Huey Long

Introduction

Huey Long was a fiery and charismatic Louisiana politician who moved up the ranks at a young age. Branded a demagogue and radical by his opponents, and known for turning his back on established processes to gain political victories, Long controlled a vast political machine in the name of courting working class and poor constituents.

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Long was born on August 30, 1893, in rural north central Louisiana, the seventh child in his family.

His hometown of Winnfield was in one of the poorest parishes in the state, but the Longs, farmers with livestock, were relatively well off. Long was known for his avid reading, photographic memory and an audacious personality with no inhibitions about offering his opinion.

During high school, Long won a scholarship to Louisiana State University in a debate competition. Long claimed that he became a traveling salesman instead when he realized he couldn’t afford the required books, but it’s believed he didn’t attend because he never graduated high school.

His older brother George paid for attendance at Oklahoma Baptist University to become a preacher, but Long never registered. George then gave his brother money to switch to the University of Oklahoma Law School, but Long lost that gambling.

After hustling for a job, Long attended for a semester, but by his own admission, learned more about gambling than the law. He left to become a traveling salesman again.

At the end of 1912, Long was arrested in Shreveport for creating a disturbance in a brothel, though Long later claimed he was falsely arrested for the shooting of two men.

He was in Shreveport to propose to Rose McConnell. Long had met Rose in 1910 at a baking contest he organized to promote a shortening called Cottolene while he was still in sales. Serving as the judge, he gave the top two prizes to Rose and her mother. They were married in April 1913.

In 1914, Long enrolled at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, which he attended for a year, concentrating on his studies. He received special permission to take the Louisiana bar exam, passing at age 21.

In 1918 Long won a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission and used his position to fight monopolies and utility rates, winning favor with working people. In 1922, he became the chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission and sued the telephone company for raising rates.

Long rankled the conservative establishment and confrontations with them sometimes erupted into violence, including a knife attack.

At the age of 30, Long announced his candidacy as a Democrat for governor, attacking Standard Oil as controlling the corrupt New Orleans political machine. Long lost by 7,000 votes, placing third, which he blamed on torrential downpours preventing rural voters from getting to the polls.

Though Long’s politics were anti-corporate, his finances told a different story, with multiple lucrative investments in independent oil companies. His battles against Standard Oil were often on behalf of companies that he benefited from financially.

With the slogan “Every man a king,” Long ran for governor again four years later. He won by huge numbers in 1928 and, now embracing the nickname “the Kingfish,” immediately made good on his promises by maneuvering out of government agencies the cronies of the conservative political establishment and installing his own allies.

Democratic Governor Long began his agenda of centralizing power around the executive office – a move that brought accusations of a dictatorship, pressuring the legislature to pass laws allowing him to seize control of multiple state agencies.

He later signed a bill that allowed all police to make arrests without a warrant, along with others that centralized investigative power to the governor.

Long pursued increased spending in education, infrastructure and energy, and placed a tax burden on the rich, most notably large corporations like Standard Oil. Threatened with impeachment, Long charged legislators with taking bribes. Impeachment was attempted, which Long narrowly escaped.

Death threats followed him, and Long procured the service of bodyguards out of fear of assassination.

Despite Long’s reputation as a reformer, his efforts did not extend to the black community.

One of his earliest acts as governor was to sign a bill expanding train segregation to buses, and he gave speeches warning of “Negro domination,” though some of his populist policies did benefit blacks economically.

Long’s favorite way to discredit opponents was to claim they were of black descent.

In 1930, Long ran for the U.S. Senate and won, but left his Senate seat unattended for months while he consolidated his power in Louisiana before departing the state, installing cronies to take his place as governor.

Long would demand a special session of the state legislature when he visited, pushing through his agenda at a startling pace that ignored standard procedures. In one five-day session, 44 bills were passed.

Many of these bills were meant to divert power to Long behind the scenes, including those that transferred powers away from local authorities in the courts, police, elections and licensing to state authorities. Other bills targeted newspapers, particularly Long’s enemies in the press.

In the Senate, Long addressed the Great Depression by advocating for a series of reforms known as Share Our Wealth, a plan to redistribute wealth and capping personal income at $50 million.

Labeled a socialist by both political parties, Long started his own newspaper, the American Progress, to spread his ideas.

Share Our Wealth political clubs appeared around the country, boasting over seven million members in 27,000 clubs. Long allowed blacks to participate, but only in segregated groups.

Long initially supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but felt threatened by him. Roosevelt felt that Long was dangerous and attempted to undo his power, going so far as to order investigations into Long by the IRS and the FBI.

Roosevelt incorporated some of Long’s Share Our Wealth initiatives into his New Deal to ensure Long’s efforts did not undo it – and to undercut Long’s popular support as he began to move towards a presidential bid.

In 1935, Long wrote a speculative book called My First Days In The White House, which gave a fictional account of how Long expected his first 100 days as president to unfold.

A group called the Square Deal Association had quietly formed in Louisiana, a gathering of Long’s opponents who embraced armed revolt as the only way to stop him.

In January 1935, the East Baton Rouge Parish courthouse was raided by a group of 300 armed men in the Square Deal Association.

Governor Oscar K. Allen declared martial law and called in the militia. The skirmish moved to the airport where there was a brief armed altercation.

That summer, Long claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate him involving four congressmen, the mayor of New Orleans and two former Louisiana governors.

On September 8, 1935, Long arrived in Baton Rouge to take part in a special legislative session when he was approached by Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of Judge Benjamin Pavy.

Pavy stood to lose his position during the session after Long revived a rumor about black children in the Pavy family to discredit him professionally.

Weiss shot Long at close range. Long’s bodyguards shot back at Weiss, killing him, while Long was rushed to the hospital where he died two days later of internal bleeding at the age of 44.

Many observers of Long and his political machinations have described him as a demagogue with an insatiable lust for power and control.

In the satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, author Sinclair Lewis created the character of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician with totalitarian ambitions that critics believe was based on Long.

Others, however, commend Long for his work on behalf of Louisiana’s infrastructure, education system and health care.

Indeed, many of Long’s relatives have had long careers in politics and government, including his brother Earl Kemp Long (three-term governor of Louisiana), his widow Rose McConnell Long (U.S. senator) and his son Russell B. Long (also a U.S. senator).

Kingfish and His Realm. William Ivy Hair.
Huey Long. T. Harry Williams.
Life and Times. The Long Legacy Project.

Article Details:

Huey Long

  • Author

    History.com Staff

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2009

  • Title

    Huey Long

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/topics/huey-long

  • Access Date

    June 20, 2018

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks