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Whatever you thought of Long's politics or personality, you couldn't deny that the guy was a master of rhetoric. He could size up a crowd in moments, never used notes, and had a virtually photographic memory when it came to his speeches. And as any orator worth their salt could tell you, you won't get far in speechifying if you can't utilize the Big Three of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos.
As an avowed populist, Long had a decided preference for the emotional appeals of pathos. What's better to motivate the irritable mob than some good old fashioned rabble-rousing, emotionally charged invective, and great jokes? What made Long's emotional appeals so effective was his ability to weave an emotional narrative without resorting to full-blown hamminess. And when he did go full William Shatner on you, you knew it. Here's one sentence, in full, from when Long addresses the idea of government as a religion.
It is a kind of religion people have read of when women, in the name of religion, would take their infant babes and throw them into the burning flame, where they would be instantly devoured by the all-consuming fire, in days gone by; and there probably are some people of the world even today, who, in the name of religion, throw their own babes to destruction; but in the name of our good government, people today are seeing their own children hungry, tired, half-naked, lifting their tear-dimmed eyes into the sad faces of their fathers and mothers, who cannot give them food and clothing they both need, and which is necessary to sustain them, and that goes on day after day, and night after night, when day gets into darkness and blackness, knowing those children would arise in the morning without being fed, and probably go to bed at night without being fed. (71)
Long's talking about the hard times that people are struggling with and how the government they so fervently believe in has failed them. He evokes mothers burning their infant children rather than allowing them to suffer such hardship as what was then the average American's daily fare. He invokes the poor, teary-eyed children desperately looking for solace from helpless mothers and fathers who want nothing more than to feed their poor, ill-clothed, underfed babies.
Yeah. Long had the pathos stuff down cold.
It wasn't just about emotional power, though. Long was an expert in using statistics in his speeches that would add an extra reason-based logos oomph to his already powerful voice. At key points in his speech, he drops impactful (if somewhat exaggerated) numbers on his listeners: he states that over "45 times the entire money supply of the United States" is held in debt by the American People (37), and later goes on to state that "about 10 men dominate the means of activity in at least 85 percent of the activities that you own" (45). He also quotes from the foundational documents of the U.S. to bolster his case, and if that's not enough, he quotes from the ancient Greek philosophers.
Dropping names and citing statistics is a way of telling his audience, "don't just take my word for it." He even accuses his opponents of doing that: ipsi dixit—roughly translated as "because I said so." If you were a poor farmer with limited understanding of things like base rates or how to lie with statistics, you'd have no reason to doubt Long's numbers. Since his listeners probably admired the founding fathers and had at least heard of Socrates and Plato, that would also add to the impression that this Huey Long guy was making a pretty airtight argument.
Long was extremely gifted in getting an audience to truly believe him. This was a matter of ethos, of demonstrating the trustworthiness of his character by constant references to the Bible. Even though he insisted he wasn't claiming to be a saint, you can still read between the lines. By talking so much about the founding fathers, he was also inviting comparisons to their love of freedom and justice. And of course, you have to be a smart and educated person to know about Socrates and Plato.
All the statistics in the speech also did the double-duty of conferring some serious cred on Long. After all, a guy who could throw out numbers like that had to be pretty smart, right?
Even Long's opponents—who hated his guts and spoke daily of shooting him just to be rid of him—would go to see him speak just for the sheer show of it. It really can't be overstated; even his most bitter rivals would concede that he was perhaps the most effective public speaker in the history of the nation—hyperbole that Huey Long would no doubt love.
"Every Man a King" was written as a speech intended for a nationwide radio audience. Long loved to give speeches because he knew he was so good at it. He could persuade people much better in person than in writing. The fact that it was a radio broadcast affected the style of the speech. It was written in folksy terms, easy for the average listener to understand—no five-dollar words or unexplained ideas. When you read the speech as written, sentences run on and on and leave you wondering how the man could possibly get through some of them without his lungs imploding.
