- Historic Sites
The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt
To men and women adrift in a changing society and caught in the Depression’ whirlpool, Francis R. Townsend held out the welcome hand of a savior
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
For Cleveland, Ohio, the summer of 1936 was a time to remember. In the steaming month of July, during which a twelve-day heat wave in the Midwest and East cost 3,000 lives, there came to the great lake-front city a procession of people—gray, simple, sixtyish, and poor—from all across the nation. They came in buses and railroad coaches and brokendown Fords. Carrying their battered suitcases, they found dollar-a-night lodgings on the city’s outskirts and travelled to the downtown convention hall in trolleys, eating bananas and oranges out of bags to save lunch money. They had calloused hands and wore clean but threadbare Sears, Roebuck clothing. They were the delegates to the second annual convention of Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd.—disciples of Dr. Francis E. Townsend, whom they fervently believed had been sent by God to save the old people of America in their time of deepest need.
The year before, at Chicago, the first national meeting of the organization had attracted 7,000 delegates. The Cleveland convention drew 11,000. Banners proclaimed “The Three Emancipators: Washington, Lincoln, Townsend.” One speaker suggested that “God almighty placed this great idea in the mind of one of His servants.” Another announced that “the Doctor is the leader of a greater army than any known to history.” Yet another wondered why no star had hung over Dr. Townsend’s birthplace to “guide Wise Men of that generation to his side.”
If the Townsend Plan was an idea so explosive as to merit this kind of response, then in the presidential election year of 1936 it could prove to be political dynamite. Of this the organizers of the meeting were very much aware. Indeed, the Townsendites were assembling in the very hall where, only a month earlier, the Republican party had met to nominate Alfred M. Landon. As one journalist pointed out, Townsend’s convention had at least two advantages over Landon’s: it was bigger and it was livelier.
The Cleveland gathering of Townsendites marked the high point of one of the most curious and potentially formidable mass movements in modern American history. The road which led to Cleveland began some three years before in Long Beach, California, where Francis Everett Townsend had his great vision. In 1933 Townsend was almost sixty-seven—a countrybred physician who had come to the retirement community of Long Beach in 1919 to recover his health and seek a livelihood. Educated in rural Illinois schools, he was successively a ranch hand and farm laborer in the West; a mucker in Colorado mines; a homesteader, teacher, and salesman in Kansas. Finally, at the age of thirty-one, he entered medical school in Omaha and after graduation practiced medicine in South Dakota, where he was driven out of Belle Fourche for fighting local political corruption. In 1927-28 he was a realestate promoter in Long Beach. When the Depression struck, most of his savings were wiped out, and he had to accept an appointment as assistant director of the City Health Office. There he could see just how cruelly the economic crisis was ravaging the old people of America. Years later he recalled that “ I stepped into such distress, pain and horror as to shake me even today with its memory. … They were good men and women, they had done all they could, had played the game as they had been taught to play it, and suddenly, when there was no chance to start over again, they were let down.”
In 1933 the Doctor lost his job when the City Health Office ran out of funds; his own crisis seemed only to intensity a growing feeling that something had to be done to help the old people of America.
For most men the years after age sixty-five are the twilight of their careers, but for Dr. Townsend, all the years that went before seemed to serve only as a prelude for the great work he was now to undertake.
For Townsend had a vision of America’s elderly people permanently freed from economic privation by means of a substantial pension, disbursed monthly by the federal government to every citizen aged sixty and over. The government was to raise this money through a small “transaction tax,” a multiple sales tax, levied not just at the point of ultimate sale but at each point that a commodity changed hands along the way from raw material to finished product.
The Doctor had read somewhere that in 1929 the gross business done in the United States amounted to $935 billion. He deduced that it would be possible, by tapping this enormous business transaction with a sales tax, to produce twenty to twenty-four billion dollars per year, enough to give §150 a month——later he raised it to $200—to everyone over sixty.
As the months rolled by, Townsend began to advertise his program as a solution to the economic woes of not only the aged but the rest of the population as well. He decided that spending the $200 within thirty days should be made mandatory, and thus began to stress the revolving aspect of his proposal—that twenty to twenty-four billion dollars paid to the elderly every year would tend to stimulate the entire economy as the old people spent their pensions on all manner of consumer goods. He now spoke in terms of the “velocity of money,” pointing out, for example, that the dollar spent by an old man for food would be used by his grocer to pay the wholesaler, and so on down the line. In this way, the pension money would “revolve” and would multiply; the pension checks coursing through the economy would stimulate every aspect of American enterprise and finally would end the Depression.
