Excerpts From Francis Townsend's Autobiography
In 1943, Dr. Francis E. Townsend published
his autobiography--NEW HORIZONS, AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. By that time the
Townsend movement was a decade old and Social Security had been paying
benefits since 1937 (monthly benefits since 1940). Even so, only some
of the steam had gone out of the movement by 1943. In those early
years of Social Security benefits were still small and beneficiaries
were few. Old-Age Assistance was more important, both in terms of
the dollar value of the benefits and the size of the eligible population.
It was not until the 1950 Social Security Amendments that the value
and size of the Social Security program finally outpaced welfare benefits.
Townsend, in the meantime, continued to advocate his plan. In his autobiography we can see the forces and values that shaped and motivated Dr. Townsend. What we see, I think, is a very sympathetic character is well-meaning and sincerely motivated to do good. It was an irony of history, apparently lost on the good Dr., that his Townsend Plan would have its greatest impact on the well-being of the elderly by serving as a prod to the adoption of Social Security.
DEDICATION FROM TOWNSEND'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY:
POVERTY BREEDS WAR
This book is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created with certain inherent rights among which is the right to live above the status of poverty and the evils poverty entails. Poverty breeds war.
CHAPTER 21- "THE TOWNSEND PLAN":
(In this Chapter Dr. Townsend tells us the story of the beginnings of the Townsend Plan, and he reproduces the famous Letter to the Editor of the Long-Beach Press-Telegram, which started the whole thing.)
As I look back upon it, I can see that the Townsend Plan was not born all in a lump, but took gradual shape. Certainly it has undergone evolutionary revision since it first saw the light of day in cold print back on September 30, 1933, in the vox pop columns of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Essentials of the measure now before the United States congress are the same as those in the first proposal offered to America ten years ago. But a few details have changed. The first draft of the Plan in the form of a letter to the editor, read:
"If the human race is not to retrogress, two facts of essential importance must be recognized; the stimulus to individual effort must be maintained by the certainty of adequate monetary reward.
"If business is good at all times, we need not worry about the reward of individual effort; and if money is plentiful we need have no fears that business will become bad.
"Of late years it has become an accepted fact that because of man's inventiveness less and less productive effort is going to be required to supply the needs of the race. This being the case, it is just as necessary to make some disposal of our surplus workers, as it is to dispose of our surplus wheat or corn or cotton. But we cannot kill off the surplus workers as we are doing with our hogs; nor sell them to the Chinese on time as we do our cotton. We must retire them from business activities and eliminate them from the field of competitive effort.
What class should we eliminate, and how should it be done: Wars have served in the past to hold down surplus population, but the last big war, in spite of the unprecedented slaughter, served only to increase production, while reducing the number of consumers.
"It is estimated that the population of the age of 60 and above in the United States is somewhere between nine and twelve millions. I suggest that the national government retire all who reach that age on a monthly pension of $200 a month or more, on condition that they spend the money as they get it. This will insure an even distribution throughout the nation of two or three billions of fresh money each month. Thereby assuring a healthy and brisk state of business, comparable to that we enjoyed during war times.
"Where is the money to come from? More taxes?" Certainly. We have nothing in this world we do not pay taxes to enjoy. But do not overlook the fact that we are already paying a large proportion of the amount required for these pensions in the form of life insurance policies, poor farms, aid societies, insane asylums and prisons. The inmates of the last two mentioned institutions would undoubtedly be greatly lessened when it once became assured that old age meant security from want and care. A sales tax sufficiently high to insure the pensions at a figure adequate to maintain the business of the country in a healthy condition would be the easiest tax in the world to collect, for all would realize that the tax was a provision for their own future, as well as the assurance of good business now.
"Would not a sales tax of sufficient size to maintain a pension system of such magnitude exhaust our taxability from our sources?, I am asked. By no means--income and inheritance taxes would still remain to us, and would prove far more fertile sources of Government income than they are today. Property taxes could be greatly reduced and would not constitute a penalty upon industry and enterprise.
"Our attitude toward Government is wrong. We look upon Government as something entirely foreign to ourselves; as something over which we have no control, and which we cannot expect to do us a great deal of good. We do not realize that it can do us infinite harm, except when we pay our taxes. But the fact is, we must learn to expect and demand that the central Government assume the duty of regulating business activity. When business begins to slow down and capital shows signs of timidity, stimulus must be provided by the National Government in the form of additional capital. When times are good and begin to show signs of a speculative debauch such as we saw in 1929, the brakes must be applied through a reduction of the circulation medium. This function of the Government could be easily established and maintained through the pension system for the aged."
Since that early draft of the Plan the sales tax provision has been dropped in favor of a fixed percentage levy upon the gross incomes of all individuals, businesses and corporations, exempting only the first $100 a month of personal income. We have learned that a sales tax is a levy upon the little fellow; that a tax upon gross incomes would touch all equally.
Since that first draft of the Plan was written, the provision for a fixed sum to pensioners monthly has been altered to provide that each annuitant shall receive his or her pro rata share of all revenue collected during the month through the gross income tax described.
