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In forty-nine states you'd get a pass for never having heard of Huey P. Long. But not so in Louisiana, where the influence of this native son is still felt and where his political dynasty continues.
Long was born in the backwoods that would come to be the basis of his power, in rural Winnfield Parish, LA. (Parishes are what they call counties in Louisiana.) He was the seventh of nine sons born to deeply religious Baptist parents, and this upbringing would have a huge impact on his later political career.
From a young age, Long showed major promise and smarts, and he performed incredibly well even in the almost non-existent education system of backwoods Louisiana. The schools were so poor that most of his early education can be chalked up to homeschooling and the determination of his mother. Let's put it this way: if you think today's education system is in trouble, we're talking about a state with a seventy-five percent illiteracy rate thirty years after Long was in school (source).
Yeah. Real bad.
This didn't stop Huey Long. Pretty much the only thing that could stop him was a belly full of bullets. But…we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Even in his early academic career, you could see the fire that he'd eventually ignite in his constituents. He was expelled from his high school for circulating petitions protesting a new addition to the curriculum: 12th grade. Even so, Huey won a scholarship to Louisiana State University for his skills in debate despite the stacked socio-economic deck against him.
Even with tuition covered, his family couldn't afford to pay for textbooks. So without any hope of continuing his education, Long hit the road as a traveling salesman, hawking whatever he could to make ends meet. He spent five years in the trade and, though he didn't know it at the time, these would be years well spent. Long learned an enormous amount about the dirt roads and backwoods of his state, and that knowledge would become incredibly important in his later political career. He also learned to exercise his gift of gab and claimed he could sell anything to anyone. This would come to include, of course, revocation of civil liberties to the Louisiana State Senate.
Though Long made a good salesman, life wasn't done trying to knock him down. When World War I broke out, sales jobs became scarce. Long tried his hand at becoming a Baptist minister at the urging of his mother, but decided he wasn't exactly cut out for a man-of-the-cloth lifestyle (if you know what we mean). He wasn't interested in enlisting in the service. He said he "was not mad at anybody over there," so he sat out the war (source).
What's a guy to do at this point?
Become a lawyer, apparently. Even without a college education.
He attended the University of Oklahoma College of Law for a while, and then Tulane University of Law School in New Orleans. At Tulane, Long started to build what would soon become a legendary reputation. After his first year there, this consummate salesman persuaded the examining committee for the Louisiana Bar to allow him to take the exam. And this dude was so smart that he passed—on his first try (source).
Long's law career was nothing short of brilliant, and marked by a constant fight for the little guy. He started his career by attacking the entrenched powers of Standard Oil. At the time, this was regarded as a bad move: Standard Oil was the face of Big Business in America, especially in Louisiana. Though the monopoly of Standard Oil had been broken up in 1909, the companies that the breakup created operated the same game on a smaller scale. They were rich, they were powerful, and they were enormous. So naturally, whenever a smaller Louisiana oil company ran into legal trouble in the face of Standard Oil's immense economic and political clout, it was Huey Long to the rescue.
Right after he got married in 1913, Long told his wife about his political ambitions. He'd become a local politician, then governor, then senator, then president (source). Not long after establishing his law practice in 1918, he took the first step. Only 25 at the time, he was ineligible for nearly every political office except the Louisiana Railroad Commission, later renamed the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Long won this election and used his office as a springboard to step up his attacks on the big businesses he saw choking the life out of their local competitors.
Long got a reputation as a bully during that campaign. Not only did he beat up a journalist who opposed his views, but he even punched out the 60-year-old governor of Louisiana when they met by chance in a hotel lobby (source). He applied the same enthusiasm for figuratively beating up his opponents throughout his career.
Long built his early legal and political career on battling the large utility conglomerates and mega-corps of his day. In perhaps his single biggest win, he brought a successful lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for its unfair rate hikes, resulting in refunds for over 80,000 poor Louisianans totaling nearly half a million dollars (source). The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and Chief Justice William Howard Taft remarked that Long was the greatest legal mind to have ever appeared before the Supreme Court.
