Excerpts From Huey Long's "Second Autobiography"
Wherein The New President Encounters The Masters Of Finance And Destiny
ONE morning shortly after the inauguration my secretary handed me a letter which had been delivered to the White House by special messenger. It was from J. Pierpont Morgan, the New York capitalist and international banker. The letter read:
JOHN PIERPONT MORGAN Glen Cove, New York
January 27, 1937. My dear Mr. President:
I and some of my associates regard your effort to decentralize wealth through the confiscation of individual fortunes in excess of five million dollars, gradually to be reduced even below that to something less than two million dollars, as one of the most autocratic governmental undertakings ever attempted in this or any other civilized country. We regard it not only as an effort to confiscate wealth, but as the first step in changing the economic order upon which all American progress has rested in the past.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that private capital has been the backbone of American progress in industry, commerce and trade. To seize it by governmental decree, we believe to be a violation of the fundamental guaranties of the American Constitution.
We are eager as individuals and good citizens to help our American government restore prosperity, provide ease and comfort for all our citizens through the orderly and constitutional processes laid down by our forefathers, but we shall resist any and every unconstitutional effort to seize the wealth, created by individual achievement in a wholly lawful and constitutional manner.
We believe that a full and free opportunity must be preserved in this country to win the traditional reward of superlative individual achievement, whether that reward be counted in hundreds of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars. We do not express opinion now as to the advisability or constitutionality of a revenue law limiting the size of fortunes to be accumulated in the future. We content ourselves now with protesting against a law which would take from American citizens, in defiance of their constitutional rights, fortunes already accumulated.
We believe it fitting and proper for the federal government to impose inheritance taxes and estate taxes as a means of providing revenue, but we are forced, Mr. President, to resist in the courts your proposal to seize property outright, without due process of law. With the highest respect for your office, we feel compelled to notify you that we shall utilize every protection of the courts and Constitution to protect our properties against the seizures contemplated in your Share Our Wealth program.
Very truly yours,
( Signed) J. P. MORGAN.
Honorable Huey Pierce Long, President of the United States, The White House, Washington, D. C.
This threat from the dean of Wall Street's international bankers was the first sign of revolt against the Share Our Wealth program. I welcomed his declaration of war.
Calling a stenographer, I dictated the following reply:
THE WHITE HOUSE
January 28, 1937
My dear Mr. Morgan:
I am in receipt of your letter alleging that the Share Our Wealth program is unconstitutional, and announcing that you will resist its execution in the courts of the land. You are entirely within your rights in pursuing such a course.
I trust upon reflection you will perceive that I was the genuine defender of your wealth when I proposed a five million dollar limitation (gradually to be reduced below two million dollars) upon family fortunes in the Share Our Wealth plank of the platform upon which I was elected President of the United States. I will undertake sincerely to carry out the promise by which I secured my election. You are aware, or you would be if you had kept in touch with the sentiment of our American people, that there has been a good deal of whispered complaint against my plan on the ground that it is unjust to permit men of your kind to retain so much as five million dollars of wealth.
In the last campaign you will recall I was bitterly assailed by some speakers for not limiting wealth to one million dollars for each family. In the few days I have occupied the White House, there have been some newspaper editorial comment and numerous "letters from the people" published on editorial pages, demanding a reduction in the five million dollar limit of the Share Our Wealth program to a million dollar maximum at once.
One editorial that I hold in my hand asks this question:
"Why should anyone desiring justice start by proposing such rank inequalities between human beings, all of whom deserve the equal blessings of God and of government ?"
Before me is another newspaper in which a letter is published containing the following sentence:
"Is not our President making a mistake in starting his redistribution of wealth by allowing one family to have one thousand times as much share of the wealth as other families are permitted?"
If you observe the signs about us, my dear Mr. Morgan, you will see that the insignificant quantity of such muttering at this time is insignificant only because our American people as a whole believe they will secure happiness and the comforts of life through the limits placed on huge fortunes by the platform on which I was elected. I concede that my allowances were probably much too high, but I nonetheless told the American people that we could care for all of them bountifully and yet allow men of wealth such as yourself fortunes of about five million dollars, until gradually reduced below two million dollars. I also told them that we would limit fortunes only to the point necessary to guarantee comfort, convenience and education to the balance of our people.