Townsend began to make even more sweeping claims for his plan. Millions of new jobs, he promised, would be made available to younger men by withdrawing the aged from the employment rolls. State and local governments would save the billions of dollars consumed yearly by crime and crime prevention as his plan eliminated poverty and privation; even more billions would be saved which were now spent on charity.
When Townsend described his dream to the aged, it did not seem too far-fetched. To them, the economy of abundance of the igso’s had come to be the normal thing; the Depression, a grotesquely atypical phenomenon. When Townsend drew upon these memories of prosperity and added to them his own thesis, few old people challenged his arguments.
Indeed, there were few who would have wanted to doubt the plan’s validity, so bleak were the prospects for the elderly during the Depression. In 1934, only twenty-eight of the forty-eight states had any pension plan at all; three of those were bankrupt and the others were woefully inadequate. Almost three-quarters of a million Americans aged sixty-five and over were on some form of federal relief, and the situation appeared to be getting worse. For, while the elderly were relentlessly being displaced in the job market, they were steadily increasing both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the total population. In 1930 the aged comprised 6.6 million, or 5.4 per cent of all the people in the United States; by 1935 these figures had grown to 7.5 million and 6 per cent.
Thus it was not surprising that when Dr. Townsend first proposed his plan in late 1933, almost immediately support for it sprang up across America.
The plan grew out of a letter Townsend wrote to the “People’s Forum” column of a Long Beach newspaper in late September. At the time, he planned no program of action. But within days of the letter’s appearance, replies flooded the paper, which soon devoted a daily page to discussion of Townsend’s ideas. At the same time he was approached directly by people who wanted concrete proposals lor putting his ideas into action. By November, Townsend had decided to devote his life to reali/ing his plan. When the Doctor advertised for canvassers to obtain signatures on petitions for congressional action, he was overwhelmed by replies. Within a matter of days he had received completed petitions containing the names of 2,000 supporters.
The Doctor now searched about for a promoter, a person to help him set up the organization that would push the Townsend Plan into law. He turned to Robert Earl Clements, a young, driving real-estate broker.
The two men began collecting names and sending out Old Age Revolving Pensions literature. Alter five weeks, they were getting an average of one hundred replies a day. Physicians and ministers in the Long Beach area became spokesmen lor the plan, and a newspaper, The Townsend Weekly , was started. As the movement continued to grow, local Townsend clubs began to spring up, and by January, 1935, five months after the first of these had been founded, the leaders proudly announced that more than 3,000, with a total membership approaching one-half million, were operating- actually there were only 1,200 clubs, but even that figure was impressive. Organizers were soon at work across the nation setting up more clubs, and the Doctor had to hire a staff of ninety-five to handle his mounting (low of mail. Almost overnight, the Townsend movement had become a force to be reckoned with.
The fanaticism with which Townsend’s growing thousands of followers promoted his plan astounded and finally frightened journalists and politicians throughout the nation. There were ugly rumors that newly organized Townsend clubs in the Pacific Northwest were threatening merchants and newspaper publishers with economic boycotts if the) refused to support the plan. “This tiling’s become a religion,” one alarmed editor said. “It holds the whole town in its grasp.”
Clearly, Dr. Townsend had struck into a subsoil of tear and discontent which went far deeper than the immediate material privations of the Depression. Most Townsendites had grown to adulthood believing that they were heirs to a tradition of self-reliance and rugged individualism. The America of their youth was a land in which opportunity abounded, in which a man’s failure was seen generally as the result of his own inadequacy, in which the thrifty could count on security in their old age. It was also a land of close family ties, where age was respected.
But in the 1930’, these ideas were becoming only memories. Industrialization and urbanization were destroying the nation’s traditional rural and small-town way of life. A man was less independent and less secure in the new America: the factory assembly line robbed him of his individualism and the economics of industrial capitalism subjected him to the vagaries of thebusiness cycle. Family ties were all too often broken as children moved far from their parental homes. Even old age seemed to lose its dignity: the highest premium in the land now seemed to be on youth.
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.
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.
