The 2016 presidential campaign season doesn’t have a monopoly on charismatic, polarizing candidates with unconventional political ideas. Although this election cycle is legitimately unprecedented in a number of ways, the presentation of radical policies isn’t one of them.
One such presidential hopeful with radical ideas appeared in the 1930s. Louisiana senator and former governor Huey “The Kingfish” Long felt President Roosevelt hadn’t gone far enough to address income inequality. Claiming that 2 percent of Americans owned 60 percent of the wealth, he proposed a “Share Our Wealth” program to put more money into the hands of the poor.
Long argued that no family should earn more than 300 times the average income nor hold more than 300 times the wealth of the average American fortune. Under his program, the government would tax all incomes over $1 million on a rising scale, so that any income greater than $8 million would be taxed at 100 percent. The program also guaranteed every family a homestead valued no less than $5,000 and an annual income of $2,000 (one-third the average family income, according to Long).
Long, whom The Washington Post called “the most entertaining tyrant in American history,” came up with this plan in 1934 while weighing a run for the White House. To gauge voter support, he sent Rev. Gerald Smith across the south to start Share Our Wealth clubs. The response was so enthusiastic that by 1935, 27,000 clubs had been formed and 4.6 million members had signed up.
Though he was solidly supported by impoverished Southern voters, who felt they had a champion in the senator, Republican and Democratic politicians, alarmed by his dictatorial style as governor and his growing popularity, considered Long a threat.
The threat was removed on September 10, 1935, when Huey Long was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
In a biographical sketch written for the Post, and excerpted below, Hermann B. Deutsch detailed several of Long’s bolder political maneuvers, some of which skirted the law. The author conceded that Long brought improvements to the state and redistributed some of his state’s wealth, but Deutsch still considered him a “benevolent despot.”
Huey Long — The Last Phase
By Hermann B. Deutsch
Excerpted from an article originally published on October 12, 1935
The political history of Huey P. Long embraced three cycles which, though interlocking, preserve separate identities in time and space. For convenience they may be labeled: Louisiana, Washington, and Share the Wealth. Each had its share in making the others possible. Each contributed toward the absolute control his laws gave him over Louisiana, just as this control made it possible for all three to continue to function.
In all three cycles, Huey Long exacted unquestioned recognition of his authority.
“The only kind of a band in which Huey Long can play,” Marshall Ballard, editor of The Item, once observed, “is a one-man band.”
From top to bottom, the Long political machine was composed of those who acknowledged his absolute leadership and would dance to any tune of his piping. He asked no more of them and would accept no less. For those who refused, he passed this year the amazing series of laws in seven special sessions of his legislature which constitute what has been termed his Putsch-Over.
The rank and file of the Huey Long political army in Louisiana was content to let him run the whole show because he won battles, and thus led them to the Promised Land of Patronage. The followers of Long the Apostle were content to overlook the practical manifestations of the sublimated precinct politician.
Touching Off a Bombshell
When Huey Long became governor of Louisiana in 1928, the two principal proposals of his program were an increase in the severance tax on natural resources to provide free textbooks for all school children, and an increase of the gasoline tax from one to two cents a gallon — it is seven cents a gallon today — the additional cent to be funded into bonds for the purpose of paving the main highways of the state.
Both proposals were bitterly attacked by the anti-Long politicians; the former on the ground that the state’s money was being dedicated to private institutions in supplying free textbooks to private and parochial schools; the latter because there was no guarantee that the bond money would be expended in actual road construction and not merely in swelling the payrolls of the highway commission for political purposes.
The schoolbook law was validated by the Supreme Court of the United States. The gasoline-tax bond issue was validated by an overwhelming vote of the people, who were heartily sick of gravel highways, and who turned a deaf ear to the sound argument that the fulfillment of so ambitious a plan on the money available was a physical impossibility. Each community hoped that its roads would be paved, and devil take the hindmost.
However, it soon became evident that more money must be provided for the state treasury. Thus, 10 or 11 months after his inauguration, Governor Long called the legislature into special session to levy a tax of five cents a barrel on the business of refining petroleum products, to “enable us to take care of the sick, the halt, and the blind in our state institutions, and of the children in our schools.”
The target of this tax was Mr. Long’s ancient bête noire, the Standard Oil Company, which maintained a huge refinery just outside of Baton Rouge, an industry which at that time maintained a payroll numbering some 7,000 persons. The company promptly announced that the imposition of such a tax would force them to close their Louisiana plant, and immediately began to curtail operations. Along with this there was a roar of protest from all sections of the state. Manufacturers, accustomed to special inducements to bring payrolls and industries into a state, rose up in arms. It became evident almost at once that Mr. Long would not be able to muster a legislative majority for his tax, and, alarmed by a rising tide of personal opposition, he decided to adjourn the session. Anti-administration leaders, on the other hand, insisted there be no adjournment until the legislature had gone on record as opposing any tax on industry.
