Three Governors Controversy

The Georgia Governor’s Race of 1946

Joe McGlamery, president of the Bulloch County Historical Society, isn’t sure about whether spies were involved. But he is certain that after the legislative vote count in January 1947 Herman Talmadge’s hoped-for political comeback seemed over.

When governor-elect Eugene Talmadge died of a liver ailment before taking office, three men claimed his position. The controversy was settled by the state Supreme Court.

Gene Talmadge

During his three terms as governor, controversy swirled around “Ol’ Gene” Talmadge like flies in a Georgia summer. He was a fiery orator with a reputation for down home witticisms that electrified rural voters.

He used federal subsidies to improve state services, lowered license tag fees and utility charges, and even declared martial law to control a textile strike. However, he also lost the loyalty of his supporters by seeking to purge university professors who favored integration and by firing the entire Board of Regents for refusing to comply with his demands. Ten public universities lost their accreditation as a result.

When incumbent Democrat Ellis Arnall decided not to seek reelection, Talmadge ran for the United States Senate against senior Senator Walter George. He appealed to white rural voters by idealizing the small farmer, preaching rugged individualism, frugality, governmental economy, and segregation. He won a majority of county unit votes in the Democratic primary, but lost the general election to George.

Ellis Arnall

The sitting governor and his two challengers were locked in a battle over the state’s top job. Known as a racial moderate, Ellis Arnall had opposed Eugene Talmadge’s effort to purge state universities of integration advocates while he was attorney general. During his four years as governor in the 1940s, he brought sweeping changes to the state’s colleges and abolished prison chain gangs.

But when Herman Talmadge won the election to succeed his father and the legislature elected him governor, Arnall refused to step down and set up a governor’s office in exile at an information kiosk in the capitol. His stand galvanized the Talmadge camp, and fistfights broke out at political rallies. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court declared Thompson governor until the next year’s special election. A year later, Herman Talmadge won the contest and became Georgia’s 58th governor.

Melvin Thompson

In the summer of 1946, Melvin Ernest Thompson of Millen won the Democratic nomination for governor by a county-unit vote. But he made only 279 campaign speeches that year because of cirrhosis, and in December he died before being sworn in as governor.

The state constitution had a clause specifying that if the governor-elect died before taking office, the legislature would elect his successor from the two candidates who received the highest number of votes in the general election. The late Eugene Talmadge had won a huge majority of the vote, and his son Herman claimed to have received more write-in votes than Thompson and Ellis Arnall combined.

The result became known as the Three Governors Controversy. The controversy inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James V. Carmichael to visit Telfair County and interview voters, who largely supported Thompson. The stories he wrote won him the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. In March 1947, the Georgia Supreme Court decided that Thompson, as lt. governor, was obligated to assume the governorship.

Herman Talmadge

Herman Eugene Talmadge, the son of Georgia governor Gene, ran his father’s successful 1946 gubernatorial campaign. He was concerned that his elderly father might not make it to the office of governor, so he studied the state constitution and found that if the duly elected governor died before taking the oath, the legislature would choose between the second- and third-place finishers.

Talmadge’s advisers therefore arranged for him to win the write-in votes, and he finished in a close second to Ellis Arnall. As a result, the state legislature elected Herman Talmadge governor in early 1947. But the outgoing governor, Melvin Thompson, claimed the office as his own, and he refused to leave until the issue was settled by the Georgia Supreme Court.

This tumultuous period in Georgia politics has entered the nation’s folklore, with its legends of ballot tampering, political dynasty, and fist fights. In this video, Herman Talmadge, now in his late 80s, talks about the race and its aftermath.

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