The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


Dr. Townsend appeared on the scene to soothe and comfort the aged. By arguing that a comfortable pension was fully deserved after a lifetime of sacrifice and devotion, he appealed to their hurt pride. He appealed also to their self-esteem, asserting that “people over sixty were selected to be the circulators of large sums of money because they have more buying experience than those of fewer years.” He called old people “Civil Veterans of the Republic” and told them that they could become a “research, educational, and corrective force in both a material and spiritual way in the United States.”

Thus were the aged offered the best of all possible worlds. They might live in comfort, but they need not feel idle or useless, for as “circulators of money” or, as Townsend preferred to call them, “distributor custodians,” they would be serving a vital function.

Furthermore, Townsend did not force his followers to choose between his plan and basic American values. One could be a Townsendite without the risk of being called a foreigner, a “red,” or an atheist. The leaders proclaimed their faith in the political and economic system of the nation, and although their solution was clearly a radical one, it was presented in conservative terms. It offered to preserve the “American way of life.” It became for its followers, in the words of a contemporary observer, “simply the means of redeeming the promises of the little red school house.”

Along with this wholesomely patriotic tone, the movement had a definite religious content. The aura of the evangelist’s camp meeting surrounded Townsendism. The leadership included many clergymen; the spokesmen described their cause as being “Godgiven” and “ordained by the Lord”; well-known religious songs became anthems of the movement; and Bible reading was a part of most of its gatherings.

Aided by this combination of religiosity and patriotism, the Townsend organization, by the start of the election year of 1936, claimed a membership of some 2.2 million in 7,000 local clubs operating across the nation. Dr. Townsend liked to tell his followers that “the movement is all yours, my friends; it belongs to you.” In reality, it was very much the property of Francis E. Townsend and the few leaders who surrounded him. Moreover, the old physician began to be affected by his meteoric rise to fame. The speechmaking, the plane trips, the cheering throngs, made him feel, as he confessed to one interviewer, that he “had been chosen by God to accomplish this mission.” The movement’s newspaper began to compare him to the great men of the past—to Washington and Lincoln, to Columbus and Copernicus, to Franklin and Luther, and even to Christ.

Townsend revelled in the praise, but he did not change his speaking style. His soft, warm voice was not fitted for oratory, and even after delivering dozens of addresses, the old man still seemed ill at ease on the speaker’s platform. This very ineptitude proved to be an asset, for the old folks in the Townsend crusade did not want their leader to be too articulate and dynamic; they wanted him to be like themselves. And this the Doctor knew. His conversation was punctuated with homely phrases such as “dang” and “by gum.” His pub- Heists pictured him as the folksy older American who had triumphed over adversity and who was now helping all America overcome its troubles.

But Dr. Townsend was not an organizer. He needed a covey of sleek and efficient proselyters, men who were accustomed to talking for their living, men who were willing to serve as the salesmen of Utopia—men, in short, like Robert E. Clements.

Clements, who insisted on calling himself the “cofounder” of the movement, was its manager and fundraiser. It was he who devised its authoritarian system of centralized control, which Townsend eventually employed to dispose of those dissidents who rebelled against official policy. Clements made the promotion of the Townsend Plan a big business. He marketed Townsend emblems and stickers for automobiles, pictures, pamphlets, songs, buttons, badges, and banners, all sold at a handsome profit. But of all his lucrative schemes, none was so profitable as the Townsend Weekly . Its circulation rose steadily to over 300,000; this and other publications of their Prosperity Publishing Company were soon grossing Townsend and Clements $200,000 a year. The bulk of the income from the Weekly came from advertisements, many of which preyed on the fears and anxieties of old people, filling the newspaper with testimonials to the magical qualities of bladder tablets, gland stimulants, and kidney pills.

The intensive campaign to build the organization was paying rich dividends by late 1935. Townsend headquarters announced that in the first fifteen months of its existence, total receipts approached three-quarters of a million dollars. In order to justify this growth the Townsend leaders had to exert political pressure for legislative adoption of the plan. But this presented no problem, for Dr. Townsend eagerly awaited the hour when the whole nation would hail his idea.