Eugene Talmadge (September 23, 1884–December 21, 1946), a demagogic governor of Georgia, became a major opponent of the New Deal. Born in Forsyth, Georgia, to a prosperous farmer and cotton gin operator, Talmadge tasted farm work but had more aptitude for schoolwork. A superb debater, he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1904. After a short stint teaching at a rural school, Talmadge returned to his alma mater for a law degree and began practicing in Atlanta in 1907.
Talmadge soon moved to the greener pastures of small-town Georgia but tired of being paid in produce by his poor clients. After briefly farming, he entered politics and won a statewide election in 1926 as agricultural commissioner. A conservative who sought to maintain the Old South, Talmadge constantly urged farmers to keep doing what they had been doing despite the collapse of farm prices. Using a populist approach, he built a substantial power base among poor whites that propelled him into the governor's mansion in 1932 and kept him there in the 1934 election. Profane, quick-tempered, arrogant, and in possession of a mean streak, Talmadge preferred confrontation to compromise and government by executive decree. Not surprisingly, he had enormous trouble putting his programs into effect.
Once a supporter of Roosevelt, Talmadge soured on the president's policies by 1934. The emerging social activism and growing federal involvement of the New Deal offended his governmental and social philosophies. Privately critical of Roosevelt's programs, he came out publicly in opposition in 1935. Complaining that work relief programs benefited loafers and made it impossible for farmers to find anyone willing to accept low pay for menial tasks like plowing, he denounced the popular Civilian Conservation Corps. The Agricultural Adjustment Act came under similar attack.
Talmadge did not grasp that the Great Depression had forced an attitudinal change among Georgians. Unable to practice self-sufficiency, they regarded government relief programs as a godsend. Talmadge consequently lost the 1936 Georgia Senate race to Richard Russell in one of the biggest landslides in Georgia history.
Returned to the governor's mansion in 1940, Talmadge toned down his anti-Roosevelt rhetoric but increased his racial baiting. After insisting upon the termination of University of Georgia professors who advocated racial equality, the university lost accreditation and Talmadge lost the 1942 election. He formed the Vigilantes, a Ku Klux Klan-like group, to intimidate opponents and won the 1946 gubernatorial election but died a month before assuming office.
Anderson, William. The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge. 1975.
Logue, Cal M. Eugene Talmadge: Rhetoric and Response. 1989.
Caryn E. Neumann