San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Huey P. Long
Huey Long was a complex man, a collage of contradictory elements. It is difficult to capture his full nature because he was so many things from brilliant political strategist to buffoon and sometimes all of them simultaneously. Cecil Morgan was a Louisiana state legislator during the era of Huey Long and later a judge. He died at age 100 in 1999. If anyone comprehended the totality of Huey Long, it was Cecil Morgan. He made some remarks about Long in an interview for Ken Burn's documentary on Huey Long that are particularly perceptive:
I think that it was necessary for the state at that time for somebody with some of [Huey Long's] qualities to come forward and I think he muffed it. I think he had the capacities for greatness and I think he did some things that stimulated the state enormously. And that's on the good side. On the bad side he left us a heritage from which we have not yet recovered.
Huey was a man of extreme dynamism [and] had a marvelous mind. He would work all day and all night and go get drunk and sleep it off and be ready to go the next day.
He provided about a hundred million dollars worth of good roads. And it only cost a hundred and fifty million. That was a little bit rough. But that's the kind of thing it was. Everything that he did cost more than it should because there was a cushion for other people's fraud. His contribution was largely in bricks and mortar.
I don't like to characterize the total man as evil, but he was certainly considered that by everyone opposed to him, really. He was considered the wild man, primarily. And that developed into consideration of him as a distinctly evil force in the state of Louisiana; and a force to be feared. And by very, very many people a force to be destroyed.
Every time there was a gathering, I don't care who the people I associated with were, every time there was a gathering of two or three people somebody would say, "That son-of-a-bitch ought to be shot." Somebody would say it in every gathering. And the tension so extremely high and the feeling was so strong that there was hardly any other conversation throughout the state.
Cecil Morgan's judicious appraisal of the Huey Long should not be construed to mean that Cecil Morgan's relations with Huey Long were at arm's length. When Representative Morgan refused to support a piece of legislation that Huey Long asked him to support Morgan's father was immediately fired from a much needed State job. And, it was Cecil Morgan that led the fight to bring about the impeachment of Huey Long as governor in 1929. That story will be told later.
The journalist I.F. Stone remarked in an interview about Huey Long,
I was really glad when they shot him.
I.F. Stone's use of they rather than someone is interesting and probably a reflection of the conspiratorial atmosphere of the times.
In contrast to I.F. Stone's remark there were the lamentations of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans who felt they had lost their friend and savior when Huey Long was assassinated.
Huey Long was assassinated after he pushed through legislation that would gerrymander a respected judge out of his judgeship. The judge's son-in-law, Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., shot Huey Long. No one can know Weiss' precise motivation. There were a number of possible motives:
Most likely Long's petty act was simply the last straw that broke the camel's back of restraint on the part of Weiss.
Louisiana has a unique cultural and political history that sets it apart from the other states, even the other southern states. Its first European settlements were French and the French Empire did not encourage local self-government so there was more of a tradition of autocracy in Louisiana politics than in other states. The British in the eighteenth century expelled the French colonists from the province of Acadia and renamed it Nova Scotia. Some of those Acadian refugees made their way at great hardship to Louisiana. They settled not in the cities where the other French colonists lived but in the backwoods and bayous. Over time the name Acadians was transformed into Cajuns. Thus southern Louisiana had two strains of French settlers. Northern Louisiana was not too much different from Arkansas and Tennessee and was settled by Anglo Protestants much like those of Appalachia and the Ozarks. In the aftermath of one of the wars fought by the British and the French the territory of Louisiana was given to Spain. For several decades the Spanish Empire ruled Louisiana and there are still descendants there of the Spanish immigrants that came there during the period of Spanish rule. Napoleon took back Louisiana from Spain. During the period of Napoleon's rule the laws of the Empire were codified and Louisiana's legal system has its roots in the Napoleonic code rather than British common law. Counties in Louisiana are called parishes.
In the South at the time the real campaign was for the primary of the Democratic Party. Whoever won that nomination was assured of winning the official election. The minimum age for a governor of Louisiana was thirty. Huey turned thirty only on August 30, 1923, and the primary was hell on January 15, 1924. He was just barely old enough to be the governor.
In 1923 and 1924 Huey campaigned vigorously, driving across the backroads of Louisiana giving several speeches each day. He promised new roads and bridges; he promised free textbooks for school children and he promised to fight the powers-that-be in the name of the common people. Although he failed to get the nomination he gained valuable experience and gained state-wide recognition, or perhaps notoriety would be a better term.
He made a quite respectable showing. He came in third with about 74 thousand votes to the winner's 83 thousand votes. He carried the northern parishes and did quite well in the rural areas in general, but he only picked up 12 thousand votes in New Orleans. He firmly established himself as a viable political candidate. This was important for the next race for governor in 1928.
