Huey Long: Democrat or Dictator?
Your assignment is to write a 5-page essay discussing the above question, using at least three written historical sources. A number of books relating to Huey Long have been placed on reserve in Morris Library under this course number for your reference.
To begin with, read Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. Focus on Brinkley’s discussion of Long. As he explains in his useful “Preface,” Brinkley places Huey Long in a tradition of populist dissent in America, and discusses his influence on Louisiana and American politics during the Great Depression.
Historians have offered strikingly different interpretations of Long’s life and career. Some have portrayed him as pathologically ambitious and corrupt, a dangerous demagogue who might have become an American dictator had he not been assassinated in 1935. FDR himself considered Long to be one of the two most dangerous men in America in 1932 (the other was Douglas MacArthur).
Other observers and writers have seen Long as a genuine and compassionate voice of protest for the common man during the Great Depression, a politician given to showmanship and outrageous rhetoric perhaps, but essentially a benign influence whose career was mostly consistent with the American democratic tradition. If he committed any excesses, some have argued, they were because his “share our wealth” and other proposals were so dangerous to elites and corporate interests that he had to protect himself from persecution.
These points of view are simplified versions of complex arguments by historians and biographers of Long, of course. This essay assignment asks you to weigh different points of view and come to your own conclusion after reading Brinkley’s Voices of Protest and consulting several other historical sources, either from the reserve list in the library or from your own research.
**Your own reading and research:
You are not expected to read and master the entire bibliography of historical/biographical work on Huey Long. However, for the purposes of a 5-page essay such as this, it is important to understand some of the key issues that historians have dealt with in writing about Long’s career.
For this purpose, you have at your disposal an excellent database in the Morris Library, JStor. This database, accessible on-line, contains a large number of useful reviews of the most important books about Long. For instance, a search under “Glen Jeansonne” provides a list of reviews of Jeansonne’s interesting short book Messiah of the Masses (1993). Jeansonne was mostly critical of the approach taken by Brinkley, and the historians who discuss Jeansonne’s book in these reviews provide useful information you may be able to use in your own essay about Long. In addition, you may wish to search under “William Ivy Hair” or even more broadly even, “Huey Long” to get additional ideas for your paper. Remember to cite any quotations or phrases derived from reviews or written sources to avoid problems with plagiarism. No need for URLs in citations from JStor, just book or journal name, author, title, date, page, etc.
There are also a number of books placed on reserve in the library you may wish to consult for specific questions. You may want to verify or develop an idea by looking further in T. Harry Williams’ magnificent biography, for instance. Or, you could read Long’s own ideas in some of his speeches and writings from the 1930s.
Also, keep in mind that you have to budget your time for a project like this. You are not expected to read all there is to know about Huey P. Long. When you delve into large databases such as JStor or written documents and books in your own professional life, you will be required to gain a reasonable mastery of the main issues and form your own opinions and conclusion as quickly and efficiently as possible given your own time constraints. Part of the purpose of this exercise is to help you learn how to accomplish the difficult art of extracting key information from a large body of data and shaping it into a persuasive written argument.
**Some specific issues to look out for:
*Psychology. What were Long’s motives? How should a historian judge or evaluate Long’s personality? Did the man make the movement, or did the “movement” (ie., the widespread sentiment for something akin to “Share Our Wealth”) make the man?
* Related to above: In what form (if at all) did Long’s movement survive without him? Was he trying to build an enduring political movement representing certain populist principles he (and his followers) deeply believed in, or just another monument to his ego?
*Means and ends. Were Long’s corruption, cronyism, use of intimidation and un-democratic methods justified in light of the overall justice of his cause? Many American politicians, including FDR, can be accused of occasional lying and unscrupulousness. Was Long exceptional? Would the methods he used in Louisiana have “worked” at the national level?
*Did Long’s movement represent a truly dangerous force in American politics, or was it mostly an ephemeral influence that gained force because of a unique conjunction of circumstances and personality? Note Brinkley’s view in this regard, and especially his Appendix I, “The Question of Anti-Semitism and Fascism.”