Texas Legends #2: John Nance Garner

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Texas was admitted to the union in 1845, but the role of Texans in presidential administrations was compromised by their aligning with the Confederacy as well as the Republican dominance of the presidency from 1869 to 1933. Although Joseph Weldon Bailey led the House Democrats from 1897 to 1899, the first Texan to be Speaker of the House was John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner (1868-1967). In 1893, Garner ran for county judge and was opposed by a young woman named Mariette Rheiner. He both won the race and her heart and they married in 1895, with her working as his secretary for the next 53 years. In 1898, Garner was elected to the State House and there he proved a such a strong supporter of the prickly pear cactus being the state flower that he from then on became known as “Cactus Jack”. In 1901, he voted to institute the state’s poll tax. The following year, he was elected to Congress representing the state’s 15th district. While there, Garner gained a progressive reputation and stood out as an opponent of Prohibition. However, he also voted for banning interracial relations in Washington D.C., prohibiting blacks from immigrating, and repeatedly voted against women’s suffrage. Although Garner often stayed quiet, he befriended practically everyone in Congress behind the scenes and gained knowledge of how both the House and Senate functioned, allowing his power to grow and by 1909 he had become Minority Whip. Garner was a foe of Prohibition and voted against the constitutional amendment. He and his friend House Speaker Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio), also a foe of Prohibition, would set up a private office called the “Board of Education” where legislators who liked whiskey went to imbibe and discuss politics, which Garner thought of as his way to “strike a blow for liberty” (U.S. House). During his time in Congress, he mentored another Texan he saw great potential in, Sam Rayburn, who would become the longest-serving House speaker in American history.

During the 1920s, Garner regularly attacked Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s tax policies, regarding them as too favorable to the rich. He would be known during the Republican administrations as “a Jefferson/Jackson Democrat – egalitarian, rural, states’ rights oriented, and populist” (U.S. Senate). His combativeness with the Harding and Coolidge Administrations as well as all the friendships he’d accumulated resulted in his election as Minority Leader in 1929. Garner, however, wouldn’t be in the minority long. In 1930, Democrats took back Congress and Garner was elected Speaker, the first Texan in American history to hold the post. His reign was characterized initially by cooperation with President Hoover but then by battles with him for allocating even more power to the federal government to fight the Great Depression and simultaneously for more economy. Garner even accused the Hoover Administration of “socialism” during the 1932 campaign. Although he ran for the Democratic nomination and had locked up the California and Texas delegations, he gave them to Roosevelt and in exchange he offered him the vice presidency, which he accepted, to his later regret.

FDR and Garner initially had a cooperative relationship that worked rather well: Roosevelt made him his liaison to Congress, where he was critical in getting many Democrats behind the New Deal. Although a supporter of the First New Deal including measures addressing agriculture, banking and finance, and the Tennessee Valley, he still had reservations about the increased power of organized labor and the National Industrial Recovery Act. He also had condemned the 1936 sit-down strikes and the following year he backed Congressional resolutions condemning the strikes. Garner saw them as intrusions on property rights. In 1937, he broke with Roosevelt over his proposal for the “court-packing plan” and started to turn against New Deal expansions. Garner didn’t place the blame for what he saw as the Roosevelt Administration’s problems and increasing turn to the left on Roosevelt himself, rather his cadre of “brain trusters”, of whom he was deeply suspicious. Organized labor didn’t care for him, with CIO head John L. Lewis calling him a “labor-baiting, poker-playing, whisky-drinking, evil old man”, but Garner didn’t mind as he thought “the majority of the people will feel that anyone Lewis can’t control is all right” (TIME). On December 17, 1938, Garner met with Roosevelt to try to reconcile, but it was unsuccessful. By 1940, neither Roosevelt nor Garner were keen to work with each other anymore. When it was still in doubt that Roosevelt would run for a third term, he attempted to gain the nomination for president. Garner even that year floated the idea of passing an anti-lynching bill, which was odd as he had voted against the 1922 Dyer Anti-Lynching bill, but this was apparently little more than an effort to attract support for a presidential nomination among black voters. This didn’t work of course, especially not after Roosevelt announced he was running for reelection, and picked Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace Jr. as his replacement. After his term was over, he left Washington, vowing never to return, and indeed he never did. For the next 26 years he would live in his home town of Ulvade, Texas, with politicians visiting and calling him as an “elder statesman”. Garner in retrospect wished he had stayed Speaker of the House so he could check FDR in the way that Speaker Joe Cannon had checked Teddy Roosevelt. He was famously reported as having characterized the position of VP as not worth a “warm bucket of spit”, but Congressman O. Clark Fisher (D-Tex.), his biographer, stated that Garner told him that he had actually said “warm bucket of piss” and remarked that “those pantywaist writers wouldn’t print it the way I said it” (Holley).In 1948, he suffered the loss of his wife, who had succumbed after a six-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy called Garner to wish him a happy 95th birthday only hours before his assassination.

Garner died on November 7, 1967, mere weeks before his 99th birthday, despite his habitual cigar smoking and his regular consumption of whiskey. As he said, “I’m living a good Christian life. I don’t get drunk but once a day” (Dingus). His lifespan was such that he literally grew up in a log cabin and lived to see the rise of the hippie movement. Garner ultimately was a major power player in Washington who had a dual role in the Roosevelt Administration as a key backer and a key detractor. It is safe to say that without him, much of the first New Deal would not have likely made it through. FDR’s Postmaster General James Farley stated his belief that the vice president was “more responsible than anyone” for the New Deal’s implementation (Patenaude). Garner’s lifetime MC-Index score is an 18%, which is indicative of progressivism from 1903 to 1931, but it doesn’t reflect his positions as vice president.


Becoming the Board of Education. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Briscoe-Garner Museum – Biography. Briscoe Center for American History.

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Dingus, A. (1996). John Nance Garner. Texas Monthly.

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Historical Notes: Of Men & Cats. (1948, March 8). TIME Magazine.

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Holley, J. (2014, July 26). “Cactus Jack” Garner was as prickly as his nickname. Houston Chronicle.

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John Nance Garner, 32nd Vice President (1933-1941). United States Senate.

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Patenaude, L.V. Garner, John Nance (1868-1967). Texas State Historical Association.

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