Huey Pierce Long, Jr. (August 30, 1893 September 10, 1935), nicknamed The Kingfish, was an American politician from the U.S. state of Louisiana. A Democrat, he was noted for his radical populist policies. He served as Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a U.S. senator from 1932 to 1935. Though a backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, Long split with Roosevelt in June 1933 and allegedly planned to mount his own presidential bid.
Long created the Share Our Wealth program in 1934, with the motto "Every Man a King," proposing new wealth redistribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on large corporations and individuals of great wealth to curb the poverty and crime resulting from the Great Depression. He was an ardent critic of the Federal Reserve System.
Charismatic and immensely popular for his social reform programs and willingness to take forceful action, Long was accused by his opponents of dictatorial tendencies for his near-total control of the state government. At the height of his popularity, the colorful and flamboyant Long was shot on September 8, 1935, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge; he died two days later at the age of 42. His last words were reportedly, "God, don't let me die. I have so much left to do.
Long was born on August 30, 1893, in Winnfield, the seat of Winn Parish, a rural community in the north-central part of the state. He was the son of Huey Pierce Long, Sr. (1852-1937), and the former Caledonia Palestine Tyson (1860-1913) of French descent, who was born near the Tyson Cemetery in Grant Parish. Long was the seventh of nine children in a farm-owning middle-class family. He attended local schools, where he was an excellent student and was said to have a photographic memory. In 1908, Long circulated a petition asking that the principal of Winn Parish be fired. He was then expelled from school. After Long's mother died, his father remarried.
Long won a debating scholarship to Louisiana State University, but he was unable to afford the textbooks required for attendance. Instead, he spent the next four years as a traveling salesman, selling books, canned goods and patent medicines, as well as working as an auctioneer.
In 1913, Huey Long married Rose McConnell. She was a stenographer who had won a baking contest which he promoted to sell "Cottolene," one of the most popular of the early vegetable shortenings to come on the market. The Longs had a daughter, also named Rose, and two sons, Russell and Palmer.
When sales jobs grew scarce during World War I, Long attended seminary classes at Oklahoma Baptist University at the urging of his mother, a devout Baptist. However, he concluded he was not suited to preaching.
Long briefly attended the University of Oklahoma School of Law in Norman, Oklahoma, and later Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. In 1915, he convinced a board to let him take the bar exam after only a year at Tulane. He passed and began private practice in Winnfield. Later in Shreveport he spent 10 years representing small plaintiffs against large businesses, including workers' compensation cases. He often said proudly that he never took a case against a poor man.
Long won fame by taking on the powerful Standard Oil Company, which he sued for unfair business practices. Over the course of his career, Long continued to challenge Standard Oil's influence in state politics and charged the company with exploiting the state's vast oil and gas resources.
As chairman of the Public Service Commission in 1922, Long won a lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for unfair rate increases, resulting in cash refunds of $440,000 to 80,000 overcharged customers. Long successfully argued the case on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court (Cumberland Tel & Tel Co. v. Louisiana Public Service Commission, 260 U.S. 212 (1922)), prompting Chief Justice William Howard Taft to describe Long as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered.
Long crisscrossed the state, campaigning in rural areas disfranchised by the New Orleans-based political establishment, known as the "Old Regulars." They controlled the state through alliances with sheriffs and other local officials. At the time, the entire state had roughly 500 km (300 miles) of paved roads and only three major bridges. The illiteracy rate was the highest in the nation (25 percent), as most families could not afford to purchase the textbooks required for their children to attend school. A poll tax hindered poor whites from voting. Together with selective application of literacy and understanding tests, however, African Americans had been effectively completely disfranchised since soon after the state legislature passed the new constitution in 1898.
Long won in 1928 by tapping into the class resentment of rural Louisianans and by giving them hope for a better future. He proposed government services long ignored by Louisiana's traditional political leaders. Long won by the largest margin in Louisiana history, 126,842 votes compared with 81,747 for Riley J. Wilson and 80,326 for Oramel H. Simpson. Long's support bridged the traditional north-south, Protestant-Catholic divide in Louisiana politics, and replaced it with a class-based schism between poor farmers and the wealthy planters, businessmen and machine politicians who supported his opponents.
