Born on August 9th, 1913 in Telfair County, Herman Talmadge carried on the political legacy of his father, Eugene Talmadge. He served as governor of Georgia for a brief time in early 1947, following his father’s death, and then again from 1948 to 1954. As governor, Herman followed in his father’s footsteps and defended segregation, doing everything in his power to prevent school integration in Georgia. At the same time, despite his father’s firm belief in a balanced state budget, Herman significantly increased government spending to improve the state’s infrastructure. In 1956, Talmadge transitioned into a new phase of his political career when he was elected as a U.S. senator, a position he remained in for the next 24 years.
Before the start of his political career, Herman received his law degree in 1936 from the University of Georgia and practiced law with his father for several years. Like many of his peers, Herman’s life changed dramatically when the United States officially entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Predicting U.S. involvement in the war, Talmadge enlisted in the Navy in April 1941 and requested active duty. He served on the U.S.S. Tyron and the U.S.S. Dauphin seeing extensive combat. Following 52 months of active duty in the South Pacific, he was discharged in November 1945 with the rank of lieutenant commander. His combat duty in the Pacific Theater was a life-changing experience for Herman, fundamentally shaping his view of leadership, politics, and the world.
When Herman returned home at the end of World War II, he planned on going back to his law practice and he had no intention of entering political life. However, these plans changed following his father’s death in December 1946. Eugene Talmadge died after winning the 1946 gubernatorial election but before his inauguration. Hoping to fulfill his father’s promises to the voters, Herman urged the Georgia General Assembly to elect him as governor even though his name was not on the ballot. While the Georgia General Assembly did elect Herman as governor in 1947, this decision failed to resolve the issue. Two other candidates, Ellis Arnall and M.E. Thompson claimed the title of governor and opened their own offices in downtown Atlanta. Only 67 days after his first inauguration, Herman vacated the governor’s office when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that M.E. Thompson was the rightful governor until a special election could be held in 1948. Herman won the 1948 special election in a landslide and in 1950 was again elected for a full four-year term as governor.
During his time as governor, Herman’s administration brought change and progress to the state. Enacting the state’s first sales tax, Herman was able to fund substantial improvements to the state’s infrastructure including dramatically improving the public education system, attracting new industry to the state, and creating an unprecedented highway construction program. While in some ways a progressive governor, like most southern politicians at the time, Talmadge strongly opposed desegregation. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 to strike down segregation as unconstitutional, Talmadge was a leading critic of the decision. In 1955, he wrote a book entitled You and Segregation which called on southern states to oppose the court’s ruling.
Elected one of Georgia’s U.S. senators in 1956, Talmadge continued to oppose civil rights legislation and nationally, he became known as an enemy of integration. During his time as senator, Herman served on several committees and championed bills aimed at helping America’s farmers. The end of his political career came when the Senate denounced him for financial misconduct in 1979. The next year, Republican Mack Mattingly defeated Talmadge in the election for his senate seat, ending his 24 years in the Senate. Following this defeat, Talmadge retired at his home in Hampton, Georgia where he would pass away on March 21st, 2002.
Herman Talmadge left behind a complicated and contradictory political legacy, one that while reminiscent of his father’s legacy, was necessarily different to meet the needs of a new, post-war world. Like his father, Herman did everything in his power to prevent the progress of racial integration and equality. Unlike his father, he expanded the power of the state and federal governments, pushing for an increase in government expenditures to improve the infrastructure of Georgia and rural America. Ultimately, Herman Talmadge was unable to adapt to the changing political landscape in Georgia and he faced defeat in 1980, ending a long and influential political career that helped to shape a post-war Georgia and world.
Locations for Journey
Journey Postscript*The words bolded throughout Talmadge's tour are those defined in the glossary for the accompanying Georgia Journeys Teacher's Guide.
Buchanan, Scott E. "Herman Talmadge (1913-2002)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 01 August 2019.
Cook, James. The Governors of Georgia, 1754-1995. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1995.