Joseph M. Terrell served two consecutive terms as governor of Georgia during the Progressive Era and earned a reputation as Georgia’s “education governor.” Among his administration’s chief accomplishments in the state’s public education
Early Life and Career
Joseph Meriwether Terrell, one of six children who survived to adulthood, was born in Greenville, in Meriwether County, on June 6, 1861, to Sarah Rebecca Anthony and Joel Edgar Green Terrell, a physician. He studied in the “common schools” of Greenville and, at the age of fourteen, rather than work in a family-owned drugstore, began working on the family plantation. He did not attend college; at nineteen he entered the study of law under Greenville attorney John W. Park and was admitted to practice in February 1882.
In 1884, at the age of twenty-three, Terrell won one of two Meriwether County seats in the Georgia House of Representatives. He was reelected in 1886, the same year that he married Jessie Lee Spivey, and was defeated in 1888. In 1890 he won the Thirty-sixth Senatorial District seat—representing Campbell, Coweta, Douglas, and Meriwether counties—by defeating A. J. Snelson, a Georgia Farmers Alliance–backed candidate to whom Terrell had lost his house seat in 1888. A self-declared “uncompromising friend of common school education,” Terrell had supported house legislation to fund the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (later Savannah State University) in Savannah, and he urged the use of property taxes to help fund public schools. His first act in the state senate was to introduce legislation expanding the common-school year to six months, but the bill failed. A reluctant supporter of the convict lease system, he succeeded in passing legislation to direct the system’s revenue to the counties of prisoners’ convictions and to put short-term felons and misdemeanor offenders to work on building public roads. He also supported the state railroad commission, which was established in 1879, and he promised to oppose any efforts to reduce its regulatory powers.
Elected state attorney general in 1892, Terrell served unopposed for five terms. He represented Georgia in several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won every case he argued there. His most notable victories included a pair of important railroad tax cases—Columbus Southern Railway v. Wright in 1894 and Central Railroad and Banking Co. v. Wright in 1896—which upheld Georgia laws empowering counties and municipalities to tax railroad property. In Hennington v. State of Ga. (1896) the Supreme Court agreed with Terrell and affirmed a state law prohibiting railroads from running on Sundays, and in Williams v. Fears (1900), it agreed with his argument that Georgia’s tax on “emigrant agents” was constitutional. In a landmark 1897 criminal case, Terrell convinced the justices to uphold the conviction of the notorious Twiggs County murderess Elizabeth Nobles, setting a precedent that a state trial court’s refusal to impanel a jury to judge a capital prisoner’s sanity was not a denial of due process of law.
A popular and respected attorney general, Terrell considered a campaign for governor in 1898 but waited until 1902 to resign his post as attorney general and declare his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination. That year, in a contest with Savannah newspaper publisher John H. Estill and Macon attorney Dupont Guerry, Terrell won the nomination. In the general election Terrell overwhelmingly defeated the state Populist Party candidate, J. K. Hines, a judge who appeared on the ballot in spite of having declined his party’s nomination. As governor, Terrell’s aggressive agenda reflected the reform-minded spirit of the Progressive Era that swept the country during the early twentieth century. He lobbied for tax equalization, new and improved educational institutions, and election reforms. He succeeded in getting the legislature to cap property-tax rates and to levy a tax on quasi-public corporate franchises. Election reform was more difficult, and the best Terrell could achieve was a law that banned vote buying and selling. His administration oversaw the creation of a state court of appeals and a juvenile offender reformatory, improvements in child labor law, and the enactment of a pure food and drug law.
Although Terrell governed during a relatively prosperous economic period in Georgia, he faced a conservative legislature in a state where some still considered state-supported education to be a dubious legacy of Reconstruction. When Terrell took office in 1902, the state school fund provided roughly the same support for a child’s education that it had provided twenty-five years earlier. Terrell’s first major success came when the General Assembly agreed to legislative changes that made it easier for counties to levy local taxes with which to supplement the state school fund. The creation of eleven (later twelve) district agricultural and mechanical schools in 1906 established a much-needed precedent for the development of Georgia’s system of public high schools.
Upon his retirement from the governorship in 1907, Terrell returned to practicing law and remained involved in civic affairs. In 1909 he served as arbitrator in the Walker P. Inman estate case, and he chaired a “good roads” committee overseeing a proposed Atlanta-to-Columbus highway. His continuing involvement in political affairs was most evident in his alliance with Joseph M. Brown, whom he had appointed to the state railroad commission in 1904 and supported in the 1908 race for governor against Hoke Smith. Thus, upon the death of U.S. senator Alexander Clay in 1910, Governor Brown appointed Terrell to Clay’s senate seat until it could be filled by either legislative selection or primary election.
Terrell suffered a stroke in February 1911 while working in Washington, D.C., but announced himself as a candidate to fill the remainder of Clay’s term. However, the legislature chose the current governor, Brown’s nemesis Hoke Smith, over Terrell. After a public controversy in which Smith refused to leave the governor’s office until December and Terrell refused to serve while Smith remained governor, Terrell retired from public life. Still partially paralyzed by the stroke and in poor health throughout the next year, Terrell died from Bright’s disease at the age of fifty-one on November 17, 1912. He was survived by his wife and was buried in Greenville’s City Cemetery.