Once his control over the state’s political apparatus was strengthened, Long pushed a number of bills through the 1928 session of the Louisiana State Legislature to fulfill campaign promises. These included a free textbook program for schoolchildren, an idea advanced by John Sparks Patton, the Claiborne Parish school superintendent. Long also supported night courses for adult literacy and a supply of cheap natural gas for the city of New Orleans.
Long began an unprecedented public works program, building roads, bridges, hospitals and educational institutions. His bills met opposition from many legislators and the media, but Long used aggressive tactics to ensure passage of the legislation he favored. He would show up unannounced on the floor of both the House and Senate or in House committees, corralling reluctant representatives and state senators and bullying opponents. These tactics were unprecedented, but they resulted in the passage of most of Long’s legislative agenda. By delivering on his campaign promises, Long achieved hero status among the state's majority rural poor population.
When Long secured passage of his free textbook program, the school board of Caddo Parish (home of conservative Shreveport), sued to prevent the books from being distributed, saying they would not accept "charity" from the state. Long responded by withholding authorization for locating an Army Air Force base nearby until the parish accepted the books.
Long took his case to the people, using his trademark printed circulars and a speaking tour around the state to argue that the impeachment was an attempt by Standard Oil and other corporate interests to prevent his social programs from being carried out. The House passed several of the charges. Once the trial began in the Senate, Long produced the “Round Robin,” a document signed by more than one-third of the state senators, stating that they would vote "not guilty" no matter what the evidence. They believed the charges did not merit removal from office and they considered the trial to be unconstitutional. With the two-thirds majority required to convict impossible to achieve, Long’s opponents halted the proceedings. Long later rewarded the Round Robin signers with state jobs or other favors; some were alleged to have been paid in cash.
Following the failed impeachment attempt in the Senate, Long became ruthless when dealing with his enemies. He fired their relatives from state jobs and supported candidates to defeat them in elections. "I used to get things done by saying please," said Long. "Now I dynamite them out of my path." Since the state’s newspapers were financed by the opposition, in March 1930 Long founded his own paper, the Louisiana Progress, which he used to broadcast achievements and denounce his enemies. To receive lucrative state contracts, companies were first expected to buy advertisements in Long's newspaper. Long attempted to pass laws placing a surtax on newspapers and forbidding the publishing of “slanderous material,” but these efforts were defeated. After the impeachment attempt, Long received death threats. Fearing for his personal safety, he surrounded himself with armed bodyguards at all times.
Long responded by suddenly announcing his intention to run for the federal U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary of September 9, 1930. He portrayed his campaign as a referendum on his programs: if he won he would take it as a sign that the public supported his programs over the opposition of the legislature, and if he lost he promised to resign. Long defeated incumbent Senator Joseph E. Ransdell, an Alexandria native from Lake Providence in East Carroll Parish in far northeastern Louisiana, by 149,640 (57.3 percent) to 111,451 (42.7 percent).
Despite having been elected to the Senate for the 1931 session, Long intended to fill out his term as governor until 1932. Leaving the seat vacant for so long would not hurt Louisiana, Long said; "with Ransdell as Senator, the seat was vacant anyway." By delaying his resignation as governor, Long prevented Lieutenant Governor Paul N. Cyr, from succeeding to the top position. A dentist from Jeanerette in Iberia Parish, Cyr was an early ally with whom Long had since feuded.
Long retained the architect Leon C. Weiss of New Orleans to design the capitol, a new governor's mansion, Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and many Louisiana State University and other college buildings throughout the state.
As governor, Long was not popular among the "old families" of Baton Rouge society. He instead held gatherings of his leaders and friends from across the state. At these gatherings, Long and his group liked to listen to the popular radio show "Amos 'n' Andy." One of Long's followers dubbed him the "Kingfish" after the leader of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge to which Amos and Andy belonged. Other accounts claim Long gave the nickname to himself. During an argument, Long shouted down everyone by yelling, "Shut up, you sons of bitches, shut up! This is the Kingfish talking!".
As governor, Long became an ardent supporter of Louisiana State University (LSU), the state's primary public university in Baton Rouge. He greatly increased LSU funding and expanded its enrollment from 1,600 to 4,000. Long instituted work-scholarship programs that enabled poor students to attend LSU, and he established the LSU Medical School in New Orleans. He also intervened in the university's affairs, choosing its president. Long conducted music for LSU's band played during the football games. Once, he had the football team run a play he created.
