Three Governors Controversy – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Georgia’s “Three Governors Controversy” of 1946-47, which began with the death of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge, was one of the most bizarre political spectacles in the annals of American politics.

Following Talmadge’s death, his supporters proposed a plan that allowed the Georgia legislature to elect a governor in January 1947. When the General Assembly elected Talmadge’s son, Herman Talmadge, as governor, the Newly elected Lieutenant Governor Melvin E. Thompson claimed the governorship, and incumbent Governor Ellis Arnall refused to leave office. Eventually, the Georgia Supreme Court settled the controversy.


In the summer of 1946, Eugene Talmadge won the Democratic gubernatorial primary for the fourth time. His election was secured because the Republican Party of Georgia was unviable and had no candidate. However, Talmadge was in poor health, and his close friends began to fear that he would not live before the general election in November or die before his inauguration in January 1947.

After much legal research, supporters of Talmadge found questionable constitutional and statutory precedence for the election of a governor by the state legislature if the governor-elect died before taking office. According to their conclusions, the General Assembly could choose between the second and third electors of the general elections. Because no Republican candidate would run, Talmadge forces felt that a written candidate with enough statewide votes would be second or third behind Talmadge, and the General Assembly could choose that candidate if the situation so required. justified. The stalwarts of Talmadge therefore chose to present Talmadge’s son, Herman, as a secret candidate in writing.

There was a 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 function. The constitution was unclear as to whether the lieutenant governor-elect would succeed if the governor-elect died before taking the oath. Melvin E. Thompson, a member of the anti-Talmadge camp, was elected lieutenant governor in 1946. Understandably, Talmadge’s forces were not eager for Thompson to become the next governor.

Two applicants

Eugene Talmadge died in late December 1946. When the General Assembly met in January 1947, the immediate order of business was to fill the vacant governorship. Talmadge’s forces wanted the legislature to elect Herman Talmadge, while Thompson’s allies lobbied the legislature to declare Thompson governor. According to the state constitution, election results were not official until certified by the General Assembly. Thompson wanted the General Assembly to certify the declarations so that, as the official elected lieutenant governor, he would have a stronger claim to the governorship. Talmadge’s forces, however, won a close vote to delay certification of the vote and move immediately to selecting a new governor. On January 15, 1947, the General Assembly elected Herman Talmadge as Governor. Meanwhile, Thompson has started legal proceedings to appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Herman Talmadge

The third applicant

As the Legislature elected Governor Herman Talmadge and Thompson prepared for a court battle to challenge Talmadge’s election, incumbent Governor Ellis Arnall announced that he would not relinquish the position until it was clear who was the new governor. Arnall’s actions galvanized Talmadge supporters, who bitterly hated his anti-Talmadge policies. The Talmadge legislative election caused a confrontation between the Talmadge and Arnall camps. Although the two politicians maintained their decorum, fights broke out between their supporters.

Talmadge asked Arnall to honor the General Assembly election. Arnall argued that the legislature had no right to elect a governor and refused to stand down. Talmadge then ordered state troopers to remove Arnall from the capital and ensure that he returned home safely. On January 15, the day of the legislative elections, Herman Talmadge and Ellis Arnall claimed to be governor of Georgia and share the same offices in the capital. The next day, Talmadge had taken over the governor’s office and had the door locks changed. Arnall continued to maintain his governorship and even established a Governor-in-Exile office at an information kiosk in the capital. Ultimately, Arnall relinquished his claim to governor and supported Thompson.

A disappointing ending

After Arnall relinquished his claim to governorship, Georgia was still left with two governors, each of whom appointed government officials. The result was two months of chaos. Although both politicians claimed the governorship, neither could sign legislation or take official action because Georgia’s Great Seal had been hidden by Secretary of State Ben Fortson, who swore it. hidden under the cushion of his wheelchair, where he would remain until the court delivered its verdict.

In March 1947, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Melvin E. Thompson was the rightful governor because he was lieutenant governor-elect when Eugene Talmadge died. In a five-to-two decision, the justices decided that Thompson would be acting governor until a special election could be called to decide the remainder of the original term, which would have lasted from 1947 to 1951. In both hours following the court’s decision, Herman Talmadge left the governor’s office. His apparent capitulation surprised many who thought he might challenge the decision. Almost immediately he began campaigning for the September 1948 special election.

In hindsight, the controversy seems almost comical, a holdover from an era of Georgian politics that is long dead. At the time, however, it was a source of great embarrassment for business leaders in the state. Georgia’s already disreputable national reputation took an even bigger hit. Additionally, the episode had several far-reaching consequences. First, it enhanced Herman Talmadge’s political reputation. His handling of the court’s decision earned him much respect among young voters and veterans of World War II (1941-1945). Die-hard Eugene Talmadge supporters, the “wool hat boys”, flocked to young Herman because they felt anti-Talmadge forces had stolen the election. The events of 1946-48 also marked the last breath of the anti-Talmadge faction. After Herman Talmadge’s easy victory over Thompson in 1948, no declared member of this faction ever held the governorship again.

Herman Talmadge

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