And since that first bill, the class of annuitants who are to receive pensions has been broadened from merely the aged to include the physically handicapped, the chronically ill, mothers with dependent children and others who, through no fault of their own, are unable to work for a living.
But we are interested in that first Townsend Plan--why it was written and what happened to it in its earliest days.
Weeks before publication of the Townsend Plan, mother and I had been wondering, as had the other aged folks in our city and throughout the nation, about our future. I had never been a top-flight, though usually a competent, physician and surgeon. Mrs. Townsend was an excellent nurse but past sixty and a grandmother.
We debated whether I should try to make a fresh start as a doctor in private practice. To what end ? What good would even a fairly large practice do me when well-established physicians could barely make a living due to the impossibility of collecting fees?
Then came the idea that I thought might give hope in its contemplation and--if anything were done with it--might alleviate at least some of the ills of the economic system under which we live.
That first publication of my program had stimulated several answers in the vox pop columns of the Press Telegram. Some readers had liked the idea; others scoffed at it and cited what appeared to them its defects. I had little else to do, so took the trouble to answer each criticism, as best I could, in succeeding days. It was surprising how much correspondence it developed--and how quickly. Within a few weeks the editor was devoting a full page daily to vox pop discussions pro and con of this "ridiculous" or "sublime" Townsend Plan.
People began coming to see me at my home-- not many, but a few. They wanted to know what concrete campaign I had mapped out for achieving this Townsend Plan. I felt foolish in admitting to them that I had no program at all!
As weeks went by and the necessity for thinking about some such program was more and more forced upon me, I found myself arriving at a solution for at least our first step along the road. I talked it over with my wife.
We knew the people among whom we lived, knew their hardships and sorrows. I was almost certain they would rally to leadership. I knew enough of practical politics to know that no elected representative of the people is going to listen to any of the "little folks" unless they are organized into a reasonably strong bloc of votes. No one man can change the course of things--not in a democracy; he has to have a pile of votes behind him.
This was apparent and I thought I saw a way to achieve the goal. Mrs. Townsend was skeptical as to the good that might be accomplished. She did not admit the need of the aged for a psychological buoy to lift them out of the sea of despair. I told her, "Here's a job that must be done and I'm going to try to do it."
My solution lay in advertising.
First, I drew up a Townsend petition, comprising only a few lines, directed to our local congressman. Then I inserted a one-inch advertisement in our evening paper asking elderly men and women who had nothing better to do to call at my office the following morning. The advertisement told them they could help me circulate a petition that might, possibly, result in alleviating the distress of the thousands who had become victims of the depression.
The nation-wide Townsend organization was born the following morning, in November of 1933, in a little eight-by-ten room in the rear of a real estate office. Its personnel at that time consisted of one member--the author. Its equipment, one office desk chair and one straight-backed chair for visitors--if there were to be any--and one small desk.
I was surprised, that morning, to find a dozen or more men and women waiting at the office door when I arrived. I showed them the petition and we attached it to ruled sheets for names and addresses. Then they went forth.
From their lighted countenances, I knew that my prognostication was right. Their hope had been revived They had been shown that there was something they could do about the distressing situation from which they suffered. Before night they began coming in with hundreds of signatures. They had been met with sympathy and encouragement by almost every soul they appealed to. That night they told their fellow-sufferers about what was doing and the next day they brought others with them, all ready and anxious to go out on the new crusade.
Our entire stock of literature, on those first two days, consisted of fifty petitions like those still being circulated over the nation by the hundreds of thousands today. Such was the modest borning of our Townsend movement.
But the borning was well attended by the midwives and male attendants who had been attracted by that one inch newspaper advertisement.
It soon became apparent to these volunteer solicitors that they were carrying a message that eighty percent of the average voters met on the street were deeply impressed with; the simple logic of the Plan and its implied promise of relief from the desperate condition then afflicting them made the collection of signatures an easy chore.
In two weeks' time, four or five thousand people had signed the petition and we deemed it advisable to move "headquarters" a few blocks away where it was possible to receive more visitors than could be handled in the small box-shaped office.
We found a remodelled building that could do with some tenants. It was quite an exceptional building there in Long Beach, with a front glorying in five or six modernistic colors.
"How much can you pay?" asked the landlord, when approached for office space.
"The fact is," we said, "we don't want to pay anything for awhile. We've got to draw in some money before we can pay any out."
"Well, I'll let you have an office in my building free-- for one month. After that I'll have to have rent."
So the Townsend Plan started off with a total over head, as near as available figures show, of two buckets of paint. The floor was made of concrete blocks and we wanted to brighten them up some, so we got two buckets of paint, one gray and one blue. On New Year's Day 1934, with the help of a young real estate man, I got down on my knees and started in to paint the blocks alternate colors. We had on old trousers and overalls I would paint a block and skip a block, then my partner would come along behind and fill in. The idea was to make the floor look like rubber composition.
