Two of the most successful politicians of the same era, Huey Pierce Long and Franklin Delano Roosevelt could hardly have been more different. The handsome, courtly Roosevelt was the scion of a famous and wealthy family, the coddled and adored only child of his parents. Huey P. Long was one of nine surviving children born into a family in Winn Parish, Louisiana, one of the poorest parts of the state. Long liked to claim he had been born into a very poor family, which was not true. By the standards of the time, his family was certainly comfortable, if not well off. Long’s father, Huey P. Long, Sr., was a livestock farmer and his family lived in a large home. That was a stark contrast to most of the families in Winn Parish, as most of them were dirt poor. Most families in Winn Parish subsisted on whatever they could raise on their farms and life was hard as they had few diversions and acquired little or no education. Folks were generally kind to one another, as neighbors needed one another to survive.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on the estate of the family home, “Springwood”, a sprawling mansion in the lush Hudson Valley of New York. Anyone who has witnessed fall in the Hudson Valley can never forget it. The trees glisten in the soft autumn sunlight as the vibrant yellows, red, and orange leaves sway gently in a soft breeze. The Hudson River, while once considered quite treacherous to navigate, flows between the banks of large estates. Among the neighbors of the Roosevelts were some of the wealthiest families in the country, including that of Ogden Mills and Frederick Vanderbilt. Robber baron financier Jay Gould bought Lydenhurst mansion, an American castle, in the Hudson Valley as his retreat from the pressures of business.
Winn Parish and the Hudson Valley were as different as Huey Long and Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt attended the best schools, including Groton and Harvard. Huey’s formal education ended early in his life and during a speech on the floor of the United States Senate once said, “Mr. President, I am not undertaking to answer the charge that I am ignorant. It is true. I am an ignorant man. I have had no college education. I have not even had a high school education. But the thing that takes me far in politics is that I do not have to color what comes into my mind and into my heart. I say it unvarnished. I say it without veneer. I have not the learning to do otherwise, and therefore my ignorance is often not detected.”
Huey was not being entirely truthful and his mother, Caledonia, would likely have been horrified by her son’s statement. While there was no public school in Winn Parish, Mrs. Long determined her own children would receive an education and she painstakingly provided an education for her youngsters. In some respects, her children received a better education than that provided by the public schools in Louisiana at the time. Huey violently protested when his parents insisted he attend a one-room schoolhouse after his parents and other parents in Winn Parish had collectively raised enough money to hire a teacher for their children.
Huey Long had actually won a scholarship to attend Louisiana State University after he had excelled in a statewide debating competition. Long felt he could not afford the cost of books and room and board, so he opted to take a job as a traveling salesman. Only seventeen years old, the irrepressible Huey Long traveled widely throughout the South selling his wares, which included cooking oils and questionable medicines.
Huey’s mother had always hoped her son would be drawn to the ministry. She urged Huey to become a Baptist minister and actually sent him to attend a seminary in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Huey managed to stay for one semester, but rapidly concluded he did not want to be a preacher. Long did manage to attend the University of Oklahoma Law School briefly and his brother, Julius, who was a lawyer, gave him the money to study law at Tulane University.
Huey Long didn’t complete his courses at Tulane, but managed to take a special oral exam to pass the Bar. The twenty-one year old Long passed the Bar examination with ease.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did finish all his required courses and was also a lawyer, although he was never especially interested in practicing law. Roosevelt’s time in law offices was less to earn a living than a respite from his other activities. FDR was interested in politics and ran for and won a seat in the New York State Senate from an ordinarily Republican district. Franklin Roosevelt went to Albany where he became a prominent member of a number of reform minded Democrats, hostile to the powerful Tammany Hall machine, which dominated New York City’s politics.
Huey Long’s life was not as easy as that of Franklin Roosevelt and while he was an excellent salesman, the businesses that employed him went out of business more than once, leaving him in dire financial straights. There were occasions when Huey had to sell everything he owned, including the very coat he had been wearing. Huey went hungry and once used his apparel as collateral to buy a meal. Huey found himself sleeping wherever he could and his experience in life left him with an empathy for those who had nothing, lost whatever they had, as well as the underdog. After passing the bar examination, Huey returned to Winn Parish and opened an office in the Winnfield Bank. A wooden box served as his first desk, which was covered by a skirt hand sewn by his wife, Rose.
According to his biographer, T. Harry Williams, Huey once wrote his wife, Rose, “Everything I did, I had to do with one hand, because I’ve had to fight with the other.”
Years later, Huey always reminded his audiences never once in his legal career had he ever represented a client against a poor man. After moving his family to Shreveport, Huey’s notoriety as an attorney grew and he won a reputation for representing folks against big business. One of Huey’s associates was to later recall that Huey could have become a very wealthy man from practicing law and Long once earned a fee of $40,000 for suing the Commercial National Bank successfully. That fee would represent almost a half a million dollars in today’s currency.
Huey used the money to build a magnificent home for his growing family in Shreveport.
Like Franklin Roosevelt, Huey felt the call of politics and only twenty-five years old, ran for a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission in 1918. Long canvassed his district with no support from the political establishment or much of anyone else. Not having a wealthy family or a famous name, Huey Long campaigned person-to-person. Huey flooded north Louisiana with circulars, a feature of every Long campaign and usually written by the candidate himself. Huey Long demonstrated his speaking ability, excoriating the special interests and corporate monopolies. To the surprise of everyone, save for Huey himself, he won.