The transaction tax, they decided, would almost certainly fail to produce the requisite income, for while the Townsendites based their estimates of income on the gross national product of the last of the pre-Depression years, 1929, their taxing program would operate in a far less prosperous America. Moreover, the argument concerning the velocity of money, the economists said, was mythical—a dollar would not “turn over” ten times within a month, for even in the boom years of the igao’s the average turnover amounted to less than three times monthly. And although Townsend looked for economic wonders through money distribution, the promised goods and services simply could not be produced because of the limitations of existing plant capacity. But the transaction tax had still another defect. It was essentially a sales tax, and as such, it was ungraduated. The burden would have fallen on those least able to afford it. Paul Douglas, professor of economics at the University of Chicago (now U.S. Senator from Illinois), estimated that if this tax had become law, the real income of most workers would have been reduced by about one-half.
Economists of the day asked another question: How would the government make sure the elderly spent their monthly payments promptly? Frugal oldsters, unaccustomed to such a sizable income, might well have attempted to save part of their monthly checks in case the golden faucet should ever be turned off.
When all of its deficiencies had been uncovered, the plan became the butt of economists’ jokes. Dr. Louis Haney of New York University wryly suggested that Townsend had not gone far enough, that $200 should be given to everyone every week. If the government can afford $24 billion, Haney said, it can afford $2,400 billion. In Battle Creek, Michigan, a “rival” to the O.A.R.P. was announced. The “Retire at Birth Plan” proposed that every newborn child receive $20,000, payable with interest at age twenty.
Townsend’s supporters tried to counterattack. “The politicians should stop listening to these academics,” one urged, “for they are but husk-dry pedants, who rely upon books, formal rules, and abstract theories.” And a leading publicist for the plan even asserted that “the physician, understanding physiology, may be especially qualified to feel, by the process of intuitive analogy, the most fundamental economic principles.”
Convinced of the absurdity of the Townsend Plan, F. D. R. moved to meet the political threat it represented by encouraging, in early 1936, a new series of attacks on it by Democratic congressmen.
Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee opened the assault by stating that the plan was nothing more than a “fantastic … devastating … wild-eyed scheme for looting the treasury of the United States.” Representative Phillip Ferguson of Oklahoma termed it “a racket,” and Representative Maury Maverick of Texas argued that it was “a way of avoiding discussion of the real issues.”
Dr. Townsend, now certain that “the politicians” were his enemies, was ready to fight back. He accused the New Deal of being “a misdeal … where political appointees experiment in human misery.” He termed certain actions of the administration “nothing more than Mussolini Fascism.” And he even hinted at the formation of a new political party.
Townsend had declared war on Congress and on the White House; retaliation was inevitable. The weapon was a new congressional subcommittee, headed by Missouri Democrat C. Jasper Bell.
The Bell committee’s formally stated purpose was to investigate old-age pension plans in order to propose legislation to prevent frauds, but its unstated purpose was to undermine the Townsend organization’s effectiveness as a political force in the 1936 elections. The thrust of the attack came in the committee’s careful scrutiny of the financial aspects of the Townsend operation. It was revealed that Townsend and Clements took profits far greater than the small salaries they listed on the O.A.R.P. books. Clements’ income in 1935 was shown to be $5,200, plus $7,385 from Prosperity Publishing (the Townsend Weekly ), for a total of $12,585. O.A.R.P. also paid for his Washington, D.C., apartment, and for his transportation, tips, and meals. Clements testified that Townsend made $68,000 in two years with O.A.R.P.; while Townsend did not deny this, he claimed he had “given many dollars to the O.A.R.P. to every one that I received from it.”
Midway in its weeks of hearings, the committee called Townsend himself to the witness stand. The Doctor, sensitive to the harsh questions, began to crack under the pressure. His economic naïveté was revealed time and time again. As E. B. White put it, “When forced to deal with the fundamental problems, he quietly came apart, like an inexpensive toy.”
For Townsend, the Bell committee hearings represented a disaster. Not only was he publicly humiliated, but key members of his movement began to desert. In April the Doctor had a sudden and bitter quarrel with Representative McGroarty, and the Congressman dissociated himself from the O.A.R.P. organization. But more serious was the defection of Robert Earl Clements. Relations between Clements and Townsend had cooled perceptibly in the weeks before the investigation. The younger man objected particularly to Townsend’s occasional threats to start a third political party.
