John “Cactus Jack” Garner: 32nd Vice President of the United States
Best remembered for his caustic remarks about the irrelevance of the office of Vice President, John Nance Garner of Texas was one of the country’s most powerful vice presidents. In his long career in the House of Representatives, he served fifteen terms with his last term as Speaker of the House. No vice president has ever brought to the office such legislative experience and influence, only Schyler Colfax, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, has ever served as both vice president and Speaker of the House of Representatives. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) liaison with Congress, Garner played a pivotal role in pushing through legislation that put the New Deal in place to combat the growing nation depression. Early in his second term, the outspoken Garner and the president became at odds with each other and the feud led to Garner seeking the Democratic nomination in 1940 election for president against FDR. FDR’s momentum and the threating war in Europe would carry him for a third term as president and Garner would retire to the back pages of political history.
Early Life and Education
John Nance Garner was born on November 22, 1868, in Blossom Prairie, a small town in Red River County, Texas, where his parents, John Nance Garner and Sarah Guest Garner, led modest lives as farmers, living in a simple log cabin. His father, a Confederate cavalry officer with illustrious ancestors in Europe, was the first who awakened political aspirations in young Garner, by engaging him in frequent political debates.
As a young boy, Garner attended a local schoolhouse but left the school after four years of primary education. At age eighteen, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, but dropped out after a semester, burdened by financial struggles. He returned home to his parents and began working for a local law firm. In 1890, Garner was admitted to the Texas bar. Around this period, his health started to decline and a doctor told him he had tuberculosis. Respiratory difficulties forced Garner to move to a drier climate in Uvalde, where he found a new job at a law firm.
John Garner and William Randolph Hearst - 1932 Presidential Election
Early Political Career
John Nance Garner entered politics in 1893, after winning the election for county judge in Uvalde County. Although women were not allowed to vote in Texas at that time, his main opponent was a woman named Mariette Rheiner, the daughter of a local rancher. After the election, the two fell in love and were married two years later. The couple had a boy, Tully Charles Garner. Mariette worked as her husband’s private secretary for the his three decades serving in the House of Representatives.
Garner served as county judge until 1896, when he lost the position because of a scam played by his political enemies. This did not discourage him and he sought a seat in the Texas Legislature, where he served for two terms, from 1898 to 1902. In this period, Garner earned the nickname “Cactus Jack” after a debate over the state flower, in which he supported the cactus blossom against the bluebonnet.
When Garner became chairman of the Democratic convention’s redistricting committee in Texas, he pushed for the formation of a new legislative district comprised of his home county and surrounding areas. Shortly after, he won election to Congress from this new congressional district. He was elected from the district for fifteen times, serving in the same position for the next thirty years.
In Congress, Garner’s ascent to leadership positions was slow but determined. During the 1920s, he became very popular among both Democrats and Republicans when he and Republican Nicholas Longworth formed the so-called “Board of Education”, a secret hideaway in the Capitol where they provided Congressmen with whiskey while also engaging them in ardent political discussions. Alcohol consumption was against the Prohibition laws, but the Board of Education brought Garner a lot of appreciation in political circles. Once asked why his hide-away watering-hole was called the Board of Education, Garner said, “You get a couple of drinks in a young congressman and then you know what he knows and what he can do. We pay the tuition by supplying the liquor.”
Gradually, Garner came close to a true leadership position. In 1929, he became minority leader and a year later, he was appointed Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. As Speaker of the House, Garner was in favor of federal income tax and fought tariffs which were detrimental to Texas. As the effects of the Great Depression engulfed the nation, he demanded a balanced budget. He was also a fervent supporter of rural development, pushing for investments in rural Texas to help local farmers.
By all accounts, Garner was very satisfied with his position as Speaker of the House and seemed content to maintain this position for as long as possible. Although rumors about his possible candidacy for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination were floating in political circles, Garner declared he was not interested in the presidency and that he fully supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, the party’s most popular candidate. However, many delegates preferred Garner. Because Garner strongly wanted to see his party win the national election and realized that Roosevelt had the power to make that happen, he agreed to endorse him. FDR secured the nomination, and Garner was chosen as his running mate.
Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner won an impressive victory in the 1932 presidential election. On Election Day, Garner was also re-elected for a seat in Congress but chose to accept the position of vice president, even though he was slightly disillusioned by the lack of political freedom allotted to vice presidents at that time.