In order to shut off all such debate, Speaker John Fournet, of the House, had been instructed to recognize only the administration floor leader when the House met, and put the question of adjournment at once. When the chamber convened, the roll was called for a record of those present. This was done by an electrical voting machine which automatically locked until photostatic copies of the vote had been made. During this interval, the chaplain intoned a brief prayer. The moment the final “Amen!” was uttered, all bedlam broke loose. Amid the din, the Speaker put the adjournment motion, which no human being could hear in the hubbub, and the electrical voting machine was once more opened. The whole thing occurred so quickly, however, that the machine was still in the position of the “present” vote of a few moments before, and consequently, regardless of whether members voted yes or no, the machine flashed “yes.”
That fired the powder train. The house went into a riot. Half a dozen fist fights broke out. Members charged the Speaker’s dais. One of them was knocked down and his scalp laid open by a blow. At the height of the tumult, Representative Mason Spencer, of Tallulah, made his way to the front of the House and bellowed:
“In the name of sanity and common sense!”
The rioting was momentarily checked. In the lull, Spencer called on the Speaker to take another vote of adjournment, but the latter refused, declaring the House was already adjourned. Before this could bring on a fresh outburst, Spencer declared he would call the roll himself. He did so, and the vote stood 72 to 7 against adjournment. All but that handful of administration adherents hastened to disclaim any connection with what was then assumed to have been some sort of fraudulent vote-machine operation. Further action was deferred until the following day, when a resolution of impeachment, setting forth 19 specific counts, was filed with the House. A committee of inquiry was appointed, a series of hearings was conducted, and in the end, eight impeachment counts were adopted and sent to the Senate for trial.
The special legislative session had been called for but 15 days, and only one count was voted before the expiration of that period. Over the protest of the Long floor leaders, and on the theory that once it became a court of impeachment, the Assembly was no longer bound by legislative limitations, the lawmakers continued in session until the remaining counts were disposed of.
A New Word in Louisiana
The one passed on before the expiration of the original session limit was voted down by the Senate, where graver charges were still to be taken up. On the following day, however, a remarkable document was laid before that body: A round robin signed by 15 senators — two more than enough to block a two-thirds conviction — to the effect that since all charges voted after the expiration of the legislative time limit were, in the opinion of the signers, illegal, they would refuse to vote conviction on any of them, regardless of evidence. That ended the impeachment proceeding between clock ticks and added the word Robineer to Louisiana’s political vocabulary.
Far from being chastened by this experience, Mr. Long immediately announced he intended to “grow me a new crop of legislators.” To this end he initiated recall proceedings against those who had opposed him. Anti-Long leaders from all parts of the state delivered a counter to this thrust by meeting in New Orleans to organize the Constitutional League, dedicated to the restoration of constitutional government. Mr. Long promptly labeled it the Constipational League, and declared it was composed of those who sought to sacrifice the schoolchildren, the halt, the sick, and the blind on the altars of the Standard Oil Company.
Nonetheless, the courts ultimately upheld the League’s contention that the recall provisions of the constitution did not apply to legislators. The League further brought suit to compel those pro-Long legislators who held highly remunerative places on the state payroll, such as special attorney for the highway commission or warden of the state penitentiary, to vacate either the positions or their legislative seats. This, too, was upheld by the Supreme Court. The following day, 18 pro-Long legislators resigned state jobs.
Ultimately the business interests of the state stepped in to insist upon a political truce. One of its terms was a pledge by Governor Long to impose no manufacturers’ license tax during his term. In return, the business interests were to cooperate with him in a survey on how to raise money for the more effective conduct of state institutions.
Mr. Long’s idea of what the state needed was a great program of public expenditures. This was early in 1930. Pundits still declared oracularly that prosperity was just around the corner. Mr. Long’s position was that all effects of the depression could be fended off from Louisiana if $100,000,000 or so were devoted to permanent public improvements.
The requisite funds were to be raised by adding three cents a gallon to the gasoline tax, dedicating one cent for division between the port of New Orleans and the public-school system of the state, and funding the remaining two cents a gallon, and certain other taxes, into bonds.
The opposition immediately protested that this would do no more than place at the disposal of Huey Long a $100,000,000 fund with which so accomplished a spoilsman might well consolidate his political machine for the state elections of 1932, and thus perpetuate himself in power. Once again the demand was for “safeguards” to keep the money from being politicalized.
