Union Party

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The Union Party was a radical, left-wing populist political party in the U.S. which briefly existed in the mid-1930s and sought a formidable third-party revolt against President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[1] Its party leadership and base largely supported Roosevelt previously in 1932 though broke with him out of the perception that his policies were insufficient, seeking stronger government action against the Great Depression.

The party was established partly out of the political remnants and legacy of Huey Long, a ruthless demagogue whose tirades and rabble-rousing amidst the Great Depression pushed the New Deal increasingly towards the left and were privately met with the fear of Roosevelt himself. Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith, and Francis Townsend, who led the Union Party, advocated radical economic initiatives paralleling the Share Our Wealth program spearheaded by Long. After its candidate, old-school progressive Republican William Lemke, failed to garner a substantial percentage of the vote on the national level in 1936, the party's leadership was fractured by internal strife and it soon disbanded. However, the careers of its leaders continued separately, most notably manifested in the public antisemitic bigotry of Smith and Coughlin.


The name "Union Party" was coined by Coughlin in reference to the temporarily-dubbed "National Union Party" during the 1860s, a name synonymous with the Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln at the time.[2] Coughlin absurdly compared chattel slavery, which Lincoln and like-minded abolitionists sought to abolish, to "financial slavery." As a supporter of free coinage of silver, he outspokenly opposed conservative monetary policies as elitist.

Coughlin would also later claim that Lincoln was murdered by the Rothschilds.[3]


The First New Deal, adopting federal programs which provided government aid to combat the Great Depression, disappointed a group of leftists who perceived it falling short of their hardline vision. A loose alliance was formed between the following three political leaders:[1]

  • Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest who favored bank nationalization, free coinage of silver,[4] and founded the National Union for Social Justice in pursuit of such goals; he was also an antisemite who promoted unfounded conspiracy theories about banking, believing Jews to be the cause of economic problems
  • Francis Townsend, the author and namesake of the Townsend Plan which pushed for old-age pensions[4]
  • Gerald L. K. Smith, a Nazi sympathizer with antiblack and antisemitic viewpoints who joined William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts before becoming a national organizer for Huey Long's Share Our Wealth program

All three carried significant political backings, typically regional; Coughlin had powerful support from Irish and German Catholics in the Midwest and Northeast; Townsend was appealing in the West; Smith's bolstering came from the South and lower Midwest.[1]

Demagoguery by Coughlin

Coughlin initially was a vocal and unwavering supporter of Roosevelt, using radio to increase public enthusiasm and bolstering the latter's landslide victory in 1932.[5] Although Roosevelt did not express personal admiration for the priest in return, he welcomed the public backing, which was also rife with anti-capitalist sentiment scapegoating banks, particularly ones in his home city of Detroit.[6] From 1933 onward, he criticized programs, most notably National Recovery Administration and and Agricultural Adjustment Act, from the left, viewing them as a failure; he instead proposed abrupt inflation and free coinage of silver, excoriating the policies of New Deal administrators and completely breaking support for the president.[7]

In mid-March 1934, Coughlin released a program advocating:[8]

  1. The nationalization and revaluation of all gold.
  2. The restoration of silver coinage and the nationalization of all silver.
  3. The establishment of a government bank to control currency and credit.
  4. The complete nationalization of all credit.
  5. Legislation to extend credit not only for production but for consumption.
  6. The total elimination of national government bonds.

Alliance between Coughlin and Long

Alongside Coughlin, as a nationwide leader of economic populist revolts against the Roosevelt Administration from the left, was Huey Long, who similarly began as a Roosevelt supporter who became disenchanted with the perceived moderate approach. An issue that proved effective concerned FDR's internationalist approach to foreign policy when requesting Senate approval of United States entry into the World Court; Coughlin, an isolationist, denounced the proposal as sacrificing American sovereignty to the League of Nations.[9] Long subsequently led the opposition on the Senate floor, and Roosevelt's proposal was defeated by a vote of 52–36.

Following continued diatribes, former Roosevelt Administration official Hugh Johnson issued a radio statement refuting arguments presented by the two demagogues.[10] Unlike Long, Coughlin reiterated previous professed support for the New Deal expressed in brief stints, and the alliance between the two began to fracture when the Louisiana leader became subsequently frustrated with the priest.


Congressman William Lemke, a prominent leader among agrarian populist forces in North Dakota, viewed FDR's policies as failing to properly accomplish currency inflation, farm mortgage relief, and improved farmer lending conditions, and became the recruit of the Union Party for its presidential nomination.[1] Ironically, despite his reputation advocating on behalf of the common farmer, Lemke had a prestigious background as the son of a prosperous farmer and a graduate of Yale Law School.[11]

Despite the powerful influence held by the trio which comprised the party's origins and leadership, all of them were opportunistic and hoped to advance their individual political fortunes rather than prioritize contributing to the party's success.[1] The party's platform slashed a direct affirmation of the Share Our Wealth nor the old-age pension plan nor much of Coughlin's social justice crusade.

Election results, aftermath and legacy

The internal party divisions and lack of press attention contributed to its sound defeat in the general election. President Roosevelt won the general election by a landslide against opponents, and the Union Party's only significant garnering of votes occurred in Lemke's home state of North Dakota, polling 14%.[1] Elsewhere, its greater strength was largely in several Northeastern and Midwestern states.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 May 9, 2018. Union Party. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved November 28, 2022.
  2. Kazin, Michael (October 29, 1998). The Populist Persuasion: An American History, pp. 124–125. Google Books. Retrieved November 28, 2022.
  3. Peterson, Merrill D. (April 21, 1994). Lincoln in American Memory, p. 338. Google Books. Retrieved November 28, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Striner, Richard (2010). Lincoln's Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power, p. 106-07. Google Books. Retrieved November 27, 2022.
  5. Parsons, Michael H. (July 1965). Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, p. 10. Western Michigan University. Retrieved November 30, 2022.
  6. Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, pp. 11–13.
  7. Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, pp. 21–22.
  8. Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, p. 25.
  9. Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, pp. 30–32.
  10. Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Formation of the Union Party 1936, pp. 33–34.
  11. Blackorby, Edward C. (June 1962). William Lemke: Agrarian Radical and Union Party Presidential Candidate, p. 67. JSTOR. Retrieved November 28, 2022.