Three Governors Controversy
Georgia's "three governors controversy" of 1946-47, which began with the death of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge,
In the summer of 1946 Eugene Talmadge won the Democratic primary for governor for the fourth time. His election was assured because the Republican Party in Georgia was not viable and had no nominee. However, Talmadge was not healthy, and his close friends began to fear that he would not live until the November general election or would die before his inauguration in January 1947.
There was one problem with this plan: the new state constitution created the office of lieutenant governor, which would be filled for the first time in the 1946 election. The lieutenant governor would become chief executive if the governor died in office. The constitution was not clear about whether the lieutenant governor–elect would succeed if the governor-elect died before he took the oath of office. Melvin Thompson, a member of the anti-Talmadge camp, was elected lieutenant governor in 1946. Naturally, the Talmadge forces were not eager for Thompson to become the next governor.
Eugene Talmadge died in late December 1946. When the General Assembly convened in January 1947, the immediate order of business was to fill the vacant governorship.
The Third Claimant
As the legislature was electing Herman Talmadge governor and Thompson was preparing a court fight to dispute Talmadge's election,
Talmadge asked Arnall to honor the General Assembly's election. Arnall maintained that the legislature had no right to elect a governor and refused to step aside. Talmadge then ordered state troopers to remove Arnall from the capitol and see that he returned home safely. On January 15, the day of the legislative election, both Herman Talmadge and Ellis Arnall claimed to be governor of Georgia and shared the same offices in the capitol. By the next day Talmadge had seized control of the governor's office and had the locks on the doors changed. Arnall continued to maintain his position as governor and even set up a governor's office in exile in an information kiosk in the capitol. Ultimately, Arnall relinquished his claim as governor and supported Thompson.
An Anticlimactic Ending
After Ellis Arnall surrendered his claim to the governorship, Georgia was still left with two governors, each of whom had appointed government officials. The result was two months of chaos.
In March 1947 the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Melvin Thompson was the rightful governor because he was lieutenant governor–elect when Eugene Talmadge died. In a five-to-two decision the justices ruled that Thompson would be the acting governor until a special election could be held to decide the remainder of the original term, which would have run from 1947 to 1951. Within two hours of the court decision, Herman Talmadge left the governor's office. His apparent capitulation surprised many who thought that he might challenge the ruling. Almost immediately he began campaigning for the special election in September 1948.
In hindsight, the controversy seems almost comical, a relic of an era of Georgia politics that is long dead. At the time, however, it was a source of great embarrassment for business leaders of the state. Georgia's national reputation, already unsavory, took an even further blow.
Harold Paulk Henderson, The Politics of Change in Georgia: A Political Biography of Ellis Arnall (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Calvin Kytle and James A. Mackay, Who Runs Georgia? (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
Herman E. Talmadge, Talmadge: A Political Legacy, a Politician's Life (Atlanta: Peachtree, 1987).
Scott E. Buchanan, Columbus State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.