The legislature met in May 1930; and a nagging, dragging session it was. Governor Long had won over to his standard, after the impeachment of the preceding spring, a majority of the members, but not a two-thirds majority. Yet the bond issues he contemplated could not be put into effect without constitutional amendments, which required a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses. Since no constitutional amendment could be passed, His Excellency shrewdly hit upon the amazingly simple expedient of calling a constitutional convention, which could be done by a simple majority, to rewrite the entire organic law so as to include the desired amendments. Under the terms of the proposed call, he would control a majority of the delegates.
The opposition could not block a majority vote. So the anti-Long leaders began a sort of “strike on the job,” arguing endlessly among themselves over unimportant pending measures, to keep what was by that time dubbed the “con-con bill” from coming to a vote; but it was finally passed and sent to the Senate for action, with just about enough time left to get it through that body before the expiration of the session.
The Senatorial Toga
In the Senate, however, matters were on a different footing. Here the presiding officer was Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr, a dentist, who, though elected on the Long ticket, was now one of Huey Long’s bitterest foes. Doctor Cyr made it possible for a filibuster to keep the con-con bill from coming up for consideration in the upper chamber, so that it died on the calendar. The day the legislature adjourned, Mr. Long announced his candidacy for the United States Senate.
“My platform,” he said in effect, “will be the public-improvement program that the people want, but that the legislature killed. If I am elected, that will mean the people approve my program. If I am defeated, that will mean they approve the action of my enemies. But … when I am elected I will not go to the Senate until after my term as governor is finished. I will not permit Paul Cyr to serve as governor of Louisiana for one holy minute. This will mean that one Senate seat from Louisiana will be vacant for two years, but that will make no difference. It has been vacant ever since the man who now holds it was elected.”
And so the issue was fought out. The Constitutional League supported Senator Joseph Ransdell for reelection, and rallied the anti-Long forces to the cause. Mr. Long jeered at the efforts of the Constipational League, spoke of its candidate as “Feather Duster” — a reference to the latter’s neat little brush of a white beard — and said that “the elements trying to defeat me and keep me from paving your roads and building up the prosperity of this state are the same old Standard Oil crowd that tried to keep me from giving your children free schoolbooks, and improving the hospitals, the insane asylums, and the other state institutions.”
“A St. Bernard Count”
The campaign was different from the gubernatorial race of two years before. At that time, Huey Long had had no political organization; only a personal following. The city machine had been aligned with one of his opponents and the state machine with the other. Now he had his own state machine, a vastly improved model of power and efficiency.
Long defeated Ransdell for the Senate by the overwhelming tally of 149,640 to 111,451. One rather unusual feature was the vote of St. Bernard Parish, which adjoins New Orleans on the downstream side. Mr. Long received 3,979 votes there, as against Senator Ransdell’s total of 9. This was the year 1930. A census had just been completed. Yet one ward in St. Bernard Parish, where the census listed a total population of 912 — men, women, and babies, nonvoting Negroes as well as whites — counted 913 votes, all of them for Mr. Long. This added still another expression to Louisiana’s political vocabulary. It is: “A St. Bernard count.” However, Huey Long would have been overwhelmingly elected even if every St. Bernard ballot had been thrown out. Thus, none of the reformers who later clamored for other election investigations raised their voices at this time. There was also a general feeling that “the people have spoken.” At any rate, all opposition to the Long proposals was withdrawn.
A special session of the legislature was called at once, and in a shrewdly worded opening message, the governor suggested that “if we must fight, let’s all fight for only 30 days on full stomachs 15 months hence, instead of starving ourselves while we fight for 16 months between now and the next election.” As an earnest of his readiness to let bygones be bygones, he stood by his original proposals to finance a Mississippi River bridge and aid the New Orleans port authority out of new gasoline taxes, and to give Baton Rouge a $5,000,000 new capitol. The only condition he made was that the impeachment charges, still technically pending against him, be withdrawn. Some 20 die-hards in the House refused to accede to this, but the overwhelming majority did, and thus one stormy chapter was closed.
The legislative program went over with scarcely a hitch, and the era of construction began. There was considerable eagerness to get some of the bond money into circulation, for 1931 was a dreadful cotton year, marked by a 10,000,000-bale carry-over, a record crop, and a price of five and six cents a pound for staple that had cost eight cents a pound by the time it left the gin. Proposals for acreage reduction, for plowing under every third row of the current crop, and similar curative measures were suggested. While the agitation was at its height, Governor Long proposed a law forbidding the growing or ginning of any cotton at all during 1932, the law to become effective when enacted by states representing three-fourths of the country’s cotton production.