I have felt that this moderated program, which allowed enough wealth to any family to inspire effort, service and achievement, but proposed such a limit as would curb needless greed, would create a proper balance between wealth and poverty, thereby insuring the maximum of inspiration to all our people. That being the case, I anticipate no difficulty from the common people of our country in securing to you the maximum limit of five million dollars of wealth, which the Share Our Wealth program would permit you to wholly own and manage in your own name until gradually reduced.
I am surprised, naturally, that as a banker and business man of reputed sagacity, you do not realize that my program is a real benefit to you. In my campaign for the Presidency I promised a return to Constitutional government. Needless to say, I am convinced the capital tax levies are constitutional. If they had not been, this republic could have never begun. I concede, too, that men may dieter with me on this legal question. I therefore shall be content to permit a test of its constitutionality in the Supreme Court of the United States before carrying it generally into effect.
We are about to engage upon a governmental survey of wealth and of the requisites of our common people for their comfort, convenience and education. When that is completed, Congress will reassemble and will enact the Share Our Wealth program. If in the meantime you should have a change of heart, Mr. Morgan, on the wisdom of resisting this equitable redistribution of wealth, I shall be only too happy to have you volunteer your services in helping to carry this program quietly into effect without needless disturbance of business, commerce or industry.
Very truly yours,
HUEY PIERCE LONG.
Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, Glen Cove, N. Y.
. . .Later that day I received another letter:
JOHN DAVISON ROCKEFELLER
January 26, 1937
My dear Mr. President:
I have lived a full and rick life, and soon shall be gathered to my ancestors, where the material things of life will no longer interest me.
I should like to depart this life secure in the knowledge of a final contribution to the welfare and happiness of the American people. In the recent election they have placed their endorsement upon your platform for the redistribution of wealth by electing you President of the United States. I shall accept their collective judgment, since the American awarded me in my lifetime a fair share of the fruits of labor.
I note that Congress has initiated legislation looking toward the seizure of all wealth in excess of five million dollars for each family. If it will not embarrass your plan, my dear Mr. President, I should like to anticipate the reduction of my own share of worldly goods to the limit decreed by the American people in the last election.
I am therefore disposing in orderly process my possessions in excess of five million dollars. I am making some gifts to persons associated with me during my long span of life. The residue I have instructed my attorneys to turn over to the United States Treasury as a gift to the federal government.
I am reminded that there are precedents for this action. You will recall, my dear Mr. President, that the late Oliver Wendell Holmes left the residue of his estate to the federal government. In his will he said, in effect:
I have had the use of this money all my life. I cannot take it with me. I do not want to leave my descendants so much that they will become idle parasites, preying on society. I therefore leave it to the government, whose beneficences enabled me to amass it.
In this sentiment I concur. I trust, my dear Mr. President, the government will permit me to redistribute my wealth in this fashion.
With best wishes, my dear Mr. President, JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, SR.
A few days later, just as dusk was falling over the city of Washington, my secretary informed me that Mr. Winthrop W. Aldrich, the New York banker, was waiting for me in the White House. He had entered the White House from the east wing, in order to avoid newspapermen. I had my secretary bring him to my office through the building. He was accompanied by his attorney, Mr. William D. Embree.
When he entered my office I recognized him, since I had met him in the Chase National Bank before I became President. We shook hands.
"Sit down, Mr. Aldrich," I said, "What can I do for you?"
"I received your letter."
"I hope you liked it."
"Perhaps I am compelled to like it," Mr. Aldrich replied. "I came here, Mr. President, in behalf of a number of gentlemen who received your recent letter concerning your Share Our Wealth program. A number of us, in response to your invitation, have assembled here in Washington, and we should like to confer with you as soon as possible. We have kept our coming from the press, as you advised us in your letter."
"How soon can you assemble here?" I inquired.
"Within the hour," replied Aldrich.
Aldrich made several telephone calls. I gave my secretary instructions to see that the visitors were escorted to the library in the White House proper. I then left the executive office with Aldrich. On our way through the building I asked him how his markets were holding up in New York.
"The markets remain about the same, Mr. President," he replied, "but there is very little buying and selling. Everybody is waiting to find out just how you intend to seize wealth."
In a very few minutes the visitors began arriving. The first to arrive were Thomas W. Lamont and George Whitney, two partners in the firm of J. P. Morgan & Co., who explained they came to represent J. Pierpont Morgan in the conference. They were accompanied by the Morgan attorney, John W. Davis, one-time Democratic nominee for the Presidency. I had met Mr. Lamont and Mr. Davis previously.
