Eugene Talmadge (September 23, 1884 – December 21, 1946) was a Democratic politician who served two terms as the 67th Governor of Georgia from 1933 to 1937, and a third term from 1941 to 1943. Elected to a fourth term in November 1946, he died before his (January 1947) inauguration. To date only Joe Brown, in the mid-19th century, and Eugene Talmadge have been elected four times as Governor of Georgia.
Early life, education and career
Eugene Talmadge was born in 1884 in Forsyth, Georgia, to Thomas and Carrie (Roberts) Talmadge. He attended the University of Georgia and graduated from the university’s law school. While at UGA, he was a member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society and Sigma Nu fraternity.
Talmadge set up a law practice in Telfair County, Georgia. He twice ran for the Georgia state legislature and lost both times. He was elected as state agriculture commissioner in 1926. Talmadge was re-elected commissioner in 1928 and 1930.
As commissioner, Talmadge used the newspaper of his department to give advice to farmers and talk about his political views, extolling the virtues of a laissez-faire economic policy (there would not be a State Agriculture Commissioner under laissez-faire – so it is doubtful that Eugene Talmadge used this term) and individual action to improve the well-being of farmers. During his time as agriculture commissioner, Talmadge also developed a reputation for being a corrupt, freewheeling individual who disregarded standard ethics and played by his own set of rules. He maintained widespread support among Georgia’s rural community. He was also an “admitted flogger and racial demagogue who presided over a Klan-ridden regime”.
The State Senate concluded that Talmadge violated a state law requiring that fertilizer fees collected by the department be deposited in the state treasury. He was criticized for paying himself and family members more than $40,000 in salaries and expenses, and using department funds to make trips to the Kentucky Derby. Accused of “stealing” $20,000 in order to raise the price of hogs, Talmadge told one group of farmers, “Sure, I stole it! But I stole it for you.” The State House declined requests to impeach Talmadge but agreed to sue him to recover state funds spent on the hog price manipulation scheme. When Governor Richard B. Russell Jr. referred the suit to the state attorney general, however, the request to sue Talmadge was rejected.
In 1932, Governor Richard B. Russell, Jr. sought a seat in the United States Senate. Talmadge ran for governor and won a majority of the county unit votes in the primary. (Georgia had been virtually a one-party state since it disenfranchised most blacks at the turn of the century, mortally weakening the Georgia Republican Party). The County Unit System gave power to the most rural counties, which were Talmadge's base. He boasted, “I can carry any county that ain't got street cars.” He made twelve campaign promises, the most controversial of which was to lower the price of an automobile license to $3, putting them within reach of the poorest farmers. The state legislature intensely debated the $3 license fee issue, but did not pass it. After it adjourned, Talmadge fixed the $3 fee by proclamation.
Talmadge was re-elected in 1934, carrying every county but three in the state’s Democratic primary, although he was often tied to both controversy and corruption. When the Public Service Commission, a body elected by the voters, refused to lower utility rates, he appointed a new board to get it done. When the Highway Board resisted his efforts to control it, Talmadge declared martial law and appointed more cooperative members to the board. When the state treasurer and comptroller general refused to cooperate, the governor ordered state police to physically remove them from their offices in the state Capitol. Critics denounced him as a dictator, a demagogue, and a threat to the tranquility of the state. His supporters considered him to be a friend of the “common man” and one of the state’s most outstanding governors.
When textile workers went on strike on September 1, 1934, Talmadge declared martial law during the third week of the strike, and directed four thousand National Guard troops to arrest all picketers throughout the state. He ordered the prisoners to be held behind the barbed wire of a former World War I prisoner of war camp for trial by a military tribunal. While the state interned about one hundred or so picketers, the show of force effectively ended picketing throughout most of the state. When Talmadge discovered that one of the employers had hired the notorious strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff, he had Bergoff and his two hundred men deported to New York City.
The Democrat Talmadge governed as a Southern conservative, vehemently attacking the nationalism of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He objected to policies favorable to black people (President Roosevelt did not introduce any Civil Rights measures), the farm programs, and relief-work programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. Talmadge tried to build a region-wide coalition, making a national speaking tour in preparation for a challenge to FDR in 1936. His ‘Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution’ organized a convention in Macon, Georgia, in January 1936 that brought together fragments of the old Huey P. Long coalition.
Talmadge pledged to defend the “sovereignty of our states and local self-government” at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. However, Roosevelt, who visited Georgia often because of his past polio, was more popular with the poor farmers. Unable to run for re-election in 1936, Talmadge chose to challenge Senator Russell in the primary, but Russell defeated Talmadge by a landslide and Talmadge’s presidential hopes collapsed. Talmadge’s handpicked candidate for governor, Charles Redwine, lost the 1936 Georgia gubernatorial election to pro-New Deal Democrat Eurith D. Rivers by an overwhelming margin.
In 1938 Talmadge challenged Senator Walter George. Though George had sided with 34 of Roosevelt’s 44 New Deal proposals, he refused to support some of the proposals in Roosevelt’s second term. The president believed George had now been “put out to pasture.” Roosevelt tried to purge George and campaigned for his own candidate, Lawrence Camp. George, however, refused to criticize Roosevelt during the campaign and blamed the purge on Roosevelt's advisers. Despite the divide among the New Deal vote, George easily won the renomination, securing 141,922 popular votes and a majority of 246 unit votes, while Talmadge won just 102,464 popular votes and 148 unit votes. Talmadge's victory over Roosevelt's candidate Camp, who secured just 78,223 popular votes and 16 unit votes, surprised his critics.
University of Georgia
Talmadge returned to the governor's office in 1940, emerging as the leader of racist and segregationist elements in Georgia. Responding to reports that Walter Cocking, a dean at the University of Georgia, had advocated bringing black and white students together in the classroom, he launched an attack on the university, charging elitism, and called for the regents to remove Cocking and purge the university of Communists, "foreigners" (non-Georgians), and subscribers to racial equality. The university board of regents at first refused Talmadge's demands, but after the governor restructured the board, the dismissals took place.
This intervention into academic affairs caused the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to remove accreditation from the Georgia state universities. It also contributed to Talmadge's defeat by Ellis Arnall in 1942.
During Arnall's term, the state legislature lengthened his term to four years and prohibited him from seeking re-election in 1946. Talmadge ran for governor and used the United States Supreme Court's Smith v. Allwright decision, ruling that the closed white primary was unconstitutional, as his main red flag issue. Talmadge promised that if he were to be elected, he would restore the 'Equal Primary.'
Talmadge lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary to James V. Carmichael but won a majority of the "county unit votes". He died in December 1946, before he could be sworn in for his fourth term. His death precipitated the 1947 "Three Governors Controversy" among Arnall, Melvin E. Thompson and Talmadge's son Herman.
The "Cocking affair" later became the subject of Michael Braz's opera, A Scholar Under Siege, composed for the centenary of Georgia Southern University and premiered in 2007.
In 1941, Talmadge received an honorary degree in Doctor of Laws from Oglethorpe University.
The Talmadge Memorial Bridge in Savannah, Georgia, is named after Eugene Talmadge and connects downtown Savannah, Georgia with the Carolina Low Country via the Savannah River.