Garner was not happy at having to leave the powerful position as Speaker of the House to become vice president. In an interview he said, “When I was elected vice president it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. As Speaker of the House I could have done more good than anywhere else.” He often referred to the speakership in the House as the second most important position in Washington. His only public complaint about his most widely published disdain of the vice presidency, - that is wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit.” – was reported incorrectly and in softer terms. What he had really said, he insisted, was that it wasn’t “worth a buck of warm piss.” He complained, “Those pantywaist writers wouldn’t print it the way I said it.” He also added, “Becoming vice president was the only demotion I ever had.”
Garner had spent decades in positions of leadership, and he couldn’t accept a redundant role in the new administration. He remained loyal to his political opinions, even if they blatantly contradicted the president’s views. Garner strongly believed that the Speaker of the House was the second most important position in the federal government and saw vice presidency as a downgrade from his former position. Despite’s Garner bitterness regarding his duties, Roosevelt really appreciated his wisdom and common sense. During Roosevelt’s first term, they enjoyed a warm and amicable relationship, although each remained loyal to his political creeds.
Things started to change after their re-election in 1936, which they secured easily. From this point on, the issues they disagreed upon largely outnumbered those that united them. The tension between them reached new heights when Garner refused to support the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 which would have allowed Roosevelt to reform the Supreme Court. The president wanted to make sure that his New Deal reform policies would no longer meet the Court’s resistance and the new bill was supposed to give him the power to appoint additional judges of his choice in a dangerous expansion of executive power. Garner bluntly told Roosevelt that the bill had no chance to pass. This caused a rift in their relationship, as Roosevelt was distraught by Garner’s severe criticism and realized that the vice president was no longer willing to support him against his own personal views. In truth, Garner began to think that Roosevelt’s legislative proposals became too daring and that the president was asking for unlimited powers.
Garner’s Split with FDR
Through his opposition to some of the president’s policies, Garner attracted the support of numerous fellow Democrats, who advised him to seek the presidency in the 1940 presidential election. The recession of 1937-1938 and dissensions regarding Roosevelt’s reform policies created a breach in the Democratic Party between the liberal North and the conservative South. Following the party’s division, Garner found a large base of support among the traditional faction of the Democratic Party for whom Roosevelt’s New Deal policies had not always been attractive. In 1940, at the Texas Democratic convention, the Democrats unanimously endorsed Garner for president. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt kept his plans for the election secret, which led to a lot of speculation on whether he would enter the race for the third time or not. He had claimed he wanted to retire, but few believed him. Many, including Garner, were disturbed by the idea of a president serving three consecutive terms, which was unprecedented in America history. To set things straight, Garner confronted Roosevelt directly and asked for his final decision. Roosevelt maintained his claim that he would not seek a third term. Moreover, the international threat posed by the ascent of Hitler in Europe contributed to Roosevelt’s inability to make a decision.
In December 1939, Garner finally declared his candidacy, three months after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Things were quickly settled at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Roosevelt did not participate but sent a letter, claiming that he would embrace the decision of the delegates, who were free to vote for whomever they wanted. It was the first time since the establishment of the party system that a sitting president and vice president both sought the party’s nomination. In a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm, an overwhelming majority of delegates voted for Roosevelt. Garner suffered a crushing defeat. Henry A. Wallace was chosen as Roosevelt’s running mate. All of a sudden, Garner’s role as a politician was over.
Garner is credited with helping push the New Deal legislation through Congress during his first term and resisting FDR’s plans to expand the powers of the executive branch. He had complained about the office of vice presidency as being very frustrating and limiting, and this was especially true in an administration run by one of the most powerful American presidents in history. Nonetheless, Garner’s career was productive, and even though he often disagreed with Roosevelt’s policies, he helped him carry the burden of his heavy political agenda.
Retirement and Death
John Nance Garner left the vice-presidential office in 1941, after 46 years of public service. He returned to Texas, where he focused on managing his personal affairs. He declared himself content to dedicate his time to family and friends. Although he retired from politics, he acted as an advisor for Democratic politicians who sought his guidance. In their retirement, his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and died in 1948. He would last another twenty-years before he would die on November 7, 1967, fifteen days before his ninety-ninth birthday. His son, Tully, was at his bedside.
John Nance Garner, 32nd Vice President (1933-1941). United States Senate. Accessed July 16, 2018.
John Nance Garner. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed July 16, 2018.
GARNER, JOHN NANCE. June 15, 2010. Texas State Historical Association. Accessed July 16, 2018.
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