Clements resigned from the movement the day after he was called to appear at the Bell hearings. And once he faced the congressional investigators, he proved willing to give damaging anti-Townsend testimony.
Dr. Townsend was now in trouble. But his followers rallied to their leader. Angry letters poured into the White House, and many Townsendites travelled to Washington to provide moral support for the Doctor, some bearing petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures attesting that members had “donated the money to be used as the leader saw fit.”
Heartened by the evidence of widespread support, Dr. Townsend decided to defy the committee and the New Deal. He lashed out at the hearing, calling it an “inquisition,” and he shrewdly played the part of the innocent victim of slander, while his newspaper headlined MOSES BEFORE PHARAOH. Then, after several days of particularly gruelling questioning, Townsend finally had had enough. Suddenly saying, “Good day, gentlemen,” the Doctor stood up and walked toward the exit. The congressmen were flabbergasted. The frail old physician had trouble pushing through the crowd, but a large, powerful man leaped to his feet, seized Townsend’s arm, and helped him through the throng to the corridor and safety.
The Doctor’s savior was the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, an experienced and ambitious leader of mass movements, who had his eye on the O.A.R.P. After several years as a successful minister in Indiana and Louisiana, Smith had joined forces with Senator Huey Long and had become the organizer of the national Share-Our-Wealth movement, the vehicle which Long hoped to ride to the Presidency. Spreading rapidly across the South, the Share-Our-Wealth clubs appealed to poor white farmers and small-town merchants, men who wanted to believe that money and power could be wrenched from the leaders of southern society and the captains of eastern industry and be redistributed. Like Long, Smith was a master of the art of crossroads oratory upon which demagogues in the South had for generations built a following among the povertystricken “redneck” farmers. Shrewdly exploiting the wealth-sharing theme in the depths of the Depression, the minister was making political headway when, in 1935, the assassination of the “Kingfish” robbed him of his chance for glory. The heirs to Long’s Louisiana machine quickly thrust Smith out of his seat of influence, leaving him desperately hungry for power.
Smith’s career to that date had been short but spectacular. The roster of organizations he had flirted with included William Dudley Pelley’s fascistic Silver Shirt Legion of America and Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge’s violently anti-New Deal Grass Roots Convention. But in the spring of 1936 Smith was without an organization, and he saw Dr. Townsend as the answer to his prayer.
After his rescue in the hearing room, the Doctor took Smith to the Baltimore office of the O.A.R.P., spoke briefly to reporters, and then saw his impromptu press conference taken over by Smith. The following day Smith grandly told newsmen that “we here and now join hands in what shall result in a nation-wide protest against this Communistic dictatorship in Washington.”
Townsend seemed dazzled by the powerful personality of his new ally, and Smith persuaded the Doctor to join him on a speechmaking tour of eastern Pennsylvania. In a dramatic climax to that trip, he took the old man to Valley Forge, where, as he told the press, “the Doctor and I stood under the historic arch and vowed to take over the government.” By this time Townsend was parroting his younger companion: “We are presenting a common front against the dictatorship in Washington.”
Townsend’s other subordinates were greatly disturbed: they felt that the Doctor might soon find himself playing Trilby to Gerald Smith’s Svengali. But even before meeting Smith, Townsend had become convinced that radical action was necessary if his pension scheme was to become a reality. He had told his followers: The only way for us to lick the stuffing out of the old parties is to become militant and go after them hammer and tongs for being totally incompetent … We should begin to talk about the Townsend Party and not wait in the foolish hope that one of the old groups will adopt us. If they do, they will treat us like poor adopted trash. To hell with them. Aware of newspaper reports which indicated that Townsendites were in practical control of at least eight and probably ten states, he began to boast that “we have strength enough to elect a candidate. We have at least thirty million votes.”
Now Smith heightened the old man’s anger and channeled his thinking along more radical lines. And Smith was anxious to play a role in the formation of the new third party. He told an interviewer at this time, “You know what my ambition is? I think chaos is inevitable. I want to get as many people as I can now, so that when chaos comes, I’ll be a leader.”
