Share Our Wealth
Share Our Wealth
By: Huey P. Long
Date: March 7, 1935
Source: Huey P. Long. "Share Our Wealth." Washington, D.C., March 7, 1935. Available from American Rhetoric. <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/hueyplongshare.htm> (accessed June 20, 2006).
About the Author: Huey P. Long (1893–1935) served as the Governor of Louisiana (1928–1931) and the U.S. Senator from Louisiana (1930–1935). A flamboyant Democrat with a dictatorial governing style, he was assassinated in 1935 by a Louisiana political opponent just as he was planning to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency.
Louisiana politician Huey P. Long became a national figure in the 1930s by blaming the Great Depression on only one cause, the maldistribution of wealth. In February 1934, Long went on the radio to announce the formation of the Share Our Wealth Society. Although he did not publicly say so, Long planned to use the Society to propel himself into the White House.
Share Our Wealth was based on Long's notion that wealth was finite. He believed that the only way to raise the fortunes of the poor was to take from the rich. Accordingly, the centerpiece of the plan was a call to appropriate all accumulated wealth above $5 million and all annual earnings over $1 million. The money raised from this tax would be used to provide every American family with a homestead, which included a house, a car, and a radio. Additionally, every family would receive an annual income of between $2000 and $2500 at a time when 18.3 families earned less than $1000 per year. Besides this confiscatory tax, which was the only constant element of Share Our Wealth, Long proposed a number of sweeping reforms. At various times, he added old-age pensions, free college education for students who passed entrance exams, and bonuses for veterans. With realism rare in a southern politician in the Jim Crow era, Long included blacks as recipients of his benefits.
All one had to do to join the Share Our Wealth Society was to write to Long. There were no dues, but Long accepted donations. Members received Long's autobiography, speeches, buttons, and instructions on how to create local chapters. The Society gained 200,000 members within a month. By the time of Long's death, it had 7.5 million members. By the start of 1935, Society officials claimed that 27,000 chapters were in existence. Although many of the members came from Long's traditional power base in the South, the movement was a national one. It particularly attracted African Americans, historically the most downtrodden on the economic ladder. The movement was primarily a lower middle class one, but small business owners and professionals also joined out of fear that the Depression would push them into the ranks of the poverty-stricken.
President Roosevelt was elected on November 8, 1932. People look upon an elected President as the President. This is January 1935. We are in our third year of the Roosevelt depression, with the conditions growing worse…
We must now become awakened! We must know the truth and speak the truth. There is no use to wait three more years. It is not Roosevelt or ruin; it is Roosevelt's ruin.
Now, my friends, it makes no difference who is President or who is senator. America is for 125 million people and the unborn to come. We ran Mr. Roosevelt for the president of the United States because he promised to us by word of mouth and in writing:
- That the size of the big man's fortune would be reduced so as to give the masses at the bottom enough to wipe out all poverty;
- That the hours of labor would be so reduced that all would share in the work to be done and in consuming the abundance mankind produced.
Hundreds of words were used by Mr. Roosevelt to make these promises to the people, but they were made over and over again. He reiterated these pledges even after he took his oath as President. Summed up, what these promises meant was: "Share our wealth."
When I saw him spending all his time of ease and recreation with the business partners of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., with such men as the Astors, etc., maybe I ought to have had better sense than to have believed he would ever break down their big fortunes to give enough to the masses to end poverty—maybe some will think me weak for ever believing it all, but millions of other people were fooled the same as myself. I was like a drowning man grabbing at a straw, I guess. The face and eyes, the hungry forms of mothers and children, the aching hearts of students denied education were before our eyes, and when Roosevelt promised, we jumped for that ray of hope.
So therefore I call upon the men and women of America to immediately join in our work and movement to share our wealth.
There are thousands of share-our-wealth societies organized in the United States now. We want a hundred thousand such societies formed for every nook and corner of this country—societies that will meet, talk, and work, all for the purpose that the great wealth and abundance of this great land that belongs to us may be shared and enjoyed by all of us.
We have nothing more for which we should ask the Lord. He has allowed this land to have too much of everything that humanity needs.
So in this land of God's abundance we propose laws, viz.:
The fortunes of the multimillionaires and billion-aires shall be reduced so that no one person shall own more than a few million dollars to the person. We would do this by a capital levy tax. On the first million that a man was worth, we would not impose any tax. 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." So we would not levy and capital levy tax on the first million one owned. But on the second million a man owns, we would tax that 1 percent, so that every year the man owned the second million dollars he would be taxed $10,000. On the third million we would impose a tax of 2 percent. On the fourth million we would impose a tax of 4 percent. On the fifth million we would impose a tax of 16 percent. On the seventh million we would impose a tax of 32 percent. On the eighth million we would impose a tax of 64 percent; and on all over the eight million we would impose a tax of 100 percent.