At a conference of delegates from cotton states, Senator-Governor Long explained that acreage-reduction laws could be invalidated by the no-cotton law, if enacted as a measure to control the boll weevil or check the spread of root rot would be maintained. Texas, representing one-third of the country’s cotton production, was called upon to be the first to enact the holiday plan, since, if Texas rejected it, there would be no possibility of securing the requisite three-fourths concurrence.
However, Texas refused concurrence, which evoked from Louisiana’s executive the public statement that “Texas legislators were bought to kill the cotton-holiday plan like you’d buy a slot machine.” Mississippi likewise refused. Both passed acreage-reduction laws which came to nothing.
Two Men in One Chair
Meanwhile, Mr. Long found other fish to fry in Doctor Cyr’s sudden move to seize the governor’s chair, on the allegation that Huey Long had vacated it when he forwarded the credentials of his election to the United States Senate. To lend point to this contention, Doctor Cyr took oath as governor before the clerk of court of Caddo Parish, October 13, 1931.
The Statehouse immediately became an armed camp under constant highway police and militia guard, to keep Doctor Cyr from taking physical possession. For the rest, Huey Long chuckled joyously and said: “We’re going to send the Doc back to his tooth shop in Jeanerette now. By taking oath as governor, he vacated the office of lieutenant governor. That means I can go to Washington as soon as the courts settle him.”
The amused regard of the entire nation was focused on Louisiana during the legalistic marches and countermarches that followed. Unemployed men in parks and along water fronts whiled away the tedium of waiting for prosperity by administering to one another the oath of office as governor of Louisiana. Alvin O. King, president pro tempore of the state Senate, was sworn in by the Long administration as lieutenant governor; and the moment the Supreme Court upheld this step, Mr. Long hastened to Washington to take his seat in the Senate, just 17 months after his election to that body. On the same day, in a Statehouse surrounded by militiamen, Lieutenant Governor King became governor. Doctor Cyr continued his protests, and went so far as to open “executive offices” in a Baton Rouge hotel, from which point he issued a proclamation calling upon Mr. King forthwith to abandon the “armed insurrection he was maintaining” at the statehouse. But the move was little more than a gesture, for by that time the entire Long ticket had been elected by something very like a landslide, and was awaiting inauguration in May.
The First Step in Wealth-Sharing
The new governor was Oscar Kelley Allen, boyhood friend of Senator Long. John D. Fournet, the speaker who had sought to adjourn the House of Representatives during the riot of 1929, was lieutenant governor. They had headed what was known as the Complete-the-Work ticket; with both state and city machines solidly behind them, they polled a majority of something like 56,000 votes. St. Bernard Parish, chafing under the stigma of having counted 9 votes out of 3,988 against Senator Long in 1930, set a new high by tallying exactly 3,152 votes for every candidate on Mr. Long’s Complete-the-Work ticket, and not one single solitary ballot for any one of the 23 opposition candidates.
As always when confronting a new audience, “antics” were expected of Senator Long when he reached Washington, but none developed. Washington began to wonder whether, after all, this stuff about pot likker and green pajamas and “them birds” had been anything more than highly colored publicity. Then Mr. Long took the first step toward what he called “redistribution of our national wealth” by proposing a resolution to limit individual incomes to $1,000,000 a year, and bequests to not more than $5,000,000 to any one child, the balance of all incomes or fortunes in excess of those figures to go to the national treasury. The Democratic leader, Senator Joe Robinson, of Arkansas, rejected the resolution. Then and there Washington learned about Huey Long, for his response was an immediate resignation from all Senate committees, with the explanation that he would take no further assignments or honors from a party leadership he refused any longer to follow.
“I met myself very quickly on the proposition of Robinson for President,” he stated. “Right now I’m for Robinson to be Hoover’s running mate, since they both stand for the same thing.”
But it was a cartoon in the Chicago Tribune, showing Joe Robinson beneath an American flag and Huey Long under the red banner of Communism, which really set off his ire.
That was the prelude to the delivery of the speech which has since been reprinted by the millions, under the title of “The Doom of America’s Dream.” It was the first official utterance in behalf of what is now the Share-the-Wealth program.
The Steam Roller at Work
With the Choctaws and the Long organization still solidly welded, Overton was elected to the Senate, in the primary election, by a vote of 181,464 to 124,935. Broussard and a newly organized Honest Election League — “Every time I beat ’em in a campaign, they go get ’em up a new league!” — attacked the validity of the primary, not on the ground that Broussard could or would have won, but on the allegation that enough corruption had been practiced by the Overton supporters to taint the title of their candidate to a seat in the Senate. There were three public hearings by senatorial subcommittees, and the record of the proceedings covers 3,886 closely printed pages. While condemning such things as Louisiana’s lack of a Corrupt Practices Act and the use of dummy candidates to get control of polling-booth commissioners, the committee refused to unseat Senator Overton.