In 1920, Long had supported John M. Parker for governor, but Parker's lack of follow-through on his reformist platform disgusted Long. So when it came time for a new governor in 1924, Long threw his hat in the ring at the tender age of thirty and finished a very respectable third place. He'd visited every backwater town and traveled every dirt road in the state, giving as many as six speeches a day. It was the first and only election Long would ever lose.
Until the next gubernatorial race in 1928, Long bided his time as the Chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, fighting the good fight for laborers against big business. Long wasn't idle politically, however. He spent a lot of time building up his own base of support among Catholic candidates in local elections in order to impress heavily Catholic southern Louisiana.
Long had a stroke of good luck from the very bad luck of the poor people of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. In April 1927, Governor O.H. Simpson caved to pressure from the New Orleans city fathers and dynamited the levees of the Mississippi River to spare the city from flooding after 14 inches of rain (in one day) threatened to destroy the city. The downstream residents, their neighborhoods flooded, were left homeless and very, very angry with the Governor and the New Orleans city government.
Long took advantage of that anger. When the next governor's election rolled around, he won with a campaign slogan he borrowed from William Jennings Bryan but would forever after be associated with Long: "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown."
Before we get into his tenure as governor, there's something you'll have to understand about Louisiana state politics at the time: it was dirty. And not in the, "I stepped in some mud on the way to school" kind of dirty. More of the "dripping head to toe in raw sewage" kind of dirty.
Corruption wasn't just rampant; it was par for the course. Cronyism was a political necessity in order to survive, and graft was a given. So when Long stepped in, it was to be expected that some level of cronyism would continue. There are many things Huey Long can be accused of, but being a clean politician isn't one of them. For every political appointment he made, he demanded a portion of the accompanying salary go directly into his political funds, which he was able to use for anything he wanted.
Back to our story.
Once Long had secured his grip on the legal processes of the state, he began to enact his great vision of dragging his state out of poverty and hopelessness. He totally transformed the education system of his backward state, which had the second lowest literacy rate in the nation. One of every seven white males had never seen the inside of a schoolroom. Of those who had, half had never gone beyond the fourth grade. Among non-whites and women, these rates were even worse.
There's a reason the saying "Thank God for Missouri" had originated in Louisiana. It was the one state that somehow managed to perform even worse.
Long provided free night courses to boost adult literacy rates, sent bookmobiles into rural parishes and tripled the enrollment of Louisiana State University. Micromanager that he was, he even drew up plays for LSU's football team, wrote their fight songs, and led their marching band. He gave Louisianans free schools, school buses, and textbooks. That's right—never again would students be unable to get to school or be turned away because they couldn't afford books. At least not while Huey Long was Governor.
His improvements weren't limited to education. He removed the mentally ill from prisons and got them treatment, reduced property taxes for the poor, lowered rates for telephones and electric service, declared a moratorium on home foreclosures, and improved medical care to the poor. And in an epic move to give political power back to the people, he eliminated the poll tax that effectively shut out many poor Louisianans, many of them African-Americans, from voting. You can bet this didn't sit well with the Ku Klux Klan.
Long sent out a flyer to his constituents explaining that they now all had the right to vote for free. Newspapers that opposed him spread misinformation about the poll tax in an effort to confuse the voters. It didn't work. When the tax was eliminated, 278,000 people registered to vote for the first time (source). That doubled the size of the Louisiana electorate. Poor people finally had a chance to make their voices heard at the polls.
Long also went to work building his state's infrastructure. During his time as governor, Louisiana was employing over ten percent of all the workers in constructing roads and bridges in the entire U.S. This may seem like overkill, but prior to Long there were fewer than three hundred miles of paved roads and only three major bridges in a state where nearly 20% of the total area is water. It made travel very expensive for Louisianans, who had to pay and sometimes travel far out of their way to cross the waterways by ferry or toll bridge. Long added 111 bridges and 9000 miles of paved road (source).
Just in case anyone thought the great state of Louisiana was second-class, Long built a new State House that's still the tallest state capitol building in the country. For good measure, he tore down the old governor's mansion and built himself a fine new one that looks suspiciously like another house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And here's something amazing: Between 1929 and 1932, 4800 banks closed in the U.S. because of the Depression. Because of Huey Long's new banking policies for the state, only seven of them were in Louisiana.
