Huey Long, elected Governor of Louisiana in 1928 and U.S. Senator in 1930, ruled Louisiana as a virtual dictator, but he also initiated massive public works programs, improved public education and public health, and even established some restrictions on corporate power in the state. While Long was an early supporter of President Roosevelt, by the fall of 1933 the Long-Roosevelt alliance had ruptured, in part over Long’s growing interest in running for president. In 1934 Long organized his own, alternative political organization, the Share-Our-Wealth Society, through which he advocated a populist program for redistributing wealth through sharply graduated income and inheritance taxes. Hodding Carter, the liberal editor of the Daily Courier in his hometown of Hammond, Louisiana, however, repeatedly warned against Long’s corruption and demagoguery. When the New Republic published an attack on Long by Carter, it also ran this strong defense by one of Long’s closest associates, Gerald L. K. Smith.
Nine years ago, Louisiana was a feudal state. Until that time it was ruled by the feudal lords in New Orleans and on the big plantations: the cotton kings, lumber kings, rice kings, oil kings, sugar kings, molasses kings banana kings, etc. The state was just a “mainland” of the territory. The common people in New Orleans were ruled, domineered over and bulldozed by a political organization known as the Old Regulars. The great mass of people in the city and the country worked like slaves or else lived in an isolation that excluded opportunity. Labor unions were very weak and the assembly or workers was prohibited in most industrial center. It was not uncommon for labor organizers to be beaten or assassinated.
The great corporations ruled the state and pushed the tax burden onto the poor. The Chambers of Commerce spent money in the North urging industry to come South for cheap labor. Illiteracy was as common as peonage. The commissary plan was in force in mills and on plantations; it kept the workers from receiving cash and left them always in debt to the employer. The highway system was a series of muddy lanes with antique ferries and narrow bridges with high toll charges. Great forests sold for a dollar an acre, to be “slaughtered” and removed with nothing left to enrich the lives of stranded cut-over population. Families north of New Orleans were forced to pay an $8 toll to cross Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans and return.
Of course, we had our grand and glorious aristocracy, plantation mansions, the annual Mardi Gras festival, horse races, and those staunch defenders of the old South, the newspapers. Of course, the old Louisiana aristocracy, with its lords, dukes and duchesses, had to be preserved, regardless of what happened to the people. State institutions constituted a disgrace. The insane were strapped, put into stocks and beaten. The penitentiary was an abyss of misery, hunger and graft. The State University had 1,500 students with a "C" rating. Most of the young people were too poor to attend Tulane, the only big university in the state. Ten thousand aristocrats ruled the state while 2,000,000 common people wallowed in slavery with no representation in the affairs of the state. Half of the children were not in school. Great sections of the adult population could not read or write. Little consideration was given to Negro education. Professional training was available only to the sons of the privileged.
Huey Long grew up in the pine woods of Winn Parish. He had witnessed the sale of trees worth $10 each for $1 an acre. He was sensitive to injustice. He knew the difficulty of receiving a higher education. He seemed to have an intuitive appreciation of ideal social conditions. At the age of twenty, his Share the Wealth ideal was fixed in his mind. Shortly after, he announced his ambition to become Governor. He was ridiculed, patronized and pitied. True enough he was a mustang—rough, wild, vigorous, and at the same time mysteriously intelligent. At thirty, he was the best lawyer in Louisiana. He had the surface manners of a demagogue, but the depth of a statesman. This dual nature accounts for many of his victories. He wins like a demagogue and delivers like a statesman. His capacity for work was unlimited. He waded through mud, drove along dusty highways and soon became the poor man’s best friend. After fifteen hours of hard work, he could recover completely with three hours of sleep. He recognized the value of entertainment in leading these sad, enslaved people out of bondage. He is Louisiana’s greatest humorist. It was his wedge, but behind that wedge was a deep sympathy and a tender understanding of the needs of his people.
In 1928 he was elected Governor. He had promised many things that even his staunchest admirers questioned his ability to deliver. He moved to Baton Rouge, tore down the old Governor’s mansion, built a new one, built a new capitol, built new university buildings, refused to entertain socially, attended no banquets, snubbed the elite and opened the mansion to the muddy feet of his comrades. He offended the sensibilities of the tender sons and daughters of privilege. He whipped bankers into line, he struck blow after blow at peonage, he gave orders to the Standard Oil Company, the bank trust and the feudal lords. Society matrons, lottery kings, gamblers, exclusive clubs and—not to be forgotten—leading clergymen with sensitive flocks joined hands to impeach this “wild,” "horrible,“ "terrible,” "bad" man. The war was on. Impeachment proceedings failed. State senators, representatives and appointees began to obey like humble servants—not in fear but quite as anxious parents obey a great physician who prescribes for a sick child. He was recognized by friend and foe as the smartest man in Louisiana.
