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Ed Rivers and Georgia’s “Little New Deal”

(The following article originally appeared in The Atlanta Historical Journal, Volume XXX, Number 1, Spring 1986 and is reprinted with permission.)

Ed Rivers and Georgia’s “Little New Deal”

By Jane Walker Herndon

The administration of Arkansas-born Eurith Dickinson Rivers was one of the most progressive in recent Georgia history. His “Little New Deal” greatly expanded the services of the state and promoted cooperation between Georgia and the national government. He reversed the conservative policies of his predecessor, Eugene Talmadge, and actively sought to increase the services offered by the state through cooperation with the national New Deal.

Ironically, as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1933 to 1935, Rivers had been aligned with Talmadge. But the cooperation between Rivers and Talmadge was never based on deep loyalty; simple political expediency dictated that the two men cooperate as each pursued his separate goals. Rivers never fully shared Talmadge’s deeply ingrained conservatism. In his two unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 1928 and 1930, Rivers had advocated liberal platforms. As a brash young man with almost no financial backing, he had campaigned diligently for governor in 1928. His impressive showing in that campaign had perhaps raised his expectations unduly. Two years later harsh reality closed in. In his second race for governor he finished third in a field of four, winning only 22 percent of the popular vote. After this failure, he reassessed his situation and decided to take a slower, more practical approach. He chose to run for state representative from his home county of Lanier and at the same time to campaign among other legislators for the speakership of the Georgia House. His goals was still the same: he wanted to be governor of Georgia, but he realized that he needed a secure political base from which he could seek his goal.

In the same year that Rivers sought the speakership, Georgians voted overwhelmingly for both Franklin Roosevelt for President and Eugene Talmadge for governor. Initially, the political disparity among these three was not obvious to the electorate. During his first two years as governor, Talmadge frequently criticized the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the Bankhead Crop limitation program. He was especially chagrined by the minimum wage paid on relief projects. because it ran counter to his most deeply held convictions. Put simply, he could not bear the thought that black men would receive the same wages as white men. (1) Nevertheless Talmadge’s criticism of the New Deal during his first two years in office was mild compared to his later invective.

The break between the strong-willed governor and the ambitious Speaker did not occur until near the end of the 1935 legislative session when Rivers introduced a series of bills designed to enable Georgia to cooperate with New Deal programs. Talmadge vetoed all of these measures, and the fight between the two men began. In the ensuing months, Talmadge became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Roosevelt. In one speech he claimed that the child labor amendment, the banking reform act, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act were “almost the complete Communistic form of government.” On another occasion he asserted that the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the AAA were “all in the Russian primer and the President has made the statement that he has read it twelve times.” (2) The comment which most offended Georgia supporters of the President was Talmadge’s cruel statement that “The next President who goes to the White House will be a man who knows what it is to work in the sun fourteen hour a day. . . . That man will be able to walk a two-by-four plank, too.” (3)

At the same time that Talmadge was criticizing Roosevelt, Rivers was campaigning for governor on a platform promising full cooperation with the new Deal. Prohibited by the state constitution from serving another term as governor, Talmadge chose to run for the United States Senate against Richard Russell, Talmadge’s protege. Charles Redwine, opposed Rivers in the gubernatorial race. the Democratic primary that year came closer to presenting the options offered by a two-party system than previous races. In almost all of the state-wide campaigns, candidates lined up as either pro-Roosevelt or as pro-Talmadge. In 1936 the liberals “had their day” as Georgians voted overwhelmingly for Rivers, Russell, and the other pro-New Deal candidates.

After his victory Rivers began immediately to plan for his administration. he went to Washington to obtain from federal officials guidelines for legislation that would enable Georgia to receive increased federal funds. later he held a series of conferences with members of the General Assembly to enlist their support for his program. In what one Talmadge partisan described as “the bill passin’est session since Oglethorpe climbed out on Yamacraw Bluff,” the 1937 General Assembly under Rivers’s leadership enacted legislation that profoundly changed the nature of Georgia’s government. (4)

