San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Eugene Talmadge worked assiduously to appear to be something he was not. Although he tried to appear to be a simple hick farmer of Georgia, his family was wealthy, involved in business as well as large scale farming. Eugene Talmadge's father did not hold a political office, but he was the close friend of one of Georgia's governors. That governor friend visited the Talmadge home and Eugene as a child heard the inside stories of politics.
Eugene was recognized as an exceptionally bright student and he went to college at the University of Georgia to become a lawyer. He was noted for his hard driving toughness. This is evidenced by his playing on the University of Georgia's football team (the Bulldogs) despite his weighing only 127 pounds. He also beat heavyweights in boxing. He was president of the University's Athletic Association, but he was also a top debater and public speaker. His grades were excellent. He was however also noted for his fondness for pranks.
After completing his law degree and passing the bar exam Eugene Talmadge first tried practicing law in Atlanta but without much success in gaining clients. He decided to move to a rural area but chose not to return to the town where his family lived. He chose instead Montgomery County, 100 miles southeast of his family home.
Although Eugene Talmadge did a little better as a lawyer in Montgomery County than he did in Atlanta he still had to support himself as a livestock trader. A successful horse trader has to be astute and clever.
In Aisley in Montgomery County, Talmadge lived in a boarding house managed by a very remarkable woman, Matilda Peterson. She was a widow raising one son. The boarding house was a very small part of her business activity. She ran a plantation of thousands of acres and was the depot agent and telegraph operator for the local railroad. She was also a livestock trader. She was popularly known as Ms.(miz) Mitt.
Eugene Talmadge courted Ms. Mitt, proposed to her and she accepted. After they married they moved to Telfair County where they bought a large farm on Sugar Creek and built a quite substantial house (twelve rooms in two stories). Ms. Mitt told Eugene to manage their farm and she bought another farm adjacent to it to operate. She always outproduced her husband.
The county seat of Telfair County was McRae and Eugene Talmadge opened a law office there. His being a farmer as well as an attorney was an important factor in gaining clients among the farmers of Telfair County.
Eugene Talmadge idolized Thomas Watson, a Populist Party politician who had been the vice presidential candidate under William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and later became a senator for Georgia.
Talmadge had an interest in politics but there were apparently no opportunities for him in Telfair County. Telfair County was run by a political clique in McRae who had no intention of letting Talmadge join them.
The political friend of Eugene's father was at that time Governor of Georgia. At the request of Eugene's father the Governor appointed Eugene solicitor of the City Court of McRae. The McRae clique went to Atlanta and had the state legislature abolish McRae's City Court.
Having been thwarted in his first attempt to enter into the politics in his county Eugene Talmadge was ready when the next opportunity arose. The courthouse clique's candidate for county commissioner announced that if he were elected he would fire the courthouse janitor, who had not swept the courthouse in months, and the county convict warden, another lazy sort. Although both of the employees probably should have been fired Talmadge recognized that there would be resentment of this action by family and friends of the two targeted employees. Talmadge persuaded the convict warden to run for county commissioner and let him, Talmadge, manage the campaign. Talmadge managed the campaign so well that his candidate was elected. The new county commissioner promptly appointed Eugene Talmadge the county attorney. The new county commissioner let Talmadge run the county. Under Talmadge the county spent the fifteen thousand dollars it had on hand and went another ninety thousand in debt. The courthouse clique tried unsuccessfully to have the county commissioner and attorney indicted. The courthouse clique, however, was not beaten. They promptly went to Atlanta and had the State Legislature abolish the offices of county commissioner and county attorney. Thus in 1923 Talmadge once again had been excluded from local politics.
At that time, the early 1920's, the Georgia Department of Agriculture had developed into a little empire under its commissioner, J.J. Brown. Before World War I the Georgia Department of Agriculture had been insignificant, but J.J. Brown had expanded its scope and put 200 inspectors on the payroll. These inspectors had authority to oversee the production and distribution of food, drugs, livestock, gasoline, plants, poultry, bees and fertilizer. The inspectors were supposed to certify that fertilizer was up to the quality specified on its tag. In reality the system was rife with corruption and the inspectors routinely certified below standard fertilizer and the farmers were well aware of it. Talmadge was induced to run against J.J. Brown for Commissioner of Agriculture.
