Long, Huey P.
Long, Huey P.
LONG, HUEY P.
Huey Pierce Long (The Kingfish; August 30, 1893–September 10, 1935) served as governor and United States senator from Louisiana. Born into a large, contentious, middle-class family in Winnfield, Louisiana, Long became the most famous figure in Louisiana politics. During the era of the Great Depression he energized politics, ingrained corruption in an already corrupt state, and served as a disruptive force in the national Democratic party. Long was planning to challenge President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency when he was assassinated in 1935.
Long gained a rudimentary education at Winnfield high school and in Shreveport schools, relying on his prodigious memory rather than consistent study. Honing his future political skills as a traveling salesman, Long married Rose McConnell, a Shreveport secretary, when he was nineteen years old. The couple had three children: Rose, Palmer, and Russell. Russell Long served a long career in the U. S. Senate, becoming one of the nation's more powerful politicians during the 1960s and 1970s.
Without attending college, Huey Long took courses at the Tulane University Law School for less than a year and was admitted to the bar at twenty-one after passing a special oral examination. Returning to Winnfield, he established a small law practice and won his first political office in 1919, election to the Railroad Commission, which regulated transportation, utilities, and pipelines. Long earned a reputation by championing independent oil companies and attacking the near-monopolistic Standard Oil Company, the state's largest corporation.
GOVERNOR OF LOUISIANA
Long ran for governor in 1923 and finished a close third statewide, but he finished first in the rural sections of the state. In 1928 he ran again and won. At thirty-four, he was the second youngest governor in Louisiana's history. Long owed his political success largely to motivation and drive, a brilliant mind, ruthlessness, unlimited ambition, and after 1928, repression and corruption. The 1928 election was the only relatively fair election the Long machine won.
Louisiana was polarized into rural and urban factions. The rural faction, which was much larger, was fragmented by region, religion, class, and ethnicity, and had never united under a single politician. Long gained support by out-promising his opponents: He vowed to give free schoolbooks to children, build an improved road and bridge system, and furnish cheap natural gas to New Orleans. The other half of his appeal relied on his personal charisma, invective against opponents, and relentless energy.
Long built the most tightly controlled state-level political machine in the United States. He employed nepotism, patronage, vote stealing, repression (once calling out the state guard to cow New Orleans), personal magnetism, kidnappings, and a vast political campaign chest. The Long machine maintained a "deduct" box consisting of compulsory contributions deducted from the salaries of state workers. Long's abuses and powerful enemies, such as Standard Oil, combined to lead to his impeachment by the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1929. The Senate adjourned without voting on the charges after Long produced a round-robin petition signed by more than one third of the senators, who vowed they would not vote to convict regardless of the evidence. Two thirds of the vote was needed to convict.
Long's enemies, and critical historians, have focused largely on his corrupt methods and obsession with power, while his supporters, including some historians, have pointed to his accomplishments. In the context of the Great Depression, the public works he constructed loomed large. Long browbeat the creaky Louisiana legislature into enacting his program, which included new highways and bridges, free textbooks, cheaper gas for New Orleans, a new governor's mansion, a new state capitol, and increased appropriations for Louisiana State University. The governor wanted to finance more public works with a massive bond issue presented at a special legislative session in 1930.
UNITED STATES SENATOR
After the legislature balked, Long decided to run for the office of U. S. senator in the 1930 Democratic primary against the incumbent, James E. Ransdell. Ironically, Long based his campaign for national office on state issues, calling the election a referendum on his state program. Long defeated Ransdell easily, his program passed the legislature, and the opposition surrendered. He was truly Kingfish of Louisiana, a nickname he applied to himself after listening to the popular radio program Amos 'n' Andy.
At odds with his lieutenant governor, Long did not take his seat in Washington for nearly two years, ostensibly remaining both governor and senator-elect. Even after taking the oath as U.S. senator in 1932, he continued to control Louisiana through his puppet governor, O. K. Allen.
In his brief national career, Long gained notoriety, but little actual power, by emphasizing a single issue, maldistribution of wealth, which he blamed for the Great Depression. The Louisianan worked for the nomination and election of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt because he believed Roosevelt shared his views on breaking up huge fortunes and wealth sharing. The two soon broke, however, because Roosevelt considered Long dangerous, erratic, and a disloyal Democrat. Long came to detest Roosevelt as an aristocrat whose 1932 promise to dismantle large fortunes had been made in bad faith. More important, Long coveted the presidency, but to become president, he had to challenge Roosevelt, which he planned to do in 1936. Long planned to seek the Democratic Party's nomination, failing which he planned to run as a third party candidate, drawing away enough votes from Roosevelt to elect a conservative Republican. After the Republican wrecked the country as Herbert Hoover had purportedly done, the voters would be ready to elect Huey Long in 1940.
