“Limit fortunes and spread the wealth.” Extracts from the 1933 autobiography of populist Louisiana maverick politician Huey P. Long
Unlike some of the more obscure figures covered on this blog, Huey Long does not require much of an introduction. Despite his short career in the US Senate, Long is one of the few congressional politicians from his era who still has a level of international name recognition, even if his modern reputation is not always universally positive. Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, then Senator for the state from 1932 until his assassination in 1935, Long in his day was hailed by some as a progressive hero and reviled by others as a demagogic, incipient fascist. The occasional comparisons one sees made today between Long and Donald Trump are accurate enough on one level, in that both have been widely and fervently compared to Mussolini and Hitler, while at the same time being praised (not always by different people) for their populist stances and for their alleged understanding for the needs of the ‘little man’. There are also significant differences between the two, of course. Unlike Trump, Long was a career politician without much direct experience in private enterprise. His style and his outlook were also far removed from New York, being heavily shaped by Louisiana’s faction-driven political culture, which was tangled up in a complex web of class enmities, nepotism, machine politics, and regional hostilities. Long furthermore was a self-identified man of the Left, something which Trump has never been, even during the latter’s brief, now long-past flirtations with the Democratic Party. All of these various factors help provide some context for Long’s political worldview, which was heavily centered around the interventionist power of the state – Long was one of the few mainstream (i.e. non-Communist) figures in US politics to publicly criticize President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation for not going far enough, and his 1934 Share Our Wealth program was notorious for its stated ambition of using legislative authority to radically redistribute the wealth of American society. The text below, an excerpt of three chapters from Long’s 1933 autobiography Every Man a King, provides an overview of Long’s political outlook and of some of the practical proposals which he made to alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression. These chapters constitute an effective summation of the aims of the ‘Long Plan’, the series of bills introduced in 1932-33 (all rejected) which would later serve as the ideological springboard for Long’s famous Share Our Wealth movement.
The Effort to Spread the Wealth Among the Masses
I had come to the United States Senate with only one project in mind, which was that by every means of action and persuasion I might do something to spread the wealth of the land among all of the people.1
I foresaw the depression in 1929. In letters reproduced in this volume, I had predicted all of the consequences many years before they occurred.
The wealth of the land was being tied up in the hands of a very few men. The people were not buying because they had nothing with which to buy. The big business interests were not selling, because there was nobody they could sell to.
One per cent of the people could not eat any more than any other one per cent; they could not live in any more houses than any other one per cent. So, in 1929, when the fortune-holders of America grew powerful enough that one per cent of the people owned nearly everything, ninety-nine per cent of the people owned practically nothing, not even enough to pay their debts, a collapse was at hand.
God Almighty had warned against this condition. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan and every religious teacher known to this earth had declaimed against it. So it was no new matter, as it was termed, when I propounded the line of thought with the first crash of 1929, that the eventful day had arrived when accumulation at the top by the few had produced a stagnation by which the vast multitude of the people were impoverished at the bottom.
There is no rule so sure as that one that the same mill that grinds out fortunes above a certain size at the top, grinds out paupers at the bottom. The same machine makes them both; and how are they made? There is so much in the world, just so much land, so many houses, so much to eat and so much to wear. There is enough – yea, there is more – than the entire human race can consume, if all are reasonable.
All the people in America cannot eat up the food that is produced in America; all the people in America cannot wear out the clothes that can be made in America; nor can all of the people in America occupy the houses that stand in this country, if all are allowed to share in homes afforded by the nation. But when one man must have more houses to live in than ninety-nine other people; when one man decides he must own more foodstuff than any other ninety-nine people own; when one man decides he must have more goods to wear for himself and his family than any other ninety-nine people, then the condition results that instead of one hundred people sharing the things that are on earth for one hundred people, that one man, through his gluttonous greed, takes over ninety-nine parts for himself and leaves one part for the ninety-nine.
Now what can this one man do with what is intended for ninety-nine? He cannot eat the food that is intended for ninety-nine people; he cannot wear the clothes that are intended for ninety-nine people; he cannot live in ninety-nine houses at the same time; but like the dog in the manager, he can put himself on the load of hay and he can say:
“This food and these clothes and these houses are mine, and while I cannot use them, my greed can only be satisfied by keeping anybody else from having them.”
Wherefore and whence developed the strife in the land of too much, beginning in the year 1929.
I was standing in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans on the 23rd day of October, 1929, at lunch time. Mr. R. S. Hecht, President of the powerful Hibernia Bank & Trust Company, walked to the middle of the lobby, approached me and said:
“Governor, hell’s broke loose; the biggest crash of everything that you have ever seen. It is going to be sixty days before this country will get back to normal.”
“I have expected this crash for three years,” I replied. “It is here for many, many years. It cannot end until there is a redistribution of wealth. Make your plans on that basis.”
We argued and wrangled for some moments. A few days later I was informed by a member present that at a meeting of the board of directors of his bank he had repeated, without approval, what I had prophesied. I made known my opinion of the then prevailing cause of the national collapse to the people generally. Time is bearing out all I then said.