At first most did not take Eugene Talmadge seriously, especially J.J. Brown. J.J. Brown offered to debate Talmadge in McRae, but specified that he, Brown, would get to speak first and then again after Talmadge had made his speech. It was an unfair arrangement but Talmadge accepted the conditions. Brown gave a polished presentation of his past accomplishments as Commissioner of Agriculture spiced up with humorous anecdotes. When Brown finished Talmadge came on like a buzz saw, cutting apart Brown's record and accusing him of corruption. The audience knew of the shortcomings of the agricultural inspection, the overstaffing with corrupt and incompetent people. Talmadge said what they were troubled about and said it with fervor. Although Brown was entitled to speaking time to rebut Talmadge's remarks he did not even try and left the debate.
Talmadge gained rapid notoriety throughout Georgia as a result of the debate and received many requests to speak at local meetings. Brown had hoped that the large number of candidates in the race would divide the vote against him but Talmadge won easily.
Once in office Talmadge did not fire Agriculture Department inspectors right away as many expected. He knew if he fired them while the Georgia Legislature was in session there was a good chance that his opposition would find a way to undo his firing. Instead he waited until the legislative session was over and then he fired all of Brown's inspectors and some of the executive staff of the Department of Agriculture. Some of those professionals fired refused to vacate their offices and Talmadge had them removed by force and new locks installed on the doors. Some of those fired sued Talmadge in court and a judge issued injunctions against Talmadge which he ignored. Talmadge was found in contempt of court and sentenced to one year in jail but he appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the cases were thrown out.
Talmadge hired his own agricultural inspectors and demanded better standards of them. He also promoted himself through the Department of Agriculture publication, Market Bulletin. One fired reporter on the staff called Talmadge "The Wild Man of Sugar Creek." The public liked the name and it kept appearing in Talmadge's later campaigns.
Talmadge ran for Agriculture Commission for a second term in 1928 and easily won. In his second term Talmadge tried something that reinforced his image as a wild man. Chicago meat packers were setting lower price for Georgia hogs than hogs from other areas. Their argument was that since Georgia hogs were fattened on peanuts rather than corn their meat was less firm. Talmadge thought that he could get a higher price for Georgia hogs so bought up 82 railroad carloads of Georgia hogs for $80,000 and sent them off to the Northeast. But he couldn't get a better price and had to take an $11,000 loss of Department of Agriculture funds. The Georgia House of Representatives decided to impeach Talmadge but Talmadge copied the strategy of Huey Long of Louisiana; i.e., soliciting a show of public support for himself and securing the signatures of enough members of the House to a statement that they would not vote for impeachment under any conditions. The House called off the impeachment proceedings.
In 1932 Georgia, along with the rest of the U.S., was experiencing the Great Depression. At this time the incumbent governor decided to run for the U.S. Senate. This made the governor's race wide open and Eugene Talmadge decided to run for governor. He was the tenth candidate to enter the race.
At this point it is necessary to note the nature of the political system in Georgia at that time. First, Georgia along with many Southern states had a one party system. There was so little opposition to the Democrat Party that winning the primary for the nomination on the Democrat ticket was effectively victory in the election. Second, the Democrat Party forbade any non-Whites to vote in the primary. In Georgia this meant that about one third of the adult population was excluded from the political process. Third, there was a poll tax of $1 that discouraged 85 percent of the eligible electorate from voting. Fourth, the Georgia election law of 1917 required that each county no matter how small its population must have at least two votes. Georgia had 159 counties, in part because of subdivision of counties in response to this 1917 law. A candidate winning a plurality of the vote in a county got all of its unit votes. The 121 counties with the lowest population got 2 county-unit votes each, the 30 counties with next larger populations got 4 county-unit votes each, and the eight most populous counties got 6 county-unit votes each. Thus 55 counties with a combined population less than the county (Fullerton) in which Atlanta is located had a county-unit total of 110 whereas Fullerton County had only six county-units. This system was designed to allow the rural areas to control the state politics of Georgia.
Talmadge announced, "I'm only going to campaign in the counties where the streetcars don't run." His program was one of reducing taxes and fees on the poor. In particular, he promised to reduce the fee for vehicle license to $3. The license for cars, trucks and buses were $13.50 plus an increment based upon weight. He also called for a reduction in the state sales tax. Sales taxes are regressive; i.e., the poor pay a higher proportion of their income for these taxes than do the middle income and upper income groups. Talmadge stated this concept more forcefully as, "A sales tax is a tax on the poor." He called for reductions in taxes but he also promised more schools and roads. He also promised to reduce the state debt. But the issue that elicited the more favorable public response was the $3 license tags.
