The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt

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The Townsendites entered the national political arena when John Steven McGroarty was elected to Congress from southern California. A seventy-two-yearold dramatist and official poet laureate of his state, McGroarty, though a Democrat, was an ardent antiNew Dealer and a confirmed believer in the Townsend Plan, and his election was due in large part to a strong campaign waged in his behalf by local O.A.R.P. organizers. In 1935, McGroarty introduced a bill to implement the pension plan, and within three months the movement’s leaders claimed they had twenty million signatures urging its passage.

But this massive pressure was not sufficient. When the revised McGroarty bill came to a vote, it lost by almost four to one. Yet Dr. Townsend and his followers were not discouraged. The loss was considered merely a tactical setback; the war was still to be won. When Verner W. Main, a Republican from Michigan, won both a primary and a by-election in the spring of 1935 and attributed his victory to strong backing from the O.A.R.P. organization, the Townsendites were elated. “As Main goes, so goes the nation” became the battle cry as the movement assembled for its first national convention in Chicago. In a remarkable address Francis E. Townsend told cheering thousands: We dare not fail. Our plan is the sole and only hope of a confused and distracted nation. … We have become an avalanche of political power that no derision, no ridicule, no conspiracy of silence can stem. … Where Christianity numbered its hundreds in its beginning years, our cause numbers its millions. And without sacrilege we can say that we believe that the effects of our movement will make as deep and mighty changes in civilization as did Christianity itself. Now Dr. Townsend was sure that he had power as well as purpose. By late 1935 he was ready to use all of this power to turn his plan into law.

Early in December, the Townsend Plan high command wrote to all 531 congressmen, asking whether they would vote for a Townsend bill in the next session. Only sixty answered, and only thirty-nine said yes. The old doctor was angry. He could not understand the rebuff when all across the country there was new evidence of the movement’s strength.

Townsend decided that there must be a congressional “conspiracy” against his plan, and that the New Deal was behind it. Although President Roosevelt himself had carefully avoided making a public statement on the pension proposal, his lieutenants—Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson among them—had clearly indicated the administration’s opposition.

A major cause of Townsend’s irritation with the New Deal was that F. D. R. had once refused to see him. Another and more important reason was the Social Security bill. The Doctor considered its provision of $30 a month for people age seventy and over to be “a miserable dole,” an “insult to elderly Americans,” and “a mere bid for political support.” There may have been some grain of truth in Townsend’s charge that Social Security was an attempt to take the spotlight off his plan. The Social Security bill would probably have become law even if Townsend had never come on the scene, but there is little doubt that the existence of the O.A.R.P. organization did speed its adoption. As

F. D. R. said to Secretary Perkins: “We have to have it. … The Congress can’t stand the pressure … unless we have a real old-age insurance system. …”

A final reason why Dr. Townsend was displeased with the administration was the humiliating experience he had undergone in testifying before the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees during the February, 1935, hearings on the first McGroarty bill. In attempting to explain the intricacies of his plan to the highly critical congressmen, he had become confused and befuddled. For example, asked by the Senate committee to define his transactions tax, Townsend grew uncertain. The following dialogue took place between Townsend and Senator Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky.

Senator Barkley: It is a percentage tax based on the amount involved in each transaction?

Dr. Townsend: Yes.

Senator Barkley: So it is really a sales tax.

Dr. Townsend: There is a distinction, but there is very little difference. A sales tax has to necessarily be a tax on a transaction. All taxes on transactions of a financial nature are sales taxes.

Senator Barkley: So it is a distinction without a difference?

Barkley, a key New Deal spokesman in the Senate, was one of the Doctor’s most derisive critics. When told that all recipients must spend the money, Barkley asked Townsend for what.

Dr. Townsend: For commodities or for services. Senator Barkley: Would shooting craps with about six fellows be services?

Dr. Townsend: No, no, that is not services. … We propose that this shall be spent for commodities. Senator Barkley: That part of it that went to purchase the craps would be for commodities? Dr. Townsend: Certainly.

The Roosevelt administration never seriously considered adopting even a modified version of the Townsend Plan. The President had been advised by professional economists that if put into practice, it would not only be unworkable but might well destroy the nation.

Merely reviewing the price of implementing the plan stunned economists; they estimated that its yearly cost would be one and one-half times the amount spent by all government—federal, state, and local—in 1932, and almost one-half the total national income for 1934.