In October 1931, Lieutenant Governor Cyr, by then an avowed enemy of Long, argued that the Senator-elect could no longer remain governor. Cyr declared himself to be the legitimate governor. In response Long surrounded the State Capitol with state National Guard troops and fended off the illegal "coup d'état".
Long went to the Louisiana Supreme Court to have Cyr ousted as lieutenant governor. He argued that the office of lieutenant-governor was vacant because Cyr had resigned when he attempted to assume the governorship. His suit was successful. Under the state constitution, Senate president and Long ally Alvin Olin King became lieutenant-governor.
Long chose his childhood friend Oscar Kelly Allen as the candidate to succeed him in the election of 1932 on a “Complete the Work” ticket. With the support of Long's own voter base and the Old Regular machine, Allen won easily. With his loyal succession assured, Long finally resigned as governor and took his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1932.
Long arrived in Washington, D.C., to take his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1932, although he was absent for more than half the days in the 1932 session, having to commute to and from Louisiana. With the backdrop of the Great Depression, he made characteristically fiery speeches which denounced the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. He also criticized the leaders of both parties for failing to address the crisis adequately, most notably attacking Senate Democratic Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas for his apparent closeness with President Herbert Hoover. Robinson had been the vice-presidential candidate in 1928 on the Democratic ticket opposite Hoover and his running-mate, Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas.
In the presidential election of 1932, Long became a vocal supporter of the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He believed Roosevelt to be the only candidate willing and able to carry out the drastic redistribution of wealth that Long believed necessary to end the Great Depression. At the Democratic National Convention, Long was instrumental in keeping the delegations of several wavering states in the Roosevelt camp. Long expected to be featured prominently in Roosevelt's campaign, but he was disappointed with a speaking tour limited to four Midwestern states.
Long managed to find other venues for his populist message. He campaigned to elect Hattie Caraway, the underdog candidate of Arkansas, to her first full term in the Senate by conducting a whirlwind, seven-day tour of that state. He raised his national prominence and defeated the candidate backed by Senator Robinson. With Long's help, Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Caraway told Long, however, that she would continue to use independent judgment and not allow him to dictate how she would vote on Senate bills. She also insisted that he stop attacking Robinson while he was in Arkansas.
After Roosevelt's election, Long soon broke with the new President. Aware that Roosevelt had no intention to radically redistribute the country's wealth, Long became one of the only national politicians to oppose Roosevelt's New Deal policies from the left. He considered them inadequate in the face of the escalating economic crisis. Long sometimes supported Roosevelt's programs in the Senate, saying that "[W]henever this administration has gone to the left I have voted with it, and whenever it has gone to the right I have voted against it. He opposed the National Recovery Act, calling it a sellout to big business. In 1933, he was a leader of a three-week Senate filibuster against the Glass-Steagall Banking Act.
Roosevelt considered Long a radical demagogue. The president privately said of Long that along with General Douglas MacArthur, "[H]e was one of the two most dangerous men in America." Roosevelt later compared Long to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In June 1933, in an effort to undermine Long's political dominance, Roosevelt cut Long out of consultation on the distribution of federal funds or patronage in Louisiana. Roosevelt also supported a Senate inquiry into the election of Long ally John H. Overton to the Senate in 1932. The Long machine was charged with election fraud and voter intimidation; however, the inquiry came up empty, and Overton was seated.
To discredit Long and damage his support base, in 1934 Roosevelt had Long’s finances investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. Though they failed to link Long to any illegality, some of Long’s lieutenants were charged with income tax evasion, but only one had been convicted by the time of Long’s death.
Long’s radical rhetoric and his aggressive tactics did little to endear him to his fellow senators. Not one of his proposed bills, resolutions or motions was passed during his three years in the Senate. During one debate, another senator told Long, “I do not believe you could get the Lord’s Prayer endorsed in this body.”
In terms of foreign policy, Long was a firm isolationist. He argued that America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War and the First World War had been deadly mistakes conducted on behalf of Wall Street. He also opposed American entry into the World Court.
As an alternative, Long proposed federal legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. He used radio broadcasts and founded a national newspaper, the American Progress, to promote his ideas and accomplishments before a national audience. In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.
Long proposed a new progressive tax code designed to limit the size of personal fortunes. The new tax code would tax the first million dollars of income at the existing rates. The second million dollars would be taxed at 1%. The third million at 2%; the fourth million at 4%; the fifth million at 8%; the sixth million at 16%; the seventh million at 32%; the eighth million at 64%; and the remainder at 100%.
