(Editor’s Note: This is Jerry Summers’ 150th story column since the beginning of his series on Chattanoogan.com, and hopefully many more are in the pipeline).
The Peach State has always been prone to 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 applicants in the governor’s office.
The controversy arose from the death of Gene Talmadge, who had been elected four times to fill the highest office in Georgia.
In the summer of 1946 he won the democratic elementary school. The Republican Party was almost non-existent at the time and didn’t even have an opponent for Talmadge, so victory in this primary was an election guarantee for the Democratic candidate.
Talmadge had always been a controversial politician who came from a prominent and affluent family in Forsyth, Georgia, but got his main political backing from lower-class people known as “rednecks” who have been integrating with the support of the The Ku Klux Klan and the Ku Klux Klan opposed opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
One of his campaign references to blacks read: “We in the South love the Negro for him – but his place is at the back door!”
Another cliché related to his appeal to his rural electorate: “I can carry any country that doesn’t have trams.”
However, Talmadge had developed serious health problems from a life of heavy drinking. When he died on December 21, 1946 at the age of 62, the causes of death were diagnosed as hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
Aware of his poor health, his supporters were concerned that he would not be sworn in when he was scheduled to take office in 1947.
The question arose of who would become governor if the elected governor died before the oath of office due to ambiguities in the constitution and law of Georgia.
Talmadge proponents came up with the theory that Georgian lawmakers could choose between second and third place in the general election.
They had a plan to initiate a sign-up campaign to nominate Talmadge’s son Herman as a secret writing campaign candidate. They thought his father’s rural supporters had enough votes in the General Assembly to elect Herman Talmadge.
T.The state of Georgia recently passed a new constitution and created the new office of lieutenant governor to be filled in the 1946 elections. Under that document, the newly elected lieutenant governor would be appointed chief executive officer if the governor died in office.
The new constitution made no mention of who would become governor if the Democratic candidate died in office before the oath of office.
An open opponent of Talmadge, Melvin E. Thompson, had been elected to the position and would be eligible for office after Talmadge’s death.
In January 1947, the legislature convened to fill the vacancy and it was chaos.
The Talmadge Forces wanted lawmakers to elect Herman Talmadge, the enrollment winner, and Thompson supporters wanted the General Assembly to elect their candidate.
The state constitution contained a provision that the election results are not confirmed until the legislature has taken and approved the result.
Thompson unsuccessfully asked the panel to confirm the election results so that he would have a stronger position to claim governorship.
Talmadge forces prevailed after winning a motion to delay confirming the voting results and immediately elect a new governor.
On January 15, 1947, the Talmadge legislature prevailed and Herman Talmadge was elected governor.
Marvin Thompson immediately filed a lawsuit that would ultimately be tried by the Georgia Supreme Court.
The incumbent governor, Ellis Arnall, entered the battle by announcing that he would not leave office until the question of who would be the new governor was resolved.
Arnall had been an anti-Talmadge governor and opposed many of Gen’s policies. Arnall’s refusal to give up governorship led to a physical confrontation between his and Gen’s supporters that resulted in fistfights.
When Talmadge asked Arnall to acknowledge the election of his son Herman as governor by the General Assembly, Arnall declined.
As a result, Talmadge ordered state forces to remove Arnall from the Atlanta capital and bring 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 taken control of the governor’s office and changed the locks on the doors.
The controversy continued when Arnall set up an office for a satellite governor in exile in an information kiosk in the capital. Ultimately, however, due to the public outcry, Arnall gave up his claim to governorship and supported Thompson.
With Arnall’s departure, Georgia had only two governors, and both had exercised their powers to appoint government officials who were adding further chaos to the state.
In March 1947, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision that Thompson would be the incumbent governor until a special election could be held to fill the remainder of the 1947-1951 term.
Talmadge left the governor’s office immediately after the decision and began campaigning for the governor in the September 1948 special election.
Herman Talmadge won the election largely with the support of younger voters and World War II veterans, in addition to the rural support his late father had always possessed.
It also helped that his followers created the perception that the anti-Talmadge force had stolen the election.
The carousel of elections, with three governors (one dead) seated at the same time, had a detrimental effect on Georgia’s national image and the state became America’s mockery.
The “woolly hat boys” of poor white people who had to plow and pick cotton and other agricultural products themselves after the civil war had always supported Gene Talmadge and also supported his son Herman.
Some ancient historians stated that such a circus could only have taken place in Georgia, while modern history buffs claim that the same kind of entertaining politics could have occurred in Counties Walker or Catoosa.
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(If you have additional information on an article by Mr. Summers, or if you have any suggestions or ideas about a future historical piece from the Chattanooga area, please contact Mr. Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org.)