Huey Long with his boundless energy started his campaign for the 1928 election the day after he lost the 1924 primary. His 1928 campaign was much more professional because with his creditable showing in the 1924 election he was able to attract financial support. Some of those who made substantial contributions to Long's campaign were:
|Major Contributors to Huey Long's 1928 Gubernatorial Campaign|
|Contributor||Area of Interest||Economic Interest||Amount|
|Robert Maestri||New Orleans||Real Estate||$40,000|
|Harvey Couch||North Louisiana||Utilities &|
|Nicholas Carbajal||New Orleans||$10,000|
|W.K. Henderson||Shreveport||Iron supplies|
|Swords Lee||Rapides Parish||Lumber|
|Fisher family||South Louisiana||Shrimping|
Some of these contributors were ones who believed in Long's populist rhetoric and others were those who believed in his abilities. Others however, such as Colonel Robert Ewing were brought into the Long camp by the promise of special treatment once Long became governor. In Ewing's case, he had strongly opposed Long in his newspaper chain in 1924, but Long negotiated a deal with John Sullivan, a friend of Ewing. Long promised Sullivan political support and patronage for Sullivan's political faction in New Orleans. Sullivan managed a New Orleans horse race track and represented the interests of liquor dealers. From his 1924 experience Long knew he needed support in New Orleans and was willing to cut whatever deals were necessary to get it.
Huey Long repeated his 1924 performance of covering the state making six to eight speeches a day, only this time the campaign was more organized and polished. He had a campaign manager who set up the speaking arrangements for him. He brought along sound trucks that could drum up interest before his speech and amplify the speech itself. He also began to broadcast his speeches over the radio. His supporter, W.K. Henderson, owned the radio station KWKH and gave Long free time. This offset the general lack of support for Long by the newspapers.
The year 1927 brought natural disaster and prepared the Louisiana electorate for Long's criticism of the political establishment. The Mississippi flooded throughout its southern reaches in 1927 and the various levels of government did not handle the problems well. New Orleans was flooded from a heavy local rainfall and the Mississippi was threatening to break through the levees. New Orleans residents wanted the levees breached south of the city to relieve the pressure on New Orleans. This would flood the parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. The Cajuns of St. Bernard and Plaquemines strongly opposed the plan but the political influence of New Orleans prevailed. The governor was convinced to dynamite the levees. What made this action especially grievous to the Cajuns is that the severe danger to New Orleans had already passed. This made the Cajuns politically opposed to the candidates promoted by the New Orleans politicians. Normally the Catholic Cajuns would not have much enthusiasm for state office candidates from Protestant North Louisiana, but the combination of Long's populist rhetoric and their political estrangement from New Orleans candidates brought the Cajun out in election time in support of Huey Long. It also did not hurt that Long was willing to falsely claim in Cajun country that he had Catholic grandparents on one side of his family.
Long spoke in the vernacular of the people. He did not hesitate to attack and criticize his opponents, often in humorous and colorful ways. He was politics, but he was also entertainment for the people of Louisiana. How could he not be when he used such memorable characterizations as someone being so mean that he sleeps on a grindstone and has razor soup for breakfast?
Huey Long had a sense of humor that appealed to the common folk. When Riley Joe Wilson stated in a speech that he had gone barefoot as a child, Huey Long countered in one of his speeches, "I can go Mr. Wilson one better. I was born barefoot."
But Huey Long was able also to sway the electorate with a surprising eloquence. In the Cajun town of St. Martinville where stands the oak tree where Evangeline waited for her sweetheart Gabriel in the days of the migration of the Acadians to Louisiana Huey Long said,
This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow's poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment …
Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that never come? Where are the roads and highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled? Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it only lasted throughout one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.
Huey Long's opponents were simply outclassed but they did not know it. At the time of the primary in January 1928 the newspapers of New Orleans were predicting that Long would come in third among the three candidates and would get even fewer votes than he did in 1924. The people controlling those newspapers knew that the vote tally for New Orleans would not show Long doing well in New Orleans. The political machine in New Orleans had been stealing elections for decades. The vote tally for New Orleans did show this: Long received about 18 thousand votes as compared to Riley Joe Wilson's 38 thousand. But state-wide it was a different story. Long not only carried north Louisiana as he had done in 1924 but he carried overwhelmingly the Catholic Cajun south. He racked up landslide shares of above sixty percent in some parishes. His total was almost 128 thousand as compared with about 82 thousand for Wilson and 80 thousand for the incumbent governor Simpson. Since he did not get a majority there could have been a runoff between Long and Wilson. Most were expecting Simpson and his supporters to go over to Wilson, but Long, the consummate politician that he was, negotiated deals with Simpson and his supporters that brought them over to his side. Wilson recognized that it would be very unlikely that he would beat Long in a runoff and he conceded. With the nomination of the Democratic Party secured Long was de facto elected, although there was the formality of the general election before it became de jure.
As governor Huey Long had the power to call the legislature into session. The governor could specify how long the legislature would remain in session, but the legislature itself determined how long it would remain in session. Long in 1929 wanted the legislature in session to impose a tax on petroleum refined in Louisiana to provide funds for the state programs Long wanted to carry out. The tax Long proposed of five cents a barrel seems by present experience to be insignificant but it must be compared to the price levels of the time. Later in the early thirties the price of oil in Texas dropped to about ten cents a barrel. Regardless of the level, a tax in Louisiana had to be compared with the cost of operation in alternative locations such as Houston.
