The seventh of nine children, Huey Pierce Long was born near Winnfield, Winn Parish, Louisiana on August 30th, 1893. His father was a poor farmer. Just before World War I, a populist movement grew in the area and Winn Parish became the stronghold of socialist sentiments. As a child, Long absorbed many of the movement`s ideas, which molded a young man determined to be heard.
Long attended high school in Winnfield where he quickly had run-ins with the staff, and left before graduating. His first employment ventures were book peddling, auctioneering and door-to-door sales. In 1911, he found a traveling position with a packing company that provided a good salary plus an expense account. On one occasion, he conducted a cake-baking contest and subsequently married the winner, Rose McConnell, in 1913. He told his wife about his aspirations to go into politics, all the way to president of the United States.
Long briefly attended the University of Oklahoma to study law, then enrolled in Tulane University Law School in New Orleans in 1914. Completing the three-year course in only eight months, at the age of 21, Long obtained his degree. In 1915, having been admitted to the bar, he began to practice law, first in Winnfield, then later in Shreveport, Louisiana. He prospered as an attorney who usually defending the underdog, then used his career as a springboard into politics.
As a member of the Democratic Party, Long supported Senator S.J. Harper. Opposing America`s involvement of World War I, Harper`s activities led him to being charged under the Espionage Act. Long, however, successfully defended Harper.
In 1918, Long was elected as the state railroad commissioner for the Northern District. It was during that time that Long supported John M. Parker for governor of Louisiana. Then in 1919, Long began to attack the newly minted governor for failing to increase taxes on Standard Oil. As chairman of the Public Services Commission, Long successfully achieved lower utility rates, railroad and streetcar fares as well as initiating a severance tax on oil. It was in 1921 that Long called himself “Kingfish” after a popular radio character. His slogan was, "Every Man A King."
Long was unsuccessful as a candidate for governor in 1924. However, as a Democratic National Committeeman, he continued to impress the electorate, and thus made another run for the governorship in 1928. With educational reform as his platform, and fighting for the common people, his campaign was a huge success by the largest margin in the state’s history (92,941 votes to 3,733). Once in office, he condemned the entrenched hierarchy and tried diligently to replace them with his own supporters. Gaining control of the Hospital Board, the Highway Commission, the Levee Board and the Dock Board, he compelled state employees to distribute his newspaper, the Louisiana Progress. He produced such reforms as free school textbooks, night school classes for illiterate people and increased expenditures for the state university, but his critics accused him of being a dictator.
Louisiana had only 331 miles of paved roads in 1928, so Governor Long launched a program aimed at improving road conditions. His highway program resulted in nearly 13,000 miles of paved roads. Among his educational achievements, he established schools within walking distance of children`s homes. To pay for those schools, Long increased taxes on local corporations. He also attempted to increase revenues by imposing a new tax on the oil industry. The legislature not only rejected that measure, but made attempts to impeach Long, accusing him of misappropriating state funds and making illegal loans. The senate failed to convict him by only two votes. They claimed that Long had bribed several senators to ensure the outcome.
During his term as governor, Long was also elected to the United States Senate in 1930. Long installed an old friend, Alvin King, the president of the state senate, to act as governor — while still retaining full control. A New York Times headline read, "Senator Long sets up a Fascist government in Louisiana." His plan was to fill virtually every local government position with those of his own choosing and ousting those who spoke against his efforts. Although he had delivered on many of his promises to the people, eventually his heavy-handedness would lead to his demise.
Long served in the Senate as a Democrat from 1930 to 1935. He was critical of President Herbert Hoover for the way he was handling the growing Depression. Furthering his political aspirations, Long decided to support Hattie Caraway, the first woman to be elected to Congress. Caraway had asked Long for his help after she was discouraged by leaders of the Democratic party in Arkansas. Caraway won by a margin of two to one.
Huey Long fought for political participation for blacks and poor whites through removal of the poll tax. His endeavors expanded the Charity Hospital System, built the LSU Medical School and brought natural gas to the city of New Orleans.