Townsend had been rather hazy about the political nature of the new Townsend party of which he had talked, and he acquiesced when Smith proclaimed himself “director in charge of political policy.” The Doctor was naïve enough to believe in Smith’s simple but startling arithmetic: six million Townsend Planners plus four million Share-Our-Wealth members equals ten million votes “to start with.” Smith could thus convince the unsophisticated old pension promoter that the Share-Our-Wealth movement was a formidable political force, but he himself knew that this was only a dream. In fact, Gerald L. K. Smith had lost control of the Share-Our-Wealth mailing lists after Long’s assassination and his organization was now defunct. He knew that he and Dr. Townsend would need allies if they were to achieve a political revolution.
Such allies were readily available. The Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a parish in a Detroit suburb, had experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power during the Depression years by effectively utilizing that new tool of mass communication, the radio. The “radio priest” advocated a strong central bank and the distribution of large amounts of unbacked currency as a means of bringing the United States out of the Depression. He accused international bankers and the Roosevelt brain trusters alike of being part of a conspiracy to undermine America’s position at home and abroad.
His audience was composed mainly of lower and lower-middle class Irish and German Catholics living in large cities. For these people Coughlin offered both an explanation of their Depression-born woes and an emotional outlet for their frustration. By identifying their oppressors as rich eastern bankers, white AngloSaxon Protestant aristocrats, and Ivy League intellectuals, he appealed both to a hidden ethnic and religious bias and to the insecurity of his listeners as relative newcomers still not fully assimilated into the American melting pot. In accusing these “oppressors” of being somehow un-American—that is, both communistic and capitalistic in an evil “international” sense —he gave his followers at once more security in their own Americanization and a scapegoat for their anger.
The priest had organized his followers into a huge, active movement, the National Union for Social Justice, and by the spring of the presidential election year, he, like Townsend, was talking in terms of a new political party. His candidate was to be William Lemke, a Republican congressman from North Dakota, a veteran of third-party organizing efforts in his home state, and a man who commanded a wide following among the dissatisfied farmers of the northern Plains.
The Coughlin and Lemke forces soon became the prime object of Gerald Smith’s plans. At first Townsend balked. He had, in the past, made derogatory statements about both the Congressman and the priest. But Smith slowly built a bridge between Father Coughlin and the Doctor. Coughlin’s strong support for Townsend after the Bell committee hearings softened the pension leader’s attitude, and Lemke’s defense of the plan made him more palatable to Townsend.
In May, Smith told the press that he, Coughlin, and Townsend were about to “congeal under a leadership with guts.” By June 16 he was asserting that “more than twenty million votes” could be controlled by a “Smith-Townsend-Coughlin-Lemke Axis.” A working agreement was developing among the four.
On June 19, Lemke announced the formation of the new Union party, with himself as the presidential candidate. Lemke told newsmen that “we are assured that all these groups—the Coughlin followers, the supporters of Dr. Townsend and the members of the ShareOur-Wealth movement—welcome the opportunity to unite under the banner of this party.” Smith moved quickly to win Townsend’s co-operation. He escorted the Doctor to Washington, D.C., where they conferred with a Coughlin spokesman and with candidate Lemke himself. Townsend was impressed, and his desire to advertise himself and his plan increased with the rising fervor of political activity around the country as the 1936 presidential election approached. The old doctor decided to cast his lot with the Union party. But although he would give it his personal backing, he decided it would be a tactical error to have his organization formally endorse Lemke; he wished to avoid the risk of officially backing a losing horse.
The new third party, then, came into the world as the product of a curious coalition, bound together by somewhat similar inflationist programs and a unifying hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there were significant divisive factors: the rival personal ambitions of the leaders and the strikingly different groups of supporters to which each appealed. If the Union party was to be successful, its disparate elements would have to work together.
One of these elements was already facing an internal test. In July, the Townsend National Recovery Plan, as it was now called, prepared to hold its second annual convention in Cleveland. As thousands of aged Americans trekked to the Lake Erie city for the event, the road that had begun in Long Beach, California, two years earlier reached its most important turning point.
On the first day of the convention, good fellowship overflowed. A man on the rostrum instructed each member of the audience to shake hands with the neighbor sitting at each side. Another told everybody to shout, “God bless you.” But the warm glow experienced that first day was cooled by the proceedings of the next, when Representative Corner Smith—a Democrat from Oklahoma, a famous lawyer of Indian blood, and a stirring orator—stood up to speak. Corner Smith was a power in the movement, and he was angry at recent developments. Now he blasted Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith, accusing them of trying to use Townsend for their own purposes. He praised F.D.R. and spoke against endorsement of the Union party.
