Thus far, the New Deal’s efforts to combat the depression had dominated economic and political debate and overwhelmed all opposition. But by the middle of 1934, with the midterm elections looming, opponents on the left and the right began to find new voice. Most threatening to the administration was a chorus of populists who in their various ways were protesting the country’s widespread and apparently intractable poverty.
Dr. Francis E. Townsend was among them. A native of Illinois who had practiced medicine in South Dakota before moving to California for his health, Townsend had leapt to national prominence by proposing a scheme of old-age pensions. As he told the story later, he glanced up from shaving one morning to observe three old women scavenging for food in the garbage cans behind his house. His howls of outrage brought his wife running, protesting that the neighbors would hear.
“I want all the neighbors to hear me!” raged Townsend, who was sixty-six at the time. “I want God Almighty to hear me! I’m going to shout until the whole country hears!”
His campaign for national attention began with a letter to the Long Beach Press-Telegram in September 1933. In it, Townsend proposed that the federal government pay monthly pensions of $150 to everyone over sixty, provided that they spent it all within a month. A nationwide sales tax on all transactions would provide the funding. Townsend’s plan—others had floated similar ideas—had the appearance of perfection; it would remove the elderly from the job market, open up jobs for younger people, pump money into the economy, and essentially fund itself with the sales tax. If there was a drawback, as one editorial cartoonist saw it, it was the strain the old people would undergo from burning the candle at both ends to spend their money every month. Townsend brought in a Texas real estate salesman he had dealt with in the past, Robert Earl Clements, and on January 1, 1934, they announced the formation of Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd. By then they were talking pensions of about $200 a month. Soon, Townsend Clubs were springing up throughout California, peopled by elderly members who paid a dime a month to beat the drums for the Townsend plan with telegrams, letters, and petitions to the Congress.
This nationwide yearning for security in old age was born of deprivation; twenty-eight states had programs for old-age assistance, but these were based on need and in the depression they depended on erratic appropriations that totaled just $32 million in all of 1934. Elsewhere, before FERA, all that the elderly without resources or family had to fall back on was a patchwork of private and local charities, leaving them to spend their final years in a twilight of penury. Nettie Burk, once a famed bareback rider for P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, provided an example: she had been evicted from her apartment in New York at age eighty-six and, as the New York Times oddly stated it in her obituary, “fought a stubborn, cheerful battle against starvation” while depending on the care of neighbors before she died in 1932. Add to their plight the dearth of jobs, the Hoovervilles, the hungry children, and the wandering homeless, and the vicious economic disparities brought to light by the depression were a tinderbox waiting to be ignited into a firestorm by demagogues.
In the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, where a mellow-voiced priest at a church named for St. Thérèse, the “Little Flower of Jesus,” had been giving weekly radio broadcasts since 1926, Father Charles E. Coughlin was now achieving national popularity. At first these broadcasts had focused on bringing in new parishioners and fighting the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan after a cross was burned in his churchyard. But with the onset of the depression, the predominantly religious message had changed: Coughlin, at age thirty-eight, now started to talk about politics and money.
Detroit was as hard hit by the depression as any city in the land. Lincoln Colcord, one of Hopkins’s field reporters, wrote that it was not so much disturbed as “prostrated,” and called the auto capital “the spear point of the depression.” As its laid-off autoworkers left the hiring halls and factory gates for breadlines and meetings of the Unemployed Councils, and the city pitched tent villages to house its homeless, there was ample evidence to provoke a good Catholic’s social conscience. Coughlin was no Hooverville priest like Pittsburgh’s Father Cox, but he preached a social gospel as described in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, or On the Condition of the Working Class. In it, Leo had warned that widespread poverty was a breeding ground for Socialism and that societies should “save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making.” Coughlin’s message echoed this: “Let not the workingman be able to say that he is driven into the ranks of socialism by the inordinate and grasping greed of the manufacturer.”
As he inveighed against greed, corruption, and the concentration of wealth, the Golden Hour of the Little Flower grew ever more popular. He traded on this popularity to acquire friends in politics, and as his influence grew, his messages became nakedly political. Coughlin denounced Hoover’s policies during the campaign of 1932, and after the election lavished praise on Roosevelt, telling his listeners that it was “Roosevelt or ruin.” Religion went into the mix without reserve: “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal,” he preached, peppering his broadcasts with economic opinions that favored the Roosevelt policies. But before long Coughlin not only began acting like an administration spokesman but assumed that in return he ought to be entitled to a key to the White House and the president’s ear on monetary policy. All the while his popularity kept growing. By 1934, the network of stations carrying his broadcasts in the cities of the East and Midwest had ballooned. Listeners deluged him with money; he received 10,000 letters a day. The attention, the access, and the power were addictive, although Roosevelt, and those around him, now began to consider him a pest—a useful one, but still a pest.
And also by the spring of 1934, around the time the CWA ended, Coughlin realized the administration was ignoring his advice, and he gradually drifted out of its orbit. In November, he formed the National Union for Social Justice, conceived as a non-partisan lobby to exert pressure for his economic agenda. But now he started to attack the New Deal for failing to drive the moneychangers from the temple; Roosevelt’s political advisors looked ahead to the 1936 election and saw him as a potential threat. In fact, he looked even more ominous when the president’s men contemplated the nightmare possibility of an alliance between Coughlin and another dangerous populist orator, Senator Huey P. Long of Lousiana.
Long was fiercely smart, persuasively eloquent, and brazenly unscrupulous, and his towering ambition was unfettered by self-doubt. Born in 1893 in the red-clay piney woods of Winn Parish, he had cut his eyeteeth on populism. This region in north-central Louisiana had a contrarian streak that ran long and deep. Local farmers had preferred the Union army to Confederate taxes during the Civil War. Later, the same rebellious urges spurred progressive and radical farm movements. In fact, in 1912, more than 35 percent of parish voters had marked their presidential ballots for Socialist Eugene V. Debs, and the Socialist slate took over city hall in the county seat of Winnville.
Long was still in his teens when he made a prediction to his future wife. He would run for president someday and win, he told her, after he first worked his way up the ladder as governor and U.S. senator. He dropped out of high school, sold cottonseed cooking oil door-to-door, became a lawyer, and in 1918, discovering that the Louisiana constitution had not set a minimum age for the state’s railroad commission as it did for other statewide offices, he ran for a commission seat and won. The commission regulated more than railroads; telephone and telegraph services, pipelines, and utilities also fell within its domain. Long single-handedly transformed the three-member commission from a retirement home for fading politicians and a rubber stamp for the utilities to an advocate for better, cheaper, and more inclusive services. Railing against concentrated wealth and power, he made himself the bane of New Orleans’s bankers, aristocrats, and oilmen. But his ambitions were far grander.
As soon as he turned thirty, the minimum age, Long ran for governor. The thrust of his campaign was simple: he attacked money and all forms of power. He finished a close third in the January 1924 Democratic primary and immediately started laying plans for 1928. He mended the mistakes of his first campaign by courting interests downstate, where he had done poorly, but he didn’t change his style. He told the people they had been neglected and shortchanged by the powerful interests. In southern Louisiana’s Cajun country, speaking in the shade of the oak tree made famous by Longfellow’s poem, he evoked the legend of lovelorn Evangeline to whet the people’s appetite about their future.
“Evangeline is not the only one who waited here in disappointment,” Long said. “Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, but have never come? Where are the roads and the highways that you sent your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions for the sick and disabled?”
He adapted his campaign slogan from the populist rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan: “Every Man a King, but No One Wears a Crown.” He picked up—and reveled in—a nickname from the popular Amos ’n Andy radio program: the “Kingfish.” He campaigned tirelessly, red-faced and drenched with sweat, his red-brown hair flopping every which way above his pug-nosed, puffy face, firing up crowds in courthouse squares, churchyards, and school auditoriums, displaying a folksy grin when they shouted, “Pour it on ’em, Huey!” When the votes came in they showed the pattern that Roosevelt and his advisors would view with concern six years later. Long had divided voters by wealth and class, and it was workers and the poor who had given him their votes. He satisfied them from the day he took office, from a foot-stomping inaugural celebration at the capitol in Baton Rouge to free books in the schools, a ten-fold increase in paved roads, better health care and mental health facilities, and higher corporate taxes to pay for it all. He created a patronage machine to ensure his control, survived an impeachment attempt mounted by Standard Oil and other oil interests, and, halfway through his constitutionally limited four-year term, ran for and won election to the U.S. Senate. By then he was being noticed outside Louisiana and was acquiring the beginnings of a national base.
Long displayed a level of flamboyance that was remarkable even by the standards of southern politicians. He received diplomatic guests in silk pajamas, paraded at the head of the Louisiana State University marching band, engaged an Atlanta editor in a letter-writing debate about the proper method for eating cornbread—dunked or crumbled into the “potlikker” at the bottom of a pot of collard greens; Long said dunked—and traveled like a potentate, surrounded by the trappings of the very power he inveighed against. All this got him front-page coverage. And then he started spreading his political message to a wider audience. In the summer of 1931, with frustration building over the worsening depression and Hoover’s inadequate response, Long proposed a radical new tactic to reduce the cotton surplus and thereby revive prices. He called for a “cotton holiday,” a moratorium on planting cotton in 1932 to be imposed by legislatures in the cotton states. When, unsurprisingly, the plan failed, he had achieved his goal. Long walked away with a bumper crop of exposure and the adoration of 2 million southern cotton farmers.