Flushed with this success, the state and city machine coalition pitched in to put over a series of constitutional amendments at the same election at which Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover for the presidency of the United States. The casual count of votes on these amendments brought on a probe by District Attorney Eugene Stanley, of New Orleans, and ended in the indictment of some 513 polling-booth commissioners, whom the state administration freed from their predicament by a new law which halted all further prosecutions.
Within a month, the city and state organizations broke the entente that had linked them for more than two years. Senator Long demanded that District Attorney Stanley be not endorsed for reelection in the approaching municipal primary. By a vote of 12 to 5, the Choctaw caucus rejected his demand. He immediately put out a city ticket of his own to oppose the regulars and the reform ticket as well, but his slate was soundly trounced and the regulars won.
Voters in Revolt
Prior to this time, however, an even more serious blow had been struck against his prestige in the Sixth Congressional District. Bolivar Kemp, congressman, had died in June, and because of the disaffection of the voters in that region, the Long organization had sought to evade the test of strength there by refusing to call an election to fill the vacancy. In November, a mass meeting of indignant citizens in Baton Rouge called an unofficial primary of their own and announced the winner would be given credentials to represent the district in Congress.
The state administration swung into action at once, through a district Democratic committee on which the Long forces held a majority. After refusing for six months to call an election, Governor Allen now called one for a date only a week hence. On the plea that this allowed no time to hold a primary, the district Democratic committee then arbitrarily named Mrs. Bolivar Kemp, the late congressman’s widow, as Democratic nominee. In Louisiana, Democratic nomination is tantamount to election. Usually, in such a contest as this, there is not even a Republican candidate in the race. Throughout the district citizens went into literal — not figurative — revolt.
“Never before has such a scoundrelly attempt been made to defeat the expression of the people’s will,” wrote Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of the Hammond Daily Courier. “If our stern protest is not answered, let us read our histories again. They will tell us with what weapons we earned the rights of free men. Then, by God’s help, let’s use them.”
In Amite, in St. Francisville, in Denham Springs and other parish seats throughout the district, ballots, tally sheets, and other election paraphernalia were seized by force and publicly burned. In the three parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Helena, and Livingston, District Judge Nat Tycer issued an injunction forbidding the election. Adding that “it’s a poor court that can’t enforce its orders,” he began to swear in and arm deputies, his own 82-year-old father being the first to take the oath. He instructed these deputies to go out and deputize others to help enforce the court’s ruling. A truck that sought to bring election supplies into the district was driven off by gunfire. In Hammond and in Plaquemine, Senator Long was hanged and burned in effigy.
Something less than 5,000 votes were cast for Mrs. Kemp in a district ordinarily polling more than 42,000, although she was the only candidate. Hers was the only name on the ballots. Three times as many votes were cast a fortnight or so later in the citizens’ election, at which J.Y. Sanders Jr. was the only candidate. However, the House of Representatives at Washington refused to recognize either election as valid. A new election was called, close upon the defeat of the Long ticket in New Orleans. Once more J.Y. Sanders Jr. was victorious.
That succession of victories over the redoubtable Huey sent the anti-Long contingent into full cry. Achilles really did have a vulnerable heel apparently. They began to rally their forces and confected a new sort of round robin, a pledge to oust Speaker Allen Ellender when the legislature convened in May, with the idea that this would be followed by removing Fournet, and later, perhaps, by the impeachment of Governor Allen. With the legislative machinery in their hands, the opposition would soon be in control of the state.
Of the 51 signatures needed to show a pledged majority in the House of Representatives, 48 were secured. The fact that the other three could not be gained was due primarily to the personal popularity of Ellender. Once it became definitely known, however, that the Long forces would remain in power, there was a regular stampede from the opposition to the administration. The Long political fortunes swung upward as swiftly as they had plummeted toward the depths. From a position where not more than three legislative votes stood between him and political extinction, Huey Long rose to a more complete absolutism than ever, and the Putsch-Over of 1934–1935 was begun.
From all parts of the state had come a demand for a reduction of automobile-license fees. Very well. The Long forces acceded to that demand, but coupled with it a proviso that would take away from New Orleans and its anti-Long city administration $700,000 a year in highway revenues. In order to reduce their auto taxes, the country members had to deprive New Orleans of this income, which gave them no pause whatever. Similarly, a bill authorizing New Orleans to regulate private boathouses along Bayou St. John was changed by amendment to take away, in addition, all control by the city authorities over the local police force.
