Herman Talmadge, son of Eugene Talmadge, served as governor of Georgia for a brief time in early 1947 and again from 1948 to 1954. In 1956 Talmadge was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his defeat in 1980.
Talmadge, a Democrat, was governor at a time of political transition in the state, and he served in the Senate during a time of great political change in the nation as well. As a member of the southern bloc of the Senate, Talmadge was a staunch opponent of civil rights legislation, but he began to reach out to Black voters in the 1970s. In 1979 the Senate officially denounced Talmadge for financial misconduct. The Senate’s censure, in part, led to Talmadge’s defeat at the hands of Republican Mack Mattingly in 1980.
Herman Eugene Talmadge was born on August 9, 1913, in Telfair County. Talmadge was the only son of Eugene and Mattie Thurmond Talmadge. He married Katherine Williamson in 1937; they divorced three years later. In 1941 he married Betty Shingler, and they had two sons, Herman Eugene Jr. and Robert Shingler. Talmadge received his law degree in 1936 from the University of Georgia. After practicing law for several years, Talmadge joined the navy, where he saw extensive combat duty in the South Pacific during World War II (1941-45) and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Upon returning home, he soon found himself running his father’s last gubernatorial campaign in 1946. Eugene Talmadge was one of only two people elected governor of Georgia on four separate occasions. Thus the stage was set for Herman Talmadge to follow his father into politics. Before the year ended, Talmadge became embroiled in a political controversy following the death of his father.
When Eugene Talmadge died after winning his fourth election for governor but before being sworn in, the General Assembly eventually elected Herman Talmadge as governor. This move led to the “three governors controversy.” Talmadge took office as governor in January 1947; two months later the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had acted in an unconstitutional manner. Talmadge immediately vacated the office and prepared to run for governor against Melvin E. Thompson in a special election held in 1948. He easily won this election and was subsequently reelected governor for a full four-year term in 1950.
During Talmadge’s administration the state enacted its first sales tax, which helped fund a vast improvement in the state’s public education system. Talmadge also helped attract new industry to the state and was an early advocate for the burgeoning timber industry. His years as governor can be considered generally progressive in the context of Georgia politics at that time. However, like most southern governors of that era, Talmadge was a staunch segregationist who resisted all attempts to integrate the public school system. In May 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation as unconstitutional, he was among the loudest critics of the court decision and wrote a book entitled You and Segregation (1955).
U.S. Senate Career
In 1956 Herman Talmadge was elected to the first of four terms in the U.S. Senate. Joining Richard B. Russell Jr. as Georgia’s junior senator, he quickly established a reputation as a foe of desegregation and civil rights legislation. Upon arriving in the Senate, he secured an appointment to the powerful Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, where he could help shape all bills dealing with the interests of the farming community. In this role Talmadge represented the interests of Georgia farmers in the Senate. He served as chair of the committee from 1972 until January 1981.
Talmadge’s main focus in the Senate was the protection of rural America. He sponsored a bill creating the food-stamp program to assist the nation’s poor. His purpose in so doing was not only to aid those who were hungry but also to ensure that the nation’s farmers would have guaranteed markets for their products. True to his conservative reputation, Talmadge advocated provisions in this welfare bill that forced able-bodied recipients to work for the benefits. He also championed bills aimed at creating programs to protect agriculture commodities through price controls. One of the most significant commodity programs was aimed at peanuts, one of Georgia’s largest cash crops. Talmadge also introduced the Rural Development Act of 1972, which provided grants and federally guaranteed loans to rural areas for the improvement of infrastructure. Industrial parks were aided by this program, as were water and sewage systems.
Besides his contributions in agriculture, Talmadge was also a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversaw the nation’s tax system. He consistently supported balanced budgets, and in 1973 he favored a constitutional amendment that would have required Congress to pass only balanced budgets except during a national emergency. He advocated a variety of bills over the years to cut federal spending to balance the budget.
In 1973 Senator Talmadge received national attention as part of the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal. Watergate involved corruption and its coverup by U.S. president Richard Nixon and members of his administration, leading to Nixon’s resignation from office in August 1974. Talmadge won praise for his folksy yet intelligent questions during the committee’s televised hearings.
End of a Career
After his long years of Senate service, Talmadge was defeated for reelection in 1980. A combination of factors led to his downfall. One was his self-admitted alcoholism, which spiraled out of control after his son, Bobby, drowned in 1975. More destructive to his career, though, were allegations of financial misconduct. In 1979 the Senate denounced him for “reprehensible” behavior. He was charged with accepting more than $43,000 for reimbursement of expenses not incurred. At that time Talmadge and his wife, Betty, were going through a bitter divorce, and Betty Talmadge testified against her former husband before the Senate Ethics Committee. Talmadge’s personal, marital, and financial troubles strengthened a tough challenge from Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Although Talmadge won renomination in a runoff, he was sufficiently weakened to be vulnerable in the general election, where he was defeated by Republican Mack Mattingly. Talmadge later admitted that he had underestimated the change in Georgia politics.
After his defeat Talmadge kept mostly out of the public eye, retiring to his home in Hampton, in Henry County. Always conservative, the lifelong Democrat quietly supported Republican Johnny Isakson’s 1990 gubernatorial run. His health declined in the late 1990s, and he died at his home on March 21, 2002, at the age of eighty-eight.
As governor, Talmadge helped effect a great deal of progressive change in Georgia government and public education. Although he was never as influential in military and international affairs as were Georgia senators Walter F. George, Richard B. Russell, and Sam Nunn, he was a key national figure in the formation of legislation aimed at aiding rural America.