Huey Pierce Long, the seventh of nine children, was born in Winnfield, Louisiana, on 30th August, 1893. After leaving school he worked as a salesman in Texas and Tennessee before enrolling in the Tulane University Law School in New Orleans in 1914. He completed the three-year course in eight months and became a lawyer at the age of 21.
Long established his law practice in Winnfield. He soon developed a reputation as a champion of the common people. He later said "my cases in Court were on the side of the small man - the underdog." He added "I have never taken a suit against a poor man."
A member of the Democratic Party, Long supported S. J. Harper in his campaign against limited employers' liability. Long also successfully defended Harper, an opponent of American involvement in the First World War, after his anti-war activities led to him being charged under the Espionage Act.
In 1918 Long won election as state railroad commissioner for the northern district of Louisiana. The following year he supported John M. Parker, in his successful campaign to become Governor of Louisiana. However, in 1919 Long began attacking Governor Parker for failing to increase taxes on Standard Oil. In 1921 Long became chairman of the Public Services Commission and over the next couple of years successfully achieves lower telephone, gas and electric rates, railroad and streetcar fares and a severance tax on oil.
Long ran for office as Governor of Louisiana in 1928. Education was the main theme of his election campaign. As he pointed out, Louisiana's illiteracy rate of 22 per cent was the highest in the United States. Long's attacks on the utilities industries and the privileges of corporations were popular and he won the election by the largest margin in the state's history (92,941 votes to 3,733).
Once in power Long condemned the state's ruling hierarchy and attempted to replace it with his own supporters. In this way he gained control of the Hospital Board, the Highway Commission, the Levee Board and the Dock Board. He also forced state employees to distribute his newspaper, the Louisiana Progress. Long also attempted to capture the Democratic State Central Committee.
Long's critics accused him of being a dictator but he did introduce important reforms. This included the provision of free school textbooks, free night school courses for adult illiterates and increased expenditure on the state university.
In 1928, Louisiana only had 331 miles of paved roads. When Long gained power he launched an infrastructure programme aimed at building 3,000 miles of roads and establishing schools within walking distance of all the state's white children. To pay for the roads and schools that were built in Louisiana, Long increased taxes on local corporations.
The journalist, Raymond Gram Swing, went to visit Long: "I attended two other sessions with his approval, one of a special meeting of the legislature in the skyscraper statehouse at Baton Rouge, the other of the Ways and Means Committee, both called to take care of thirty-five bills introduced by the Long machine. The Senator was at both meetings running things without the slightest right of membership. Nobody objected. This was Huey's legislature, his committee, his statehouse, his state. At the special session of the legislature, he answered questions from the floor.... In the committee meeting at nine the next morning, Long read and explained each bill, then the chairman put it to a vote, smashing down his gavel. Here, too, he had no right to take part in the proceedings, but no one objected. The committee consisted of fifteen Long supporters and two oppositionists. Three bills were approved in the first six minutes, thirty-five were acted on in seventy minutes, all but one being approved."
Despite his criticisms of the way Long governed, Swing admitted that some of his reforms helped the poor: "This has to be said for Huey Long: he had strong liberal instincts and left to his credit a list of reforms not to be matched in any other Southern state. He shifted the burden of taxation from the poor to those who could afford to bear it. To finance his reforms, he increased the state's indebtedness from $11,000,000 to $150,000,000, but met each increase by new taxation. He passed legislation postponing the payment of private debt. He laid out a system of highways and bridges, and, above all, he dedicated himself to improving the state's education. He remodeled the school system to enable eight-month terms to be maintained in the poorest parishes and provided free textbooks. He strongly supported the Julius Rosenwald campaign against illiteracy, so that 100,000 adults in Louisiana, white and black, learned to read and write in his first term as governor. He backed Louisiana State University, assured it a good faculty, added a medical and dental school, and increased its enrollment from 1,500 to 4,000 in his first term as governor. As governor, he fought the public-utility companies and forced down power and telephone rates. He obtained a reduction of electricity rates in New Orleans. He built a five-million-dollar statehouse, an impressive high-tower building rising on the bank of the Mississippi."
Long also attempted to increase revenues by imposing a new tax on the oil industry. The legislature rejected the measure and attempts were made to impeach Long. He was accused of misappropriating state funds and making illegal loans. However, the Senate failed to convict Long by two votes and afterwards it was claimed he had bribed several senators in order to get the right result.
