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Huey Long

Bill Gates is currently worth roughly six billion dollars. Suppose I were to confiscate four billion of those dollars, dollar.jpgleaving him two billion on which he could live quite nicely indeed. I would then take the four billion, and use it to guarantee every single American a free college education. How would you react to such a plan?

Every Man a King

Now imagine it's 1932. You have no job and no one, anywhere, is hiring. You're about to lose your home. Your children are always hungry and every day they grow a little thinner and a little more ragged. You go down to a local charity to wait in a long line for bread. As you wait you read an article in Life magazine about William Randolph Hearst's 240,000 acre ranch and mansion in California.

Hearst's "castle" has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, SanSimeon.jpgindoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, and the world's largest private zoo. You remember your daughter, that morning, crying because she was hungry.

As you wait in line you also hear a radio: it's tuned to a speech by Louisiana Senator Huey Long:

"How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way you'll ever be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub that he ain't got no business with!"

The radio audience, and the others waiting in the bread line, laugh and applaud. "So in this land of God's abundance we propose," says Long, that "the fortunes of the multimillionaires and billionaires shall be reduced so that no one persons shall own more than a few million dollars."

We would say, "All right for your first million dollars, but after you get that rich you will have to start helping the balance of us."

"$3 or $4 million is enough for any one person and his children and his children's children. Now, by limiting the size of the fortunes and incomes of the big men, we will throw into the government Treasury the money and property from which we will care for the millions of people who have nothing; and with this money we will provide a home and the comforts of home, with such common conveniences as radio and automobile, for every family in America, free of debt" (see Primary Source "Every Man a King" Speech [1934] and Primary Source "Barbecue" Speech [1934]).

"All right for your first million dollars, but after you get that rich you will have to start helping the balance of us."

How would that sound to you? You want to work, but there is no work to be had, and you stand on the edge of starvation while men like William Randolph Hearst have more bathrooms in their houses than you have dollars in the bank.

The Kingfish

Huey Long proposed taxing large fortunes and using the resulting money to guarantee every American a home and a minimum income. He was vague about the specifics—sometimes he said he would tax away the fortunes of those with more than 20 million, leaving them 20 million to live on. Sometimes it was 40 million. But the basic thrust was clear: rich men in America, he argued, "have more luxuries than anyone can possibly use." He would leave them still rich, he argued, but not so rich that other men had to starve.

Long came from a comfortable family in a very poor northern Louisiana county.

Long came from a comfortable family in a very poor northern Louisiana county. A voracious reader, with a near-photographic memory, he was also ambitious, argumentative, and brash. After working as a traveling salesman, he earned a law degree and set up a practice specializing in attacking and antagonizing elites and the wealthy. He combined a genuine and passionate anti-elitism and a sense of the multiple injustices poverty might foster with a salesman's willingness to stretch the truth.

Elected as a Railroad Commissioner in 1919, he used the position to attack Louisiana's entrenched political machine and build a political network he rewarded with public works projects. As governor, elected in 1928, he followed the same course. He initiated road building projects, built bridges, hospitals, and schools, and more or less dragged what had been a badly backwards state into the 20th century.

His political supporters got jobs and contracts, and were expected to kick some of the state money back to Long. Long's spending massively increased the state's debt, but he argued, rightly as it turned out, that Louisiana could not function as a modern economy unless it paved its mostly dirt roads and built modern school facilities.

[Long] grasped radio's potential early on, and opponents found it almost impossible to move public opinion against him.

Long had a knack for reaching ordinary people—his work as a salesman, and his love of literature, gifted him with vivid speech and a strong writing style. He grasped radio's potential early on, and opponents found it almost impossible to move public opinion against him. He came to be called "the Kingfish" after a popular radio character who assumed a slightly comical dignity.

Early in his life, Long announced that he expected to be president someday, and as a start he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932. At first he supported the New Deal, but he quickly began attacking FDR as a tool of the rich and a fraud. He announced his candidacy for president in 1934 by forming a national organization, the "Share Our Wealth" society. By 1935, he claimed more than 7.5 million members in 27,000 "Share Our Wealth Clubs" across the country.

As governor, Long used the slogan "Every Man A King, But No One Wears a Crown." For his presidential campaign he wrote a song, Every Man a King and asked Ina Ray Hutton and her All-Girl Orchestra to record it. By then, Roosevelt had come to regard Long as the most dangerous man in America. He might not win the presidency, but he could certainly split the Democratic vote.

Long was assassinated by a political rival in 1935. The Share Our Wealth Society continued for a short time but was partially undermined by FDR's own social activism in the "second new deal." Social security, in particular, established a guaranteed pension fund similar to what Long had argued for.

Textbooks and Long

The best of the three textbooks, McGraw, mentions Long as a champion of the poor in Louisiana. But while it mentions the "Share Our Wealth" clubs and "attacks on the rich," it never mentions the nature of those attacks or any of Long's agendas.

McDougal quotes Long as a Senator, but the quote almost entirely misses the heart of Long's campaign:

"We owe debts in America today, public and private, amounting to 252 billion. That means the every child is born with a $2,000 debt tied around his neck… We propose that children shall be born in a land of opportunity, guaranteed a home, food, clothes, and the other things that make for a living."

FDR was forced to sign measures like the Social Security Act because of pressure from Long and others.

Long proposed using taxes to take from the rich to feed the poor. His largest issue was not debt, but the accumulation of wealth by a small minority, and his "guarantee" was not merely fable, it would be provided by seizing the assets of the wealthiest families in America. The quotation manages to dodge what was in fact most powerful in Long's message and what is most useful in helping students make sense of the New Deal and the 1930s.

FDR always argued that "to conserve, you must reform," and he insisted that he was preserving American capitalism in the face of radical political challenges. He said, in effect, that Americans had to choose between FDR and his programs or Long as a modern day Robin Hood.

FDR was forced to sign measures like the Social Security Act because of pressure from Long and others. All three textbooks mention Long and these others (invariably Father Coughlin and Frances Townsend), but they avoid discussing what Long actually represented.

Prentice Hall's entry on Long is so generalized as to be almost entirely content-free. It calls Long "fast-talking" and mentions his use of radio. As governor, it says, he "brought many reforms to his state." But Long also brought "corruption" and "many wild hopes." The textbook is roughly accurate when it says "there would be no more enormous fortunes and every family would have a guaranteed income." But what is the point of adding "Of course, Ol' Huey would be "The Kingfish?'"

By adding the last phrase, the textbook undercuts the bite of Long's agenda and reduces a political program to a personal eccentricity. Long himself was extremely good at conveying his ideas to ordinary Americans at all levels of education. Why can't textbooks do the same?

 
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