The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt

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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.