Long used the U.S. Senate as a platform for his promises to share the wealth. He failed to enact a single bill; the most votes any of his bills attracted was twenty in a chamber of ninety-six senators. The Louisianan thrilled the galleries with his attacks on millionaires, but the Democratic leadership disliked him. Roosevelt and Long met only twice, and Long was charmed by the New Yorker, but their relationship foundered on competing ambitions. Each loved power too much to coexist comfortably with the other. Roosevelt began funneling New Deal patronage to Long's political opponents in Louisiana and resumed an investigation into tax evasion by Long and his allies that had been initiated by the Hoover administration.
The Kingfish believed he could obtain power by appealing directly to the people, beyond the reach of Roosevelt and the Democratic party. Long delivered radio speeches, published an autobiography, and forecast the actions of a Long presidency in My First Days in the White House. Long's most effective tool in national politics was his Share Our Wealth Society, incorporated in 1934. It was based on a plan to solve the economic problems of the nation by restructuring income and assets from the top down. By confiscating yearly income above $1 million and total assets beyond $5 million, Long would provide every family with a home, an automobile, and a radio worth at least $5,000, an annual income of $2,500, and free college educations. There would also be a veterans' bonus and a war on disease led by the Mayo brothers. No one would pay taxes except millionaires.
All one had to do to join the Share Our Wealth Society was to write to Long. There were no dues, but Huey accepted donations. Members received Long's autobiography, speeches, buttons, and instructions on how to create local affiliates to work for enaction of the plan. Long hired Gerald L. K. Smith, a Shreveport minister and bombastic orator, as his national organizer. The Society gained 200,000 members within a month and by the spring of 1935 boasted seven and a half million members. Long received more mail than all other senators combined, even more than the president. Long hoped that the society would serve as the engine for a potent national vote-gaining machine in 1936, particularly if Long found allies in other dissidents, such as the radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin and Dr. Francis E. Townsend, an advocate of pensions for the aged.
Long never had the opportunity to test his national political prowess. Returning to Louisiana in September 1935 to whip the Louisiana legislature into line, he was shot in the state capital, probably by a lone assassin, a young physician, Carl Austin Weiss. The dynasty Long founded continued on the state level until 1960, when racial issues replaced the bifactionalism of those who supported and opposed Long's program. Long's influence lasted even longer on the local and national levels, where Long remained a magic name to Louisiana voters. Huey's younger brother Earl served three terms as governor.
The Longs remain controversial and aspects of Longism are still debated. Many do not accept the conclusion that Carl Austin Weiss alone assassinated Huey Long. Some claim Long's bodyguards accidentally or deliberately killed the Kingfish, possibly after Weiss punched him. They point out that Weiss did not fit the typical assassin's profile of an alienated loner, but was a happy young man with much to live for. The 1935 state police investigation that blamed Weiss was reopened in 1993, the murder weapon and some accompanying bullets found, and Weiss's body was exhumed and his remains examined for clues to the assassination. State police captain Don Moreau, who headed the new investigation, concluded that his findings did not change the basic conclusions of the earlier investigation. As to motive, Weiss knew that Long was gerrymandering his father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy, a state judge, out of office; moreover, Weiss might have learned that Long had circulated rumors that the Pavy family was part black.
A further issue is Long's place in history. Early biographers tended to be highly critical, comparing the Kingfish to European fascist leaders. In 1969 historian T. Harry Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Long, which was based upon prodigious research that included about three hundred interviews. Williams's depiction of Long as an earlier version of a 1960s radical gradually lost favor, although it remains influential. Later biographies by Alan Brinkley, William Ivy Hair, and Glen Jeansonne were more critical of Long's abuses of power in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Jeansonne has observed that Long might have had bipolar disorder, a chronic mental disorder believed to be inherited through the female line. This observation is based on the facts that Huey's brother Earl was diagnosed with the illness and that Long had classic symptoms: insomnia, supercharged energy, mood changes, rapid speech, and a quick wit coupled with impatience. If this is the case, Long's untreated condition explains in part many of his liabilities and assets, including his lack of inhibition, his charisma, his capacity to hate, and his relentless drive. If so, it might lead scholars to be less judgmental of Long and provide insights into his motivations and accomplishments.
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Long, Huey P. Every Man a King. 1933.
Long, Huey P. My First Days in the White House. 1935.
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