The crowd gave Gomer Smith a rousing ovation. An angry Dr. Townsend hurried to the microphone to say that “poor Corner” was a “troublemaker” and should not be applauded. The permanent chairman of the convention then stated that “there will be no more free speech at these meetings.” But the trouble was not over. The whole question of the Townsend movement’s role in the coming campaign had been opened, and by the end of the day some fifteen state delegations had caucused and voted against backing Lemke.
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.
This proved to be an illusion. Except for the curious hold that Gerald Smith had over Townsend, relations among the four key men of the Union party were never cordial. Each was primarily concerned with promoting his own program and/or personality. Coughlin, for example, withheld full backing of Townsend’s plan even after the Cleveland convention. Moreover, when asked by reporters if he intended to make a joint speaking tour with his allies, he snapped: “Why must they be tagging around after me all the time?”
Candidate Lemke was inept at personal relations with his major supporters. He conducted his own campaign, and his contacts with the other three party leaders were incredibly infrequent.
As the weeks went by and autumn approached, the strains in the alliance began to show. Dr. Townsend’s wavering enthusiasm soon became a critical factor in the weakening of the party’s drive. After his exertions at the two conventions and his strenuous speaking tour, the sixty-nine-year-old physician fell ill. He did make a few appearances, but he could not contribute as much to the Union cause as his fellow party leaders.
Even when his health improved sufficiently to allow him to resume active campaigning, the Doctor proved to be an inconsistent champion of Lemke’s candidacy. On some occasions he would wholeheartedly praise the North Dakotan, but at other times he would qualify his endorsement. He refused, for instance, to insist that local Townsend clubs play any role in the grass-roots organization of the Union party.
By late August, pressures began building up within the Townsend movement which were to cause the Doctor to lose heart for the Union crusade. Several of his important subordinates had been complaining about the influence of Gerald L. K. Smith and had been opposing the founder’s endorsement of Lemke. When Townsend fired these men, they brought suit against the Townsend National Recovery Plan, Ltd., asking that Townsend be ousted as president. The Doctor survived this attack only after lengthy court action.
Townsend’s troubles were compounded by the poor showing of candidates endorsed by his movement in various primary elections held in the late summer. And in September and October, the pension promoter began to receive disturbing reports about the reaction of his large California following to the Lemke candidacy. A presidential preference poll of 50,000 California Townsendites showed 28 per cent for Roosevelt, 52 for Landon, 4 neutral and only 6 per cent for Lemke.
At this point, Gerald L. K. Smith might have been expected to step in to convince the Doctor to stay with the new political party. But Smith had been undergoing his own metamorphosis. After his performances at the Townsend and Coughlin conventions, he had left his political allies and embarked alone on a speechmaking tour of the South. As the Union party campaign progressed, Smith’s statements to the press began to take on a somewhat paranoid tone. He talked of a Communist plot to kill him and revealed that he had “definite information” that F.D.R. was planning to seize dictatorial power. In October, he shouted at reporters, “Politics is prostitution … The democratic method is a lot of baloney, it doesn’t mean anything. We can tell what they’re thinking without taking a vote.” Late in the month, Smith announced that he was proceeding immediately with the formation of an organization aimed at “ultimately seizing the government of the United States.” He then began a speaking tour of the East to raise money for this new venture. When asked if this tour were not part of the Union party campaign, Smith’s reply was, “I joined the Union party only for a forum. … What I am really interested in is forming this new force …”
Townsend’s reaction was quick and sharp. “If the press reports concerning the fascist action of Gerald L. K. Smith are true,” said the old man, who felt betrayed by one he had befriended, “then I hereby disavow any connection that I may have had with Mr. Smith.” Thus ended Gerald L. K. Smith’s adventure in third-party politics and his connection with the Townsend Plan. But in leaving the pension organization, he left Dr. Townsend alone and confused as to his participation in the Union party.