A State Planning Board was created to assist the state in obtaining federal funds and to make long-range plans for overseeing the development of Georgia’s resources. Under the supervision of a newly created Department of Natural Resources, the number of acres in state parks expanded from 5,000 to 17,000. Upon Rivers’s recommendation, the General Assembly created the State Housing Authority and the Rural Housing Authority to enable Georgia to receive federal funds for slum clearance and construction of new housing projects. In fewer than four years 8,667 urban housing units were constructed and 1,530 houses were built in rural areas. By the end of the Rivers administration, Georgia led the nation in the number of rural housing projects and in the amount of money per capita spent on urban housing. (5)

The opposition of Governor Talmadge had prevented Georgia from participating in the national rural electrification program. When Rivers became governor, he obtained the necessary legislation for Georgia to establish such cooperatives. Within four years, the state received over seventeen million dollars in Rural Electrification Administration allotments and led the nation in the number of REA cooperatives. (6)

A major achievement of the Rivers administration was the expansion of the state’s public health services. In 1936, the state’s expenditures for public health barely exceeded $100,000; during Rivers’s first term, the legislature appropriated $600,000 for the State Department of Public health, allowing the state to receive federal matching funds for a total budget of $1,000,000. Additional funds enabled the state to increase the number of maternal health care centers and county health departments in rural areas. In conjunction with the federal government, the department increased the number of clinics for the treatment of venereal diseases from 19 to 154 and greatly expanded its work in malaria control, community sanitation, and distribution of vaccines. (7)

Perhaps the most significant change made under Rivers’s leadership was the reorganization of Georgia’s Department of Welfare. Talmadge’s deeply ingrained belief in individualism and self-help simply had not been in harmony with New Deal relief programs. He once told Gay Shepperson, the director of the Georgia Relief Commission, that the best way to handle individuals on relief would be to “line them up against a wall and give them a dose of castor oil.” (8)

Talmadge’s outspoken opposition and his continual interference with federal officials led Harry Hopkins to federalize Georgia’s relief program in April 1935, a dubious distinction shared with only three other states. When Rivers took office, the need to expand the powers of the state welfare department and to enact legislation to allow Georgia to cooperate with the federal government was acute. The state welfare department acted merely as an advisory board and had no funds for direct aid for the needy, thus placing the responsibility for providing direct relief on county and city governments, most of which were financially unable to handle the increased burden of relief necessitated by the Great Depression. Many counties cared for the poor by maintaining poor houses. Conditions in these homes were deplorable; thirty-six were maintained adjacent to prison camps, and over half of them had no running water. (9)

Rivers pushed through the General Assembly a bill reorganizing and greatly expanding the powers of the Georgia Department of Public Welfare. It was given the power to serve as the certifying agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and National Youth Administration (NYA) and to assist in administering other federal relief programs. The new law required all counties to establish welfare departments which were to be supervised by and receive nine-tenths of their administrative funds from the state.

Talmadge’s belief in laissez-faire government led him not only to oppose the expansion of state welfare agencies but also to block legislation that would have allowed Georgians to receive Social Security benefits and the other income-maintenance programs established by the Social Security Act. Talmadge had told the General Assembly he was convinced that “if we adopt an old age pension, we are taking another step toward destruction.” (10) After becoming governor, Rivers obtained the passage of two constitutional amendments to enable the state to match federal funds for old-aged assistance, aid to the needy blind, and aid for dependent children. Ratification of these amendments allowed Georgia to cooperate with federal agencies and to receive federal funds. Moreover, for the first time, the state had a modern welfare department capable of dealing with twentieth-century problems.

Still another significant accomplishment of Rivers was to call attention to the need to improve conditions at those state institutions that cared for the mentally ill, the handicapped, and juvenile delinquents. Political platforms to be successful must appeal to a large segment of voters. Consequently, most Georgia politicians saw little political advantage in advocating increased expenditures for the state’s public health institutions. Rivers’ concern for these individuals was genuine; he seized every opportunity to point out the deplorable conditions that existed in these institutions and to arouse public support for improving them. Rivers’s greatest concern was to improve the facilities at the state mental institution in Milledgeville. Overcrowding at the hospital forced almost 2,000 patients to sleep in corridors while 1,000 others who were unable to obtain admittance were kept in county jails. Several of the buildings at Milledgeville were nearly a hundred years old and in a state of disrepair. Many lacked fire escapes; one was heated by coal stoves located in the center of each room and surrounded by chicken wire to prevent patients from brushing against them and burning themselves. (11)