A Law Mill in High Gear
At this point the Putsch-Over was abandoned for the time being, because the Long-Allen administration had its own legislative grist to grind in the way of a promised tax-relief program, under whose terms the first $2,000 of the assessed value of all owner-occupied homesteads was to be exempted from property taxes. To make this possible, it was further proposed that the revenue thus lost be made up by levying six new taxes — an income tax, an insurance-premium tax, a tax on stock-exchange and cotton-exchange transfers, a tax on newspaper advertising, and the like — thus shifting a portion of the burden of government from real estate. Much of this legislation required a two-thirds majority. Not until it had been securely consolidated was the real Putsch-Over begun.
Special session followed special session; half a dozen in the space of less than a twelvemonth. No need to mince matters now. Forty or more laws would be shoveled in a few minutes before midnight of the opening day of each session. Without regard to subject matter, all would be referred at once to the ways-and-means committee, where the Long forces had a majority of 15 to 2. Following a consideration which averaged two and a fraction minutes per new law, this committee then reported all administration bills favorably, after which the House would enact them and rush them over to the Senate, where the same procedure was followed. In this fashion, a law was passed giving the state supervision over the appointment of every nonelective employee of every parish, city, or village in Louisiana. In this way a law was passed providing that the governor would henceforth have the right to appoint all polling-booth commissioners in every primary election. Thus the law was passed providing for the appointment of an unlimited number of state police, permitting the governor to call out the militia at pleasure, ousting hostile local administrations, giving a state board control of the appointment of every schoolteacher in Louisiana.
Bills Passed in a Few Seconds
As a matter of cold record, even this procedure was speeded up during one session after the legislature was thoroughly broken to the idea of unquestioning enactment of any bill proposed by the Long administration. Laws were passed with only a few seconds of total consideration, under regular rules of procedure, by doing something no one else had ever thought of doing before. A bill may be amended at any time before the moment of its final passage. Thus an innocuous codification of existing laws would be introduced. After this had been passed by the House, and a moment or two before the Senate was to take final action, the Long floor leader would introduce an “amendment” which was the real new law. In one case such an amendment was 200 pages long and was adopted in less than a minute of elapsed time. It was then rushed to the House for concurrence, and was laid on Governor Allen’s desk for his signature within a matter of minutes after its first appearance in the legislative assembly. In precisely this way the manufacturers’ license tax, which had brought on the impeachment proceedings of 1929, was enacted in 1934; the only difference was that it had now been made more far-reaching, since it no longer applied merely to the refining of petroleum but to every other manufacturing industry except the processing of bread, milk, and ice.
This kindled the flame of revolt once more; not among the members of the legislature but among the employees of the Standard Oil Company, 1,000 of whom were laid off within the week; the great refinery cutting its operation to a minimum as a prelude to shutting down. Along with a number of sympathizers, they finally armed themselves and seized the courthouse at Baton Rouge, which had just been annexed to the Long organization by the simple process of enacting a law authorizing the governor to appoint enough additional police jurors — the Louisiana name for county commissioners — to give the Long side a majority over the elected commissioners. Short shrift was made of this rebellion. Baton Rouge was put under martial law, a number of leaders were charged with conspiring to assassinate Senator Long, and a number of others, who armed themselves and gathered at the Baton Rouge airport for action, were dispersed by militiamen without a single shot being fired save for the discharge of one shotgun, which was not in the hands of a uniformed soldier, but severely wounded one of the revolters. The situation was eased off when the five-cents-a-barrel tax was compromised for one cent a barrel.
Plot and Counterplot
Another “murder plot” was bared in the summer of 1935 by Senator Long, and laid to a group of five anti-Long congressmen, who met in New Orleans several months ago to confect an anti-Long ticket for the approaching state and congressional primaries. Two members of the Long organization moved into the hotel room adjoining that of the congressmen and recorded the conversation through a concealed listening device. Gossip has it that the records thus made were to have been reproduced over the loudspeakers of the Long fleet of sound trucks, during the campaign this winter. The senatorial primary had been moved up from early autumn, the usual date, to January, 1936. Senator Long planned to have his senatorial campaign nicely out of the way before the presidential conventions of next year, with every municipal employee, every state employee, every schoolteacher, and every polling-booth commissioner in Louisiana a part of his state machine; with the militia, the state police, and an unlimited number of special polling-place deputies at his beck and call.
It was just before the past year’s Putsch-Over, which made all this possible by law, that the Share-the-Wealth cycle of Mr. Long’s political history had its inception. The Reverend Gerald Smith had just quit his pastorate in a Shreveport church over differences with his board concerning social liberalisms advocated from the pulpit. Struck by the tenor of Huey Long’s speeches for the redistribution of wealth, he sought out the senator, and the two spent some time together. Doctor Smith was with Mr. Long on the fateful January night in 1934 when the returns of the city election spelled such decisive defeat for the Long municipal ticket. The throng that had milled about campaign headquarters early in the evening, cheering, jostling for a chance to shake hands with Huey Long, melted away as the returns were tabulated. By the time victory for the opposition was conceded, the rooms were almost deserted.