I was 67 and my helper was 40 but he got tired before I did. Three-quarters of the way across the floor his knees began to creak and groan and buckle on him. And before the job was done he was stretching himself and muttering:
"Doc, you're a better man than I am!"
The Townsend Plan was underway, a national "reform" movement without employees, without finances without literature or propaganda necessary to any movement, with a mailing list, but without anything else at all--except determination.
We put up a big sign in front of the building reading, "Old-Age Revolving Pension Headquarters." It stretched across the front and made the place look like a convention was on.
When we were able to rent the office free of charge--even if only for a month--a whole new program of operations was opened for the Townsendites. We went to see a friendly printer. The depression had knocked him nine ways from Sunday and he was getting ready to shut up shop.
"Look here," we said to him. "We want some printing done. Can't afford to pay anything for it. But we expect to see some money come in as a result of it and as fast as the money comes in, you'll get paid for the work."
The printer didn't think long. With times what they were, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Even if he never got paid, he would be no worse off than he was right then. And if he did get paid, he knew it wouldn't be at the chiseling depression rates that some of the flint-hearted ones would have taken advantage of.
"I'll do it," he agreed. "How many thousand do you want for a starter?"
In the new quarters, where a desk was rented among a lot of others used by real estate men, the movement began to attract the attention of business men. Though scoffing at the "crazy thing" they were impressed with the immediate hold it seemed to take upon its converts. Every man and woman who signed the petition at once became an ardent champion of the Plan and stood ready to enter the lists of debate for it against all comers.
When we announced that 15,000 signatures had been obtained in the city of Long Beach alone, the author deemed it time to carry the message outside the confine of the city. It was becoming apparent that help would soon be needed to keep a record of the growth of the movement and to lay plans for future expansion.
Here I doff my chapeau to Mr. and Mrs. Volunteer Worker! No such crusade as ours had been seen on this earth in 2,000 years. No such ardent army has ever enlisted in any cause in all the world. Where Christianity numbered its hundreds, in its beginning years, our cause numbered its millions. And without sacrilege we can see that the effects already apparent from our movement-- with social security on a national scale and state old-age pensions ranging up to $50 a month--may bring some of the deep and mighty changes upon civilization which Christianity sought.
Volunteers sprang up on all sides to carry the work of propaganda on to ever remoter sections of the country. Not content with canvassing their home towns, many took their petitions to adjacent towns and started workers out with them. Within a few weeks we had 75,000 names upon our petitions! That is phenomenal, as any one familiar with the drudgery of cause organization will know at a glance.
People began writing us from Maine and Florida from Texas and from Oregon, in response to letters written them by friends. Everywhere throughout the nation letters were being sent and new workers being enlisted to circulate petitions directing local congressmen and senators to study the philosophy of the Plan. It was truly spontaneous, rather than stimulated. As one good old preacher put it, "The souls of men seem to have been touched with the torch of the Holy Ghost."
Spreading like wildfire, the movement swept the country from end to end. It called the people together in great crowds, speakers sprang up in every community who professed to believe that the millennium was not far away--that the regeneration of mankind, prophesied throughout the ages, was at last being accomplished.
I had started a fire that I did not want to extinguish, but that I feared might be difficult to control. I was right I soon saw that unless the people could be organized and their enthusiasm given direction and their purposes defined, there could well be a resulting confusion and conflict of opinion as to procedure which would end in disaster for the movement. The first thing to be done, obviously, was to get the people into an organization through which their zeal and enthusiasm might be amalgamated into a declared purpose.
CHAPTER 22- "A CORPORATION":
(In this Chapter Townsend discusses the dynamics and mechanics of forming the mass movement that would propel the Townsend Plan to center stage in America's debates about our economic direction.)
The Townsend movement in its first days was a hand-to-hand and a mouth-to-mouth campaign. No magazine editor gave the Plan the benefit of his columns no metropolitan newspaper placed its stamp of approve on the Plan's philosophy of justice and security. All these purveyors of news turned a deaf ear to appeals of their readers to give the Plan publicity.
When we were mentioned at all in the press it was with ridicule or abuse. No matter. As we grew "cock-eyed" and "crazy" and "fantastic" and "impossible" we also became more militant and more ardent in our effort to spread the news.
I have said that no newspaper took up our cause as its own. I must make one exception. The Daily Chronicle of Centralia, Washington, under the editorship of the late Harry L. Bras, espoused the Townsend Plan in an editorial on February 13, 1934, which started:
"There has come to our desk a proposal for financing a nationwide old-age pension plan that really has merit. At first glance it would appear to be impossible, but a careful reading of the proposed bill and a thorough analysis of the objects to be gained through the carrying out of its provisions cannot fail to impress one of its practicability."
To crystallize our mass movement into an effective purposeful society with units in every state in the nation, we incorporated, early in 1934, as a non-profit corporation under the laws of California. It was the first of several steps which were simultaneously to make us the targets for editorial sniping--and to make us effective on the national scene as the first "lobby" ever to go to Washington with no thought except for the benefit of the little people.