Talmadge's campaign included professional entertainers and campaign songs, one of which was:
I've got a Eugene dog, got a Eugene cat,
I'm a Talmadge man from my shoes to my hat.
Farmer in the cornfield hollering "whoa, gee, haw,"
Can't put no thirty-dollar tag on a three-dollar car.
Talmadge supporters undermined the opposition by such tactics as setting fire to grass fields in the vicinity of their political campaign speeches.
Talmadge won a plurality of the vote, about 40 percent, but what counted was that he received more than twice the county-unit votes than all of the others combined.
As in his first days as Commissioner of Agriculture he bided his time while the legislature was in session. He used the time to establish his image as a simple farmer. He had a barn and chicken house built on the grounds of the governor's mansion and pastured a cow there. He pandered to the ignorance of his supporters by announcing that no one who had gone past the eighth grade should ever be appointed to a high government office. He kept quiet about his own university education and showed people the only books he had were the Bible, a Sears Roebuck catalogue and the Georgia Financial Report. He made the same grammatical errors in speech that his supporters typically made, even though that was not his real speech pattern.
Once the legislature ended its session Talmadge began to implement his program. The Georgia General Assembly considered Talmadge's proposal for $3 license tags but took no action. Immediately after the legislative session ended Talmadge ordered the price of vehicle tags lowered to $3. When the official in charge of selling license tags refused to comply with his order Talmadge fired him and replaced him with someone willing to comply with the order. The poor farmers appreciated the $3 tags but it was even more of a bargain for truck and bus companies.
When Talmadge was head of the Department of Agriculture the Georgia legislature gave the governor power to control the budgets and spending of the departments. The legislature did this specifically to control Talmadge. But a few years later Talmadge is wielding this power and he uses it to punish the Highway Board, an elected body, for testifying against his $3 license tag to the legislature. The legislature should have heeded the adage that when giving power to the government you should first imagine that power being held by the worst person.
When the State Highway Board's budget came to Governor Talmadge he slashed it drastically. The highway commissioners refused to accept the slashed budget and Talmadge slashed it even more. The highway commissioners tried to retaliate by stopping the payments for the Department of Highways for wages and salaries and payments to outside contractors. They thought the ensuing public pressure would force Talmadge to back down. They did not know Talmadge. He declared that since the commissioners were not carrying out their jobs they had "abandoned their offices." He declared a state of emergency and had the Georgia National Guard take over the office buildings of the Department of Highways.
Talmadge then began to take control of the other state departments. He fired the staff and replaced them with his supporters. He himself directed the operation in great detail. He used the funds saved by trimming Georgia's state departments to pay teachers' salaries and state pensioners, which were in arrears. His justification for his actions was that "the only way to have honest government is to keep it poor." He set the annual budget for one county's health department at $2.75. The budget of the Governor's Office on the other hand was tripled.
In 1933 Talmadge was among the governors invited to Washington for Franklin Roosevelt's presidential inauguration. Since there was a similarity in the rhetoric of Democrats Roosevelt and Talmadge there was initially a rapport. Talmadge and the other governors welcomed the massive Federal aid which provided assistance to the poor and jobs for the unemployed of their states. Talmadge publicly supported the New Deal measures of Roosevelt but privately he had some reservations. He was, in part, alienated by the arrogance of Roosevelt's advisers who felt they knew better how to solve his states problems than he did. And he was especially upset by the realization that Roosevelt did not intend to abide by the racial politics of Georgia. He became suspicious that many New Deal programs were secretly intended to help improve the condition of African Americans.
Soon Talmadge's public criticisms of New Deal programs were countered by personal attacks on Talmadge by Roosevelt's advisers. There was much of the early New Deal that was flawed and subsequently was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Talmadge sued the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace in the U.S. Supreme Court over the New Deal cotton production restrictions and won.
By 1934 the split between Roosevelt and Talmadge was wide open. Roosevelt's administration took away Talmadge's power to administer the Federal relief programs. . Talmadge had to run for re-election in 1934 and Roosevelt promoted the candidacy of Claude Pittman for governor of Georgia. Pittman criticized Talmadge for the number of pardons he had granted. Talmadge's retort was that, "A good strong man has got no business sitting around a jail...What we need is a whipping post in a man's own town in the case of smaller crimes, such as gaming or wife beating." Talmadge won a new term as governor by a landslide. He got twice as many votes as Pittman and in the county-unit vote that really counted Talmadge got 394 votes to Pittman's 16. Talmadge carried 156 out of the 159 counties of Georgia.