In 1930 Long was elected to the Senate. To keep full control of Louisiana he installed an old friend, Alvin King, the president of the state senate, to act as governor. In the Senate he was highly critical of President Herbert Hoover and the way his government was dealing with the Great Depression.
William E. Leuchtenburg has argued: "Huey clowned his way into national prominence. A tousled redhead with a cherubic face, a dimpled chin, and a pug nose, he had the physiognomy of a Punchinello. He wore pongee suits with orchid-colored shirts and sported striped straw hats, watermelon-pink ties, and brown and white sport shoes... He had mastered a brand of humor which pricked the pretenses of respectability, which appealed to men convinced that beneath the cloth of the jurist sat the fee-grabbing lawyer, beneath the university professor the carnival faker, and, most of all, beneath the statesman the self-serving politician."
In the summer of 1932 Long took on the Democratic Party machine when he decided to support Hattie Caraway, the first women to be elected to Congress, in her bid to hold her seat in the Senate. Joseph T. Robinson and other leaders of the party in Arkansas were opposed to the idea and told her she would not win the party nomination. Caraway approached Long and he agreed to help her in her campaign and she defeated her nearest competitor by two to one.
Long supported the presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, after his election, he was highly critical of some aspects of the New Deal. He disliked the Emergency Banking Act because it did little to help small, local banks. He bitterly attacked the National Recovery Act for the system of wage and price codes it established. He correctly forecasted that the codes would be written by the leaders of the industries involved and would result in price-fixing. Long told the Senate: "Every fault of socialism is found is this bill, without one of its virtues."
Long also claimed that Roosevelt had done little to redistribute wealth. When Roosevelt refused to introduce legislation to place ceilings on personal incomes, private fortunes and inheritances, Long launched his Share Our Wealth Society. In February 1934. He told the Senate: "Unless we provide for redistribution of wealth in this country, the country is doomed." He added the nation faced a choice, it could limit large fortunes and provide a decent standard of life for its citizens, or it could wait for the inevitable revolution.
Long quoted research that suggested "2% of the people owned 60% of the wealth". In one radio broadcast he told the listeners: "God called: 'Come to my feast.' But what had happened? Rockefeller, Morgan, and their crowd stepped up and took enough for 120,000,000 people and left only enough for 5,000,000 for all the other 125,000,000 to eat. And so many millions must go hungry."
Long's plan involved taxing all incomes over a million dollars. On the second million the capital levy tax would be one per cent. On the third, two per cent, on the fourth, four per cent; and so on. Once a personal fortune exceeded $8 million, the tax would become 100 per cent. Under his plan, the government would confiscate all inheritances of more than one million dollars.
This large fund would then enable the government to guarantee subsistence for everyone in America. Each family would receive a basic household estate of $5,000. There would also be a minimum annual income of $2,000 per year. Other aspects of his Share Our Wealth Plan involved government support for education, old-age pensions, benefits for war veterans and public-works projects.
Some critics pointed out that all wealth was not in the form of money. Most of America's richest people had their wealth in land, buildings, stocks and bonds. It would therefore be very difficult to evaluate and liquidate this wealth. When this was put to Long he replied: "I am going to have to call in some great minds to help me."
Leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party also attacked Long's plan. Alex Bittelman, a communist in New York wrote: "Long says he wants to do away with concentration of wealth without doing away with capitalism. This is humbug. This is fascist demagogy." Norman Thomas claimed that Long's Share Our Wealth scheme was insufficient and a dangerous delusion. He added that it was the "sort of talk that Hitler fed the Germans and in my opinion it is positively dangerous because it fools the people."
Long admitted that certain aspects of his scheme was socialistic. He said to a reporter from The Nation: "Will you please tell me what sense there is running on a socialist ticket in America today? What's the use of being right only to be defeated?" On another occasion he argued: "We haven't a Communist or Socialist in Louisiana. Huey P. Long is the greatest enemy that the Communists and Socialists have to deal with."
Some economists claimed that if the Share Our Wealth plan was implemented it would bring an end to the Great Depression. They pointed out that one of the major causes of the economic downturn was the insufficient distribution of purchasing power among the population. If poor families had their incomes increased they would spend this extra money on goods being produced by American industry and agriculture and would therefore stimulate the economy and create more jobs.