Long would speak in such a way that the sentences would have natural pauses where he could gather himself to continue to rant. Here, all those dense sentences with colons and semicolons are much shorter and choppier when delivered than they come across to readers. It's all in the delivery. Long wanted the listeners to feel that he was talking to them; look at all those phrases that include repeated uses of "you know" and "my friends."
Long lays out his arguments in plain English, then invites his listeners to join him in solving the problems.
Because NBC only gave him 30 minutes to speak, Long dives right in to laying out his argument about the central problem facing the country: wealth inequality. He claims it's an entirely manufactured problem, one that could be solved tomorrow if only the haves would share with the have-nots. He gets his listeners' attention by referring to the Declaration of Independence and the founding ideals of equality and happiness that it set out as inalienable rights. Then, in devastating contrast, he describes the reality of the American economy—a few men wealthy, the rest desperate. He circles back to the Declaration of Independence and asks: is this what they meant by equality? It's masterful.
Long knew that if anything would resonate with his audiences, it would be appeals to the Bible. After discussing the intentions of the founders, he then begins enumerating on the religious basis of his ideas, drawing connections between biblical statements about debt erasure and the frankly disturbing levels of debt held by a great many of the poorest Americans. Moses, James, and Jesus all spoke about redistributing wealth every so often so everyone would get his due. The implication? If the Lord spoke to the people today, he'd be telling them to start a local Share Our Wealth Society.
Long then gets into the meat of his argument with a neat little parable about 100 lunches on an island and how one guy shouldn't eat up all the lunches available to feed the whole island. It's a great way to bring the problem down to a relatable level before later in the speech going off citing statistics in the millions and billions. Alongside these simplifications of a vastly complicated issue are further biblical and historical supporting arguments, particularly with more references to the founding fathers and adding ancient Greek philosophy.
Long throws everything and the kitchen sink at his listeners and hopes something sticks, reminding them that everybody, and he means everybody, has agreed that wealth must be fairly shared and not be allowed to sit in the pockets of a handful of the uber-wealthy. So this is the end of the set-up sections; now it's on to the plan.
Long marches out his many criticisms of how both the Republican and Democratic establishment have handled, or rather mishandled, the current economic crisis. He adds some more rhetorical spice with a moving bit about how government is like a religion and how the people are made to suffer for the poor decisions of their government, all very melodramatic and hammed up to the max.
Now we get the first mention of the Share Our Wealth Society, along with its motto, "Every Man a King." It's the logical solution to the arguments he's been building throughout the speech. Long lays out some of the plans in the program so people get a basic idea of how the plan will address the problems he's been describing: limiting fortunes, a guaranteed old-age pension, a limited workweek, agricultural reforms. He doesn't go into great detail, but reassures everyone that they have it all worked out. He reiterates the motto, which must have sounded like heaven to people who felt more like serfs than kings.
Long then calls for listeners to join his movement, to start their own local chapters of the Share Our Wealth Society, and to write to him if they want any more clarification or Share Our Wealth buttons. He revs them up by saying that thousands of people are already meeting throughout the U.S. and he's getting flooded with emails. We mean letters. Long knew it was easier to jump on a bandwagon when it was already moving.
He finishes with the empowering statement that people can get themselves out of the terrible economic crisis by this kind of grass-roots action, because the rich guys are not going to give up their money voluntarily. (Except for the Mayo brothers, who are using their personal fortunes to cure diseases.) It's the people's government and they're the ones who need to get involved.
Long then signs off with a personal greeting to his family, reassuring them that he's well and hopes to be home soon. It's a genius move—giving listeners a peek into his personal life and getting them even more invested in helping him out.
If you don't walk away from a speech by Huey Long with a heart full of outrage, then you probably have a heart of stone.
At a time when many were standing in bread lines just to feed their families, there was a small handful of Americans who were incredibly, ridiculously, obscenely wealthy. To Long, this was incredibly unfair and unjust, and dangerously so: this was the sort of situation riots were made of. It's been said that every society is just three foodless days away from revolution (source), and the danger of revolution in America was never more present than during the Great Depression.