Doctor Smith remained with Huey Long that night, endeavoring to comfort him. He accompanied him to the national capital a day or so later, and, indeed, was mistakenly assumed by Washington reporters to be a new bodyguard. Early one morning, about three o’clock according to some versions of the incident, Huey Long summoned his secretary, Earl Christenberry, and the Reverend Smith to his rooms, and excitedly explained that he had just thought of a national organization, without dues of any sort, to be known as the Share-the-Wealth Society; something to be welded into a national Huey Long political unit on the basis of a platform whose principal plank was the decentralization of fortunes.
A Political Jack-of-All-Trades
He gave Louisiana good roads — miles and miles of them. He succeeded in providing funds for building bridges, equipping hospitals and other eleemosynary institutions, enlarging a university, founding new colleges in conjunction with it, and, in short, putting into physical effect a construction program of vast expenditures at a time of general financial depression. He succeeded in raising the state’s revenues to figures of previously undreamed-of scope by adding new taxes and increasing old ones, but apparently without incurring the hostility of a voting majority of his electorate thereby. His Putsch-Over deprived Louisiana communities of any semblance of local self-government, but in the main he was a benevolent despot to all who acknowledged his autocracy.
And finally, he managed to crystallize about his genius for political evangelism the general feeling of worldwide unrest, the vague discontent evoked by the thought: “Why does the fact that we produce more than ever at less effort than heretofore mean that we must have less to enjoy?” He did this through his Share-the-Wealth movement, whose principal organizer said that this movement consciously deified him to ensure the success of a new economic and social philosophy.
On August 30, 1935, the man who manifested himself on the national stage as a sublimated precinct politician, as a notable Washington personage, and as a nascent apostle was 42 years old.
Less than a month later, he was shot and killed by Dr. Carl A. Weiss, Jr., in one of the ornamental marbled hallways of the lavish state capitol he had built as governor of Louisiana.
Senator Long had just convened another of his amazing special legislative sessions. The New Orleans Choctaws had surrendered at discretion. Money withheld from the city treasury for months was now to be made available. Along with this, bills virtually depriving two anti-Long district judges of places on the bench were tossed into the legislative hopper. One of the judges, gerrymandered into a district where, as a practical matter, he could never have been reelected, was the father of Doctor Weiss’ young wife. Friends and foes alike flout the idea, however, that this could have aroused the studious 30-year-old physician to the pitch of homicidal vengeance.
A Legislative Tribute
By agreement among his supporters, the legislative program of the session he had initiated was carried out “just as if Huey was still here with us,” this being held a deeper tribute of respect and affection than any formal adjournment. The only impromptu feature added to the assembly’s program was the joint resolution authorizing the interment of Huey Long’s body in the spacious grounds of the Capitol his administration had built.
A week after this article was published, the Post published the editorial “The End of a Chapter.” While remarking on Long’s “remarkable qualities of wit and outspokenness, together with rare showmanship” and roundly denouncing political assassination, the editor’s relief that the Share-the-Wealth movement had come to an end is almost palpable.
Arkansas had never seen its like before. With just days remaining in the 1932 Arkansas’ Democratic primary, Huey Long crossed the Mississippi and launched a campaigning blitz across the state that stunned voters and sent shivers through the state’s political establishment.
Seven motor trucks and Senator Long’s private automobile composed the campaign caravan. Two of the trucks were specially designed sound trunks developed by him for his Louisiana forays.
Remember as you read these excerpts from the October 15, 1932 Post that Frankin D. Roosevelt had not yet been elected president. Huey Long was the rising power in radical politics and many Americans people assumed he was an unstoppable demagogue that would destroy the country’s government and business. The media watched him with dread and fascination; he was ‘good copy’ but his ability to stir anger and sell his version of populist socialism could prove dangerous. In Arkansas, the Democratic party was about to learn just how dangerous he could be. On August 1, he brought his support to Hattie Caraway’s campaign for re-election by sweeping into Arkansas with his convoy of trucks:
Each is equipped with four amplifying horns. Inside the vehicle body are the loudspeaker panels, an attachment for playing phonograph records, several folding chairs, a folding table, a pitcher and glasses. On the roof of each truck is a slatted platform with two of the four amplifying horns on each side, and with nested takedown iron railings and a portable stairway. Where no speaker’s platform has been provided, the folding table is opened, and the pitcher filled with ice water and set atop, with glasses beside it and a microphone before. The stairway is hooked into a special iron rail at the side of the truck and lo, there is a complete and commandingly placed speaker’s platform.