The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours.
Denying that his program was socialistic, Long stated that his ideological inspiration for the plan came not from Karl Marx but from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. “Communism? Hell no!” he said, “This plan is the only defense this country’s got against communism.” In 1934, Long held a public debate with Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, on the merits of Share Our Wealth versus socialism.
Long believed that only a radical restructuring of the national economy and elimination of disparities of wealth, while retaining the essential features of the capitalist system, would end the Great Depression and stave off violent revolution. After the Senate rejected one of his wealth redistribution bills, Long told them, "[A] mob is coming to hang the other ninety-five of you damn scoundrels and I'm undecided whether to stick here with you or go out and lead them."
With the Senate unwilling to support his proposals, in February 1934 Long formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country. Long's Senate office received an average of 60,000 letters a week. Some historians believe that pressure from Long and his organization contributed to Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in 1935. He enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security. In private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to “steal Long’s thunder.”
His loyal lieutenant, Governor Oscar K. Allen, dutifully followed Long’s policy proposals. Long was known to berate the governor in public and take over the governor’s office in the State Capitol when he was visiting Baton Rouge. Having broken with the Old Regulars and T. Semmes Walmsley in the fall of 1933, Long inserted himself into the New Orleans mayoral election of 1934 and began a dramatic public feud with the city’s government that lasted for two years.
Huey Long and James A. Noe, an independent oilman and member of the Louisiana Senate, formed the controversial Win or Lose Oil Company. The firm was established to obtain leases on state-owned lands so that the directors might collect bonuses and sublease the mineral rights to the major oil companies. Although ruled legal, these activities were done in secret and the stockholders were unknown to the public. Long made a profit on the bonuses and the resale of those state leases, using the funds primarily for political purposes.
By 1934 Long began a reorganization of the state government that all but abolished local governments in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. It further gave the governor the power to appoint all state employees. Long passed what he called “a tax on lying” and a 2% tax on newspaper advertising revenue. He created the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a special force of plainclothes police answerable only to the governor. He also had the legislature enact the same tax on refined oil that had nearly gotten him impeached in 1929. After Standard Oil agreed that 80% of the oil sent to its refineries would be drilled in Louisiana, Long had the government refund most of the money.
According to Long biographers T. Harry Williams and William Ivy Hair, the senator never intended to run for the presidency in 1936. Long instead planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as a basis for its program. He also planned to use Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and populist talk radio personality from Royal Oak, Michigan; Iowa agrarian radical Milo Reno; and other dissidents. The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, thereby resulting in the election of a Republican as president but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.
In the summer of 1935, Long called for two more special sessions of the legislature; bills were passed in rapid-fire succession without being read or discussed. The new laws further centralized Long’s control over the state by creating several new Long-appointed state agencies: a state bond and tax board holding sole authority to approve all loans to parish and municipal governments, a new state printing board which could withhold "official printer" status from uncooperative newspapers, a new board of election supervisors which would appoint all poll watchers, and a State Board of Censors. They also stripped away the remaining powers of the mayor of New Orleans. Long boasted that he had "taken over every board and commission in New Orleans except the Community Chest and the Red Cross."
Long called for a third special session of the Louisiana State Legislature to begin in September 1935, and he traveled from Washington to Baton Rouge to oversee its progress. Although accounts of the September 8, 1935 murder differ, most believe that Long was shot once or twice by medical doctor Carl Austin Weiss in the Capitol building at Baton Rouge. Weiss was immediately shot more than fifty times by Long's bodyguards and police on the scene. The 28-year-old Dr. Weiss was the son-in-law of Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy. According to Mrs. Ida Catherine Pavy Boudreaux of Opelousas, Pavy's only surviving child, her father had been gerrymandered out of his Sixteenth Judicial District because of his opposition to Long.
Shortly after being shot, the expiring Long reportedly said, "I wonder why he shot me. Long died two days later of internal bleeding, following Dr. Arthur Vidrine's attempt to close the wounds.
An alternative theory suggests that Weiss was unarmed and had punched Long, not shot him. Instead, Senator Long was struck by a stray bullet from his bodyguards, who shot Weiss because they mistakenly believed that Weiss was going to shoot Long. Former Louisiana state police superintendent Francis Grevemberg supports this view of the shooting.