By 1935, the average working-class Louisiana family had saved about $425 in daily living expenses a year because of Long's reforms, almost $7500 in today's dollars (source). Now you might be wondering, how could Long pay for all of these things? He did it by increasing taxes on the wealthiest businesses and individuals. As you can imagine, this made Long pretty unpopular with anybody who was anybody in Depression-era Louisiana. So it would come as no shock when an attempt was made to impeach Long over an increase in taxes on Standard Oil.
Long wasn't worried. The state House voted to impeach, but he convinced enough state senators with "promises, threats, bribes, liquor, [and] women"
to get 15 of them to agree to vote "not guilty" for any charge against him. He even lured a local clergyman to a hotel room where a prostitute was waiting, in order to blackmail him into supporting him. The fifteen state senators were enough to break the required two-thirds vote for impeachment, so it became pretty clear that if something was to be done about this Huey Long character, it would have to be done outside the legal system.
Cue the ominous music.
The attempted impeachment was a turning point for Long. He famously said, "I used to try to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite 'em out of my path" (source). Coming from a man not known for subtlety in dealing with his enemies, this was pretty alarming.
He began blackmailing and threatening his political opponents and punishing their families by removing them from their state jobs. He poured money into campaigns against his naysayers and drained Louisiana's oil wealth for the benefit of his political allies. He handed out state contracts and demanded twenty-percent kickback to his political machine. He founded his own newspaper to use as a pulpit to talk directly to the masses with propaganda posing as news.
He'd do anything to keep his hold on power. He once told a friend, "Give me the militia, and they can have all the laws they want" (source).
That's just plain scary.
Taxing the rich wasn't enough to pay for all Long's reforms, infrastructure improvements, and benefits for the poor. Louisiana came close to bankruptcy and its bonds became worthless. The state economy was in a state of near-collapse.
Then Long did something unexpected, even for him. In 1930, he ran for Joseph E. Ransdell's senate seat, and he made it into a political wager. Long said that if he won, he would take it as a sign that his reforms were the will of the people and he would pursue them with renewed vigor. If he lost, he'd resign his position as governor. Long crushed Ransdell by more than fifteen points.
Now Long was both the governor and one of Louisiana's senators. How, you might again be wondering, did he manage the responsibilities of both positions? The answer, again, is simple: he didn't. Long left the senate seat vacant for the nearly two years left in his term as governor, suggesting that if Ransdell had kept the seat, it might as well have been vacant all along.
This was a necessary measure in Long's eyes, as he couldn't leave the governor's mansion. If he did, his Lieutenant Governor Paul N. Cyr would claim the governorship and roll back all of his reforms. They'd had a falling out over Long's radical policies and bullying tactics.
Long's falling out with Cyr came to a head in 1931, when Cyr declared himself governor, stating that the senator-elect couldn't hold both positions simultaneously. Long responded by calling in the National Guard to defend the governor's (newly rebuilt) mansion as his own personal fortress. Might made right, and Cyr slunk off in defeat, though he'd remain one of Long's most bitter enemies and an enduring opponent of so-called Longism.
These intervening years, from 1930-32, were a time of growing strength for Long. He brokered a deal with the Old Regulars where he'd approve a $75 million bridge in return for their unwavering support of his political appointments and legislation. They even agreed to name the bridge after him.
Once Long's term as governor was up, he set up shop in the senate. Hoover and FDR were grappling with the Great Depression and Long gleefully took advantage of this fact. He would make fiery, long-winded speeches assailing Executive and Congressional leadership for failing to address the crisis. He'd had plenty of practice back in Louisiana.
In the presidential election of 1932, he threw his weight behind FDR as the only man he thought progressive enough to dig the U.S. out of the economic mess. The FDR of the campaign, however, wasn't the FDR who took office; the radical surgery that Long believed necessary to fix the wealth inequality problem was instead traded for Band-Aids slapped on as makeshift solutions to what Long saw as systemic problems.
Long found plenty of avenues for his brand of populist progressivism: he helped elect the first woman to the senate, and was one of only a handful of voices from the left who opposed FDR's New Deal. He likewise opposed the National Industrial Recovery Act, and accused FDR of selling out. He conducted a 15-hour filibuster on some aspects of the Act, which included several recipes for oysters and one for Roquefort dressing. The filibuster, not the Act. The Act didn't apply to oysters at the time.