Beginning Agitation in the United States Senate to Shorten Hours and Limit Fortunes.
My philosophy for sharing the work and sharing the wealth by shortening hours and limiting fortunes was first delivered in the United States Senate on April 4, 1932:
Machines are created making it possible to manufacture more in an hour than used to be manufactured in a month; more is produced by the labor of one man than was formerly produced by the labor of a thousand men; fertilizers are available whereby an acre of land can be made to produce from two to three or even four times what it formerly produced; various other inventions and scientific achievements which God has seen fit to disclose to man from time to time make their appearance; but instead of bringing prosperity, ease and comfort, they have meant unemployment; they have meant idleness; they have meant starvation; they have meant pestilence; whereas they should have meant that hours of labor were shortened, that toil was decreased, that more people would be able to consume, that they would have time for pleasure, time for recreation – in fact, everything that could have been done by science and invention and wealth and progress in this country should have been shared among the people. …
But, oh, Mr. President, if we could simply let the people enjoy the wealth and the accumulation and the contrivances that we have. If, with the invention of every machine, we could secure the education of every man; if with increased production of every kind there could be less toil, more hours of pleasure and recreation; if there could be a happy and contented people enjoying what the Almighty has made it possible to provide; if there could be people clothed with the materials that we have to clothe them with today, and no place to put them; if the people could be fed with the food that we have to feed them with, and no place to put it; if the people could be sheltered in the homes we have today, that the Federal Land Bank has taken away from them because they cannot pay the interest on the mortgages – if that could be done, if we could distribute this surplus wealth, while leaving these rich people all the luxuries they can possibly use, what a different world this would be.
We can do this. If we do not, we will leave these masters of finance and fame and fortune like the man in the book of old, who said to himself, so the Bible tells us:
“I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.
“And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry.
“But God said unto him: Thou fool, this night shy soul shalt be required of thee.”
While the tax bills were pending before the United States Senate in 1932, I proposed the resolution which provided that the tax bills should be so revamped that no one man should be allowed to have an income of more than one million dollars a year; that no one person should inherit in a lifetime more than five million dollars without working for it.
The effect of that resolution was that when a man made one million dollars in a year, the government of the United States would receive the balance; and when a rich man died, he could not leave one child more than five million dollars, and the balance would go to the government of the United States.
This would have meant that much of the taxes would have been paid by the so-called upper classes, and that instead of the funds of the government being sucked from the bottom and exploited by the classes at the top, the classes at the top would have paid the taxes to be filtered out to the masses at the bottom, through the various general works and compensations supported by the government.
My resolution, however, received only a few votes.
Consider the horrible way of the gangster, and then compare his practices with the greed of our mighty fortune-holders in America:
The gangsters have killed hundreds, maybe thousands, to carry out their nefarious rackets to extort money.
The hoarders of wealth have destroyed humanity by millions in their quest for greater accumulation.
From the newborn babe to the man bowed with age, some have been denied the sustenance for life: they have been thrown from the shelter above their heads; to keep children warm they have been placed in the ground, to start a life not in the cradle, but in the grave; half naked bodies have been thrown against the winter’s wind; some have become beggars, some thieves, and some have been murderers; others have been driven insane and still others to suicide – all in the wake of the drive that the masters of fortunes may own and control so much that, even in the land of too much to eat and too much to wear, people perish in their shadow.
Jefferson, Jackson, Webster, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Bryan have clamored to spread our work and our wealth among all the people.2
It is the law of God that a nation must free and re-free its people of debt, and spread and re-spread the wealth of the land among the people.3
“Wherefore ye shall do my statutes, and keep my judgements, and do them; and the land shall yield her fruit and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety.” Leviticus, Chapter 25, verses 18 and 19.
What cycle of events brings the crime wave of robbery and extortion, murder and destruction!
“Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers? Did not the Lord, for they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient unto his law.” Isaiah, Chapter 42, verse 24.
In my never changing course for relief and compensation for the Veterans of our wars, livable wages for public employees, a recognition of all hirelings to unite and bargain for the sinews they have to offer, – all to be supported from top heavy accumulations, – I have merely carried through a philosophy to insure diffusing our wealth into the hands of all who must consume our products.
But I saw to it that my views were known to Mr. Roosevelt, then Governor of New York and now President of the United States. Early in his candidacy in a speech delivered in Atlanta, Mr. Roosevelt said:
The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.
Many of those whose primary solicitude is confined to the welfare of what they call capital have failed to read the lessons of the last few years and have been moved less by calm analysis of the needs of the Nation as a whole than by a blind determination to preserve their own special stakes in the economic disorder.
We may build more factories, but the fact remains that we have enough now to supply all our domestic needs and more, if they are used. No; our basic trouble was not an insufficiency of capital; it was an insufficient distribution of buying power coupled with an oversufficient speculation in production.
Soon thereafter on the basis of such declarations, I became convinced that the best chance for a solution of America’s difficulties was through the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President.4
The Maddened Fortune Holders and their Infuriated Public Press!