In the weeks before the election Townsend began moving toward Landon, telling the press, “I shall cast my vote for an untried man in hope that he may prove of greater value to the nation than the incumbent. … I do this because I will not be permitted to vote for Mr. Lemke, my choice for the office.” He referred to the fact that in his own state of California—and in thirteen others as well—Lemke’s name would not be on the ballot. In these areas, as the days passed, Townsend widened his appeal for Landon support. “Lemke has my endorsement,” he proclaimed, “but remember, Roosevelt is our sworn enemy. … He must be beaten!” This last-minute switch confused his supporters and seriously weakened the Union party.
When the returns came in on November 3, the dream of power that the radical leaders had shared when they had made their summer alliance was blasted. William Lemke received less than 900,000 votes as Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hated foe, rolled up the most one-sided Electoral College victory in American history; he received more than 27 million popular votes, to Alfred Landon’s 16 million.
All of the leaders of the new political organization were to pay a severe price for the horrendous defeat. And after the election their careers curved downhill.
Father Coughlin returned to the spotlight in December, 1937, when he formed the Christian Front Against Communism, a movement which reflected his increasingly totalitarian ideology. In a series of radio broadcasts Coughlin initiated an anti-Semitic crusade, accusing the Jews of originating Communism and excusing Nazism as an understandable attempt to block Jewish-Communist plans for subjugating Germany. The priest spoke at German-American Bund rallies, and when hostilities broke out in Europe, he actively supported Hitler’s “sacred war … against the Jews.” After Pearl Harbor, when Coughlin’s newspaper was barred from the mails under the Espionage Act and his church insisted that he discontinue his political activities, the golden radio voice was finally silenced. (See “The Wartime Cabinet” in AMERICAN HERITAGE, June, 1962.) Never again was Father Coughlin to be active in the political arena.
Gerald Smith also crusaded against Communists and Jews in the late thirties and early forties. But unlike Coughlin, he persisted throughout the war years and after. Smith’s anti-Semitism was particularly vile; he led what he called the “Stop-Ike-the-Kike” campaign before the 1948 primaries, and later vilified the United Nations as the “Jew-nited Nations.” In the 1950*3 Gerald Smith became just another bitter old man lost in the radical crowd.
Townsend’s course, never that of a true demagogue, was very different. He returned to diligent work for the group whose support had brought him into the limelight. But the 1936 election had exposed the pension organization to the nation as an ineffective political pressure group. It had no real power—it could not defeat a President or intimidate the major parties.
And the old doctor was now vulnerable as he had never been in the past. Shortly after the election, it was announced in Washington that Townsend would be prosecuted on the contempt citation voted against him when he had dramatically walked out of the Bell committee hearings in the spring. He was convicted in early 1937, and only a barrage of pleading letters from those who remained faithful moved the President to commute the thirty-day jail sentence, though he was required to pay a $100 fine.
Dr. Townsend remained a free man, but his organization was faltering. Membership fell off, and from the decay of the plan sprang other panaceas, such as the “Thirty Dollars Every Thursday” clubs in California. Although Dr. Townsend pushed on, continuing to lead his dwindling band of followers, publishing his newspaper, and maintaining a national headquarters throughout the war and postwar years, nothing could reverse the growing tide of unconcern among the elderly toward the movement and its founder. The end of the Depression and the prosperity of the ig4o’s and ig5o’s eliminated the fear and privation upon which the plan had fed. Yet Francis E. Townsend carried on until 1960, when, still speaking hopefully of the future, the man who had found a career when most men think of retirement died in Los Angeles at ninety-three.
Dr. Townsend did not achieve his long-sought goal. But in the Depression decade this dedicated, sincere man, despite his ignorance of economics and naïveté about politics, carved out an important place for himself in American life. “It is dissatisfaction with the attainable,” Raymond Gram Swing has written, “which leads to fanaticism and at last to social fury. … When great masses are ready to believe the impossible, that is an ominous political fact.” In the 1930*3, when the great Depression created a crisis in which messianic leaders could flourish, millions of pathetically eager, infinitely hopeful, and dangerously credulous people trooped blindly after Dr. Francis E. Townsend. The old Doctor pushed his followers too far and too fast in the election campaign of 1936, but for many hectic months his movement was a force to be reckoned with in the United States. Winston Churchill, then sixtytwo years old, came to this country during those months and dismissed the Townsend Plan as “an attempt to mint the moonlight into silver and coin the sunshine into gold.” Perhaps it was. But for a time millions of Americans fervently believed in it. The year was 1936—the year of the old folks’ revolt.