The Three Governors

Back when I was a political science major in college, I fell in love with a quote attributed to Aristotle that went something like “politics is the most important of all the sciences, since it’s through politics that we define ourselves”. I haven’t been able to find a source for the quote, and am pretty sure that Aristotle never said any such thing. But the quote has always stuck with me, because it’s totally right, yet totally wrong, too.

It’s right because we put our values into our laws, laws that prevent children from being sent to sweatshops, or debtors from being sent to prison, or the elderly from being swindled, or pets from being beaten and abandoned. Laws that say that those who have more income should pay a higher share of their income in taxes. Laws that say that discriminating against someone for their race or religion are wrong. In fact, our entire legal system is built on the notion of right and wrong.

But it’s wrong because, well… our laws can sometimes go horribly wrong. Slavery, Jim Crow, anti-immigration or anti-Catholic laws are just a few examples of that.

And it’s not just the laws that can go wrong. The political process itself can sometimes go off the rails. Sure, it sometimes shows human behavior at its best (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) and at its worst (the recent budget impasse). But fewer incidents show human political behavior at its silliest than the time that Georgia had not one, not two, but three governors.

*     *     *

Eugene Talmadge was the perfect old-school Southern politician. Born in the small town of Forsyth, Georgia on September 23, 1884, Talmadge attended, and received a law degree from, the University [sic] of Georgia in 1907. After graduating, Talmadge moved to Atlanta, where he practiced law with little success. He then moved to the small town of Aisley, in Montgomery County in southeast Georgia. His law practice did a little better there, but Talmadge had to become a part-time livestock trader to make ends meet.

In Aisley, Talmadge lived in a boarding house owned by a widow named Matilda Peterson. Peterson was fairly well off, as she also owned a large farm, and was the town’s railroad agent and telegraph operator. She also sold livestock, which gave the two something in common. Talmadge began courting her, and the couple soon married. They then moved to Telfair County, where they bought a large farm on Sugar Creek. Matilda then purchased another large farm, leaving Eugene in charge of the first one.

But Talmadge had plans. He opened a law office in the county seat of McRae, and in this he was successful. He was now more of a farmer than lawyer, and so the locals trusted him. But only to a point. Talmadge had long had an itch to get in to politics, but McRae’s local Good Ol’ Boy network refused him entry. Talmadge’s father was a friend of the governor – despite the folksy, down-home image he’d portray later on, Talmadge came from a lot of money – so the governor appointed him solicitor of the city court of McRae. The local political machine, offended at the power grab, went to Atlanta and had the legislature abolish the court to keep Talmadge out of power.

Down, but not out, Talmadge hatched an ambitious plan. The McRae political machine’s candidate for county commissioner made the firing of the courthouse janitor and the county jail’s warden top priorities of his campaign. Although the candidate was probably right – the warden was locally famous for his laziness, and the courthouse hadn’t been cleaned in months – Talmadge knew class warfare when he saw it. He convinced the warden to run for the county commissioner job… with Talmadge as his campaign manager, of course. To everyone’s surprise, the warden’s (Talmadge’s) populist message resonated well with voters, and the warden won the election. To no one’s surprise, the commissioner immediately named Talmadge as the county attorney. The commissioner, Talmadge’s puppet, did as he was told.

Of course, the local political machine couldn’t stand this. They attempted to have both Talmadge and the commissioner indicted, a move that failed. So they again went to Atlanta, where the state legislature once again abolished their offices.

At the time, Georgia was very much a rural state. Outside of Atlanta and Savannah, hundreds of thousands of Georgians relied on farms, livestock and related businesses like feed stores and tractor repair shops for their livelihoods. And World War I made it all that much more important. Thanks to the war, the state’s Department of Agriculture had become one of the most powerful and important offices in government, thanks in large part to its wartime commissioner, J.J. Brown. Brown took what had been a piddling government agency and molded it into his own personal fiefdom. Unfortunately for Brown, Talmadge, forced out of local politics in McRae, began gunning for his job.

Brown didn’t think much of Talmadge. But he nevertheless agreed to debate him in McRae. Brown held every advantage: he dictated the format of the debate itself, and had a well-practiced stump speech designed to paint him and his agency in the best possible light. Per the terms of the debate, Brown spoke first, painting a glowing picture of himself and his work.

He had no idea what was coming.

Talmadge, assuming the demeanor of an old-fashioned Southern preacher, tore in to Brown and his agency with a vehemence straight out of the Old Testament. Brown’s agency was filled with corrupt inspectors and officials, and both Talmadge and the audience knew it. Talmadge was so fierce and convincing that the crowd was almost ready to appoint him King of Georgia when he was done, and Brown left immediately afterwards, even though he had given himself rebuttal time in the debate terms.

Word of Talmadge’s debate performance spread across the state, and a wave of populist support led him to win the primary election, which was tantamount to winning the general election, as Republicans had been frozen out of Georgia politics since the end of Reconstruction.

