The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


Townsend and Gerald L. K. Smith were prepared for this revolt. They had already decided that they would follow the course which the dissenters were now demanding: no “official” endorsement of the new party by the organization. Townsend now pushed on with the remainder of the convention program: speeches by the four key men of the Union party.

Gerald L. K. Smith was first. He had been having a fine time at the convention. He roamed the floor of the auditorium, shaking hands with the delegates and looking the part, as one newsman put it, of “the irrepressible young man smashing his way into the leadership of the movement.”

Smith’s speech was perhaps the best of his career. An astounded H. L. Mencken wrote: His speech was a magnificent amalgam of each and every American species of rabble-rousing, with embellishments borrowed from the Algonquin Indians and the Cossacks of the Don. It ran the keyboard from the softest sobs and gurgles to the most ear-splitting whoops and howls, and when it was over the thousands of delegates simply lay back in their pews and yelled. Never in my life, in truth, have I heard a more effective speech.

Smith spoke clutching a Bible. Coatless, sweat plastering his shirt to his broad shoulders and barrel chest, he roared hatred of Wall Street bankers, millionaire steel magnates, Chicago wheat speculators, and New Deal social engineers who “sneezed at the Doctor’s great vision.” He issued his call to arms and bellowed: We must make our choice in the presence of atheistic Communistic influences! It is Tammany or Independence HaIlI It is the Russian primer or the Holy Bible! It is the Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes! It is Lenin or Lincoln! Stalin or Jefferson! James A. Farley or Francis E. Townsend!

As the crowd gave Smith a standing, screaming ovation, the next speaker fidgeted nervously. Jealous of his new ally’s platform delivery, Father Coughlin had sulked at the back of the auditorium through most of Smith’s address. And as Smith concluded, the priest decided to make a dramatic gesture.

Midway through his address, Coughlin halted for an electric pause. He stepped back from the microphone and, peeling off his black coat and his Roman collar, literally unfrocked himself before the audience of 10,000 people. Striding back to the rostrum, he roared: “As far as the National Union is concerned, no candidate who is endorsed for Congress can campaign, go electioneering for, or support the great betrayer and liar, Franklin D. Roosevelt.” And then he concluded: “I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a democrat from the Democratic Party—I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.”

After a moment of stunned silence, the delegates stamped and shouted their approval of this vicious assault upon the nation’s President. And they kept on shouting as Coughlin proclaimed Townsend, Smith, and himself as the “trinity of hope” against the “unholy trinity of Roosevelt, Landon, and Browder.”

Now, Charles E. Coughlin made his bid: … there is Dr. Townsend and there is the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith. By those two leaders I stand foursquare. Ladies and gentlemen, you haven’t come here to endorse any political party. [Their principles] have been incorporated in the new Union party. You are not asked to endorse it. Your beloved leader endorses them and how many of you will follow Dr. Townsend? The Townsendites, almost to a man, rose in response to Coughlin’s question.

After such oratorical pyrotechnics, Dr. Townsend’s speech seemed tepid stuff. But his adoring followers did not care. Making his position in the coming election clear, he affirmed that he “could not do otherwise” than to support William Lemke for President.

It was Lemke who was the featured speaker on the last day of the convention. The meeting’s organizers, hoping for a large crowd, had hired the 85,ooo-seat Cleveland Municipal Stadium. But many Townsendites decided to head home early, and Lemke addressed a disappointing gathering of 5,000 people. The audience response to the Union party candidate was listless. Townsendites had amply demonstrated in the past that they would do almost anything for their beloved leader, but it became clear that they might refuse to back the man Dr. Townsend had endorsed for the Presidency. The Townsendites, as one member explained, were “just folks … just Methodist picnic people.” Most of them were Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin and could trace their genealogy far back into American history. They were farmers, small-businessmen, clerks, or skilled independent workers. They were political conservatives, and despite their fanatical commitment to Townsend’s proposals, despite their cheering of the demagogues at the Cleveland convention, they were reluctant to support an extremist political organization such as the new Union party. And yet if Lemke lost badly, the Townsend Plan, now so heavily tied to his candidacy, stood to lose as well. This was the dilemma facing Francis E. Townsend as the Cleveland convention came to a close and the presidential campaign got under way.

Throughout July and August, Townsend relentlessly toured the nation for the Union ticket, and when Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice held its own convention in mid-August, the old doctor was on hand to make a speech along with Lemke, Smith, and the radio priest. It seemed as if the strange coalition of radical leaders was indeed going to hold together.