Then came Andrew W. Mellon, accompanied by his son, Paul Mellon, and by his attorney, David A. Reed, the former United States Senator, whom I knew well by reason of his service in the Senate. Then Pierre S. du Pont and Irenee du Pont, accompanied by their attorney, William J. Donovan, the former Assistant Attorney General. Owen D. Young, Charles M. Schwab, and Eugene G. Grace came in next, followed by Bernard M. Baruch. E. T. Stotesbury, the Philadelphia banker and Morgan partner, was the last to arrive.
After all were seated, I asked:
"Is anyone representing Mr. Rockefeller, Jr?"
Mr. Aldrich replied:
"He intends to see you later, Mr. President. He could not join us today."
I surmised that the younger Rockefeller had been badly shaken by his father's action in deeding the bulk of his fortune to the government in compliance with the Share Our Wealth program. I wondered how many more of this crowd knew of the elder Rockefeller's deed; there had been no publicity and I had not given out his letter for publication.
"Is anyone here representing Mr. Ford?" I inquired.
"No, Mr. President, we did not consult with him."
Turning to Senator David A. Reed, the Mellon lawyer, I said:
"Now, Dave, I was minded to chase you lawyers out of the room, because it is very difficult for lawyers to reach an agreement. I know that, being a lawyer myself. Now, I don't mind your remaining and listening to the conference, but I don't want you lawyers asking any questions or answering any. I want the men here with the money to do the talking for themselves."
"All right, Huey," said Reed.
"Well, now, gentlemen," I inquired, "what is your pleasure?"
They looked at each other, and Baruch repeated, "Pleasure? That's a good one!"
"Well, then, what are your suggestions for putting the Share Our Wealth program into effect with the least disturbance to commerce, business and industry?" I inquired.
There was no response.
"Well, let me call the roll," I next said. "What do you say, Mr. Mellon?"
I was surprised at the strength of the Pittsburgh financier's voice.
"The sooner we know your plan, I suppose, the better we will be able to discuss it."
"What do you say, Mr. Aldrich?"
"I presumed that you would explain your plan and then we would discuss it at a conference between ourselves, and later present you our views."
"Am I to understand, gentlemen, that there is no mentality in this aggregation wise enough to propose a definite plan for the seizure of great wealth and its redistribution to the masses of our people?" I demanded. "If that is true, and God forbid it, it would only go to prove that the public was being cheated when men of such inferior intelligence amassed so much wealth."
Mr. Stotesbury responded:
"Mr. President, speaking for the gentlemen to whom you sent letters in Philadelphia, I believe your limit of five million dollars is entirely too low to encourage a proper development of private commerce and private industry. I met with a number of gentlemen in Philadelphia, and we agreed that if the limit severe extended to twenty-five million dollars, we could join with you in working out a program."
"Mr. President," said Aldrich, attracting my attention, "I don't agree with my good friend from Philadelphia."
I realized instantly that Aldrich knew of the elder Rockefeller's letter to me.
"I feel we must resign ourselves to the five million dollar limit, if your plan is held constitutional by the courts," Aldrich continued. "I came to hear your plan and discuss your method of procedure, if you are ready to give us the details."
"Do I understand, Mr. Aldrich, that you are reconciled to the limitation of your personal fortune to five million dollars?"
"Certainly, Mr. President, if it is constitutional," replied Mr. Aldrich.
"I believe you said you were acting in behalf of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.," I said.
"What is his position in this matter?" I asked.
"He believes the seizure of private capital through a capital levy is unconstitutional, and that it should be tested in the courts before it is imposed. If it is constitutional, then, of course, there can be no objection by private citizens, since it will become the law of the land. But in either event, he wishes to have the act so drawn that if it is held constitutional, its enforcement will neither disrupt nor destroy American business. For that reason he is perfectly willing to join in perfecting your program."
"How many of you gentlemen share the opinion of Mr. Rockefeller, as expressed by Mr. Aldrich, that the banking, business and industrial leaders of our country should cooperate with me now in the drafting of a program to redistribute your fortunes, whether or not the law ultimately is held constitutional?" I inquired.
Mellon, the two du Ponts, Owen Young, Schwab, and Baruch, nodded their heads in agreement.
"What about the attitude of the Morgan firm on that?" I inquired of Lamont, who had sat silent.
"I could not say, without conferring with Mr. Morgan," replied Lamont. "My understanding with other members of my firm was that I should present our views opposing your plan, and learn its details so I could communicate them to our people."
