Ellis Arnall (1907-1992)
Ellis Arnall's four years as governor of Georgia (1943-47) state debt of $36 million.
Ellis Gibbs Arnall was born on March 20, 1907, in Newnan, the son of Bessie Lena Ellis and Joseph Gibbs Arnall. He had one brother, Frank Marion II. After attending public school in Newnan, Arnall attended Mercer University and later transferred to the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1928 with a degree in Greek. After graduating, Arnall entered the law school at the University of Georgia, where he served as president of his class, his legal fraternity, the student body, the Interfraternity Council, and the Gridiron Club. He finished law school in 1931 and returned to Newnan to practice law. In 1935 he married Mildred Delaney Slemons, and they had two children, Alvan and Alice. Following the death of Mildred in 1980, Arnall married Ruby Hamilton McCord.
Arnall's rise to political power is one of the most remarkable chapters in the state's political history. Coweta elected him to the Georgia House of Representatives when he was only twenty-five years old. The members of the lower house twice elected him to the position of Speaker pro tempore, that body's second-highest elective office. Governor E. D. Rivers appointed Arnall to fill a vacancy in the office of state attorney general and, two years later, named him attorney general; Arnall was thirty-one years old. This appointment made him the nation's youngest attorney general.
In 1942 Arnall ran against Governor Eugene Talmadge, who was seeking reelection. Talmadge's interference in the running of the state's university system, in what became known as the Cocking affair, had resulted in the loss of accreditation of most of the state's public colleges. On this issue, the thirty-five-year-old Arnall defeated Talmadge to become the youngest governor in the nation.
Arnall provided four years of progressive reform, replacing the state's "Tobacco Road" national image with that of a progressive and forward-looking state. He successfully led efforts to restore accreditation to Georgia's institutions of higher learning.
Just as remarkable as Arnall's political ascendancy was his political decline. The state constitution prohibited gubernatorial succession, and Arnall suffered his first major defeat when he failed to persuade the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment allowing gubernatorial succession. Arnall also lost popularity by leading the efforts at the 1944 National Democratic Convention to renominate Vice President Henry A. Wallace.
The end of Arnall's tenure as governor proved to be as memorable as anything he actually achieved in office because of the "three governors controversy," a dispute over the rightful heir to the governorship that erupted in the wake of Talmadge's death one month after winning the election. With both the lieutenant governor Melvin Thompson and Talmadge's son, Herman, vying for the post-election vacancy, Arnall made it a three-way contest by refusing to vacate the governor's office until the dispute was settled. He dropped his claim to the office two months before the matter was resolved by the state supreme court, which ruled that Thompson would serve as acting governor until a special election could be held the following year.
After leaving the governorship in 1947, Arnall became a successful attorney and businessman in Atlanta. For a brief period governor in 1966. He was the front-runner in the Democratic primary in a field of six candidates, but he was forced into a runoff with Lester Maddox, a well-known segregationist. Maddox defeated Arnall in the runoff. The former governor never sought public office again.
Ellis Arnall died in 1992 at the age of eighty-five.
Media Gallery: Ellis Arnall (1907-1992)