Huey Long defends Senator on Sedition count
Makes sure of getting right jury, won the case but political climate became untenable

By Tammie A. McDdaniel
Special to The Journal

Copyright 2012 by Louisiana Historical Association; Used by Permission. Fifth of a series of six articles.

After the jury pool for the trial of Senator S.J. Harper was selected, Harper's defense lawyer, Huey Long, studied them carefully and decided which ones would likely be prejudiced against his client. For this case, he needed common country folks. Aware that the government had assigned men to watch the jurors, Long made a point to be seen laughing and talking with those jurors he found objectionable. He bought them dinner and drinks, and his fraternizing convinced the prosecution that the jurors had been tainted. As jury selection began, the prosecution used their challenges to excuse these jurors. Long had cleverly determined the outcome before the testimony began.

Harper's defense was centered on his character and on the fact that most of the statements attributed to him were made prior to the war. The government's weak case was supported primarily by Cupp, who was shown to have a personal vendetta against the senator. During the proceedings, Judge George Whitfield Jack became so agitated with Huey's antics that the Long brothers decided that Julius should make the closing argument.

By March 19, the case was ready to go to Long's jury. Judge Jack made a lengthy charge to the jury which was later published in the local newspaper. The jury, however, was out less than half an hour before returning a verdict of not guilty on all counts.

Anticipating such an outcome, Judge Jack, who was a close friend and political ally of Congressman Aswell, determined to have his say in court. Jack required Harper to stand as he delivered a long and blistering reprimand to the senator. The judge told the senator that he should not perceive his acquittal as a vindication of the charges against him. He said that the jury obviously did not believe the pamphlet was published with illegal intent and thus acquitted Harper. Judge Jack described the pamphlet as clearly seditious and disloyal and ordered Harper to bring the remaining copies to the U.S. Marshal. The judges's remarks were released to the press, and newspapers throughout the district printed them verbatim.

This action on Judge Jack's part provided fodder for Harper's longstanding enemies--particularly those who felt they had been shamed by adopting the Harper Amendments--and they now seized the moment to demand his resignation from the Senate. Harper at first refused to resign but as public meetings were organized throughout the district calling for him to step down and as he learned of a move to impeach him, he acquiesced to this vocal crowd.

Just when he should resign was another matter, however. As the legislature was entering its May session, the primary issue at hand was prohibition. Since Harper was a staunch prohibitionist and the vote was close, some felt that he should remain in the Senate to see his position through. Others felt seating this disloyal member would impugn the reputation of the entire body. Also at play in the situation was the fact that Congressman Aswell's political ally, Ruffin Pleasant, had just been inaugurated as governor. Harper's Good Government League had supported his opponent, Judge John M. Parker.

On May 11, 1918, Senator Harper sent a telegram to Governor Pleasant tendering his resignation from the Senate. The next day, the governor wired that he had accepted it and suggested that a letter should also be sent to the Lieutenant Governor Fernand Mouton. Harper's five supporters in the Senate urged him to retract his resignation since the revised statutes mandated the resignation be addressed to Mouton. When it became obvious that his fellow solons considered support for him to be a great political liability, Harper went home. His resignation was accepted by the Senate, the motion being made by Sen. Leon Smith of Caddo Parish, leader of the move to oust him.

Harper's entrance into the political arena had been launched through the press, and he continued to exercise his civil liberties by voicing his opinions through the printed media throughout his life. He was naive perhaps in failing to perceive that publication of his anti-war booklet would make him politically vulnerable. Perhaps, as well, he was a man so inflamed by a perceived injustice that he simply chose to ignore the potential consequences.

The wartime suppression of American civil liberties continued into the post-war era, although the Espionage Act's censorship provision that was used to snag Harper ended in November 1918. Despite the Congressional mandate to end the practice, U.S. Postmaster General Burleson continued to withhold second-class mailing privileges on the very biased premised that a publication held too radical ideas. The district court ruled otherwise but emboldened by Wilson, Burleson appealed the decision. On March 21, 1921, the Supreme Court ruled that once a publication's contents had been deemed a violation of the law, all of its second-class mailing privileges were (revoked)absolved. In great measure, Burleson and others who supported the suppression of free speech had been vindicated. So, too, were those who feared the wartime measures would set precedents in peace time. Not until President Warren Harding repudiated measures to restrict speech did the scrutiny of radical publications cease.

While Harper, caught up in an unprecedented era of restrictive governance, did not survive the firestorm of politics, young Huey Long picked up the torch of Louisiana's common people. Unlike Harper, Long viewed the voice of the people as simply a mechanism for gaining power, and once elected, he became nearly dictatorial in the consolidation and use of power. Long and his new faction altered the character of Louisiana politics forever. But they did not alter S.J. Harper. He was not silenced by his local enemies. He was not silenced by federal law. He was not silenced by the man who once came to him, hat in hand, to request funds for law school.