An entourage arrived to wait out the last minutes of Long's life. Among those mourners was his staunch Caddo Parish ally Earl Williamson, who remained steadfast with the Longs through the turbulent era of his brother-successor, Earl Long. As times passed though, even allies like Earl Williamson began to exercise independent judgment.
Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system. His night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for low-income students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities. It built the 11-kilometer (seven-mile) Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year.
After Long’s death, the political machine he had built up was weakened, but it remained a powerful force in state politics until the election of 1960. The Long platform of social programs and populist rhetoric created the state’s main political division; in every state election until 1960, the main factions were organized along pro-Long and anti-Long lines. Even today in Louisiana, opinions on Long are sharply divided. Some remember Long as a popular folk hero, while others revile him as an unscrupulous demagogue and dictator. For several decades after his death, Long’s personal political style inspired imitation among Louisiana politicians who borrowed his colorful speaking style, vicious verbal attacks on opponents, and promises of social programs. His brother Earl Kemp Long later inherited Long’s political machine. Using his platform and rhetorical style, Long was twice elected governor and served an unexpired term as well.
After Earl Long’s death, John McKeithen and Edwin Edwards appeared as heirs to the Long tradition. Most recently, Claude "Buddy" Leach ran a populist campaign in the Louisiana gubernatorial election of 2003 that some observers compared to Huey Long’s. Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell tried the same approach without success in the 2007 jungle primary.
Huey Long’s death did not end the political strength of the Long family. Huey Long's wife, Rose McConnell Long, was appointed to replace him in the Senate, and his son Russell B. Long was elected to the Senate in 1948, where he was re-elected to office until 1987. In addition to Huey's brother Earl Long's becoming governor, another brother, George S. Long, was elected to Congress in 1952. Long's younger sister, Lucille Long Hunt (1898-1985) of Ruston, was the mother of future Public Service Commissioner John S. Hunt, III (1928-2001), of Monroe.
Other more distant relatives, including Gillis William Long and Speedy O. Long (both now deceased) were elected to Congress. Jimmy D. Long of Natchitoches Parish served for years in the Legislature. Jimmy Long's younger brother Gerald Long is unique among the Long's: the only current Long in public office and the first Republican among the Long Democratic dynasty. Floyd W. Smith, Jr., is a self-described "half Long" who is a former mayor of Pineville.
Candidate Jerry Voorhis compared his opponent Richard M. Nixon to Huey Long in his 1946 California race for the U.S. House of Representatives. Nixon described Huey Long as an American folk hero in a later conversation with H.R. Haldeman.
Two bridges crossing the Mississippi River have been named for Long: Huey P. Long Bridge (Baton Rouge) and Huey P. Long Bridge (Jefferson Parish). There is also a Huey P. Long Hospital in Pineville across the Red River from Alexandria.
Long was the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men. In it he charted the corruption of an idealistic politician Willie Stark. Warren did not encourage an association of his character with Long, stating to interviewer Charles Bohner in 1964, "Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself, whatever that self turned out to be." The novel was the basis of two motion pictures: the Oscar-winning 1949 film and a more recent 2006 film.
Long appeared to inspire several fiction writers. In his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis created a made-in-America dictator. Buzz Windrip ("The Chief") becomes president on a strongly populist platform that turns into home-grown American fascism. (Windrip is often assumed to be based on either Long or Gerald B. Winrod.) This is also the case in Bruce Sterling's Distraction featuring a colorful and dictatorial Louisiana governor named "Green Huey". Harry Turtledove's American Empire trilogy drew parallels between Confederate President Jake Featherston's populist, dictatorial style of rule and Huey Long's governorship of Louisiana. In this trilogy, Long was assassinated on orders from Featherston when he refused to side with the Confederate ruling party (though several years later than in reality).
The life of Long has held continuing fascination. In 1970 T. Harry Williams' won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography Huey Long. In 1985 Ken Burns made a documentary about Long. Two made-for-TV docudramas about him have also been produced: The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish (1977) and Kingfish (1995, TNT). (Ed Asner played Long in the former, and John Goodman starred in the latter).
In popular music, chronicler of American culture Randy Newman (a native Louisianan) featured Huey Long prominently, with two songs on the 1974 album Good Old Boys (Reprise). On Newman's album, the song Every Man a King, originally written and recorded by Long and Castro Carazo, is followed by The Kingfish (a reference to Long's famous nickname).