Standard Oil had major refineries in the area of Baton Rouge employing many thousands. There was great fear that Huey Long's taxation of the refineries would drive them away from Louisiana.
A group formed in the House of Representatives of Louisiana dedicated to defeating Long's taxation of the refineries. This group opposed Long in other matters as well and chose to call itself the Dynamite Squad. At this time, 1929, Huey Long did not have the overwhelming consolidation of power that he later achieved. He had won the Democratic Party primary nomination by the greatest margin in 1928 so he had considerable political credibility. He had been able to get the legislature to pass bills he supported in the past so he thought he would be able to gain passage of the refinery taxation bill. It is also possible that by proposing a severe taxation of Standard Oil and the other petroleum companies they would acquiesce to other less severe measures.
Long underestimated the opposition to his refinery taxation proposal. And the opposition was not entirely a matter of the petroleum interests having special influence on the legislators. Some of the opposition was based upon the recognition that the tax was bad economic policy. There was however direct intervention by Standard Oil and others in buying the support of legislators.
In the legislative session it soon developed that there was not sufficient support for Long's proposals so Long and his supporters decided to try to adjourn the session without proposing the refinery tax. The opponents wanted it brought up so it could be voted down. So Long's opponents wanted the legislature to remain in session.
The Dynamite Squad decided to challenge Long to call for Long's impeachment. The representatives had the power, in effect, to indict. If the House of Representatives recommended impeachment then the Louisiana Senate would try the case.
When Long and his supporters learned of the plan to call for impeachment in the House they planned to move for immediate adjournment to keep the charges from ever being considered. The anti-Long legislators sought to bring up such a serious charge that no self-respecting representative would accept adjournment without hearing the full evidence of the charges. That charge was that a former bodyguard of Long signed an affidavit alleging that Long tried to induce him to kill a political enemy of Long. The inducement to carrying out the murder was money and a promise of legal immunity. When a Long supporter rose to move for adjournment, Representative Cecil Morgan announced that there was evidence that Long had sought to have one of his polical enemies assassinated. The Long supporter moved adjournment and the Speaker of the House, who was a Long supporter, tried to have Representative Morgan suppressed by the House Sergeant-at-Arms. Anti-Long representatives protected Cecil Morgan and shielded him as he moved to the podium to present the affidavits. Nevertheless the Speaker called for an immediate vote on the motion to adjourn. The voting apparatus indicated passage of the motion and there was pandemonium in the House of Representatives. When the mayhem abated the representatives agreed to reconvene the next morning.
The House did consider nineteen charges and accepted eight of them as grounds for impeachment. The Senate was to try Long on the charges. Long countered by calling for his supporters throughout the state to come to the Capitol in Baton Rouge. The masses of Long supporters outside the capitol building were intended to intimidate the senators. But to make sure of victory Long induced fifteen senators to sign a statement asserting that they would never vote for conviction no matter what evidence might be presented. They signed the statement it such a way that no one could identify who was the first to sign; i.e., they signed in the circular patter like spokes on a wheel. The pledge of the fifteen meant that conviction could never be obtained and hence the trial would be an exercise in futility. In later years those senators who signed the statement were well rewarded through favors Huey Long could grant.
Under the principle of the separation of church and state it is not legal for the state to provide funding to Catholic schools. Louisiana had in Huey Long's and still has many Catholic schools where Catholic parents preferred to send their children. Huey long came up with the simple but brilliant ploy of providing textbooks to children rather than to their schools. This enable the state government to subsidize both public and parochial education. Many people, even political opponents of Long supported this program.
Long however wanted to impose the cost of the textbook program upon the petroleum companies like Standard Oil. This measure was not supported by many in the state legislature.
Long had a personal secretary named Alice Lee Grosjean. She was an auburn-haired, hazel-eyed beauty and twenty five years of age. In mid-October of 1930 Secretary of State of Louisiana, James J. Bailey, died suddenly of pneumonia. Governor Long went to offer his condolences to the Bailey family. Upon his return he said to his secretary, "Miss Grosjean, write out a commission appointing Miss Alice Lee Grosjean Secretary of State, effective immediately." She took the oath of office an hour later.
In 1931 when Governor Long was outside of Louisiana the elected Lieutenant Governor, Paul N. Cyr, tried to assume the governorship against Governor Long's wishes. Long returned and thwarted Cyr's attempt and furthermore declared that Cyr, by attempting to assume the governorship, had abandoned his lieutenant governorship. Governor Long had his friend Alvin King sworn in as lieutenant governor.
Later after Huey Long was elected senator he made Alvin King Governor of Louisiana, thus vacating the office of Lieutenant Governor. In May of 1932 when Governor King left Louisiana to attend a governors' conference Secretary of State Alice Lee Grosjean became acting Governor of Louisiana. She had her mother move in with her in the Governor's Mansion to keep her company.
(To be continued.)
Bibliography on Huey Long and Louisiana
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