Huey Long Urges that We Share Our Wealth
Huey Long posed the most potent political challenge to Franklin Roosevelt in the first few years of his New Deal administration. How much of a challenge has long been a subject of debate among political analysts and historians, but FDR himself regarded Long as "one of the two most dangerous men in America" (the other being General Douglas MacArthur). The concern was great enough for the Democratic National Committee to commission a secret political poll (perhaps the first use of polling for this purpose) to gauge his appeal; it found that he could get as much as 11 percent] of the vote if he ran as a third party candidate in 1936.
Long first came to national notice when he became governor of Louisiana in 1928; he ruled the state as a virtual dictator but his corruption and dictatorship had a progressive side to it, including massive public works programs, improved public education and public health, and even some restrictions on corporate power in the state. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930, he delayed taking office for two years so that he could continue to rule in Louisiana and assure that a close ally would succeed him. He became an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning energetically for him at the Democratic Convention and in the fall election.
By the fall of 1933, however, the Long-Roosevelt alliance had ruptured over differences on policy and patronage as well as Long's own growing interest in running for president. Early the next year, Long organized his own, alternative political organization, the Share-Our Wealth Society, through which he advocated a populist program that focused on redistributing large fortunes through sharply graduated income and inheritance taxes. Through these measures, Long promised, every American would be guaranteed a homestead worth $5,000 and an annual income of $2,500. In the next two years, Long enthusiasts created 27,000 Share-Our-Wealth Clubs with perhaps as many as eight million members, although some historians wonder about the depth and commitment of that support.
One key technique that Long used to win support was the radio. In Louisiana, he had regularly used the radio to campaign and present his policies. (He offered lengthy broadcasts over a New Orleans radio station that mixed his remarks with musical selections.) In 1933 when he first introduced three bills in Congress embodying his ideas on the problem of concentrated wealth, he took the--then--unprecedented step of buying radio time from the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to speak on behalf of the legislation. As his national recognition (and ambitions) grew, he spoke with increasing frequency to national radio audiences. No politician in this era--except Roosevelt himself--used radio as frequently and as effectively as Long.
The speech included here was from one of his 1935 broadcasts. Typical of Long's remarks from this period, it includes a litany of charges against Roosevelt and the New Deal (the failure to break up great fortunes, the persistence of unemployment and the growth of indebtedness, for instance), populist attacks on the concentration of wealth in a small number of hands, and proposals to "share" the wealth and provide a homestead and guaranteed income for all as well as old age pensions and a bonus for veterans. Although this speech is typical of many others, it is not identical, since Long, as is obvious from this speech, worked only from scattered notes and ad-libbed.
Long also garnered attention with his story-telling, his joking and his quick wit. He embraced the nickname "Kingfish" from a clownish character on the popular "Amos and Andy" radio show and answered the phone: "the Kingfish speaking." He adapted the slogan "Every Man a King, But No One Wears a Crown," from a speech by the greatest populist speaker of the previous generation, William Jennings Bryan. Then, he popularized the slogan by writing a song around the slogan and signing it over the radio and on newsreels. His collaborator in the song, which is included here, was Castro Carazo, the head of Louisiana State University's Band. (The band was a long favorite; it received considerably better funding than the university's law school; he promised to make Carazo the head of the Marine Band when he became president.)
Not everyone was captivated by Long's oratory, humor, or singing. Some of his sharpest opponents (along with some his strongest supporters) could be found in his home state of Louisiana. Hodding Carter, the liberal editor of the Daily Courier in his hometown of Hammond, Louisiana, repeatedly warned against Long's corruption and demagoguery. In this 1935 essay in the New Republic, Carter takes these criticisms to a national audience that was becoming increasingly familiar with Long. He attacks Long's "legislative travesties" and "complete dictatorship"in Louisiana as well as punches holes in Long's "wealth sharing nostrums." (Carter would later become famous as an editorial advocate of racial tolerance as the editor of the Delta Democrat-Times in Mississipppi; he son would take over his editorship and also serve as a spokesman for the State Department during Jimmy Carter's presidency.)
In the end, it
was local opposition to Long that ultimately led to his
demise. In September 1935 he was visiting the state capitol
that he had built in Baton Rouge. Carl Austin Weiss, a young
physician, approached him and shot him point blank. Long's
bodyguards shot Weiss dead, and Long died a few days later.
Although there has been much dispute about Weiss's motives
(or even whether he actually killed Long), the doctor's in
laws were political opponents of Long and the Kingfish had
circulated (untrue) rumors about "Negro blood" in their
B. Every Man a King: Singing a
C. "He's a Demagogue, That's What
He Is": Hodding Carter on Huey Long
For more reading on Huey Long and the New Deal, see Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (1982); T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (1969); Glen Jeansonne, Messiah of the Masses: Huey Long and the Great Depression (1993).