LONG, HUEY PIERCE (1893–1935)

2012-07-26 12:35:37

Born August 30, 1893, in Winn Parish, Louisiana, Long died September 10, 1935, by an assassin’s bullet. From 1918 to 1935 Long built a local and national political power base that influenced Louisiana politics throughout the twentieth century.

After a stint as a traveling salesman, Long enrolled at Tulane University Law School for one year. Although he completed only two courses for credit, Long studied numerous law courses and convinced the state bar examiners to administer a special examination, which he passed. Armed with a license to practice law, Long started running for public office.

In 1918, he was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission, which became the Public Service Commission. While serving as Public Service Commissioner, Long argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and attracted the attention of Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who remarked that Long possessed a legal mind and an ability to argue a case as fine as anyone he had encountered. Using the Public Service commission as a springboard, Long became Governor in 1928. As Governor, Long survived impeachment and was elected in 1930 to the U.S. Senate, where he positioned himself for a run at the Presidency in 1936, only to be assassinated in 1935.

From 1928 until his death, Long steadily built a political machine based on power and patronage that dominated Louisiana politics. As the champion of the working man, Long fought Standard Oil, built hospitals, revised the state tax code, built schools, gave free school books to students, built more than 3,000 miles of paved roads and more than forty bridges, and devised Share Our Wealth, a system for the redistribution of assets to make every man a king. He used his dominance over the legislative and executive branches of state government to gain control over state agencies, state hospitals, state militia, state police, and even local governmental authorities.

His opponents compared him to Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini and described him as dictator, despot, demagogue, fascist, populist, Bolshevik, and socialist. Declaring himself the Kingfish after a radio show character, Long described himself as sui generis. Long craved power, and as he gained power, he used it not only to promote his political programs but also to punish his enemies.

Frustrated by criticism of his political agendas, Long systematically attacked the free press by lashing out at his most vocal enemies, the daily newspapers published in the larger Louisiana cities. Exercising his domination over the Louisiana legislative and executive branches from his position in the U.S. Senate, Long engineered the passage of a tax on the gross receipts from advertising sales in daily newspapers with circulations of more than 20,000 copies per week. A lawsuit ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court challenged the law as censorship through taxation. On February 10, 1936, the same day Long’s widow was sworn in to fill the unexpired term of her deceased husband, a unanimous Court in Grosjean v. American Press Co. declared the tax to be an unconstitutional violation of freedom of the press.

Long’s attempts at abridging the freedom of the press did not stop with the newspaper advertising tax. After a letter critical of Long’s tactics was submitted to the Louisiana State University Reveille for publication, Long had the letter suppressed and had the university’s president appoint a faculty member to serve as censor. Twenty-six journalism students protested and were dismissed from the school. Although most were allowed to return, seven students refused to capitulate. These seven were provided funds from an anonymous source to enroll at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

In January 1935, martial law was declared in Baton Rouge after armed anti-Long protestors overtook the courthouse because of Long’s firing of local government employees. As part of the conditions of martial law, newspapers could not publish articles critical of state employees, and citizens could neither assemble nor carry guns.

As part of Long’s state legislative agenda, in April 1935, the legislature created the State Printing Board whose members were appointed by the governor. The board determined which newspapers would receive lucrative publishing fees as the official journals of state and local governmental agencies. That same year a State Board of Censors whose members were appointed by the governor was created to censor any motion picture or newsreel being shown in Louisiana.

For Long the ends justified the means. But in the end, his abuse of power and his curtailment of liberties led to his destruction.


References and Further Reading

  • Cortner, Richard C. The Kingfish and the Constitution: Huey Long, the First Amendment, and the Emergence of Modern Press Freedom in America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Hair, William Ivy. The Kingfish and His Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
  • Long, Huey P. Every Man a King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long. New Orleans: National Book Company, 1933.
  • Williams, T. Harry. Huey Long. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936)