Not a modest man, Long was also known as the "determined enemy" of Wall Street as well as the Roosevelt administration. He at first supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, then claimed that the president had done too little to redistribute wealth. When Roosevelt refused to place ceilings on personal incomes, Long launched his "Share our Wealth Society" in February 1934. His plan involved taxing all incomes over a million dollars and imposing a tax levy of one percent on the second million, two percent on the third and so on. Freely admitting that part of his scheme was socialistic, Long felt strongly that it was the answer to redistribute wealth to the American people, and even some economists agreed that it would end the Depression.
Speaking on national radio in January 1935, Long put his philosophy very succinctly:
There is only one relief that can come to the American people that is of any value whatever, and that is to redistribute wealth by limiting the size of the big men`s fortunes and guaranteeing that, beginning at the bottom, every family will have a living and the comforts of life. We can pass laws today providing for education, for old-age pensions, for unemployment insurance, for doles, public buildings, and anything else that we could think of, and still none of them would be worth anything unless we provided the money for them. And the money cannot be provided for them without these things doing twice as much harm as they do good unless that money is scraped off the big piles at the top and spread among the people at the bottom, who have nothing.
Long employed a Louisiana preacher, Gerald L.K. Smith, to travel throughout the South to recruit members to the "Share our Wealth Society Clubs." By 1935, 27,000 clubs were established with a membership of 4,684,000. Many attempts were made to smear Long, but he adroitly took all necessary measures to protect himself.
Long, feeling confident that he would become president of the United States, wrote a book entitled My First Days in the White House. In his writings he criticized people in office in order to promulgate his role in society. Most of the progressives in Congress sympathized with Long’s radical ideas, and eventually he gained support from several of them. In October 1933 he published his autobiography, Every Man a King. Some viewed his writings as reckless and unbalanced. However, his publishing of American Progress, free to his supporters, reached a circulation of 1.5 million.
In 1934, through a special session of the legislature in the state of Louisiana, Long pushed through bills that placed the electoral machinery in the governor`s hands. Giving him more power, this outlawed any interference by the courts for his use of National Guardsmen, and at that same time, he created his own secret police.
It was in May 1935 that Long began his pursuit of the presidency. Being informed by his police that there was a plot to kill him, and with six armed bodyguards at his side, Long announced his candidacy for president in August 1935.
A conflict between Long and one Judge Benjamin Pavy of St. Landry Parish had worn on for several years. Long tried to unseat Pavy, but without success. He started rumors about the Pavy family, going to the extreme of having two of Pavy`s daughters dismissed from their teaching positions. Judge Pavy’s son-in-law, Carl Weiss, discovered that the rumors included his wife, and he became outraged. He decided it was time to pay Huey P. Long a personal visit.
Waiting for Long in the corridor of the State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, Weiss hid behind a large pillar. As Long exited his office, Weiss pulled out a .32 automatic weapon and at close range fired a shot into Long`s abdomen. Long`s bodyguards opened fire and Weiss was dead at the scene. Unfortunately one of the bullets fired by the bodyguards ricocheted off the pillar and hit Long in the lower spine.
On September 8th, 1935, Long went into surgery. The doctors failed to detect one of the bullets in Long’s kidneys. Not strong enough for another operation, his condition deteriorated and on September 10th, 1935, his last words were, “God, don’t let me die, I have got so much to do.”
The controversial governor`s remains were buried on the capitol grounds. His widow, Rose, completed his Senate term. His son, Russell B. Long, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. Two of his brothers, Earl Kemp Long and George Shannon Long, also became involved in politics. Numerous books have been written and movies made regarding the Kingfish. As many as 30 years after his death, Long’s followers actively pushed for expansion of such governmental services as transportation, education and health.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Huey P. Long.
Regarding Being President
No man has ever been President of the United States more than two terms. You know that; everyone knows that. But when I get in, I'm going to abolish the Electoral College, have universal suffrage, and I defy any sonofabitch to get me out under four terms.
Interview with Forrest Davis, 1933
- - - Books You May Like Include: ----
Huey Long by T. Harry Williams.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this work describes the life of one of the most extraordinary figures in American political ...
Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley.
The study of two demagogues, Huey Long and Father Coughlin, whose vast popularity explains much about Depression-era America. ...