Long tapped into this latent anger and sense of injustice, not only because it aligned with his politics but probably more because it was convenient. It wasn't hard for a man as talented as Long to play crowds like a fiddle. He asked his listeners to dump their outrage on the people in power who'd totally failed them. Hoover and FDR couldn't be directly blamed for the Great Depression (that was more the past decade of deregulation and rampant speculative profiteering), but that didn't interest Huey Long in the slightest. He was selling a narrative of a disenfranchised poor working class that was crushed by greedy ruling elites who'd taken all the wealth for themselves.
Naturally, anger is gonna be the primary tone he wants to get across, with a bit of sorrow at the current state of affairs (check out our "Rhetoric" section for specifics) and a great heaping spoonful of hope right at the end. Trust in the Share Our Wealth Program, it will save the country and put food in everyone's bellies and a car in everyone's driveway. And the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Long's style combined a first-rate grasp of American mythology and history with an appeal to religion. Americans in Huey Long's day knew their Bible, so his ability to weave into his speeches the message, doctrines, and passages of the Bible appealed to the poor workers who made up the bread and butter of his base of power.
In his "Every Man a King" speech, Long pulled out all the stops. He piles on religious quotations, he lambasts his political enemies, he points out the outrageous level of income inequality in a number of ways and contexts so that it can be made perfectly clear exactly how tear-your-hair-out hopping mad everyone should be about this situation. And who better than Huey Long, the man who has been championing this cause from his earliest political struggles, to lead the charge for reform?
Long spoke with authority, but he made sure to speak his listeners' language. After quoting from the lofty language of the Declaration of Independence, he asks, "Now, what did they mean by that" (8)? After throwing out abstract numbers in the millions and billions, he adds:
Now my friends, if you were off on an island where there were 100 lunches, you could not let one man eat up the hundred lunches, or take the hundred lunches and not let anybody else eat any of them. (43)
He wows them with the big numbers then brings it home. Not everybody earns a billion dollars, but everyone eats lunch. And plenty of them knew what it was like to have to go without it.
The title of Long's speech comes from a phrase that Long borrowed from William Jennings Bryan's "Against Imperialism" speech made on August 8, 1900. Bryan phrased it a little differently: in the last section of the speech, he drops this line on his audience: "…a republic in which every citizen is a sovereign, but in which no one cares to wear a crown" (source).
Bryan had been the last great populist in America, though he died in 1925 just as Long was really starting to get his political ducks in a row. Bryan had been many things in his career, but being a staunch defender of the common man was the one thing common to much of his political activity. Couple that with a fairly strong religious streak that won Bryan both many supporters and haters, and you can see how this sort of person would appeal to Long.
There's actually some disagreement over the title of Long's speech. Some people call it the "Share Our Wealth" speech; others insist that that was the title of a speech he gave a few months later and this was the "Every Man a King" speech. To cut through the confusion we've opted to call it the "Every Man a King" speech, both because of the prominence of that message and because, well, it's a cooler title anyway.
I have only 30 minutes in which to speak to you this evening, and I, therefore, will not be able to discuss in detail so much as I can write when I have all of the time and space that is allowed me for the subjects, but I will undertake to sketch them very briefly without manuscript or preparation, so that you can understand them so well as I can tell them to you tonight.
I contend, my friends, that we have no difficult problem to solve in America, and that is the view of nearly everyone with whom I have discussed the matter here in Washington and elsewhere throughout the United States—that we have no very difficult problem to solve. (1-2)
The opening lines are absolutely perfect for the format of the speech that follows. Long declares he only has so much time, and as much as he'd like to get into the nitty-gritty of the problem facing America and Long's proposed solution, there's only enough time for a quick overview rather than lots of explicit detail. By telling his listeners that the problem he's about to address is easy-peasy to solve, it sets up his proposed plan as the simple and obvious solution.
Now, that I have but a minute left, I want to say that I suppose my family is listening in on the radio in New Orleans, and I will say to my wife and three children that I am entirely well and hope to be home before many more days, and I hope they have listened to my speech tonight, and I wish them and all of their neighbors and friends everything good that may be had.