The increasing fury with which I have been, and am to be, assailed by reason of the fight and growth of support for limiting the size of fortunes can only be explained by the madness which human nature attaches to the holders of accumulated wealth.5
What I have proposed is: –
THE LONG PLAN
1. A capital levy tax on the property owned by any one person of 1% of all over $1,000,000; 2% of all over $2,000,000 etc., until, when it reaches fortunes of over $100,000,000, the government takes all above that figure; which means a limit on the size of any one man’s fortune to something like $50,000,000 – the balance to go to the government to spread out in its work among all the people.
2. An inheritance tax which does not allow any one person to receive more than $5,000,000 in a lifetime without working for it, all over that amount to go to the government to be spread among the people for its work.
3. An income tax which does not allow any one man to make more than $1,000,000 in one year, exclusive of all taxes, the balance to go to the United States for general work among the people.
The foregoing program means all taxes paid by the fortune holders at the top and none by the people at the bottom; the spreading of wealth among all the people and the breaking up of a system of Lords and Slaves in our economic life. It allows the millionaires to have, however, more than they can use for any luxury they can enjoy on earth. But, with such limits, all else can survive.
That the public press should regard my plan and effort as a calamity and me as a menace is no more than should be expected, gauged in the light of past events. According to [John Clark] Ridpath, the eminent historian:
“The ruling classes always possess the means of information and the processes by which it is distributed. The newspaper of modern times belongs to the upper man. The under man has no voice; or if, having a voice, he cries out, his cry is lost like a shout in the desert. Capital, in the places of power, seizes upon the organs of public utterance, and howls the humble down the wind. Lying and misrepresentation are the natural weapons of those who maintain an existing vice and gather the usufruct of crime.”
– Ridpath’s History of the World,
In 1932, the vote for my resolution showed possibly a half dozen other Senators back of it. It grew in the last Congress to nearly twenty Senators. Such growth through one other year will mean the success of a venture, the completion of everything I have undertaken, – the time when I can and will retire from the stress and fury of my public life, maybe as my forties begin, – a contemplation so serene as to appear impossible.
That day will reflect credit on the States whose Senators took the early lead to spread the wealth of the land among all the people.
Then no tear dimmed eyes of a small child will be lifted into the saddened face of a father or mother unable to give it the necessities required by its soul and body for life; then the powerful will be rebuked in the sight of man for holding that which they cannot consume, but which is craved to sustain humanity; the food of the land will feed, the raiment clothe, and the houses shelter all the people; the powerful will be elated by the well being of all, rather than through their greed.
Then, those of us who have pursued that phantom of Jefferson, Jackson, Webster, Theodore Roosevelt and Bryan may hear wafted from their lips in Valhalla:
EVERY MAN A KING
Abraham Lincoln said: “Inasmuch as most good things are produced by labor, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labor has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world that some have labored and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong and should not continue. To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy subject of any good Government.”
On December 29, 1820, Daniel Webster said: “The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable if the tendencies of the law were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless. In such a case the popular power would be likely to break in upon the right of property, or else the influence of property to limit and control the exercise of popular power. Universal suffrage, for example, could not long exist in a community where there was a great inequality of property. The holders of estates would be obliged in such case, either in some way to restrain the right of suffrage, or else such right of suffrage would soon divide the property. In the nature of things, those who have not property, and see their neighbors possess much more than they think them to need, cannot be favorable to laws made for the protection of property. When this class becomes numerous it grows clamorous. It looks on property as its prey and plunder, and is naturally ready, at all times, for violence and revolution.”
President Theodore Roosevelt said: “I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual – a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand down more than a certain amount to any one individual.”
The Declaration of Independence contains: “Whereas, all men are created equal.”
William Jennings Bryan said: “Behold a Republic! where every man is a King, but no one wears a crown.”
Law of Moses, Leviticus, Chapters 25, 26, 27, provides for freeing and re-freeing all persons of debt every seven years and for distribution and redistribution of wealth every fifty years. See also Nehemiah, Chapter 5; St. James, Chapter 5.
4. Long famously campaigned on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s behalf during the 1932 election, and his 1933 autobiography largely reflects a pro-Roosevelt position. This would change over the following two years, with Long becoming a prominent critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, arguing that it did not go far enough in addressing the causes and consequences of the Great Depression.
“By these examples one may learn how many and how great instances of wickedness men will venture upon for the sake of getting money and authority, and that they may not fail of either of them; for as when they are desirous of obtaining the same, they acquire them by ten thousand evil practices; so when they are afraid of losing them, they get them confirmed to them by practices much worse than the former, as if (no) other calamity so terrible could befall them as the failure of acquiring so exalted an authority; and when they have acquired it, and by long custom found the sweetness of it, the losing it again; and since this last would be the heaviest of all afflictions, they all of them contrive and venture upon the most difficult actions, out of the fear of losing the same.” – Josephus, Book VII, Chapter I, Verse 5.