subject again. In his annual message of that year he suggested the formation of a "public corporation" to act as steward, or agent, for the State in the power project. Although this suggested corporation, the "New York State Water Power Authority" would not be, in the strict sense, a State department, it would have no stockholders, and would be controlled by the Governor, with authority to appoint the governing board. All unlicensed power resources of the State would be handed over to the power authority to develop "in the interest of the people as a whole."

While Democrats controlled the Water Power commission, the Governor could prevent private exploitation, under new licenses; but this happy state of affairs did not last long. In 1925 Governor Smith found that he no longer controlled the Power Commission; and under Walker's successor in the Senate the Miller policy again became operative in Albany. The Republican Senate and Republican Power Commission were again sponsoring the licensing plan. So activity by private power interests again became evident. Application for licenses again began to come in.

To prevent action on these Governor Smith again resorted to his usual tactics. He carried the issue to the people. He would not let it be smothered in the Legislature. On February 1, 1926, he sent a special message to the Legislature, urging them to immediately repeal the Miller Water-power Laws, abolish the existing Water Power Commission, and create the public corporation he had recommended in 1924--the State Power Authority. This did not produce more legislative action than usual; and the power authority is still unborn. Governor Smith, by bringing the subject into public discussion from time to time is not all weakening his cause. It was one of the issues of the campaign of 1926; Congressman Ogden L. Mills, the unsuccessful candidate for Governor, favoring the licensing plan, and losing the Governorship, while Smith went back to carry on the fight for this and other projects, for another Gubernatorial term.

In 1926 an immense water-though not water power--project was finished. For two decades the city of New York had been hard at work on the project, with the result that water which ran to waste in the Catskills, 150 miles from the city, had been dammed and carried to New York City, providing 6,000,000 of people with an abundance of water--800,000,000 gallons of pure mountain water daily. Altogether, in twenty years, this great public work has cost the city of New York $182,000,000, but it safeguards the water needs of the metropolis to the extend of a daily consumption of 1,000,000,000 gallons--enough to meet her needs, with normal increase of population, until 1935. By that time, possibly, the States of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will have united their efforts upon a project to utilize the waters of the Delaware, which equitably divided, will, it is estimated, give each State another water supply, now wasted, of about 1,000,0000,000 gallons day. The great project just brought to completion sweeps into one reservoir 128,000,000,000 gallons of water--enough to cover Manhattan Island thirty feet deep. The collected water had submerged completely one city--Gilboa--which had a population of 5,000 people. Many of its inhabitants found it heartrending to abandon their homes in which they had passed most of their lives, but they could not be permitted to stand in the way of progress. Six million people needed water, and the 5,000 had to console themselves with monetary compensation for the blotting out of their homes.

Modernizing State Government--Governor Smith was not the whole proponent of the re-organization of the State government movement; neither should it be credited solely to Democrats. Many far-sighted Republicans earnestly worked with him in this important matter. Indeed, it could not have been achieved without their assistance; and if the record seems to infer that State Republicans at times looked questioningly at some of the Governor's recommendations in this connection, it should be remembered that Republicans would be inclined, naturally, to look askance at suggestions of a Democratic Governor. Two great Republicans stand out, with Governor Smith, in this re-organization project. Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes saw just as clearly as Smith that the Constitution under which the State government was functioning was antiquated, inadequate to meet modern conditions; and they were as eager as Smith to make governmental processes modern, but, as Mr. Root admitted, no one knew more than Alfred E. Smith about the business of the State. Sot he Governor seems logically to come into first place among those great New Yorkers--Republican and Democrat--who were determined to free the State from the constitutional handicaps that were hampering it. True, the development of the State had been phenomenal; nevertheless, under efficient government it might have been greater. Certainly, millions of dollars had, in the past, gone into the pockets of officials who had given little and poor service, being politicians, not true civil servants. They had been taking advantage of a Constitution drafted to meet the needs of 150 years ago.

Of all the advocates of re-organization, Governor Smith was always the most persistent and insistent. Republicans and Democrats alike will probably concede this. The governor lost no opportunity of furthering the movement. Mainly through his efforts, direct and indirect, the Legislature had taken action in 1924. It had gone part of the way, and the Governor was hopeful that the Legislature of 1925 would go the remainder of the distance to make it possible for a Constitutional amendment to be submitted to the people for ratification or rejection. Governor Smith lost no time, therefore, in bringing the re-organization issue before the Legislature of 1925. When it was known that they would confirm a commission, to prepare preliminary plans to effect the re-organization, in the event of ratification by the voters in the following November. The Legislature did not respond. They failed to appoint a commission. However, later in the year, the Republican leaders, Senator John Knight and Speaker Joseph A. McGinnis, recognized the need and appointed an unofficial advisory commission to study the matter.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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