"Do you share the same views, Mr. Stotesbury?" I asked the Philadelphia capitalist and Morgan banker.
"Mr. President, very frankly, I should like to join in any negotiations for carrying out the Share Our Wealth program in an orderly manner, but, of course, as a lifelong associate of Mr. Morgan, I feel I should be guided by his judgment."
"Well, that seems to leave the Morgan firm out of it," I said.
Turning to Aldrich, I inquired:
"Do you believe Mr. Rockefeller would accept the chairmanship of a committee of business men, bankers and industrialists to draft me a plan to carry out my Share Our Wealth program?"
"I believe so, Mr. President," replied Aldrich, "But I should like to confirm that by telephone."
I indicated the telephone on my desk.
"Call him now," I said.
In a few minutes Aldrich was relating our conversation to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., at his home in New York City. From his replies it was obvious that Mr. Rockefeller was accepting the chairmanship. When Aldrich hung up the phone, he turned around and said:
"Mr. President, Mr. Rockefeller will serve as chairman of your committee."
"That's fine," I said. "His services will allay fear throughout the business world."
I stood up, and my visitors arose in a body.
"Now, Mr. Lamont, Mr. Whitney, Mr. Davis, and Mr. Stotesbury, I believe we can excuse you," I said. "Since you feel that your firm does not care to participate in these conferences, I will abide by your decision."
John W. Davis, the Morgan lawyer, interrupted me.
"Mr. President, if you will forgive me, may I say a word?" he inquired.
"Mr. President, I think Mr. Lamont should be given permission to return to the conference after consulting with the other members of the firm,'' he said. "I feel sure that when the developments of this conference are reported to Mr. Morgan, he will desire to participate along with the other gentlemen."
"I am sorry, Mr. Davis, but your client, Mr. Morgan is refusing to accept the Share Our Wealth program," I replied. "Acting apparently upon your advice, he is going to fight it in the courts. Now, I am perfectly willing to follow the Constitution and to accept his challenge and battle it out in the courts. Recognizing him as an enemy of the Share Our Wealth Program, I don't feel it is proper to have him or any of his agents participate in any way in the drafting of the program. "Without reflecting upon the honor or integrity of Mr. Morgan or his associates, it would be difficult to convince the American people that their active cooperation in the drafting of the plan would be for any other purpose than to weaken it or to write some loophole into it through which they might escape or defeat it in the courts. Now, I believe these other gentlemen are cooperating in good faith and will draft a plan to the best of their ability.
"In the final analysis, of course, I shall rely on them for the economic sections of the bill, but I will be forced to rely upon my own attorney general and solicitor general for the constitutional sections in the event there is any difference of opinion between this committee and the government's legal advisors."
Davis bowed. With Lamont, Whitney, and Stotesbury, he left the room.
After they departed, I said to those remaining:
"Now, gentlemen, I appoint John D. Rockefeller, Jr. chairman of a National Share Our Wealth Committee, and I appoint as additional members Andrew W. Mellon, Winthrop W. Aldrich, Pierre S. du Pont, Irenee du Pont, Owen D. Young, Charles M. Schwab, and Bernard M. Baruch. I further empower Mr. Rockefeller as chairman to name such additional members as he may desire, upon sole condition that he shall name no member from the firm of J. P. Morgan or its Philadelphia ally, Crewel and Company. You, Mr. Aldrich, will communicate that authority to Mr. Rockefeller.
"Now, gentlemen, will you join me at dinner?"
They did. To my surprise, it turned out to be a friendly dinner. Mr. Pierre du Pont rather startled his associates by saying he was heartily in favor of the Share Our Wealth program. He said he felt that five million dollars was a trifle low for a limit on a fortune, because some individuals, by their genius, might create a business, as had he and his brother and cousins, the value of which might be increased by wise management from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars. He expressed fear that future government seizure of fortunes in excess of five million dollars a year would disrupt the operation of an industry.
I was surprised, too, by the views of old Andy Mellon. He told us that his fortune had become a tremendous bother and nuisance. It was apparent to me that he was an unhappy man, and that he wanted above all to have the affection of the American people, which he believed he had lost through no fault of his own. He appeared willing to assume a role in the Share Our Wealth program. Before the dinner ended, I named him Vice-Chairman of the Committee, and his face lighted with real pleasure when I made the appointment.
After dinner I said:
"Now, gentlemen, you will be called together, I presume, by Mr. Rockefeller, and undoubtedly you will meet in New York City. When you are ready, bring your plan to me."