A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History

By Clayton McClure Brooks | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
Huey Long and the Great Depression
Rise of a Populist Demagogue

RICHARD D. WHITE, JR.

From 1928 until his violent death in 1935, Huey Long did more good for the people of Louisiana than any politician before or since. In the midst of the Great Depression, he built nine thousand miles of new roads, erected more than a hundred bridges over swamps and rivers, and pulled his state from the horse-and-buggy days into the age of modern transportation. By giving free textbooks to students he allowed thousands of poor children to attend school, and his adult night classes taught 175,000 illiterate Louisianans to read, including many poor blacks. He doubled the number of beds in the state’s charity hospitals. He raised the state university to national stature in size and scholarship. He lessened the burden on poor farmers by giving a homestead property tax exemption and allowed thousands of them to vote when he abolished the poll tax. To legions of ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-clothed Louisianans, Long incarnated the savior of the common man and the liberator of the downtrodden.1 The country people “worshiped the ground he walked on,” a newspaperman observed. “He was part of their religion.”2

Paradoxically, Huey Long also did more harm to the state of Louisiana than any politician before or since. As governor and later U.S. senator, he seized near-absolute control and by the end of his tempestuous reign dominated almost every aspect of government. He conquered the state legislature and ordered it to slavishly pass hundreds of bills that increased his power, destroyed his enemies, and stretched the very limits of constitutionalism. He packed the courts with his loyalists to ensure that his increasing power went unchecked. He used political whim to hire thousands of state government workers, from cabinet secretaries to laborers shoveling gravel onto highways, while thousands of local schoolteachers, sheriff deputies, and courthouse clerks fell under his political boot. His lust for power led him to ruthlessly destroy his enemies’ politi-

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