What this would mean is that the annual tax would bring the biggest fortune down to $3 or $4 million to the person because no one could pay taxes very long in the higher brackets. But $3 or $4 million is enough for any one person and his children and his children's children. We cannot allow one to have more than that because it would not leave enough for the balance to have something.
- We propose to limit the amount any one man can earn in one year or inherit to $1 million to the person.
- 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.
- We guarantee food and clothing and employment for everyone who should work by shortening the hours of labor to thirty hours per week, maybe less, and to eleven months per year, maybe less. We would have the hours shortened just so much as would give work to everybody to produce enough for everybody; and if we get them down to where they were too short, then we would lengthen them again. As long as all the people working can produce enough of automobiles, radios, homes, schools, and theatres for everyone to have that kind of comfort and convenience, then let us all have work to do and have that much of heaven on earth.
- We would provide education at the expense of the states and the United States for every child, not only through grammar school and high school but through to a college and vocational education. We would simply extend the Louisiana plan to apply to colleges and all people. Yes, we would have to build thousands of more colleges and employ 100,000 more teachers; but we have materials, men, and women who are ready and available for the work. Why have the right to a college education depend upon whether the father or mother is so well-to-do as to send a boy or girl to college? We would give every child the right to education and a living at birth.
- We would give a pension to all persons above sixty years of age in an amount sufficient to support them in comfortable circumstances, expecting those who earn $1,000 per year or who are worth $10,000.
- Until we could straighten things out—and we can straighten things out in two months under our program— we would grant a moratorium on all debts which people owe that they cannot pay.
And now you have our program, none too big, none too little, but every man a king.
We owe debts in America today, public and private, amounting to $252 billion. That means that every child is born with a $2,000 debt tied around his neck to hold him down before he gets started. Then, on top of that, the wealth is locked in a vise owned by a few people. We propose that children shall be born in a land of opportunity, guaranteed a home, food, clothes, and the other things that make for living, including the right to education.
Our plan would injure no one. It would not stop us from having millionaires—it would increase them tenfold, because so many more people could make $1 million if they had the chance our plan gives them. Our plan would not break up big concerns. The only difference would be that maybe 10,000 people would own a concern instead of 10 people owning it.
But, my friends, unless we do share our wealth, unless we limit the size of the big man so as to give something to the little man, we can never have a happy or free people. God said so! He ordered it.
We have everything our people need. Too much of food, clothes, and houses—why not let all have their fill and lie down in the ease and comfort God has given us? Why not? Because a few own everything—the masses own nothing.
I wonder if any of you people who are listening to me were ever at a barbecue! We used to go there—sometimes 1,000 people or more. If there were 1,000 people, we would put enough meat and bread and everything else on the table for 1,000 people. Then everybody would be called and everyone would eat all they wanted. But suppose at one of these barbecues for 1,000 people that one man took 90 percent of the food and ran off with it and ate until he got sick and let the balance rot. Then 999 people would have only enough for 100 to eat and there would be many to starve because of the greed of just one person for something he couldn't eat himself.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, America all the people of America, have been invited to a barbecue. God invited us all to come and eat and drink all we wanted. He smiled on our land we grew crops of plenty to eat and wear. He showed us in the earth the iron and other things to make everything we wanted. He unfolded to us the secrets of science so that our work might be easy. God called: "Come to my feast."
Then what happened? Rockefeller, Morgan, and their crowd stepped up and took enough for 120 million people and left only enough for 5 million for all the other 125 million to eat. And so many million must go hungry and without these good things God gave us unless we call on them to put some of it back.
The swelling membership of Share Our Wealth masked fundamental problems with the movement. Economists ridiculed the plan. Noting that only forty-three Americans made more than $1 million per year in 1934, they calculated that families would receive only $400 under Long's plan. Further critics contended that, because Share Our Wealth would kill all incentive to make more than $1 million, there would be nothing to confiscate after the first year. In addition, Long failed to explain how he would address non-liquid assets, such as real estate, stocks, and bonds, that could not be easily transferred to the poor.
As he stated privately to friends, Long was more interested in the power that he would derive from his own national organization than in pressing for reforms. The Share Our Wealth Society disintegrated after Long's murder by Dr. Carl A. Weiss at the Louisiana state capitol in September 1935. Long's closest supporters, none of whom had any particular attachment to the plan, were eager to mend their fences with Roosevelt. The president had been withholding federal funds from Louisiana as punishment for Long's disloyalty. Gerald L.K. Smith, who had been responsible for much of the publicity that led to the Society's rapid growth, tried to take it over but Long's men denied him access to the mailing list. Roosevelt's 1935 Wealth Tax bill and the passage of the Social Security Act co-opted some of Long's thunder and hastened the demise of the Society.
Hair, William Ivy. The Kingfish and His Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1991.
Jeansonne, Glen. Messiah of the Masses: Huey P. Long and the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.