Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Kingfish and the Great War

The career of former Louisiana governor Huey Long had some interesting links with the Great War. As a young lawyer, on the verge of launching his spectacular career destined to be shortened by an assassin, Huey Long chose to defend an antiwar state senator named S.J. Harper on a charge of sedition under the Espionage Act. Harper had made statements like "This is a poor man's fight and a rich man's war. President Wilson and Congress ought to be assassinated." Huey and his brother Julius decided to defend their friend, who had helped finance Huey's legal education. Harper—thanks in good part to the Longs' adroitness at jury manipulation—won an an acquittal.  The jury deliberated a full seven minutes.

The Huey Long America Remembers
Biographer William Ivy  Hair thinks this was a key event in Long's rapid political rise. "By defending Senator Harper under such circumstances, during wartime and in a year when Huey was planning to run for office, with his own draft deferment already making him vulnerable to questions about patriotism, Huey Long performed the most courageous and unselfish act of his life."

Oh, about that draft deferment. Know LA: The Encyclopedia of Louisiana summarizes how it followed him ominously for the rest of his life, and even beyond the grave.

Military service did remain a key social marker in Louisiana for a generation or more after the conflict ended. Indeed, Huey Long’s avoidance of wartime service (he received a deferment) and his defense of antiwar state Senator S. J. Harper of Winnfield, who was brought up on sedition charges, provided a point of attack for many of his opponents during the 1920s and 1930s.  Carrie Moore Davidson, a society lady from northeast Louisiana whose only son was killed in action during the war, framed her opposition to Long thus: “When I come to total the final score, I cannot forget that when my boy was fighting in France to make it safe for the Longs they were dodging the draft over here.” Yet the fact that many of his most political bitter rivals had served as officers rather than enlisted men only validated Long’s class-infused criticisms of Louisiana’s upper crust.

In later years, these officers, many of whom were Louisiana State and Tulane University graduates, became influential members of the state’s business and political establishment, almost all in vehement opposition to Long. Many also found their way into the American Legion, a veterans’ organization created after the war that, while disavowing political aims, nonetheless drew men of a more reactionary stripe. Rising from its ranks was Sam Houston Jones, a district attorney and good-government type from DeRidder, who eventually became the figure around whom the conservative forces of the state rallied to defeat Earl Long in the 1940 gubernatorial election. Like his brother, Earl Long missed out on military service during the war. Meanwhile, Jones’s World War I record was featured prominently in his political biography, and Legion posts around the state received him enthusiastically on his campaign tour. 

Huey Long  died from an assassin's bullets on 10 September 1935, 11 days after his 42nd birthday.

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