Editorial writers, demagogues and a handful of congressmen later took occasion to note this incorporation as our first step in becoming "a business" rather than "a cause." If great mass movements of the little people of America must incorporate as businesses to achieve their goals, then by all means let us see many more such businesses. We have never felt the step was a mistake.
From such feeble beginnings, our cause has become the mightiest issue in the political history of our nation. Before our appearance on the scene, old-age pensions in America were limited to supreme court justices and their widows; police, firemen, war veterans and other such organized pressure groups also received pensions. The little people were not organized as a pressure group, so were left out in the cold.
Pensions, we believe, should be given supreme court justices. They should be given policemen and firemen. Because members of these professions have given years of faithful service to the community. But in the same breath, so has any aging citizen whose life has been one of hard work, depressions, rearing a family, being a good citizen and neighbor, living a life free from habitual criminality. Any such aging citizen should be entitled to a pension when his days of physical productiveness have passed. And Townsendites "pressured" for him.
No one ever dreamed of a federal social security law until the Townsend Plan caught the imagination of the people. In 1936, three years after the Townsend wave had begun swelling toward Washington, congress acted hurriedly. In excusing certain deficiencies of the present social security act, President Roosevelt once intimated that an imperfect law had to be rushed through to stem the Townsend tide!
It was 10 years ago that the Townsend movement started. Today it has become respectable. Doctors, lawyers, ministers, educators, philosophers and--naturally-- politicians are flocking to our standard. We number thousands of clubs of active workers who are organized throughout the nation.
When the Townsend Plan grew into an incorporated society for the legal achievement of its aims, the transition took place so fast that amazement began to be tinctured with fear on the part of those who controlled the finances of the country. Some there were who pronounced it a national hysteria that soon would blow over; others said it could only be compared to the advent of Christianity and that it bore the impress of Christ's own teachings--that it was the blueprint of practical, workable, Christianity.
Whatever it was, all thinking people recognized that it was a manifestation of power and determination on the part of the people to right the wrongs that had afflicted them so long and so severely. Politicians became alarmed. It became whispered about Washington that this thing must be stopped before it completely upset the political apple cart. How some few politicians hit upon a program meant to stop it dead in its tracks will be discussed later
Now that we were a corporation, we wanted to get on a thoroughly business-like basis. After a month in the building that looked like a convention headquarters with the Townsend banner across the front, the owner came around wondering about rent. That was fair enough. We asked what rent he wanted for the place. He wanted $100. As far as we were concerned in those days, such a sum was tremendous, impossible and out of sight. We would not dispute that the office might be worth that, but you cannot pay unless you have the money. We looked around for cheaper quarters and found an office that we could have for three months for $100. That was just about our limit.
Early in January in 1934--just two months after the first petitions had been circulated on the Townsend Plan--I helped an out-of-work bookkeeper set up a simple accounting system for the Townsend Plan. As it happened, he had only one leg. He was on relief and dared not accept any pay for keeping our books--in fear of being denied his relief allotment.
We found a stenographer to write our letters for a small wage. A fellow came to us and said he had a small printing press and could turn out pamphlets and hand-bills for us at cost. We found volunteer workers for almost every phase of the work that needed to be done.
I determined to scrape by as cheaply as I could and take no more than barest living expenses out of receipts. When, a year later, I was able to start my own newspaper, I started drawing a salary as its working publisher and editor. I never have taken any money except expenses-- and they do not run very high at my age and with my frugal tastes--from the Townsend National Recovery Plan organization.
Shortly after arranging with our man with the hand-press to publish our little weekly pamphlet called "The Townsend Crusader," he began taking on added dignity and importance. Overnight he became, in his own estimation, an editor and public figure. When we suggested moving the publication to Los Angeles and enlarging it, he informed us that he was the owner of the publication and that it would not be moved.
This was the first of a long series of revolts and attempts to steal the movement and direct it into a money-making scheme for those in control. It was to protect our small weekly publication that we incorporated under the name of Prosperity Publishing Company, Ltd., in the late summer of 1934. Our weekly pamphlet soon became a newspaper of considerable size and circulation, its name being changed in January, 1935, to Townsend National Weekly.
About a year later the man who had helped me to incorporate began to insist that the money should be divided as it came in and that he should do as he liked with his half. This was contrary to the entire conception I had in mind when undertaking to organize the people in their own interests, and I balked. I decided then and there that no person would, in future, use the Townsend organization for personal profit beyond fair compensation for his services. I determined to take over the entire authority and hold it until an organization could be built up and disciplined into an effective system by which the membership could elect and direct through their chosen representatives. I could see that nothing less than this would have a chance of survival.
When, in a disagreement with my partner one day he suggested that I buy him out, I called my attorney and instructed him to interview the partner and ascertain how much money it would take to get rid of him. He named an amount. I told the attorney to offer him slightly less. He did, and the offer was accepted. There was some money in the treasury at the time, and I borrowed some from a bank, pledging the income of the organization for security.