Once in office, Talmadge made all the right moves. He wanted to fire all of Brown’s corrupt inspectors immediately, but, given his past, he was wary of doing so because the state legislature was in session. Once the legislature broke up, however, Talmadge fired most of the inspectors and many mid-level bureaucrats. Several of the bureaucrats refused to leave, so Talmadge had the locks changed and had any holdouts removed by force. Some of the fired employees sued to get their jobs back; when a judge agreed with them, Talmadge simply ignored the court order. So the judge found him in contempt of court and sentenced him to a year in jail. Talmadge appealed to the state Supreme Court, who sided with Talmadge and vacated the earlier decision.

But Talmadge wasn’t just talk. He replaced all of Brown’s inspectors with his own men, and he demanded fairness and honesty from them. The Department of Agriculture, once one of the most corrupt offices in the state, slowly became honorable again. And farmers loved him for it.

Of course, Talmadge wasn’t perfect. He used the department’s newspaper, Market Bulletin, to not just inform farmers about weather conditions and crop prices, but to tell farmers what a great job he was doing. He even used the paper to advance his own political views that had nothing to do with agriculture. One of Brown’s reporters, fired by Talmadge, called him “The Wild Man of Sugar Creek”, a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

There were more colorful incidents, too.

Talmadge barely escaped censure from the state senate for using department funds to take a personal trip to the Kentucky Derby.

He once used $80,000 of department money (almost $1.6 million in 2024 dollars) to buy 82 rail cars full of pigs. At the time, Chicago meat packers offered less money for Georgia pigs, because they claimed the peanuts the pigs were fed led to less firm flesh. Talmadge sent the pigs to the northeast, hoping to get a better price. In fact, he lost $11,000 (around $140,000) on the sale. The state legislature moved to impeach him, but Talmadge took another page out of the populist playbook and arranged “protests” outside the capitol building. He then started a petition inside the House to table the matter; after a sizable number of Representatives signed on, the matter was dropped.

As mentioned previously, Georgia was essentially a one-party state at the time. So whoever won the primary election was practically guaranteed to win the general election.

Georgia also had a “county-unit system” in the primaries, in which every county, no matter the size, had at least two votes. And the person who won the popular vote in that county received all of that county’s “unit votes”. It was much like the electoral college used in presidential elections, and, like presidential elections, it was possible to win the governorship without winning the popular vote. The system was rigged heavily in favor of rural counties – the places where Talmadge was most popular. For example, Fulton County (home of Atlanta, and by far the most populous county in the state) had a mere 6 unit votes, while 55 of the state’s smallest counties (whose total population was less than Fulton) had 110 unit votes.

Talmadge worked the machine to perfection, winning a small plurality of the popular vote in the 1932 governor’s primary, but a landslide in unit votes. As governor he championed lowering taxes and fees on the poor. And he kept up his populist image by keeping cows and chickens at the governor’s mansion, by keeping his university degree as secret as possible, by purposely adding grammatical errors in his speeches, and by claiming that the only books he owned were the Bible, the Sears catalog and the state’s financial report.

Amusingly, one of his most popular initiatives involved simplifying the license plate system and reducing license plate fees from $13.50 to $3. It’s “amusing” because once again Talmadge waited until the legislature left town before implementing the plan. And he could do so because a couple of years previously the legislature gave the governor power to implement such plans… specifically to reign in the Commissioner of Agriculture… Eugene Talmadge! So be careful what you wish for in politics folks, as it can often come back to haunt you!

*     *     *

Talmadge wasn’t content to just be governor of Georgia. He hated Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal with a fiery passion, and he’d often travel out of state to make speeches against the president, his advisers, the New Deal itself, or all of the above.

“The New Deal is a combination of wet-nursing, frenzied finance, downright communism, and plain damned foolishness. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is not a Democrat. The real fight in this country is Americanism versus communism, mixed up with some kind of crazy give-me.”

Talmadge won re-election to the governor’s office in 1934, but was prevented by the state constitution from running for a third consecutive term. So he ran for the US Senate in 1938 against popular politician and incumbent Richard B. Russell (incidentally, Russell is the namesake of the Russell Senate Office Building, frequently mentioned in DC dramas like *The West Wing* and *Designated Survivor* and network news.).

Talmadge lost badly, winning only 16 out of the state’s 159 counties. In 1938, Talmadge ran for the state’s other Senate seat, this time against Walter George, the incumbent. FDR didn’t like George, and so gave his support to man named Lawrence Camp. Talmadge thought he could exploit the division between the two, and it even looked as though he might win. But Camp pulled ahead late in the night and won the election.

Although the state constitution said that someone couldn’t serve three consecutive terms as governor, it was silent about whether a person, having served two consecutive terms, could run again after the office was held by someone else. So when unpopular governor Eurith D. Rivers announced that he would not run for re-election, Talmadge threw his hat into the ring. And won. Again.