Rivers proposed that the legislature create the State Hospital Authority with power to issue bonds to match federal funds for constructing new buildings and making repairs on existing buildings. By taking advantage of federal matching funds, the state was able to construct five new buildings at the state mental hospital, to build a new and enlarged tuberculosis sanatorium, and to make major repairs at five other state charitable institutions. By using federal grants and WPA labor, the state also was able to build a new state office building. In addition, 5,000 miles of highways and bridges and 1,291 miles of rural farm-to-market roads were constructed between 1937 and 1941. (12)

When Rivers became governor, Georgia’s prison system was badly in need of reform. His attempts to institute reforms in this area brought him much favorable publicity, perhaps more than deserved, for many of the changes made in the penal system were superficial. The old Prison Commission was replaced with two separate boards: a Board of Penal Administration to manage all prisons and a Prison and parole Commission to review the records of all prisoners and to recommend probation or parole. Other legislation provided for classifying prisoners according to their offense and establishing honor camps for certain prisoners. The state expanded its facilities by purchasing the large prison built by the WPA at Reidsville. Still another law abolished the use of chains and shackles and prohibited the use of the sweatbox and other forms of cruel punishment. (13) Despite these improvements, Georgia’s prison system remained woefully inadequate; significant improvements could not be accomplished until the practice of leasing prisoners to counties for road work was ended. Since rural counties profited from using prisoners to work on roads, local politicians blocked all efforts to change the system. However, the reforms instituted by Rivers formed a basis upon which later governors could build.

Throughout his public career, Rivers had sought to improve the quality of education provided for Georgia children. A major plank in his campaign for governor had been his promise to provide free textbooks for all students and to extend state financing for public schools from four to seven months. Rivers once estimated that the average cost of textbooks for a student was thirteen dollars a year. When one considers that the average per capita income of Georgians in the 1930s was $253 a year, the burden that buying textbooks placed on poorer families is obvious. A report by the State Department of Education estimated that one-third of Georgia’s white students did not have the minimum number of books needed and that one-third had no books at all. Blacks undoubtedly had even fewer books; in one black school, the only book available was a mail-order catalog. (14) During Rivers’s first term, the legislature reorganized the State Department of Education, instituted a program of free textbooks, and provided state funds for a seven-month school term. In four years before Rivers became governor, the state spent $29,404,112 for public education; during his tenure as governor, appropriations rose to $48,954,857 (15)

Other reforms obtained by Rivers included major revisions of the state’s tax system. For many years, economists had advocated repeal of the state’s constitutional requirement that all property taxes be levied at a uniform rate. Rivers was able to obtain an amendment allowing the legislature to tax stocks and bonds at rates different from ad valorem property. Another amendment allowed the legislature to exempt from property taxes homesteads valued up to $2,000. A third amendment exempted from taxes personal property worth up to $300. (16)

In a relatively short time, Rivers was able to accomplish sweeping reforms in the organization of the state government and to expand significantly the services provided by the state. Equally important, his administration began a trend toward centralizing power in the state government which led toward equalization of educational opportunities and other services available to Georgians.

Unfortunately, these accomplishments have been overshadowed by the failure of Rivers to obtain adequate taxes to fund his programs and by allegations that his administration was riddled with graft. During his last year as governor, a federal grand jury indicted four members of the Rivers administration for conspiracy to defraud the state, and after he left office a Fulton County grand jury indicted Rivers, his son, and seventeen other members of his administration. Although no one was ever convicted of the charges brought by the Fulton County grand jury, and only two of those indicted by the federal grand jury were found guilty, the impression remained that Rivers’s administration was one of the most corrupt in twentieth-century Georgia. (17)

Despite the damaging effects of the grand jury indictments, nothing had more destructive consequences for Rivers than the rumors that he sold pardons as governor. Several factors focused attention on the pardons Rivers gave, but most important was the large number granted just before he left office. During his final two weeks as governor, Rivers granted two hundred pardons; in his last twenty-four hours as governor, he pardoned seventy-five men, twenty-two of whom were convicted murderers. These “midnight pardons” served to discredit Rivers in the eyes of Georgians and to destroy his political career completely. It should be noted that during his two terms as governor, Rivers granted a total of 1,897 pardons, considerably fewer than the 3,083 granted by Talmadge during one term. (18) Although Talmadge did receive some criticism from the press for granting so many pardons, Rivers, not Talmadge, was tarred with the reputation of running a “pardons racket.”