I paid for the stock in the publishing company held by my partner and was now in a position to see that funds intrusted to me by the multitude of little people would not go into the pockets of schemers and those interested only in their personal profits.
To safeguard the funds of the organization, I had all members of the national headquarters staff, including myself and all employee who handle money, covered by surety bonds to a total amount of $50,000. All accounts are audited quarterly by a firm of certified public accountants and financial reports are published, after each audit, in Townsend National Weekly.
On March 22, 1938, the Townsend Foundation--a common law trust--was formed to perpetuate principles of the Townsend Plan. Two United States senators, several congressmen and ex-congressmen, and a handful of business men and women act, with myself, as trustees. The purpose of this trust is to administer bequests and gifts toward enlightening citizens in civic responsibility in the science of constitutional government and in the principles of the Townsend Plan.
CHAPTER 24- "SPREADING LIKE WILDFIRE":
(In this Chapter Townsend discusses growth of the movement and some of the people who were sympathetic--including Harry Hopkins and H.L. Mencken, according to Townsend. He also reproduces a very favorable column by the journalist Westbrook Pegler.)
PREVIOUSLY, I said that only one newspaper publisher espoused the Townsend Plan in its early days. True. But hundreds wrote of it. Some liked the idea but didn't see how it could be done; others scoffed at it frankly; still others would not have liked it no matter how we did it. They just didn't think old folks ought to have "something for nothing" as they termed pensions--just as though sixty years of useful work in the community were "nothing."
Among those who considered our program and its founder with fairness, if not with favor, were H. L. Mencken, editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun papers; Harry Hopkins, ex-relief administrator and adviser to President Roosevelt, and others.
For what it is worth, I quote from a column by Westbrook Pegler, syndicated writer for the Scripps-Howard papers:
"Of all the mahatmas who have undertaken to lead the poor to plenty in the last five years, the only one who seemed to bleed internally for them and to have neither vanity nor selfish ambition is old Dr. Frank Townsend, the author of the old-age pension plan.
"Dr. Townsend retired from medicine one day when he saw an old woman fumbling in a garbage can for scraps of food. He decided that this was too awful and abandoned the work that he did so well, to attempt a task which he knew nothing about.
"Townsend clubs were springing into existence all over the country and new membership rolls were tumbling in on him in big bundles every hour--yet, though he had become the leader and the hope of many millions of old people, the Doctor, never for a moment, thought of himself as a power. For himself, he wanted not even recognition.
"All he wanted for himself was the knowledge that the old woman who had been reduced to foraging in a garbage can for food, and all the other old people in the country, were secured from want and relieved of worry about the material necessities of life until death should come to them.
"There was in his bearing neither the querulous martyrdom and mock humility of Upton Sinclair nor the strutting vanity and arrogance of Huey Long. He knew nothing about politics, and his innocence in this respect was in sharp contrast to the man in the White House, whose sympathies were about like his.
"If he could feel sure today that by turning over his leadership to someone else he could achieve the pension of $200 a month which he bespoke for everyone beyond the age of sixty who had no criminal record, no selfishness of his would stand in the way of that consummation . . .
"His followers, young as well as old, supplied the fanatical wrath which Dr. Townsend could not find in his make-up. To criticize his theory was to wound him in his feelings, but he loved his fellowmen so tenderly that he could not anger."
How near or how wide of the mark Pegler may have been may be judged by readers of this book. Certainly the fact that columnists and editorial writers were devoting columns of space to discussing the plan and its author was evidence of the public interest in the subject. The movement had assumed tremendous political significance almost overnight. Working units, by the summer of 1934, had been established in Arizona, Colorado Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, as well as in our native state of California.
After our petition to the congress had been carried into all small towns surrounding Los Angeles--and we had secured hundreds of thousands of signatures to it-- we deemed it time to invade the big city. We moved our headquarters to Los Angeles. The first copy of out paper, The Modern Crusader, published in that city was dated June 7, 1934. Within the next few months so many additional working units had been established that the Townsend movement was represented in thirty states.
Our weekly newspaper flourished in Los Angeles for a time. It gained a wide reading clientele and consequently, a good command of local advertising. By the way, the little editor who had refused to come along with us very shortly folded up and lost his publication for lack of supporters.
Our headquarters was doing a thriving business. The club idea was a logical step as necessity for closer coordination of the movement became apparent. Our first club, in Huntington Park, California, was chartered on August 7, 1934. We started the organization of these clubs everywhere--loose-knit organisms without by-laws or rules other than those which might be adopted by a debating society--but how they grew.
After that first club, hundreds and then thousands were chartered throughout the forty-eight states and Alaska. By October 24, 1935, when we held our first national convention at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago two years after the Townsend Plan had first flashed upon the world, we had exactly 4,552 chartered clubs.
A year before this convention we had tried an interesting experiment. Townsendites were asked to hold simultaneous open air meetings in whatever community they might be on a particular sunny Sunday afternoon. Newspapers estimated that 500,000 persons attended 700 of these simultaneous rallies in thirty states.
