Huey Long (born 30 August 1893), nicknamed the "Kingfish", is an American politician, serving as a Senator from the State of Louisiana, and is leader of the populist America First Union Party. An outspoken populist, Long is best known for his Share Our Wealth program, and its motto "Every Man A King", that proposes new wealth redistribution measures aimed at revitalizing the working class in America.
Long was born on August 30, 1893, in Winnfield, Louisiana, the seat of Winn Parish, a rural community in the north-central part of the state. He was the son of Huey Pierce Long, Sr. and was the seventh of nine children in a farm-owning middle-class family. He attended local schools, where he was an excellent student and was said to have a photographic memory. In 1908, Long circulated a petition asking that the principal of Winn Parish be fired. He was then expelled from school. After Long's mother died, his father remarried.
Long won a debating scholarship to Louisiana State University, but he was unable to afford the textbooks required for attendance. Instead, he spent the next four years as a traveling salesman, selling books, canned goods and patent medicines, as well as working as an auctioneer. When sales jobs grew scarce during the Weltkrieg, Long attended seminary classes at Oklahoma Baptist University at the urging of his mother, a devout Baptist. However, he concluded he was not suited to preaching.
Long briefly attended the University of Oklahoma School of Law in Norman, Oklahoma, and later Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. In 1915, he convinced a board to let him take the bar exam after only a year at Tulane. He passed and began private practice in Winnfield. Later in Shreveport, he spent 10 years representing small plaintiffs against large businesses, including workers' compensation cases. He often said proudly that he never took a case against a poor man. Long won fame by taking on the powerful Standard Oil Company, which he sued for unfair business practices. Over the course of his career, Long continued to challenge Standard Oil's influence in state politics and charged the company with exploiting the state's vast oil and gas resources.
In 1918 Long was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission at the age of twenty-five on an anti-Standard Oil platform. His campaign for the Railroad Commission used techniques he would perfect later in his political career: heavy use of printed circulars and posters, an exhausting schedule of personal campaign stops throughout rural Louisiana, and vehement attacks on his opponents. He used his position on the commission to enhance his populist reputation as an opponent of large oil and utility companies, fighting against rate increases and pipeline monopolies.
As chairman of the Public Service Commission in 1922, Long won a lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for unfair rate increases, resulting in cash refunds of $440,000 to 80,000 overcharged customers. Long successfully argued the case on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting Chief Justice William Howard Taft to describe Long as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered.
Election of 1924
Long ran for governor of Louisiana in the election of 1924, attacking Parker, Standard Oil and the established political hierarchy both local and state-wide. In that campaign, he became one of the first Southern politicians to use radio addresses and sound trucks. Long also began wearing a distinctive white linen suit. He came in third, due perhaps in part to his unwillingness to take a stand either for or against the Ku Klux Klan, whose prominence in Louisiana had become the primary issue of the campaign. Despite that, he was reelected to the Public Service Commission.
Election of 1928
Long spent the intervening four years building his reputation and his political organization, including supporting Catholic candidates to build support in south Louisiana, which was heavily Catholic due to its French and Spanish heritage. In 1928 he again ran for governor, campaigning with the slogan, "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown", a phrase adopted from populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Long's attacks on the utilities industry and corporate privileges were enormously popular, as was his depiction of the wealthy as "parasites" who grabbed more than their fair share of the public wealth while marginalizing the poor. Long won in 1928 by tapping into the class resentment of rural Louisianans and proposing government services far more expansive than anything in Louisiana history.
Once in office as governor Long moved quickly to consolidate his power, firing hundreds of opponents in the state bureaucracy, at all ranks from cabinet-level heads of departments and board members to rank-and-file civil servants and state road workers. Like previous governors, he filled the vacancies with patronage appointments from his own network of political supporters. Every state employee who depended on Long for a job was expected to pay a portion of his or her salary directly into Long’s political war-chest. These funds were kept in a famous locked "deduct box" to be used at Long's discretion for political purposes.