After his victory in the Democratic primary Talmadge attacked the New Deal. He said,
"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 went on the road around the U.S. attacking the Roosevelt administration and promoting his candidacy for president. At home in Georgia Talmadge used the Georgia National Guard to break strikes at textile mills. When Huey Long was assassinated Talmadge attempted to be the spokesman for the anti-New Deal sentiment in the South.
In Georgia a leader in the legislature was trying to remove the control of the governor over the budget of the school system. This was the power the legislature had given the governor's office to control Talmadge when he was head of the Department of Agriculture and now Talmadge as governor was using to control the entire government. The legislative session ended without the passage of an appropriation bill. This meant that the government had no legal authority to pay any of the bills of the State of Georgia. Talmadge sent bills to be paid to the State Treasurer and State Comptroller. They refused to pay the bills. Talmadge fired both of them and sent troops to remove the two officials from their offices. The locks on the state vaults had been set so Talmadge had safecrackers open them up.
Talmadge's attempt to promote his national candidacy for president was unsuccessful and he settled for fighting against Roosevelt's New Deal in Georgia. Talmadge was prevented by the Georgia constitution from running to succeed himself for a third term as governor so he decided to run for senator. The U.S. Senate seat for Georgia that was up for re-election in 1936 was held by Richard Russell. Talmadge's appeal to Georgia voters in state races did not extend to senate races. Talmadge overwhelmingly lost the Democrat primary vote to Russell. Talmadge carried only 16 counties to Russell's 143.
Talmadge was out of politics temporarily. But in 1938 the other senate seat was up for re-election. It had been held by Walter George but Roosevelt disapproved of Walter George and was promoting the candidacy of Lawrence Camp. With that division of forces Talmadge thought that he might have a good chance of winning. In fact, on the night of the Democrat primary election Talmadge thought he had won and claimed victory in a radio broadcast but late returns during the night put Walter George ahead.
Although the Georgia constitution prevented an individual from having three consecutive terms as governor it did not prevent a third term after someone else held the governor's office for one term. The man who won the governor's office after Talmadge had been a very poor administrator and did not choose to run for a second term. Talmadge won easily the governor's race. Amazingly the legislature allowed him again to assume dictatorial powers. He had promised to reduce the state debt without raising taxes.
By this time Talmadge was a complete autocrat. When a fired employee from the University of Georgia's College of Education came to Talmadge with an accusation that the dean of that college favored racial integration in education Talmadge decided to act immediately. Talmadge working through the Board of Regents of the University of Georgia arranged the dismissal of Dr. Walter Cocking, the dean of the college of education. Talmadge also fired the president of Georgia's State Teachers College, also on a charge that he favored racial integration of education.
Because of this political interference in academic affairs the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools removed the accreditation from Georgia's institutions of higher education. This meant that a degree of a Georgia university would not be recognized outside of Georgia.
The outcry was angry and vocal, particularly from college students. Talmadge left the governor's mansion in Atlanta for the safety of his plantation house in McRae. Alfred Sternberg in his book, The Bosses (p. 299) relates the following exchange.
When reporters found him and asked why he did not return to Atlanta, he said, "Do they think I am 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."
At the next governor's election there was strong opposition to Talmadge, in a candidate named Ellis Arnall. The constitution had been changed so that the term would be four years rather than two and Talmadge wanted this fourth term as governor. Talmadge's campaigning was not as spirited as his past campaigns, in part because he suffered from a bite by a Black Widow spider. He lost the Democrat primary to his opponent who made re-accreditation of the Georgia's universities a prime issue.
Governor Arnall won re-accreditation and removed the educational system from the control of either the governor or the legislature. Arnall also won the removal from the Georgia Democrat Party constitution the provision which limited voting in the primaries to Whites only.
This change brought Talmadge out of retirement and he undertook a vigorous campaign for the governorship. Most politicians did not take him seriously but he once again won the primary election. Talmadge's fourth term as governor did not amount to much because his health failed and he died on December 15, 1946 at age 62.
For the story of other poliical bosses and their machines click on Bosses
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