Half a million people in unison recited the Lord's Prayer, petitioning Heaven for a continuance of their daily bread--and then read their demand upon congress which urged that body to give Heaven a hand at the job!
Knowing the extreme poverty of those who were attracted to the pension movement we made the first mistake, of all the great number of mistakes we have made, of putting the annual dues for joining our society at only 25 cents.
Only during the first flush expansion days of our mushrooming movement were those dues sufficient to carry the ever-growing load of expense. For a time it was hoped new converts would continue to come in great numbers and that the constant stream of quarters would not fail us until the appeal in our benevolent undertaking would reach the hearts of those who lived above poverty.
Alas, for the flinty hearts! After ten years of effort we have not reached many of them yet. At one of our national conventions a majority of the delegates sanctioned the raising of the dues to 25 cents a month, but even that small advance caused us to lose almost as much as we gained, when club members dropped out of the organized effort.
Much of the bungling clumsiness of humanity in securing for itself a just share of the wealth produced by labor lies in the fact that about nine out of ten who are looking for benefits want George to pull the load while they ride. As far as the Townsend organization was concerned, as our means increased, so also did the calls upon our revenue. More money was constantly required to carry on this and that phase of advancement. We have never had enough. I feel certain, today, that had our friends in the movement been willing to supply our headquarters with dues to the maximum of only 25 cents a month, we could long ago have "sold" the Plan to a vast majority of our citizens.
When our first 75,000 names had been obtained upon the Townsend petition in Long Beach, I had drawn up a letter urging our congressman from the 18th district of California to have a bill drawn, incorporating principles of the Townsend Plan, and presented to the United States congress. The completely-filled-in petitions were forwarded to Congressman Burke in Washington. Sensing that here was a movement among his constituents which might have far-reaching effects in coming elections, he had a bill drawn up embodying the features previously described--and presented this bill to congress.
By the time the bill was ready and presented, the movement was sweeping the country.
In the late summer of 1934, we Townsendites decided we wanted more action out of our Long Beach congressman than we had been getting. We decided to elect our own man. John S. McGroarty, a pleasant old gentleman who liked to be known as the "poet laureate of California," offered to run on our platform. We elected him by an overwhelming vote--and from then on stayed up
to our necks in national politics on a non-partisan and non-sectarian basis.
CHAPTER 25- "THEY LIKED THE IDEA":
(In this Chapter Townsend discusses relationship of the Townsend Plan to several of the competing movements of his day, including Upton Sinclair's EPIC Plan, Huey Long's Share The Wealth plan and Father Coughlin's Union for Social Justice.)
THERE is an ancient saying that it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I had become an old dog (spelled backwards) to a lot of people and I did not know how to play the role. There were always a lot of folks who thought they could do a better characterization of the Almighty than I could--and I'm not the one to say them nay. After all, my background of farmhand, cowboy, hobo, school-teacher and country doctor had not fitted me to be much else than a very human, human being with (I flatter myself) at least my fair share of common sense.
But as the Townsend movement swung into high gear there were visible signs of resentment at some of the adulation which came my way because I happened to be, at the moment, a symbol of security to a lot of little folks who were looking for a leader. From time to time throughout the 10-year history of the movement, there have been those both within and without who thought to use the determination and the votes of the Townsend people for their personal aggrandizement.
In early days of the movement, the name "Townsend" was thought to be important when attached to the old-age pension cause. So when a Denver lawyer who had been one of the organization's speakers set himself up as the head of his own old-age pension movement, he sought to use the name Townsend, claiming that I had no copyright on it.
Judge Orie L. Phillips, in the Denver court, heard arguments, then granted me an injunction denying this group of insurgents the right to use my name in connection with their organization. (Their organization, I may add, died within a short time.) In his precedent-setting decision, Judge Phillips said:
"The right of the public as a third person is a paramount consideration." This was in answer to the contention of the others that I held no copyright on my name nor patent on my program for social legislation. The court held that use of the name--particularly its unauthorized use--on a program other than that led by me would deceive the public.
"I might think it perfect folly," the court said, "but literally millions of people have become convinced that this Townsend Plan is a good thing and that Dr. Francis E. Townsend is its great leader. They want to associate with him."
The decision was of vital importance to future progress of the movement as it stopped rebels from using my name in their schemes.
But it was not merely groups splitting away from the Townsend banner that constituted the total of 47 really widespread popular movements which came into public notice with the depression of 1929-39. Other stars flashed upon the horizon and for a period of several years it seemed that most everybody was discussing the comparative merits of the Townsend Plan, Upton Sinclair's EPIC program, Howard Scott's Technocracy, Huey Long's Share-the-Wealth, Father Coughlin's Social Justice, the Bigelow Plan in Ohio and the Ham 'n Eggs platform in California.
It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that the Townsend Plan was the only one of all this group which (1) was national in scope and (2) had a definite, clear-cut program for which it was fighting. Some of the others were like the Townsend movement on the first point some on the second. None of them, except the Townsend Plan, had both.