Franklin Roosevelt infuriated the powers that be inside his own party as a member of the State Senate. The boss of Tammany Hall, Charles F. Murphy, selected a candidate for the United States Senate and in those days senators were elected by state legislatures. To Boss Murphy’s fury, Roosevelt and several other reform Democrats absolutely refused to back William “Blue Eyed Billy” Sheehan. The insurgents’ refusal to support Sheehan infuriated Murphy, but the Boss was finally forced to withdraw Sheehan’s candidacy. The wily Murphy eventually named former state Supreme Court Justice James O’Gorman as his candidate, who was elected. Yet FDR won considerable attention for his stand, as well as the notice of Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Wilson selected FDR to serve in the post once filled by the New Yorker’s famous distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt was named to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position he held throughout the Wilson administration.
FDR’s attempt to “twist the tail of the Tammany tiger” came back to haunt him when he ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1914. Few people remember FDR losing that particular campaign. Roosevelt had not resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and returned to Washington after his failed campaign.
Meanwhile, Huey Long was doing some tail twisting of his own.
Long regularly opposed rate increases by large businesses, which had been used to having their way with the Louisiana Railroad Commission (which eventually became the Public Service Commission). The corporate entities, made livid by Huey Long’s opposition, tried to have him removed from office. Instead, Huey became Chairman of the Public Service Commission in 1922. Huey gained enormous publicity when he sued the Cumberland Telephone Company, which had raised its rates by some 20%. Huey personally argued the case before the Supreme Court and won. The stunned telephone company had to provide cash rebates to more than 80,000 delighted customers, most of who remembered Huey Long.
The Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court at the time was William Howard Taft. The former president was impressed with Huey’s argument and later commented Long was one of the best legal minds to have come before the Court.
Public Service Commissioners in Louisiana did not run statewide, but rather from three geographic districts; Huey represented the north Louisiana district and ran for governor in 1924. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he lost his first bid for higher office. Only thirty years old, Huey campaigned furiously all across Louisiana, accusing the incumbent governor of being the creature of the Standard Oil Company. The machine inside New Orleans was opposed to Huey and he derided the “Old Regulars” as having been purchased by big business and Standard Oil.
Huey was handicapped in his 1924 campaign due to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been growing in membership and political power throughout much of the South and the Midwest. To his credit, Huey Long refused to play to racial or religious prejudice. Still, he ran a close third in the Democratic primary, barely missing a spot in the run off election. An astute politician, Huey was beside himself when the first precinct reported him winning 60 to 1.
“I’m beat,” Huey cried. “There should have been 100 for me and 1 against me. Forty percent of my country vote is lost in that box.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s political career was hardly over after his defeat for the United States Senate in 1914. He was the choice of Governor James Cox of Ohio, the 1920 Democratic presidential nominee, as his running mate. The two campaigned hard on the League of Nations, which had been the cause and obsession of a seriously ailing President Woodrow Wilson. It was the first year women could vote in every state in the nation and Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding won in a landslide.
FDR returned to New York, occasionally practicing law, dabbling in businesses, making some investments (which were oftentimes bizarre and lost money), and living the life of a country squire.
Huey Long ran for governor again in 1928; it was during that campaign Long’s slogan of “Every Man A King” was born. Huey was also careful to note while every man would be a king, no one would wear a crown.
When Huey Long began his campaign, Louisiana politics was extraordinarily corrupt; it would remain corrupt for decades to come. State politics was dominated by the machine in New Orleans headed by the “Old Regulars”. The New Orleans machine was allied with sheriffs and courthouse rings all across the state, as well as business interests. Much of the funding for the campaigns and candidates supported by the Old Regulars came from the large oil and utility companies, interests that were bitter opponents of Huey Long.
When Huey Long ran for governor of Louisiana in 1928, there were some three hundred miles of paved roads in the entire state; public education for most people was illusory, if not actually completely absent. If there was a public school in a particular community, most parents could not even afford to buy the necessary textbooks. Many of the state’s poorer citizens didn’t even vote, as they could not afford to pay the poll tax required by state law. Worst of all, the property tax structure in Louisiana placed a disproportionate burden upon the poor and middle class.
Hampered as he was by the inability of many of his poor rural supporters to actually vote for him, Huey Long campaigned at an almost inhuman pace. Long preached a message of change and reform, telling his audiences if he was elected governor, there would be a new day in Louisiana. While the voters had heard that before, they correctly sensed Huey Long meant it.
Long campaigned on a platform of bridges, roads, health care, improved education for all citizens, and he promised to revise the tax structure. Once again, Huey Long astounded and confounded the political professionals; winning the first primary by such a large margin his nearest opponent concluded pressing for a run off election would be fruitless.
Huey had traversed some fifteen thousand miles of Louisiana’s dirt roads, which were mud when it rained. Long appeared in towns and hamlets that had never seen a candidate for governor before. Painting himself as a poor country boy, Long captivated his audiences, which numbered in the thousands. Huey Long spoke over the radio and published his own campaign newspaper.
Long’s election changed the dynamic of Louisiana politics forever. His dynasty continued until 1987, when his son, Russell, retired from the United States Senate. The Longs are the only family in history to have a father, mother and son serve in the U. S. Senate.
The special interests, wealthy planter class, and corporate businesses that had ruled Louisiana since it’s purchase by President Thomas Jefferson from Napoleon had come to an end. The Long machine would come to dominate the state even more effectively for a generation and beyond.