At that point, two years into his Senate term, he had hardly set foot in Washington. But even from afar, he kept his hand in national politics. He supported Roosevelt’s bid for the Democratic nomination, campaigned for him in the Midwest, and engineered the surprising upset victory of Hattie W. Caraway of Arkansas in her bid to return to the Senate, where she had filled her husband’s seat after his death the year before. As always, the speeches he made revolved around the theme of disenfranchisement of the many and the concentration of too much money in too few hands. He proposed limiting large fortunes and spreading the wealth among the people. When he finally did start speaking in the Senate, he gave voice to what others were thinking and saying more discreetly. If, Long said, “I should see my children starving and my wife starving…'laws against robbing and against stealing and against bootlegging would not amount to any more to me than they would to any other man when it came to a matter of facing the time of starvation.” The Senate quickly learned that he was a one-man wrecking crew who disregarded the decorum of the august body and filibustered against any piece of legislation he opposed. And when the Congress adjourned at the end of the Hundred Days, he announced that the New Deal initiatives had not relieved the troubles of “the poor and the downtrodden, the blind, the helpless, the orphaned, the bleeding, the wounded, the hungry and the distressed,” and refused to join the Democratic victory party.
Long had originally claimed that Roosevelt’s campaign mirrored his own proposals to redistribute wealth. Now, he said, the president had broken his promise to break up fortunes and spread the wealth around. His plans were radical and confiscatory; he wanted to set a $1 million cap on yearly income, and he sent his audiences into populist ecstasies by sarcastically imitating whining millionaires complaining that they would have to live on less. Roosevelt’s first step was to stop consulting Long about federal jobs in Louisiana. After that, and publicity about a humiliating fight in a nightclub bathroom from which he emerged black-eyed and bloody, Long seemed to be sliding toward irrelevance.
But the Kingfish was far from finished. At the end of 1933, when he was only forty, he had published his flattering autobiography, Every Man a King. He resurrected Louisiana Progress, a campaign newspaper he had started during his Senate campaign, renamed it American Progress, and used its weekly editions to introduce himself and his ideas to a national readership. He touted those same ideas in radio broadcasts that, when they aired, rivaled Coughlin’s Golden Hour of the Little Flower in popularity.
These populist promises—of Long to make every man a king, of Coughlin to bring down men of greed, of Townsend to give every old person a comfortable pension—shimmered in the dreams of those hit hard by the depression. They were a mirage of salvation against the gray wastes of impoverishment, seeming to offer what Roosevelt, despite his efforts, had not been able to deliver.
And as the populists clamored for a leftward swing to spread the wealth, a recharged and newly vocal right campaigned to renew its old privileges and status. For some time, conservatives in business and politics had been itching to take up arms again. They hated the fact that they had been forced to tailor their business agendas to meet social needs, specifically through the National Recovery Administration codes that set working conditions, wages, and hours within industries and imposed production limits. Just as odious to them was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s version of economic planning, in which food distributors were taxed in order to pay farmers to limit their crop and livestock production. This was unacceptable meddling. The government had no right to control their property and income. It was the beginning of the end, the start of a long slide from centralized government and the dilution of states’ rights straight downhill to socialism. The more strident among them mixed their metaphors and compared Roosevelt to the most odious dictators in their roster, Hitler on the one hand and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin on the other. In 1934 these feelings coalesced in an organization formed to defend what it called the constitutional “rights of persons and property.”
The group called itself the American Liberty League. Its roots had formed during Prohibition, in a business coalition that lobbied for the return of alcohol with the thought that if the government taxed beer and whiskey, it might then cut business taxes. When the states ratified the Twenty-first Amendment and ended Prohibition in December 1933, the group found a new cause—and a name—in anti–New Deal issues. Its chief movers were Alfred E. Sloan and William Knudsen of General Motors, the du Pont family and du Pont executives, conservative Democrats in Congress, Al Smith’s patron John Raskob, and, most loudly, Smith himself. For its president, the league tapped Jouett Shouse of Kentucky, who had resigned as head of the Democratic National Committee after the party nominated Roosevelt.
The Liberty League—the group was commonly referred to by this shorthand version of its name—announced its formation on August 22, 1934, and promised an “unremitting” fight against “government encroachments upon the rights of citizens.” Roosevelt and the New Deal now faced a well-financed and assertive voice joining the Republican National Committee on the right, while the populists harangued the administration from the other end of the spectrum. But for all of the sound and heat generated by both sides, neither addressed the ongoing toll of unemployment and the need for jobs to bring stability to the economy.