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Huey Long and the American Liberty League, 1934

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Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies faced only minor opposition during the so-called first 100 days of his presidency in 1933. However, as the Great Depression continued to take its toll and especially given the increasing unemployment rate his near-unanimous support began to crumble in 1934. A group of conservative Democrats, Republicans, and business leaders who believed that certain aspects of the New Deal were an unconstitutional overreach by the federal government formed the American Liberty League in 1934. They penned a pamphlet in that year outlining their ideology of limited government and individual liberties.

However, some Americans perceived Roosevelt’s policies as a failure because they did not go far enough in mobilizing the power and resources of the federal government to address the issues of poverty and inequality. Senator Huey Long from Louisiana was one such detractor; he believed Roosevelt’s New Deal had failed to provide an appropriate standard of living for all Americans. In his “Share Our Wealth” speech, broadcast over the radio, he explained his plan for using federal power to create what he believed would be a more economically equal United States.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote these documents?
  2. Why did the American Liberty League and Huey Long oppose Roosevelt’s policies?
  3. The members of the American Liberty League wrote their statement in a pamphlet, whereas Huey Long gave his speech over the radio. How might this difference affect who their message reached?

Source A: American Liberty League: A Statement of its Principles and Purposes, 1934

Vocabulary Text
The American Liberty League is a call to arms. It is the beginning of a movement which, if properly guided and aggressively carried on, will save the American people from the forces which today are threatening to bring misery, starvation, and disaster to the common people.
confiscate(v): to take or seize with authority It is a movement aimed at those who in the name of the law and in the name of government would rob Peter to pay Paul, who would repress honest dollars and issue fictitious money, and who would confiscate by taxation and by government competition the savings of one hundred and fifty years of Americanism. . . .
commendable(adj): deserving praise The New Deal has some commendable policies. So far as this writer is concerned, he approves heartily the methods and the money that have been used to furnish relief to the unemployed, the lending of funds for such projects as are capable of repaying indebtedness, and are not competitive with existing enterprise. . .
But there can be no defense of the “spoils system” whereby public trust is betrayed.
bureaucracy(n): a system of government in which important decisions are made by appointed officials who are not accountable to the electorate There can be no defense of bureaucracy.
There can be no defense of a policy which destroys cattle or crops.
instrumentality(n): something that serves as an instrument or means to an end There can be no defines of the policy of lending money to set up instrumentalities that would compete with and destroy business in which the public has invested its funds.
subterfuge(n): deceit used to achieve one’s goals

NRA(n): abbreviation for the National Recovery Administration. The NRA was created by Roosevelt to direct businesses to set prices and create fair codes of practice.
There can be no defense of the policies which seek by subterfuge to usurp the rights of the States as, for instance, in the NRA’s theory that all business has suddenly come under Federal jurisdiction.
There can be no defense of the policy of wasteful spending which unbalances our budget by 4,000 millions of dollars and gives no dependable pledge of abatement of such expenditures.
There can be no defense of the retention of any individual in any public office who believes that the Constitution can be violated because the end justifies the means.
If it is desired to amend the Constitution, let the people have the chance to express themselves upon every such proposal.
If it is desired to give the Federal Government complete power over all business and industry, let the people vote upon that proposition in constitutional conventions.
If it is desired to abolish the State governments and let the Federal authority control electric light and power, coal, oil, and all the production of American farms, let the American people, also in constitutional conventions, pass upon the such fundamental changes.
There is nothing in the Constitution which permits any man or group of men to equalize competition, to redistribute wealth or to redistribute brains, to put a penalty upon efficiency or to punish success by confiscatory taxation.

Source B: Share Our Wealth, 1934

Vocabulary Text
afflict(v): to harm or damage Both of these men, Mr. Hoover and Mr. Roosevelt, came out and said there had to be a decentralization of wealth, but neither one of them did anything about it. But, nevertheless, they recognized the principle. The fact that neither one of them ever did anything about it is their own problem that I am not undertaking to criticize; but had Mr. Hoover carried out what he says ought to be done, he would be retiring from the President’s office, very probably, 8 years from now, instead of 1 year ago; and had Mr. Roosevelt proceeded along the lines that he stated were necessary for the decentralization of wealth, he would have gone, my friends, a long way already, and within a few months he would have probably reached a solution of all of the problems that afflict this country today.
But I wish to warn you now that nothing that has been done up to this date has taken one dime away from these big fortune-holders; they own just as much as they did, and probably a little bit more; they hold just as many of the debts of the common people as they ever held, and probably a little bit more; and unless we, my friends, are going to give the people of this country a fair shake of the dice, by which they will all get something out of the funds of this land, there is not a chance on the topside of this God’s eternal earth by which we can rescue this country and rescue the people of this country. . . .
Now, we have organized a society, and we call it “Share Our Wealth Society,” a society with the motto, “Every Man a King.”
whim(n): a sudden desire or change of mind, especially one that is unusual or unexplained

caprice(n): a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behavior

ipse dixit(n): a dogmatic and unproven statement
Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipse dixit of the financial barons for a living. What do we propose by this society? We propose to limit the wealth of big men in the country. There is an average of $15,000 in wealth to every family in America. That is right here today.
We do not propose to divide it up equally. We do not propose a division of wealth, but we propose to limit poverty that we will allow to be inflicted upon any man’s family. We will not say we are going to try to guarantee any equality, or $15,000 to a family. No; but we do say that one third of the average is low enough for any one family to hold, that there should be a guarantee of a family wealth of around $5,000; enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences, and the opportunity to educate their children; a fair share of the income of this land thereafter to that family so there will be no such thing as merely the select to have those things, and so there will be no such thing as a family living in poverty and distress.
We have to limit fortunes. Our present plan is that we will allow no one man to own more than $50,000,000. . . .
Another thing we propose is old-age pension of $30 a month for everyone that is 60 years old. . . .
We will limit hours of work. There is not any necessity of having overproduction.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Did the American Liberty League oppose all New Deal policies? Why or why not?
  2. The author accused the federal government of seizing the authority to regulate certain industries from state governments. What are these industries?
  3. Which president before Franklin D. Roosevelt did Long claim failed to decentralize wealth?
  4. What limit did Long recommend for personal fortunes? To what extent do you think this was a prudent policy?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. In your own words, summarize the principles of the American Liberty League and Huey Long. Compare and contrast them.
  2. Which program do you think would be more appealing during the Great Depression? Explain.

Source A:

Source B: