I know two versions as to how James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson became a lawyer back in 1897. In the first story, the chairman of bar exam committee was an old family friend, or he bought the man who actually administered the test a bottle of whiskey. One or both had to be true, since Ferguson was expelled from college without a degree. Two years after becoming a lawyer, the 28 year old married Miriam Wallace. Considering the couple's subsequent behavior, the New Year's Eve nuptials were obviously timed for tax purposes.
How he became Governor of Texas in 1914 is another interesting tale. In what I call the “Virgin Mary” version, “Farmer Jim” (above) rejected nomination by the anti-prohibition party, but all the other candidates withdrew, thrusting greatness upon him. The only problem is that Ferguson had been a political manager for ten years, and had even directed the election campaign of the previous Governor. All things considered, I don't think he was entitled to wear white to this wedding.
In his day job he was a successful banker, even though it was the farmers who elected him. “Farmer Jim” had “considerable native ability and...a captivating personality. As a political speaker he had few equals.” And his election, well funded by the liquor industry, was just part of the 1914 anti-prohibition wave in Texas. The laws he introduced to limit farm land rents were declared unconstitutional, but in politics its usually the thought that counts. Not unexpectedly, he did not achieve much in his first two year term. Being Governor of Texas is a little like being a “fluffer” in a porn movie. There were charges Ferguson had used state funds to buy groceries, but voters still awarded him with a second term in 1916. However, shortly thereafter, “Farmer Jim”, ran into real trouble.
Deciding that college professors were easy targets, Ferguson wanted to fire the “lazy and corrupt” University of Texas history professor Eugene C. Barker. When UT President Robert Vinson asked for evidence, “Farmer Jim” feigned outrage. “I don't have to give any reasons, I am governor of the State of Texas!” He then vetoed UT's next budget. At the same time Farmer Jim announced a five member search committee, which he chaired, had chosen to build a new campus for the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical college in Abilene. Speaker of the Texas House, F.O. Fuller, who was also a committee member, signed an affidavit that he had not voted for Abilene. And when Lt. Governor William Hobby submitted a similar affidavit, Fuller charged “Farmer Jim” had fixed the vote in exchange for a bribe. Ferguson then submitted his own affidavit insisting he had not voted for Abilene either - meaning that Abilene had won the new campus despite no one who was willing to admit having voted for it. On July, 23rd, of 1917, Speaker Fuller called for a special session of the Texas legislature, to consider impeaching the Governor.
Now, only the Governor could call a special session, and Fuller's move would have come to nothing had not Governor Ferguson been indicted shortly thereafter by a Travis County grand jury for embezzlement of pubic funds. “Farmer Jim” had no trouble making the $13,000 bail, but he was now desperate to change the subject. First he announced his re-election campaign for a third term, and then he called for a special session of the state legislature to reconsider a budget for the University of Texas. The legislature did meet that August, but they spent all their time removing “Farmer Jim” from office.
Ferguson went down insisting his impeachment by this “kangaroo Court” was unconstitutional because he had not called the legislature for that purpose. Nobody seemed to care. Seeking to avoid the worst, “Farmer Jim” resigned from office the day before the final vote. Again, nobody seemed to care. The State Senate voted 25 to 3 to toss him out of office, and added the proviso that James Ferguson was henceforth bared from holding any elective office in the state of Texas. In 1918 he tried again for the governorship, but was defeated in the primary by Acting Governor Hobby. And in 1922, when the state Supreme Court affirmed the lifetime bans, it seemed his criminal career had been cut short.
But “Farmer Jim” (above) followed a motto from a 1922 newspaper poem. “Never say “die”—say “damn.” It isn’t classic, It may be profane. But we mortals have need of it, time and again; And you’ll find you’ll recover from fate’s hardest slam, If you never say “die”—say “damn.” Anybody who thought that James Ferguson was finished, did not truly know James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson. Or Miriam
On the 1924 campaign trail she became “Ma”, and she hated that name. But it worked so well as in the slogan - “Me for Ma, and I Ain't Got a Durned Thing Against Pa” - that it stuck. She began every stump speech by assuring voters that with her they would get “two governors for the price of one”, and then she would introduce her husband, James “Pa” Ferguson. Ma and Pa won the election with 57% of the vote. When they pulled up in front of the Governor's mansion in Austin, Miriam crowed, “We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory.”
The one thing Miriam did not say, during her tenure was “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” Although it is often attributed to Miriam, the quote goes back to at least 1881. But in her January 1925 state-of-the-state address to the legislature, “Ma” Ferguson did point out Texas' prisons were so overcrowded, she had to decided to “adopt a most liberal policy in the matter of pardons.” She then proceeded to hand out, on average, 100 pardons a month. Some were granted even before the convicted prisoner had reached the prison. The joke around Austin was that a visitor met Governor Ferguson at the Capital's front door. As he stepped aside to let the lady enter first, he said, “Pardon me.” To which Miriam replied, “Sure. Come on in. It'll only take a minute or two to do the paperwork.”
But it wasn't only the number that bothered people, it was the methodology. Most of “Ma's” (above center) pardons were granted on the sole recommendation of “Pa” (above, to her right). In one interview, it was alleged, a father, begging for a pardon for his son, was exasperated the ex-governor kept trying to sell him a horse for $5,000. Finally the father demanded, “What on earth would I want with a $5,000 horse.” “Farmer Jim” replied, “Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him.” Said an insider, “Jim's the governor; Ma signs the papers."
In 1926, Attorney General Dan Moody (above right) decided to run against the corrupt “Ferguson-ism”, and Miriam and James (above left) lost by 150,00 votes in the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to general defeat in the one-party state of Texas. In 1928, for the first time in 12 years, there were no Ferguson on the ballot in Texas. In 1930, the couple tried again, but again failed in the primary. Then, in 1932, with the depression ravaging the nation, Texans were desperate enough to give Ferguson-ism another try, and Ma was elected to a another two year term. This time there were rumors of kickbacks in the highway department, but nothing could be proven, and in any case, even Texas was not big enough to overcome the world-wide depression. Miriam lost her re-election bid in 1934, and a year later, just to be sure, the voters passed an amendment to the state Constitution which took the power to pardon out of the governor's hands..
James and Miriam (above, center) tried one more time in 1940, for old time's sake. But “Farmer Jim” was getting frail, forgetful as to who he was angry with. His stump speeches were few and not as powerful as they once were. And “Ma” had never been that interested in politics. The dynamic duo went down to ignominious defeat. In September of 1944, “One of the most colorful and divisive...figures ever in Texas politics”, James “Farmer Jim” “Pa” Ferguson died of a stroke. Miriam, the second woman governor in United States history, lived for another 17 years, and never said another political thing in her life. She died of heart failure, at the age of 86, in 1961.
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