This began a showdown between the President and Long, whom FDR considered "one of the two most dangerous men in America" (source). (He was in good company. The other was General Douglas MacArthur.) Knowing Long planned to run for president in 1936, FDR began undermining him, putting his political opponents in charge of distributing federal funds in Louisiana, supporting his long-time opponent John H. Overton for his seat in the senate, and opening investigations of voter fraud as well as Long's personal finances by the IRS. It worked. Not one of the many pieces of legislation proposed by Long passed in his three years in the Senate.
One such failed bill was the seed for the famed Share Our Wealth plan that his "Every Man a King" speech was about. Initially known as the Long Plan, the name "Share Our Wealth Plan" stuck when it was used in that famous radio broadcast in 1934.
Long repeatedly denied that this was a communist or even socialist scheme: in fact, he was insulted at the idea. In Long's view, a radical redistribution of wealth was the only way to stave off the inevitable proletarian revolution predicted by Marx, like the one that Russia had been embroiled in for the past 12 years.
Getting nowhere in the senate, Long formed his own political organization called the Share Our Wealth Society. It was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic and Republican Parties, who'd both thought it was a ridiculous idea anyway. But Long had taken the idea to the people, and by 1935 the movement had over 7.5 million members across the country.
As a champion of the little guy, Long had become hugely popular. He got more mail than the president, and was the third-most photographed American after FDR and Charles Lindbergh. (Some journalist must've had a lot of time on his or her hands to figure that one out.) In a poll to decide "the most attractive man in America," he came in second to Tarzan (source).
Shmoop always thought Tarzan was a Brit, but whatever.
Meanwhile, FDR, seeing the results of a poll that gave Long 6,000,000 votes in a hypothetical presidential election, incorporated some of Long's ideas in his New Deal. Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, the National Youth Administration, and the Wealth Tax Act were all derivatives of ideas that Long championed (source).
Though Long was road-blocked in the senate, he still had an iron grip on Louisiana politics. He would regularly draft and submit legislation to the State Legislature without any legal authority to do so other than being Huey Long.
When back in the capitol he'd take up residence in the governor's office (we assume loyal supporter Oscar K. Allen didn't mind, and if he did it wasn't like he had much choice). Huey's brother Earl once joked that a leaf had blown in one day and landed upon Allen's desk, which he promptly signed thinking it was another of Huey's bills that needed approval (source).
Long continued to intimidate and strong-arm his political opponents into acquiescence. He restructured the distribution of state power to deemphasize regions known for their anti-Longism (i.e., any major city). This would lead to what his detractor's not-unfairly called the Long Dictatorship and pretty much guaranteed he'd be killed out of frustration as much as cold-blooded political motives.
By this time, it was clear to everybody Long harbored presidential ambitions, and his many, many political opponents weren't about to let that happen. Talk of an armed uprising began to circulate among his enemies, and they drew comparisons to when the Reconstruction government was violently overthrown by the White Man's League (because nothing makes a cause seem worthy like white supremacy parallels). Two hundred armed members of the paramilitary anti-Long Square Deal Association seized the courthouse of East Baton Rouge Parish in opposition to Long.
Long busted out the dictator playbook. He declared martial law, called in the National Guard, banned public gatherings of more than two people, and forbade any criticism of public officials. We aren't talking Stalin levels of oppression, but it was close.
Then, in a classic move of tyrants in democratic environments, he began cramming bills down the legislature's throat, without even being read. This was Long's way of giving himself emergency powers to silence freedom of the press, to formulate new state agencies to carry out his will, and to further strip his enemies of any political power.
Essentially, his vise grip on the state turned into complete and total domination.
Is it really a surprise that the death threats were rolling in? Cecil Morgan, a state legislator at the time, recalled:
Every time there was a gathering, I don't care who the people I associated with were, every time there was a gathering of two or three people somebody would say, "That son-of-a-b**** ought to be shot." Somebody would say it in every gathering. And the tension so extremely high and the feeling was so strong that there was hardly any other conversation throughout the state. (Source)
We can only assume that everyone was sadly shaking their heads thinking, "yeah, saw that coming" when news of Long's assassination broke.