Talmadge’s third term was practically a dictatorship. And one of Talmadge’s greatest passions was keeping racial segregation at all costs. A former University [sic] of Georgia employee came to Talmadge and told him that Dr. Walter Cocking, dean of the College of Education, was promoting racial integration and trying to get black students to enroll at UGA. Talmadge had Cocking fired immediately along with several other people, including Marvin Pittman, president of Georgia Teacher’s College (now Georgia Southern University) and a staunch defender of Cocking.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools revoked the accreditation of all Georgia universities, which led hundreds of college students to protest Talmadge at the governor’s mansion. Feeling the heat, Talmadge returned to McRae. There reporters asked him why he didn’t return to Atlanta. Talmadge asked if they thought he was a “damned fool”:

“Well governor,” one newsman piped up, “some think you’re a damned fool, some think you are a dictator, some think you’re a demagogue, and some think you’re a plain crook. A lot of others think you’re just as mean as hell.” Talmadge frowned. “I am. I’m just as mean as hell.”

Talmadge desperately wanted a fourth term, but the university scandal tarnished his reputation. He lost the primary to Ellis Arnall, who handily won the general election. Arnall got the state’s academic accreditation back, moved control of the university system to a Board of Regents independent of both the governor and legislature, and quietly re-hired most of the academics Talmadge had fired. Governor Arnall also removed a whites-only provision in the state Democratic Party’s by-laws, which only allowed white citizens to vote in Democratic Party primary elections. Given that Georgia was a one-party state, this essentially allowed blacks to vote in Georgia for the first time since the 1870s.

Talmadge was enraged. Giving blacks the vote was unthinkable to him. He came out of retirement to run for governor one last time. Although Arnall was popular generally, and although Talmadge’s advanced age and declining health kept him from campaigning as vigorously as he might have wished, Talmadge ended up winning the primary election, thanks in large part to the county unit system.

*     *     *

Talmadge’s health was failing fast. Throughout the election, his supporters spent a lot of time and effort to research what would happen if the governor-elect died before taking office. Through a tortured reading of statutes and specious interpretation of legal precedents, the Talmadge camp became convinced that the state legislature should convene and appoint someone else as governor. And who could the pick be other than Herman Talmadge, Eugene’s only son?

So, when Eugene Talmadge died on December 21, 1946 – after winning the election but before taking office – the Talmadge camp officially put forth their process and their man as the only legitimate path to the governor’s office.

Not so fast, others said. The state had approved a new constitution in 1945, and one of the constitutional changes was the creation of the office of Lieutenant Governor. A man named Melvin Thompson had been elected to that office at the same time as Talmadge, and was known for being as anti-Talmadge was they come. However, Thompson’s case wasn’t as open and shut as it might seem. The 1945 constitution did explicitly state that the lieutenant governor would become governor if the current governor died in office. However the constitution said nothing about the death of a governor-elect.

As soon as the state legislature convened in 1947, Thompson supporters moved to have the election results certified by the legislature, as required by the state constitution. This would give Thompson official title to the lieutenant governor’s job, which, it was hoped, would give him a fast track to the governor’s job. But Talmadge supporters, experts in parliamentary procedure, won a close vote to delay the certification and select a new governor. Thus, on January 15, 1947, the General Assembly of the State of Georgia named Herman Talmadge as the new governor of the state. A furious Thompson filed an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. And while all this was going on, Ellis Arnall dropped a bomb: he said that he was not going to leave his office until the matter was decided once and for all.

So… you had a previously-elected governor whose term had expired but who refused to leave office, the state’s second-in-command who had been elected but neither certified nor sworn in (and on whose promotion the state constitution was silent), the son of the winner of the election, who had been appointed governor by the legislature… and the actual winner of the election… who was dead.

On January 16th, the day after he was named governor by the legislature, Herman Talmadge seized the governor’s office and had the locks changed. Arnall, who supported Thompson, refused to leave the capitol building and so set up his own “governor’s office” at an information desk inside the building! Arnall eventually gave up his claim to the office and continued to support Thompson.

Two months later – during which time both Talmadge and Thompson appointed people to the same offices, issued conflicting rules and regulations, and generally caused chaos throughout the state government – the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in Thompson’s favor by a 5-2 vote. However, they also ruled that Thompson was only “acting governor” until a special election could be held to determine who would serve as governor during the remainder of the term, from 1947 to 1951.

To the surprise of many, Herman Talmadge left the governor’s office within two hours of the court’s decision. Most had expected him to challenge the ruling in some way. Instead, Talmadge went home to begin his plans for the special election of 1948. This had the intended effect of showing that he was gracious in defeat and supported the law, and it was a big part of the reason Herman Talmadge easily defeated Thompson in the special election in the following year. He won another term in 1950, and ran for the US Senate in 1956. He won that race, too and served in Congress from January 3, 1957 until January 3, 1981, when he lost his Senate seat to Mack Mattingly, the first Republican to win represent Georgia in the US Senate since Reconstruction.

One Reply to “The Three Governors”

  1. I wanted to be the Governor of Ga in 1947,but I was living in SC,and Mommer would not let me move in with my Grandpa down in Dallas,Ga,,,,I was only 3 years old at the

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