Severance taxes were levied on oil, gas, lumber and other natural resources, which made possible free schoolbooks for all children, black and white, rich and poor, in public and private schools. Telephone rates were cut, gas rates were cut, electric rates were cut; night schools were opened up and 149,000 adults were taught to read and write. Then came free ferries, new free bridges, 5,000 miles of paved and improved roads (six years ago, we had only seventeen miles of pavement in Louisiana); a free medical school was built, as fine as any in the country. Free school buses were introduced the assembly of workers for organization was guaranteed, new advantages were created for the deaf, the blind, the widows, the orphans and the insane, the penitentiary was modernized, traveling libraries were introduced and improved highways were forced through impassable swamps. Recently poll taxes were abolished, giving the franchise to 300,000 who had never voted. Legislation has been passed, removing all small homes and farms from the tax roll. This means that 95 percent of the Negro population will be tax free. This transfers the tax burden from the worker to those who profit by his labor.
This was not easy to accomplish. Numerous attempts have been made to assassinate Huey Long, vigorous plots have been made to assassinate his character. These plotters have at all times enjoyed the cooperation of the Louisiana newspapers. We who hold mass meetings in the interest of our movement are threatened, guns are drawn on us and every conceivable hazard is put in our way by hirelings. Prior to the last legislature, when word was received that the tax burden was to be completely shifted from the little man to the big man, the newspapers actually appealed to and encouraged violence. They prompted mass meetings in the state capital and encouraged armed men to come to Baton Rouge, and expressed the implied hope that Huey Long would be killed. Although these meetings had the support of the combined press of the state, they fell flat in the presence of the sincerity of Governor [Oscar K.] Allen and Senator Long. The moratorium bill protected homes and farms and personal property against sheriff sales.
In the midst of all this, Huey Long was elected to the United States Senate, and began to preach in Washington what he had been practicing in Louisiana. He made the first real speech and introduced the first real bill for the actual redistribution of wealth.
On February 3, 1934, he founded the Share Our Wealth Society and called on the American people to organize in order to accomplish the following objectives:
1. Limitation of poverty to a minimum of a $5,000 family estate.
2. Limitation of wealth to a maximum of $10,000,000.
3. Free higher education for all, with a mental test instead of the tuition test. If men in the army can be fed, boarded and clothed while we teach them how to kill, we can do as much for our best minds while they are being trained to live.
4. Employment for all by the shortening of hours.
5. Full compensation for veterans.
6. Old-age pensions.
7. Great national development programs to absorb the unemployed.
This program of work was strengthened by Senator Long’s activity in connection with bank legislation, the Frazier-Lempke farm moratorium bill and numerous other pieces of legislation favorable to veterans and workers.
Our newspapers have given out the report that Senator Long is our dictator. The fact of the case is that the power to govern in Louisiana has been transferred from the feudal lords and their servile newspapers to the common people who elected a man to lead them and are standing by him. At the close of the legislature this summer, long stories were written about Huey Long’s puppet Governor and Legislature. The facts are these: At the close of the Legislature, the program was submitted to the people for a referendum and by a vote of 7 to 1 every major thing accomplished by the Legislature was approved.
Demagogues do not decide to educate their people. They thrive on ignorance. They may promise the same things that Huey Long promises, but they never deliver them. He keeps all of his campaign promises. We, who follow him, adore him and consider ourselves flattered when he asks our help. He never lies to us. He never uses the fall-guy method of protecting himself. He takes the blame for our mistakes.
The Share Our Wealth Society numbers 326,000 in Louisiana. We have passed the 3,000,000 mark in America. We do not fear an attack. Those who attack us become our best friends when they discover their mistake. Our plan can be understood and described easily. Therefore, we do not depend on the press. We do not create a state of mind that has been created by conditions. Millions of people have joined us must because of what has been passed to them by word of mouth.
Huey Long is the greatest headline writer I have ever seen. His circulars attract, bite, sting and convince. It is difficult to imagine what would happen in America if every human being were to read one Huey Long circular on the same day. As a mass-meeting speaker, his equal has never been known in America. His knowledge of national and international affairs, as well as local affairs, is uncanny. He seems to be equally at home with all subjects, such as shipping, railroads, banking, biblical literature, psychology, merchandising, utilities, sports, Oriental affairs, international treaties, South American affairs, world history, the Constitution of the United State, the Napoleonic Code, construction, higher education, flood control, cotton, lumber, sugar rice, alphabetical relief agencies. Besides this, I am convinced that he is the greatest political strategist alive. Huey Long is a superman. I actually believe that he can do as much in one day as any ten men I know. He abstains from alcohol, he uses no tobacco; he is strong, youthful and enthusiastic. Hostile communities and individual move toward him like an avalanche once they see him and hear him speak. His greatest recommendation is that we who know him best, love him most.
Source: Gerald K. Smith, “How Come Huey Long? 2. Or Superman?” New Republic, 13 February 1935, 11–15.