Texas History: Jim Ferguson fought to bitter end

By Bartee Haile

His fate was already sealed when Gov. James Edward Ferguson rose to speak on Sept. 24, 1917.

The defiant defendant aimed his parting shot not at the 28 jurors, whose minds were already made up, nor the hostile gallery but at the people of Texas. “You have decided to remove me from office so that another man can take it. But you have made a political issue which will follow you and which this state will fight over for the next twenty years.”

Moments later the senate voted 25-3 to convict Ferguson on ten of the 21 articles of impeachment. To prevent his resurrection, the jury then turned executioner and banned the deposed governor from state office for life.

The 43-year-old Bell County banker was the darkest gubernatorial horse imaginable in 1914, when he challenged the machine candidate for the Democratic nomination. Party power brokers snorted at the audacity of the brash newcomer and assured each other that team player Tom Ball would clean his plow at the polls.

But Ferguson’s astute analysis of the electorate counted far more than his inexperience. With three out of four Texans living on farms or in small communities, any fool could plainly see the rural vote was the key to success in a statewide contest. Yet, after the decline of the Populist movement at the turn of the century, politicians would not give their country cousins the time of day.

James Ferguson, coat-and-tie businessman, became “Farmer Jim,” shirtsleeved defender of the downtrodden. Concentrating on the plight of the rural poor, he promised destitute sharecroppers immediate relief and a fair shake. Making more than 150 campaign appearances in the countryside compared to only ten in the cities, the spellbinding stump speaker gave hope to the demoralized “little people.”

Tom Ball never knew what hit him. A hundred and thirty-three counties went for Ferguson as the novice won 55 percent of the primary turnout. The November 1914 general election was the usual cakewalk for the designated Democrat.

The new governor kept his promise to the sharecroppers by pushing the Tenant Law through the legislature. That the reform was struck down in the courts did not make a dime’s worth of difference to the Ferguson faithful, who also applauded the generous pardon policy that sent sanctimonious city folks through the roof.

Ferguson was feeling his oats after winning reelection in 1916. Against the advice of his closest counselors, he picked a quarrel with the most potent lobby in the state – the herd of Longhorn alums. His denunciation of the University of Texas as a tax-supported elitist enclave struck a sympathetic chord with his constituents, most of whom had been forced by economic necessity to drop out of school at an early age.

Although Ferguson’s attack did contain an anti-intellectual undercurrent, he was motivated by more than mere contempt for academia. The issue was grass-roots education. “The state is spending $272 a year on the university student,” he explained, “and only $7.50 on the children in the little red schoolhouse.”

His veto of the university appropriation brought the matter to a head. Will Hogg, son of the popular ex-governor and leader of the influential Ex-Students Association, launched the crusade to chastise Ferguson.

When the prohibitionists jumped on the impeachment bandwagon, the tide turned against the combative incumbent. His subsequent refusal to identify the brewers lobby as the source of a six-figure secret loan doomed him in the senate.

Two months after his removal, Ferguson introduced the weekly newspaper that would carry his message for the next 18 years. Blazoned across the masthead of the Ferguson Forum were the twin pillars of his philosophy:  “Agin High Rents” and “Agin High Taxes.”

The ex-governor tested the political waters less than year later by running against his replacement in the Democratic primary. William P. Hobby beat him by more than two to one, but 217,000 supporters cast their ballots for the banished maverick.

Following an independent bid for the presidency in 1920 and a U.S. Senate race in 1922, his foes again wrote off Ferguson. But he bounced back in 1924 with the tongue-in-cheek offer of “two governors for the price of one.”

Miriam was the official standard bearer in the husband-and-wife team’s bruising battle with the Ku Klux Klan. The Fergusons won that confrontation, which ripped the sheets from the white supremacists and earned “Ma” a place in the history books.

Miriam Ferguson returned for a second term in 1932 after back-to-back defeats in 1926 and 1930. She tried again in 1940 but was buried in the W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel avalanche. Fergusonism had finally run out of steam.

Today the Fergusons are ridiculed as the Ma and Pa Kettle of twentieth-century Texas politics. But to the impoverished and powerless, whose cause he consistently championed, Farmer Jim was the only politician who ever seemed to care about them.

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his web site barteehaile.com.

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