On July 1, 1935, I wrote a front-page by-line article for Townsend National Weekly which started:
|"Inasmuch as both
Democrats and Republicans, through their leaders, as
well as the in-betweeners like Huey Long and Father
Coughlin, are coming along with us in our demand for
a redistribution of wealth, perhaps some of them will
delve deeply enough into their gray matter to present
us with a plan that will make their suggestions of sharing
the wealth appear feasible.
"Thus far, none of them proposes anything new in the matter of taxation. In practically a chorus accord, they cry: "soak the rich with heavy taxes." They forget the fundamental principle of justice which demands that we "soak" everybody proportionately to their ability to buy or spend their money.
"Soaking the rich alone and running the money into the national treasury will not add to the buying power of the poor. It will merely provide more money for the politicians to handle. It can never reach the outer fringes of society, where it is most needed. Billions might be piled up in the national treasury until the rich, scared and discouraged, would refuse to venture into any sort of enterprise and productivity would cease.
"Only one thing will restore prosperity and make it permanent. The hewers of wood and the drawers of water must be given opportunity to supply their needs liberally. The poor must be given opportunity to cease being poor. This, our Townsend Plan alone makes feasible and practical."
After describing the Townsend Plan in operation the editorial ended:
"This is our plan. Let us hear from the soak-the-rich crowd as to how they will improve upon it. But we shall not hear from them except in vague generalities. The politicians are cowards and the wealthy are very timid. Thank God, the common man and woman have the vote. These outnumber all others, a hundred to one. They are demanding a redistribution that is fair and just--no more. When justice and fairness prevail. each will have opportunity to prosper in accordance with his ability. That is all we ask."
None of the other nationwide movements did offer, it seemed to me, except in glittering generalities, any program for achieving the promise held forth by their slogans. We felt then, have always felt and feel now that the Townsend Plan could not be achieved by our amalgamation with any of these other programs. Any program which succeeds in pointing up the people's need--in awakening the nation to the fact that this country's factories and farms can produce ever so much more than the people have ever had an opportunity to consume--any such program is doing us good. But we do not amalgamate.
Early in April of 1935, Upton Sinclair wired Congressman McGroarty, urging that the revised Townsend Plan be withheld from congress until EPIC and Townsend leaders had an opportunity to consider joining forces. With no ill will toward Sinclair, I told reporters:
"We don't endorse any socialistic program. The EPIC plan opposes the profit system. The Townsend Plan represents an attempt to make the profit system function. The gates are open for anyone to join us, but we are affiliating with no other movements."
Between 1933 and the fall of 1934, Upton Sinclair, known to two generations as a loveable Socialist and widely-read author came so close to winning California's governorship that some of the heavy business interests and old-line political hacks in California went into a sweat that hasn't completely dried up yet.
Howard Scott's Technocracy--full production for use--has inherent in its first platform plank that the government, i.e., congress, already shall be Technocracy-minded. But Scott says he scorns politics as at present constituted. And just how he ever intends to get a Technocracy-minded congress without electing Technocrats to the national legislature, I have never heard him explain.
Father Charles Coughlin, pastor of the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Little Flower at Royal Oak, Michigan, had become known as a radio orator in the earliest days of the depression. His broadcast sermons against the "international bankers" of New York fell on willing ears. By 1932, Coughlin had become a force in the nation.
Coughlin's "National Union for Social Justice" never took more definite form than embodying its desires into a set of 16 principles. It seems to me it was a one-man organization, at best, dependent for direction upon the pastor's most recent radio address. In various broadcast campaigns, he attacked the Rothschilds, the Mexican government and the world court program of the League of Nations. But his movement seemed to lack a definite program for achievement.
Huey Long of Louisiana was the first important representative in the United States senate of the suppressed classes of the South.
He conceived the "Share-the-Wealth" clubs. These clubs had a philosophy rather than a program, the chief feature of which was a desire to place a limit on the wealth controlled or owned by any one man or family. All wealth above this limit was to be divided among the masses.
Upon the occasion of his death, early in September of 1935, I wrote for Townsend National Weekly:
|"Sen. Huey P. Long
of Louisiana, dead by an assassin's bullet, still holds
the thought and attention of the nation. Newspapers
called him a dictator. He met the death of other dictators
of the world. But his was a dictatorship of a state
by consent of the majority. He was the product of the
ballot box, not the bullet. He commanded the unquestioning
allegiance of his followers by his appeals during his
swift rise to power and eminence. His wish became this
"No person was indifferent to Huey Long. He was either hated or admired. He asked no quarter and gave none. He stood alone in his niche in American politics and American history.
"Many people in many states turned to his share-the-wealth program. They understood, perhaps, the need for economic changes rather than the philosophy of his plan. They trusted the personality at the top, rather than the principles he advocated. His crusade was personal. His courage, his daring, his very ruthlessness, found followers.
"That was his triumph and his tragedy. No strong character shared his influence, able to seize the torch of a fallen leader and carry on his crusades. For his followers followed the man, rather than his message.