Naturally, Mrs. Caraway’s six opponents, accustomed to the frock-coated school of campaigning for high office, with just a dash of baby kissing, perhaps, as a concession from Olympus to the humanities, were bewildered by this high-pressure disturbance which moved across the land with such clocklike regularity, military precision and devastating efficiency. By the time they had rallied their political faculties und begun to strike buck, the damage had been done.
Hattie Caraway wasn’t just a bystander in this campaign. She quickly found her feet, spoke out, and developed her own style.
At the start of the march, one could not even properly have referred to her brief preliminary remarks as a speech. They were awkwardly couched and awkwardly delivered, a bumpy performance, which not even her shy closing remark that “I know I don’t talk like a statesman, but I’ve always tried to vote like one for you,” could quite make palatable.
Two days later she was an effective stump speaker in her own right. She had caught the knack of leading up to a climax, and then waiting for the burst of applause which is practically sure to follow when the audience is friendly. She did not need much tutoring, for she possessed a happy gift for phrase making.
Nothing in the way of spectacular showmanship that could or would draw crowds to the meetings was overlooked, and the Arkansas electorate was jamming the highway to see and hear this much-discussed Kingfish, in the bundle compartment of whose automobile reposed, side by side, a well-thumbed Bible and a loaded atomizer of throat spray. However, the real task was not merely one of assembling crowds, but of proselyting, of evangelizing, of making converts and staunch believers out of voters to whom it had never occurred that a woman could be a serious contender for a Senate seat
So there were many, that week when Huey Long dashed over Arkansas, who came to scoff and who remained as prey. Farmers drove to town in their own automobiles—and no few of the cars were this year’s models—in such numbers that highways were congested in every direction. Fifteen minutes after he began to talk, Huey Long would have these same farmers convinced that they were starving and would have to boil their old boots and discarded tires to have something to feed the babies till the Red Cross brought around a sack of meal and a bushel of sweet potatoes to tide them over; that Wall Street’s control of the leaders—not the rank and file—of both Democratic and Republican parties was directly responsible for this awful condition; that the only road to salvation lay in the reelection of Hattie W. Caraway.
Huey knew what worked with these voters and he delivered it better than anyone. He offered sympathy, outrage, a list of enemies to despise and heroes to admire, rounded off with old-time religion and garnished with humor.
“Think of it, my friend! In 1930 there were 540 men in Wall Street who made $100,000,000 more than all the wheat farmers and all the cotton farmers and all the cane farmers of this country put together! Millions and millions and millions of farmers in this country, and yet 540 men in Wall Street made $100,000,000 more than all those millions of farmers. And you people wonder why your belly’s flat up against your backbone!”
“You don’t have to look far as to how you can correct this condition. Herbert Hoover is calling together boards and commissions to find out what he should do about it. The only dad-blamed thing on the living face of the earth that he needs to do is read his Bible. The Lord tells us in Chapters 24, 26 and 27 of Leviticus, in Chapter 5 Of Nehemiah, and Chapter 5 of James, not only what to do but how to do it. He tells you that unless you redistribute the wealth of a country into the hands of all the people every fifty years, your country’s got to go to ruination. The trouble is we’ve got too many men running things in this country that think they’re smarter than the Lord.”
“I’m for [Winnie Caraway] like I was for an uncle of mine, the time he joined the church and got baptized… This uncle of mine was over forty, and we were all worried about him because we heard he was sitting in on card games at night, and if he didn’t hurry up and join the church before it got too late, he’d die an unsaved man and the devil’d get him sure. However, one time a real good preacher come through our town and preached one of these special hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, and he scared my uncle up, so that be joined the church and offered himself as a candidate for baptism.
Well, the next Sunday afternoon about three o’clock they took my uncle out to Dugdemona Creek to baptize him, and my aunt, his wife, was sitting on the bank with their little boy, and a big crowd was standing all around. And as the preacher led my uncle out into the waters of old Dugdemona, there floated out of my uncle’s pocket the ace of spades, face up. And a couple of steps farther, out come the king of spades and the queen, and finally the jack and ten-spot of spades following along behind.
“My aunt jumped up and flung out her arms and cried: “Don’t baptize him, parson! It’s no use! He’s lost! My husband’s lost!”
But the little boy said: ‘Now, don’t you get excited, ma. Pa ain’t lost. If he can’t win with that hand he’s got there, he can’t win at all.” And I’m here to tell you, my friends, that if we can’t win with Mrs. Caraway’s record of standing by you people through thick and through thin, then we can’t win at all and we might just as well admit Wall Street is too strong for us.”