Once his control over the state’s political apparatus was strengthened, Long pushed a number of bills through the 1929 session of the Louisiana State Legislature to fulfill campaign promises. These included a free textbook program for schoolchildren, support of night courses for adult literacy and a supply of cheap natural gas for the city of New Orleans.
Long began an unprecedented public works program, building roads, bridges, hospitals and educational institutions. His bills met opposition from many legislators, citizens, and the media, but Long used aggressive tactics to ensure passage of the legislation he favored. He would show up unannounced on the floor of both the House and Senate or in House committees, corralling reluctant representatives and state senators and bullying opponents. These tactics were unprecedented, but they resulted in the passage of most of Long’s legislative agenda. By delivering on his campaign promises, Long achieved hero status among some of the state's rural poor population. Since the state’s newspapers were financed by the opposition, in March 1930 Long founded his own paper, the Louisiana Progress, which he used to broadcast achievements and denounce his enemies. To receive lucrative state contracts, companies were first expected to buy advertisements in Long's newspaper.
1930: Defeat in the Legislature, campaign for U.S. Senate
In the 1930 legislative session, Long proposed another major road-building initiative as well as construction of a new capitol building in Baton Rouge. The State Legislature defeated the bond issue necessary to build the roads, and his other initiatives failed as well. Long responded by suddenly announcing his intention to run for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary of September 9 1930. He portrayed his campaign as a referendum on his programs: if he won he would take it as a sign that the public supported his programs over the opposition of the legislature, and if he lost he promised to resign. Long defeated incumbent Senator Joseph E. Ransdell by 149,640 (57.3 percent) to 111,451 (42.7 percent). Despite having been elected to the Senate for the 1931 session, Long intended to fill out his term as governor until 1932.
1930-1932: Renewed strength
Having won the overwhelming support of the Louisiana electorate, Long returned to pushing his legislative program with renewed strength. Bargaining from an advantageous position, Long entered an agreement with his longtime New Orleans rivals: they would support his legislation and his candidates in future elections in return for his supporting a bridge over the Mississippi River, an airport for New Orleans, and money for infrastructure improvements in the city. This support enabled Long to pass an increase in the gasoline tax, new school spending, a bill to finance the construction of a new Louisiana State Capitol and a $75 million bond for road construction. Including the Airline Highway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Long's road network gave Louisiana some of the most modern roads in the country and helped form the state's highway system. Long's opponents charged that Long had concentrated political power in his own hands to the point where he had become a virtual dictator of the state.
As governor, Long became an ardent supporter of Louisiana State University (LSU), the state's primary public university in Baton Rouge. He greatly increased LSU funding and expanded its enrollment from 1,600 to 4,000. Long instituted work-scholarship programs that enabled poor students to attend LSU, and he established the LSU Medical School in New Orleans. He also intervened in the university's affairs, choosing its president.
In October 1931, Lieutenant Governor Cyr, by then an avowed enemy of Long, argued that the Senator-elect could no longer remain governor. Cyr declared himself to be the legitimate governor. In response Long surrounded the state capitol with state National Guard troops and fended off the illegal "coup d'état". Long went to the Louisiana Supreme Court to have Cyr ousted as Lieutenant Governor. He argued that the office of Lieutenant Governor was vacant because Cyr had resigned when he attempted to assume the governorship. His suit was successful. Under the state constitution, Senate president and Long ally Alvin Olin King became Lieutenant Governor.
Long chose his childhood friend Oscar Kelly Allen as the candidate to succeed him in the election of 1932 on a "Complete the Work" ticket. With the support of Long's own voter base, Allen won easily. With his loyal succession assured, Long finally resigned as governor and took his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1932.