"Even before this is read, the picture will be changed. In his own state the floods of bitterness may cause new tragedies. The struggle for power will go on. And in this nation, those who believed in Long will look for new solutions for their economic problems.
"Great causes are built upon principles. They do not depend upon personalities. The cause for which the beloved Lincoln died in the same manner was more powerful after his death than during his life. That will be true of every great advance of civilization in a democracy."
It has always been my hope that the Townsend members, through their clubs and councils, would hold together until they have achieved their aim. Since their earliest days they have been under the most democratic system of government that we can conceive. Briefly, it this:
Each club of twenty or more members (often running into the hundreds) elects twelve members to serve each year as the club's advisory council. There are as many clubs in each congressional district as we have been able to organize. The president of each club council is eligible to serve, through election, as a member of the congressional district advisory council. Out of all the club presidents only twelve are elected to this district council and the president of each such council automatically serves on the state council.
State councils are composed of as many members a there are congressional districts in the state but in no case are there fewer than twelve. In several states which have fewer than twelve districts, additional members are elected to fill out the body. Presiding as chairman of the state council, but holding no vote, is the paid field representative from national headquarters, whose other functions I will discuss in a moment.
Delegates from all clubs in each state hold annual conventions at which they elect three members from the state council to serve on a regional council of twelve. The continental area of the United States has been arbitrarily divided into twelve regions of four states each and these regional councils of twelve members each serve the national organization in an advisory capacity. They make their wills known through one member whom they elect to serve on the national advisory council of twelve--one from each region. This council meets annually or at the call of the president of Townsend National Recovery Plan, the post I now hold.
This is the theory. Each month since inception of the council plan of government, we have advanced a little closer to its realization. So far, seven regions have been completely organized along these lines; five have made great strides toward such organization. We found that the first year a district was well enough organized to elect a council, the most popular members were elected to serve. But after the first year, popularity took second place to efficiency and sagacity. The people learn how to use democracy only by using it.
On April 22,1935, I wrote a message to the Townsend clubs. Written to defeat a demagogic movement within the clubs, it still holds true:
|"The purpose of
Townsend clubs is two-fold. The primary purpose and,
for the present, the sole object of Townsend clubs is
the enactment of the Townsend Plan into law. We have
our entire energy focused on the accomplishment of the
Townsend Plan at this session of congress. Such must
be the thought and purpose of every loyal Townsend club
member. The secondary purpose of Townsend clubs is a
desperate fight to continue the democratic spirit and
form of government in these United States.
"We truly believe that if such a vigorous fight is not prosecuted with all seriousness and resistance, we may expect to see our democratic form of government pass; not only from this country but from the face of the earth during this generation. Most certainly, this is a challenge worthy of our bravest spirits. To accomplish either of these purposes, which we believe to be not only urgently necessary, but a purely patriotic duty, is a task of huge proportions. It is therefore a prime necessity that we maintain in our club organization that spirit of pure democracy which we are willing to fight for as an ideal.
"If we allow ourselves to be regimented, if we accept under the guise of "necessary organization" any subservience which obligates us to support any move or any person or persons who are acceptable to some so-called "federation," or council or executive committee, we are by that very act acknowledging that we are not capable of exercising that independent thought and individualism which were envisioned by the founders of our democratic form of government.
"The Townsend Plan and the Townsend clubs are of magnitude equal in numbers to a great percentage of our body politic. We must, therefore, demonstrate that a purely democratic form of government can prevail in this country, by having it prevail within our own Townsend club organization.
"Certainly we are in a poor position to talk pure democracy if we cannot practice pure democracy. National headquarters of the Townsend movement has not to date attempted and never will attempt to regiment or arbitrarily command the Townsend clubs; rather it has always and will continue to give advice and direction which have been tempered by actual experience and good counsel.
"The best and purest intentions are often held by those who promote other organizations within Townsend clubs; invariably it is but a short time until a few are doing all the thinking and planning, and our Townsend clubs are no longer democratic, self-governing groups of free-thinking and acting people, but instead are being told what to do, what to think, what to believe and for whom to vote."
I've wandered a bit from the life of Dr. Townsend, but thought you might like to read of a few of the other "crackpot" movements that had a depression birth in America. I've mentioned principally the national movements. There were any number of others that were limited to the sun-baked land of California, my adopted state.
California has been called the home of the crackpots but that connotes also that it is the home of new ideas. California people are not afraid to spring a new proposal or to suggest a change; they are a fast-thinking swiftly-acting heterogeneous folk. They have come from everywhere and represent every nationality under the sun. They are not afraid. You see none of the slavish adherence to custom among them that characterizes non-migratory peoples. They know what they want, and if old forms or customs stand in the way of their getting what they want, they are prompt to brush them aside. Give me the crackpot rather than the dullard; give me the fast thinker rather than the drone. Give me the west where civilization is ever reaching upward!
SOURCE: All excerpts from, Townsend, Dr. Francis E., New Horizons (An Autobiography), ed. by Jesse George Murray, Chicago, J.L. Stewart Publishing Co., 1943.