Here's how it went down:
On September 8, 1935, Long was at the State Capitol building trying to oust Judge Benjamin A. Pavy from the bench. Long had gerrymandered Pavy's electoral district (judges were elected there) and packed it with Long supporters so Pavy would be defeated. As a bonus, he fired the judge's daughter and brother from their jobs. Long told Pavy, who was still contesting the situation, that if he didn't cooperate, he'd start a rumor that Pavy was part-Black—a real career killer in those days. That was the last straw for Pavy's son-in-law, Dr. Carl Weiss, who repeatedly tried to meet with Long but was rebuffed by his two bodyguards. The third time was a charm, however, and Weiss managed to get within four feet of Long…and then shot him point-blank in the belly. The two bodyguards fired back and killed Weiss instantly (source).
There's been some theorizing that it was in fact one of Long's bodyguards who delivered the fatal gunshot wound, but most historians don't buy into this version of events. Regardless, Long was rushed to a hospital and died two days later. Long's last words were "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do" (source).
Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves.
Long was probably the most colorful character American politics has ever seen. He was rowdy and flamboyant, got into fistfights with his opponents, roughed up reporters, smoked cigars in the senate against the rules, made exaggeration an art form in his speeches, claimed he made his best speeches while drunk, and acted generally like a vulgar and uncouth guy. As a senator, he once peed on a man's trousers for holding up the line in the men's bathroom (source). And that wasn't out of character for Huey Long.
How did Long manage to keep the people's loyalty despite all his corrupt, intimidating ways? Sure, he brought real reforms to Louisiana and his programs brought lots of people from the brink of starvation. And they loved how Huey was sticking it to The Man. But most people would say it was his mastery of speechifying that kept his fans loyal.
Here's Ken Burns, who made a documentary about Long's career:
[…] Huey was such a great speaker he could quote chapter and verse from parts of the Bible that didn't exist. He could go out in front of a southern Louisiana crowd, in the Catholic part of the state, and convince them that he had Catholic grandparents. He'd tell a story of hitching up the horse to the wagon to drive his grandparents to church every Sunday. And after one of these speeches, one of his aides said, "Huey, I didn't know you had Catholic grandparents." And Huey said, "Don't be a damn fool, we didn't even have a horse." (Source)
Long could be serious and moving when the situation called for it; not all his speeches had that fake rustic flavor he was famous for. He once addressed some Louisianans near the Evangeline Oak that commemorated the arrival of the Acadians (that's "Cajuns" in Louisiana-speak) to the state. ("Evangeline" was Tennyson's poem about the Acadian deportation.) Long's speech was a tearjerker:
oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow's poem, but Evangeline
is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment…
Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that never come? Where are the roads and highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled? Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it only lasted throughout one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here. (Source)
The people who knew Long best knew that he wasn't the country bumpkin he pretended to be, but a brilliant, creative mind. This let him outmaneuver some of his political opponents before they even knew what hit them. They misunderestimated Huey Long at their peril.
The irony is that Long's redistribution of wealth plan probably wouldn't have worked. Even if funds could be appropriated from the wealthiest individuals and businesses, it would hardly have been enough to provide every person in America with the goods and income Long promised in his speeches. Still, it's hard to chalk him up as nothing more than a power-mad demagogue. The poor may have been a means to a political end for him, but he was in their corner.
In spite of what he tried to do for Louisiana's poor, things got worse for them in many ways. Per capita income fell by fifty percent during his time as governor. Farm income fell by sixty-six percent. He increased taxes on the rich by seventy-five percent but still increased the state's debt from $11 million to almost $150 million because of his free-spending ways and because everything cost way more than it should have because of all the kickbacks and fraud (source).
Despite all that, Long had the undying loyalty of the 99%, who saw him battling to give them a fighting chance against the wealthy industrialists who tied up most of the nation's wealth. If he went a little overboard in the process, well, that was probably okay with most of them. Nobody else seemed to care. As one Louisiana farmer said, "At least we got something. Before him, we got nothing. That's the difference" (source).