It’s hard not to like the down-home folksy style that made Texas Governor Jim Ferguson so enormously popular 100 years ago. After all, he was known as “Farmer Jim.” He often said, “Civilization begins and ends with the plow.” Ferguson was a mesmerizing speaker and storyteller and was splendidly fluent in the dialects of rural Texas. Texas was blue, then, really indigo. To be the democratic nominee for governor was the same as being elected governor.
As historian Cortez Ewing pointed out, Ferguson was the “voice of the people,” and with his 6th grade education, he promoted the idea that he had not “suffered the damages” of higher degrees. He liked to say he was no “city slicker” and no “college dude.” A government doesn’t require “educated fools” to run properly. Ferguson would often call into question the value of a college diploma, saying it was “book learning gone to seed.” He said some professors took three years to learn “you couldn’t grow wool on an armadillo.” His constituency, he claimed, “resided where the creeks forked” and he felt they were getting short-changed by not getting enough basic education while the kids at UT were getting too much of it. He said those kids go up to Austin for four years and return home with nothing but “a mandolin and liver damage.” As my brother Redneck Dave would say, “That right there is funny. I don’t care who you are.”
He did some good things. I suppose the best of them was substantially increasing the funding for public education in Texas, particularly benefitting rural Texas, and creating a Texas Highway Department, even though he later raided the funds with impunity.
As much as one might appreciate Ferguson’s homey aphorisms, a word he’d likely have found objectionable because of its academic taint, his style loses its charm when you learn all that was revealed at his impeachment. In sum, his down-home authenticity faded away to reveal a man who was mostly a fraud. He claimed to be a successful business man; he was not. He claimed to be painstakingly honest; he was an embezzler. He was an avowed enemy of the KKK, but to hear him talk about black people you’d have thought he had earned his hood. He said the governor served the people, but he used the power of the office to reward his friends and crush not just his political enemies, but good servants of the state whose only offense was not voting for him. Farmer Jim wasn’t even much of a farmer, though he owned a few farms and was incredibly loyal to farmers.
There were two major parts to the impeachment charges brought against him in 1917. The first had to do with his abuse of power while attempting to micromanage the University of Texas. The second had to do with his utilization of the Temple Bank he had controlling interest in as his personal slush fund.
The UT battle was the one he should have avoided. It proved his undoing. Basically he wanted 5 professors fired for the unstated reason that they had spoken out publicly against his candidacy for governor. He told the UT President, Dr. Robert E. Vinson, he wanted them fired. Vinson asked what they had done to deserve it and he said, “I don’t need a reason, I’m the Governor.” He told Vinson that he fought him on this “he was in for the biggest bear fight in Texas history.” That fairly summarized his attitude about his power. It was, in his mind, absolute. When Vinson refused to fire the professors, he went after the Board of Regents to get them to do his bidding. When they wouldn’t, he started replacing them one by one and withheld state funding from the university to force the university to obey his orders. This led to a special session being called by the legislature itself to press for Ferguson’s impeachment.
Here’s where Ferguson made his first greatest legal blunder. The legislature cannot call itself into special session. Only the governor can do that. So to prove this to them HE called a special session to consider UT funding he could sign. While there, legislators legally took up another matter, impeachment. The house sent 21 articles of impeachment to the Senate. And here Ferguson made his second blunder. He showed up most every day to his own trial, invited or not, with two armed Texas Rangers as escorts. He gave a speech in his own defense and blamed the charges on that “N-word loving Senator from the north, Senator Johnson” (not Lyndon – I’ve cleaned that up for you). Hearing the gasps in the chamber, he immediately asked to strike the comment. He took the stand on his behalf and was mostly a weak and contradictory witness, unable to explain discrepancies. The fact is that he had parked state funds in his bank for personal gain and he had run his bank as a one man Ponzi scheme. He loaned himself so much money that he practically bankrupted his own bank. He blamed his directors for running a shoddy operation.
The Senate found him guilty on five charges relating to mishandling of public funds and abuse of power in relation to the university. The vote was 25-3. Even his former political allies couldn’t find him innocent in the face of such damning evidence – and his own indefensible behavior. But the day before the conviction was certain to come down, Ferguson cleverly resigned, claiming then that they couldn’t uphold an impeachment for someone who wasn’t actually in office. This was a vital point to him because the impeachment barred him from running for any office in Texas for life. He later ran anyway claiming that he had resigned before he was convicted. The Texas Supreme Court disagreed – so he had his wife run in his place. And she won.
One final note of incredulity. In her first term, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, as she was known, had a law passed that gave amnesty to all Texas officials formerly impeached. Of course, her husband was the only one the amnesty applied to. She even used the word “Christian” in the law implying that Christian forgiveness was appropriate here.
Ewing, Cortez “The Impeachment of James E. Ferguson.” Political Science Quarterly, 48 (June 1933), 184-210.
Wilson, Carol O. In the Governor’s Shadow: the true story of Ma and Pa Ferguson. University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2014.