In a time when the issue of immigration is consistently on the front pages of newspapers in the U.S., today I share the Author's Preface from Oscar Handlin's 1958 book Al Smith and His America:

On both sides of the Atlantic, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a vision took hold of men’s imaginations, a vision so close to reality as to be utterly convincing.

America was the promised land, the society of open opportunity, where every man, whatever his background or origin, could move to the place to which ability entitled him. The poor could grow rich, the weak powerful and the humble proud if their talents justified it. The lad born in the log cabin could some day dwell in the White House.

The Statue of Liberty in 1905. (Credit: Henry G. Peabody and Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress)

No matter that the dream was not altogether true to life—inherited wealth and distinguished parentage did make a difference—still it was true enough to lead on, in faith, the millions of Europeans who became Americans. To the immigrants and to their children this was the most hopeful aspect of life in the United States. They could not escape the contrast with the society they had left behind in which status was rigidly fixed and opportunity conned to a fortunate few. Here the whole community profited through finding the abilities it needed when and where it needed them.
Syrian immigrant children play on the sidewalks of New York in the early 1900s. (Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Syrian immigrant children play on the sidewalks of New York in the early 1900s. (Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

So much greater, therefore, was the shock to discover as the twentieth century opened that artificial barriers to opportunity were being raised in contravention of these ideals. The challenge to the traditional conceptions of equality and opportunity produced a dark episode in American history. Al Smith, who lived through it, was peculiarly its victim. The society which miraculously opened to him his greatest opportunity spitefully tripped him up when he attempted to seize it.

Syrian immigrant children pose on a stoop in New York at some point between 1910 and 1915. (Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

The buoyant optimism of Americans has often deceived them into thinking that their whole history was one great success story. Yet the failures have, in their own way, been as significant and as important as the successes. The life of Alfred E. Smith had a full measure of both.
— Oscar Handlin, Author

Experience the life of Al Smith by watching my documentary The Sidewalks of New York on YouTube. Here's the trailer.

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