I thank you, my friends, for your kind attention, and I hope you will enroll with us, take care of your own work in the work of this Government, and share or help in our Share Our Wealth Societies.
I thank you. (147-149)
Long wraps up with a signoff for his family (getting in as many feel-good last impressions as he can) and then thanks the people for their time and urges them to join the Share Our Wealth Program. Since that's ostensibly the goal of the speech in the first place, he wants to drive it home one last time. He leaves with a final thank you to emphasize his humble approach and to distance himself from the image of the dictatorial tyrant.
Huey Long was a brilliant mind, and though his speeches were mostly directed toward his poor (and largely illiterate) supporters, he didn't pull any rhetorical punches. The speech is absolutely loaded with Biblical allusions, lawyerly language, allusions to ancient Greek philosophy, and references to American history. It's composed almost entirely of lengthy and dense sentences. His message is fairly straightforward, and lots of it is masterfully conveyed in short and punchy allegories. But if you really want to grasp the extent of Long's speech there's a decent amount of background info you'd need to know.
The Declaration of Independence (6, 11, 12, 16)
U.S. Supreme Court (39)Daniel Webster, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and Theodore Roosevelt (62)
Herbert Hoover (62, 63, 65)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (62, 63, 65)
New Deal and its constituent agencies (109, 124, 125, 126, 127)
National Broadcasting System (144)
Morgans, Rockefellers, and Mayo Brothers (140)
They get a literal shout-out at the end of the speech (147)
God—referred to as Lord, He, Almighty, God, Maker (17, 18, 20, 21, 27, 28, 52, 54, 66, 115)
Book of James (17, 54)
Scripture/Bible (18, 19, 51, 52)
Socrates and Plato (56, 59)
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and later a critically acclaimed film starring Broderick Crawford, followed by a not-so-critically acclaimed film starring Sean Penn. The books and films center on the fictitious Willie Stark, who is very, very, very loosely based upon Huey Long. Set in early Depression-era Louisiana with an idealistic gubernatorial candidate who later becomes an immensely powerful political boss of the very sort he initially opposed. Okay, Long wasn't that bad, but the parallels are certainly there for those who are not exactly fans.
Conspiracy theories still swirl around Huey Long's assassination. There were no ballistic tests on the bullets that killed him and no autopsy; the inquest held afterward was closed to all but a few avid Long supporters. Lots of people think that Carl Weiss didn't fire the fatal shots, that Long was accidentally killed by his own bodyguards in the volley of gunfire at Weiss. There's also some speculation that Long didn't get the best surgical care in the world because the doctors were his political opponents. So far, no one's suggested alien abduction. (Source)
After Huey Long's death, his widow was appointed to serve out the rest of his term in the U.S. Senate. We've got to admit that's pretty progressive for the time. It helped that his term was set to expire in three months. (Source)
Elections didn't bother Huey Long one bit. He sent armed supporters into polling places to cross names off voter lists and when he ran for the senate, the voter lists included the names of Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, and movie star Clara Bow. Last we checked, none of them lived in Louisiana. (Source)
Huey Long was directly responsible for the election of the first female member of U.S. Senate in American history. During his time in the senate he funded her campaign and formed a close working relationship. The partnership didn't last long, however, on account of Long developing a severe case of a belly full of bullets. (Source)
In 1935, Long spent 15½ hours filibustering the Senate against a bill that would have given jobs to some political opponents. The speech included quotes from Shakespeare and the Constitution, plus some recipes for oysters. Wondering who holds the record? That would be Strom Thurmond's 24-plus-hour filibuster (unsuccessful, fortunately) against Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act. (Source)
Long was known for a down-home sense of humor that he never hesitated to use during campaigns. When Riley Joe Wilson, a candidate for the 1928 Democratic gubernatorial primary, mentioned in a speech that he was so poor that he went barefoot as a child, Long couldn't let that one stand. In one of his own speeches he retorted, "I can go Mr. Wilson one better. I was born barefoot!" (Source)