Jerry Summers: Georgia's 3 Governors Controversy (No. 150 Of A Series)

Friday, January 22, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

(Editor's Note: This is the 150th history column by Jerry Summers since his series started on Chattanoogan.com, and hopefully many more are in the pipeline).

The Peach State has always been prone to have some drama in its politics and elections.

            The years 1946-1947 produced one of the most bizarre political spectacles in the history of American politics.

            At one point Georgia had not one, not two, but three claimants to the Governor’s office.

            The controversy arose out of the death of Gene Talmadge, who had been elected four times to occupy the top office in Georgia.

            In the summer of 1946 he won the Democratic primary.  The Republican Party during this era was almost non-existent and did not even have an opponent for Talmadge so victory in said primary was a guarantee of election for the Democratic nominee.

            Talmadge had always been a controversial politician who came from a family of prominence and wealth in Forsyth, Georgia, but gained his main political support from lower class country folks who were called “rednecks” and opposed integration with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and opposition to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

            One of his campaign references to blacks was “We in the South love the Negro in his place – but his place is at the back door!”

            Another cliché referred to his appeal to his rural base of voters “I can carry any country that ain’t got street cars.”

            However, Talmadge had developed serious health problems due to a life of hard drinking.  When he died on December 21, 1946 at the age of 62 the cause of his death was diagnosed as hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.

            Knowing of his bad health his followers were concerned that he would not live to be sworn in at his planned inauguration in 1947.

            There arose an issue of who would become governor if the governor elect died prior to taking the oath of office due to ambiguities in the Georgia Constitution and law.

            Talmadge’s supporters came up with the theory that the Georgia legislature could choose between the second and third place vote getters from the general election.

            They came up with a plan to initiate a write-in campaign to nominate Talmadge’s son, Herman, as a secret write in campaign candidate.  Their thinking was that his father’s rural supporters in the General Assembly had enough votes to elect Herman Talmadge.

            The State of Georgia had recently adopted a new state Constitution and had created the new office of lieutenant governor, which was to be filled in the 1946 election.  Under that document the newly elected lieutenant governor would become the chief executive officer if the governor died in office.

            The new Constitution was silent as to who would become governor if the Democratic nominee died in office prior to taking the oath of office.

            An open Talmadge opponent, Melvin E. Thompson, had been elected to that position and would make the claim for the office upon Talmadge’s death.

            In January 1947 the legislature met to fill the vacancy and chaos reigned.

            The Talmadge forces wanted the legislature to elect Herman Talmadge, the write-in winner, and the Thompson supporters wanted the General Assembly to elect their candidate.

            The state Constitution did contain a provision that the election results would not be certified until the legislature met and approved the outcome.

            Thompson unsuccessfully urged the body to certify the election returns so that he would have a stronger position to claim the governorship.

            Talmadge forces prevailed in winning a motion to delay certifying the vote results and to immediately select a new governor.

            On January 15, 1947, the Talmadge legislature prevailed and Herman Talmadge was elected governor.

            Marvin Thompson immediately filed a lawsuit that ultimately would be heard by the Georgia Supreme Court.

            The sitting governor, Ellis Arnall, entered the fray by announcing that he would not leave office until the issue of who would be the new governor had been resolved.

            Arnall had been an anti-Talmadge governor and had opposed many of Gene’s policies.  Arnall’s refusal to give up the governorship thus created a physical confrontation between his and Gene’s supporters which ended in fist fights.

            When Talmadge asked Arnall to honor the General Assembly’s selection of his son, Herman, as governor, Arnall refused.

            As a result Talmadge ordered state troopers to remove Arnall from the capitol in Atlanta and to escort him safely to his home.

            On January 15, 1947, both Herman Talmadge and Arnall claimed to be governor of the State of Georgia and they each shared the same office.

            On January 16, 1947, Herman Talmadge had seized control of the governor’s office and had the locks on the doors changed.

            The controversy continued when Arnall set up a satellite governor’s office in exile in an information kiosk in the capital.  However, ultimately due to the public outcry, Arnall relinquished his claim upon the governorship and supported Thompson.

            With Arnall’s exit this left Georgia with only two governors and both had exercised their authority to appoint government officials which put the state in further chaos.

            In March 1947, the Georgia Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision ruled that Thompson would be the acting governor until a special election could be held to fill out the balance of the term from 1947 through 1951.

            Talmadge left the governor’s office immediately after the decision and started his campaign for governor in the special election to be held in September 1948.

            Herman Talmadge won the election mainly with the support of younger voters and World War II veterans in addition to the rural support that his late father had always possessed.

            It also helped that his supporters would create the perception that the anti-Talmadge force had stolen the election.

            The electoral merry-go-round of having three governors (one dead) sitting at the same time was detrimental to Georgia’s national image and the state became the laughing stock of America.

            The “wool hat boys” of poor whites who had to do their own plowing and picking of cotton and other farm products after the Civil War had always supported Gene Talmadge and they also gave their support to his son Herman.

            Some old time historians stated that such a circus could only have happened in Georgia while modern history buffs claim that the same type of entertaining politics may be prone to occur in Walker or Catoosa counties.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

Gene Talmadge
Gene Talmadge

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