Long employed Gerald L. K. Smith, a Louisiana preacher, to travel throughout the South to recruit members for the Share our Wealth Clubs. The campaign was a great success and by 1935 there was 27,000 clubs with a membership of 4,684,000 and a mailing list of over 7,500,000.
Attempts were made to smear Long. One friend wrote that when Long "launched a campaign to limit the size of fortunes a price was set on his head and thugs were employed by big business to rub him from the national picture." Stories began circulating that Long was an alcoholic and to protect himself he gave up drinking and avoided visiting night clubs.
Long's radical ideas did appeal to progressives in the Congress and he gained support from Gerald Nye, William Borah, Henrik Shipstead, Bronson Cutting, Lynn Frazier, Robert LaFollette Jr., John Elmer Thomas, Burton K. Wheeler and George Norris. In October 1933, he published his autobiography, Every Man a King. One reviewer described the book as "unbalanced, vulgar, in many ways ignorant, and quite reckless." Long also began publishing American Progress . Financed by political contributions from his organization in Louisiana, Long mailed it free to his supporters. Normally 300,000 copies were sold per issue but for special editions 1.5 million were printed.
In 1934 Long convened a special session of the legislature in Louisiana and pushed through bills that placed electoral machinery in the governor's hands, outlawing interference by the courts with his use of national guardsmen, and creating his own secret police.
Raymond Gram Swing argued in The Nation in January, 1935. "He (Long) is not a fascist, with a philosophy of the state and its function in expressing the individual. He is plain dictator. He rules, and opponents had better stay out of his way. He punishes all who thwart him with grim, relentless, efficient vengeance. But to say this does not make him wholly intelligible. One does not understand the problem of Huey Long or measure the menace he represents to American democracy until one admits that he has done a vast amount of good for Louisiana. He has this to justify all that is corrupt and peremptory in his methods. Taken all in all, I do not know any man who has accomplished so much that I approve of in one state in four years, at the same time that he has done so much that I dislike. It is a thoroughly perplexing, paradoxical record."
In May 1935 Long began having talks with Charles Coughlin, Francis Townsend, Gerald L. K. Smith, Milo Reno and Floyd B. Olson about a joint campaign to take on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential elections. Two months later Long announced that his police had discovered a plot to kill him. He now surrounded himself with six armed bodyguards. In August 1935, Long announced his candidacy for the presidency.
A shoe salesman from Chicago wrote a letter to Long: "I voted for President Roosevelt but it seems Wall Street has got him punch drunk. What we need is men with guts to go farther to the left as you advocate." Milo Reno, the leader of the radical Farmers' Holiday Association, introduced Long at a meeting as "the hero whom God in his goodness has vouchsafed to his children" in compensation for "Roosevelt, Wallace, Tugwell and the rest of the traitors."
Over the years, Long had been in constant conflict with Judge Benjamin Pavy of St. Landry Parish. Unable to unseat Pavy in St. Landry Parish, Long decided to gain revenge by having two of the judge's daughters dismissed from their teaching jobs. Long also warned Pavy that if he continued to oppose him he would say that his family had "coffee blood". This was based on the story that Pavy's father-in-law, had a black mistress.
On 8th September, 1935, Pavy's son-in-law, Carl Weiss was told that rumours were circulating that his wife was the daughter of a black man. Weiss was furious when he heard the news and decided to pay Long a visit in the State Capitol Building. Long was in the governor's office, and so he waited by a marble pillar in the corridor. When Long left the office with John Fournet and six bodyguards, Weiss pulled out a .32 automatic and aimed it at Long. Weiss fired and hit Long in the abdomen. The bodyguards opened fire and Weiss died on the spot. A bullets fired by one of the bodyguards ricocheted off the pillar and hit Long in the lower spine.
At first it was thought that Long was not seriously wounded and an operation was carried out to repair his wounds. However, the surgeons had failed to detect that one of the bullets had hit Long's kidney. By the time this was discovered, Long was to weak to endure another operation and died on 10th September, 1935. According to his sister, Lucille Long, his last words were: "Don't let me die, I have got so much to do." His book, My First Days in the White House, was published posthumously.