Huey Long, Populist Politician of the Depression Era

photograph of Depression era populist Huey Long
Huey Long, The Kingfish,.

 Getty Images

Huey Long was a populist politician from Louisiana. He rose to national fame in the early 1930s by mastering the new medium of radio and reaching an audience with his hopeful slogan "Every Man a King." It was widely assumed that Long would challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936 and pose a credible threat to Roosevelt's run for a second term.

However, Long's surge onto the national stage ended tragically when he was shot in the Louisiana capitol on September 8, 1935. He died 30 hours later.

Fast Facts: Huey Long

  • Nickname: The Kingfish
  • Occupation: U.S. senator, Louisiana governor, lawyer
  • Born: August 30, 1893 in Winnfield, Louisiana
  • Died: September 10, 1935 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Education: University of Oklahoma, Tulane University
  • Known For: Controversial state and national political career; founded influential Louisiana political machine; proposed "Share Our Wealth" income redistribution program; assassinated while serving as U.S. Senator

Early Life

Huey Pierce Long was born August 30, 1893 in Winnfield, Louisiana. His family owned a small farm, on which he worked as a child. Long was precocious and read as much as he could. As a young man, he found work as a typesetter and as a traveling salesman, and for a time he attended the University of Oklahoma.

Next, Long studied law at Tulane University and was quickly admitted to the Louisiana bar. He set up a law practice in Winnfield and began to gravitate toward politics. Long was elected to the state's railroad commission, where he began developing a reputation as the defender of the common man. In state government, he gained attention for attacking banks and utility companies, which he said were exploiting the poor citizens of Louisiana.

"The Kingfish" Becomes Governor

Huey Long exhibited keen political instincts and proved capable at navigating the often-corrupt political system of Louisiana. In 1928, he was elected governor at the age of 34. The political machine he had developed throughout the 1920s now took power in the state and began to ruthlessly suppress any opposition.

A peculiar blend of advocating for the downtrodden while ruthlessly crushing any political opposition made Long into something of a benevolent dictator in Louisiana. In many ways, the Long political machine resembled traditional urban political machines like New York's Tammany Hall.

Long solidified his power in Louisiana by promising to improve the standard of living for his constituents. He advocated for better education, and unlike traditional Louisiana Democrats at the time, he did not invoke the history of the Confederacy. Instead, Long steered away from the racially-charged politics found in politics in the South.

Long's style of politics gained him a number of enemies, including wealthy executives of oil companies. A campaign to impeach him and drive him out of the governorship gained momentum. Long held onto his job, as the state legislature failed to convict him. It was often rumored that Long kept his job by passing out some carefully placed bribes.

Followers of Long gave him the nickname "The Kingfish," after a lawyer and conman character on the popular Amos and Andy radio show. Long took to the name and encouraged its use.

U.S. Senate

In 1930, Long decided to run for the United States Senate. He entered the primary, beat the incumbent, and won the general election. In an odd twist, Long refused to take his seat in the U.S. Capitol for nearly two years; for a time, he was both governor of Louisiana and the state's senator-elect. Long finally took the oath as a U.S. Senator in 1932. However, he still essentially controlled Louisiana state politics through his existing political machine as well as the new governor, Oscar K. Allen. (Allen was Long's childhood friend and was widely considered a puppet governor for Long.)

The Kingfish emerged as a colorful character in national politics. In April 1933, a headline in the New York Times referred to him as "That Meteor of the South." Two months later, another Times article noted that "[m]uch of the Senate's time is taken by Huey Long of Louisiana, an indefatigable orator and controversialist who warns the Senators that they will 'have to come in here and listen' to him."

photograph of Senator Huey Long
Senator Huey Long. Getty Images 

In a 1933 interview with reporters in New York City, Long was reminded that many East Coast observers regarded him as a clown. Long responded by saying he might correct that by traveling the country, speaking directly to the people. He declared, "I'll bring up my sound trucks and the people will come out and listen. They'll always listen to Huey Long."

Long may have gotten himself noticed in Washington, but he exerted little power in the Senate. He had initially been a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, though over time, he developed his own agenda. Roosevelt himself considered Long erratic, disloyal, and potentially dangerous. As a result, Roosevelt never put much trust in Long.

"Every Man a King"

Frustrated by his relative obscurity in the Senate, Long began to use his unique political gifts to appeal directly to voters. He announced a major income redistribution plan called "Share Our Wealth." The plan proposed heavy taxations on the wealthy and guaranteed government stipends for the poor. Long launched the plan with a speech in which he rolled out a new slogan: "Every Man a King."

Long's idea, of course, was highly controversial. This was fine with Long, who often found himself embroiled in all sorts of controversies, from libel suits to feuds with other Senators to political machinations back in Louisiana.

Long promoted his program whenever he could, including through speeches broadcast on the radio. He also formed an organization called the Share Our Wealth Society. The group's platform called for confiscating any yearly income above $1 million and the seizure of any wealth above $5 million.

With these seizures of wealth, Long proposed that every family in America would receive a house and a car. They would also get a radio—Long always understood the value of communicating via radio. In addition, all Americans would be guaranteed a yearly income on which they could live.

To the wealthy and powerful, Long's plan was an outrage. He was denounced as a dangerous radical. To other politicians, Long was regarded as a showman. One fellow Democrat in the Senate went so far as to say he wanted to move his seat, and would even sit with the Republicans, just so he would no longer have to look at Huey Long.

photo of car proclaiming Huey Long for President
Car proclaiming Huey Long for President in 1936.  Getty Images

Yet to many average Americans in the depths of the Great Depression, the promises of The Kingfish were welcomed. The Share Our Wealth Society gained more than seven million members across the country. Huey Long was receiving more mail than any other politician, including the president.

In 1935, Long enjoyed a wave of popularity, which included an appearance on the cover of TIME magazine. At the time, it seemed inevitable that he would challenge President Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1936 election.

Assassination

In the final year of his life, Huey Long faced a number of challenges to his control of Louisiana. He also claimed to be receiving of death threats, and he surrounded himself with bodyguards.

On September 8, 1935, Long was in the Louisiana capitol building, overseeing efforts to remove a political enemy—Judge Benjamin Pavy—from office. After a bill was passed accomplishing Judge Pavy's removal, Long was approached by Pavy's son-in-law, Carl Weiss. Weiss lunged within a few feet of Long and fired a pistol into his abdomen.

Long's bodyguards opened fire on Weiss, striking him with as many as 60 bullets. Long was taken to a hospital, where doctors attempted to save his life. He died 30 hours later, on the morning of September 10, 1935.

Legacy

Long's assassination, which was rooted in political feuds in Louisiana, marked the conclusion of a fascinating chapter in American politics. Some of the changes Huey Long sought for Louisiana, including an improved state university system, endured after his death. However, his national political program and the "Share Our Wealth" platform could not continue without him.

Though Long never achieved his goal of reaching the White House, he did have an impact on American politics. Politicians learned from and emulated his use of slogans and broadcast media to reach voters. In addition, one of the great American political novels, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, was based on the career of Huey Long.

Sources

  • JEANSONNE, GLEN. "Long, Huey P." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 588-591.
  • "Huey Pierce Long." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Gale, 2004, pp. 496-497.
  • "Huey Long Offers Cure For Our Ills." New York Times, 26 March 1933, p. 7.
  • "Doctor Shoots Huey Long In Louisiana State Capitol; Bodyguards Kill Assailant." New York Times, 9 September 1935, p. 1.