Long in the Senate, 1932-36
Long arrived in Washington, D.C., to take his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1932, although he was absent for more than half the days in the 1932 session. With the backdrop of the Great Depression, he made characteristically fiery speeches which denounced the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. He also criticized the leaders of both the Democratic and the Republican party for failing to address the crisis adequately. In the presidential election of 1932, Long became a vocal supporter of the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He believed Roosevelt to be the only candidate willing and able to carry out the drastic redistribution of wealth that Long believed necessary to end the Great Depression. At the Democratic National Convention, Long was instrumental in keeping the delegations of several wavering states in the Roosevelt camp. Long expected to be featured prominently in Roosevelt's campaign, but he was disappointed with a speaking tour limited to four Midwestern states. When Roosevelt lost the 1932 election to the Republicans led by President Herbert Hoover, Long publically withdraw his support to him and to the Democratic party.
Hoover considered Long a radical demagogue and privately said of Long that along with General Douglas MacArthur, "He was one of the two most dangerous men in America". In June 1933, in an effort to undermine Long's political dominance, Hoover cut Long out of consultation on the distribution of federal funds or patronage in Louisiana. To discredit Long and damage his support base, in 1934 Hoover had Long’s finances investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. Though they failed to link Long to any illegality, some of Long’s lieutenants were charged with income tax evasion, but only one had been convicted by now.
The America First Union Party and the 1936 Presidential Election
Long continued to maintain effective control of Louisiana while he was a senator, blurring the boundary between federal and state politics. Though he had no constitutional authority to do so, Long continued to draft and press bills through the Louisiana State Legislature, which remained in the hands of his allies. The program included new consumer taxes, elimination of the poll tax, a homestead exemption, and increases in the number of state employees.
In 1934, Long announced the creation of the America First Union Party and announced his candidature for the 1936 Presidential Election. At the same time Long passed what he called "a tax on lying" and a 2% tax on newspaper advertising revenue. He created the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a special force of plainclothes police answerable only to the governor. Charismatic and immensely popular for his social reform programs and willingness to take forceful action, Long was accused by his opponents of dictatorial tendencies for his near-total control of the state government. However, these accusations couldn't stop his party from achieving growing support in the depressed agricultural regions of the South and Mid-West.
Long was a staunch opponent of the Federal Reserve Bank. As an alternative, Long proposed federal legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. He used radio broadcasts and his own national newspaper, the American Progress, previously called Louisiana Progress, to promote his ideas and accomplishments before a national audience. In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called "Share Our Wealth". Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.
Long proposed a new progressive tax code designed to limit the size of personal fortunes. The new tax code would tax the first million dollars of wealth at zero. The second million dollars of wealth would be taxed at 1%. The third million at 2%; the fourth million at 4%; the fifth million at 8%; the sixth million at 16%; the seventh million at 32%; the eighth million at 64%; and the remainder at 100%. Income tax rates would be at 100% for all incomes over $1 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours.
Denying that his program was socialistic, Long stated that his ideological inspiration for the plan came not from Syndicalism but from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. "Syndicalism? Hell no!" he said, "This plan is the only defense this country’s got against Syndicalism". In 1934, Long held a public debate with Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America and a supporter of the Combined Syndicates of America, on the merits of Share Our Wealth versus socialism.
"Every Man a King"
Long created the Share Our Wealth program in 1934, with the motto "Every Man a King" proposing new socialist wealth redistribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals to curb the poverty and crime resulting from the Great Depression. To stimulate the economy, Long advocated federal spending on public works, public education, old-age pensions and other social programs. He was an ardent critic of the Federal Reserve System's policies to reduce lending.
With the Senate unwilling to support his proposals, in February 1934 Long formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic and Republican Parties and the Hoover administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country. Long's Senate office received an average of 60,000 letters a week.
In 1913, Huey Long married Rose McConnell. She was a stenographer who had won a baking contest which he promoted to sell "Cottolene," one of the most popular of the early vegetable shortenings to come on the market. The Longs had a daughter, also named Rose, and two sons, Russell and Palmer.