The grand jury indictments and the suspicion that he sold pardons destroyed Rivers’s reputation, but actually the basic difficulties he faced as governor and political leader resulted from factors he could not fully control. These included developments on the national scene, conditions with the state, and perhaps flaws in his own personality as well.

Georgia’s political system enhanced the power of those who favored conservative economic policies. Poll taxes, literacy requirements, white primaries, and other restrictions on black voting often prevented those who would have benefited most from the “Little New Deal” fro participating in the electoral process. The one-party system produced issueless politics and promoted the rise of colorful personalities who resorted to demagogic appeals to attract voter attention. Elections based on personalities rather than on issues failed to offer the poor an effective channel through which they could express a desire for change and made it difficult to carry out a sustained reform program. Consequently, those satisfied with the status quo were often perpetuated in power.

Georgia’s county unit system exacerbated still further the obstacles to implementing thoroughgoing reforms. By giving small rural counties disproportionate influences on elections, the system increased the power of conservatives who opposed expansion of government service. Voters in Georgia’s rural counties were often controlled by wealthy farmers, merchants, and bankers—the so-called “county-seat elites.” These men tended to be fiscal conservatives who opposed any increase in taxes to aid the poor. Free school books, expanded health services for the poor, and aid to the blind, the elderly, and the disabled were of little concern to me imbued with traditions of self-help and rugged individualism.

The New Deal programs of Roosevelt and Rivers not only went against the county elites’ system of values but also threatened their economic dominance and the political power that they were accustomed to wielding. Social Security and other benefits were granted on an impartial basis, not according to the whims of local politicos. Federal relief, subsidized credit, and public works jobs reduced dependency on local bankers and merchants, while federal and state agencies usurped control that local officials were accustomed to exercising.

Moreover, by the time Rivers became governor, the long-range implications of many New Deal programs were beginning to become apparent. As blacks, urban ethnic groups, and labor unions gained greater voice in the national Democratic Party, many Georgians became alarmed. Roosevelt’s decision to intervene in the 1938 Democratic primary to “purge” Sen. Walter George angered many Georgians, and since Rivers had been closely associated with the President, the move seriously damaged his popularity. Rivers was re-elected by a narrow margin in 1938, and the legislature elected that year was openly hostile to the governor.

Despite the obvious need for money to finance the Little New Deal, the legislature ignored the desperate pleas of Rivers and refused to levy new taxes. This failure to obtain adequate revenue meant that many of the proposed Little New Deal programs never became reality. during River’s second term, the state fell behind in the payment of school teachers’ salaries; the average monthly payment for old-age assistance was next to the lowest among southeastern states; and the state ranked first in applications pending for aid to dependent children, the needy, blind, and the aged. When Rives left office, the state had a deficit of $14,500,000 and future maturing obligations of $38,500,000. (19) These failures, following as they did Rivers’s campaign promises that no major tax increase would be necessary, gave credence to the charges of his opponents that his administration was extravagant and riddled with corruption.

In attempting to explain Ed Rivers’s failure as a political leader, one must also consider certain intangible factors. His reputation will perhaps always be less than it might have been because he was never able to win the affection and trust of most Georgians. Although the voters might have admired his intelligence and wit, these qualities often made him appear to be perhaps too clever and engendered a vague feeling of distrust among the voters. Moreover, Rivers’s demeanor, his polished and urbane manner, were such that the poorer farmers were never able to identify with him. By the time Rivers began his rise to political prominence, Eugene Talmadge was well established on the political scene. Talmadge’s conservative economic policies may have contained little help for the downtrodden, but he gave them the feeling that no matter how drab their lives, somehow, through him they were flinging defiance at their enemies. In his direct, “hell-of-a-fellow” manner, Talmadge was able to brush aside any criticism by the press or the so-called “better element.” For example, when, as Commissioner of Agriculture, Talmadge was accused of stealing, he simply told the wool hat boys, “Sure I stole, but I stole for you.” And there the matter rested. Although Rivers’s concern for the poor was genuine, he was never able to convince Georgia’s rural folk that he had their interest at heart. They always felt that Gene, not Ed, was “their man.”

In retrospect, Ed Rivers’s landslide victory in 1936 did not represent a desire by Georgians to institute a broad expansion of social services for the underprivileged. Instead, it represented a reaction to Talmadge’s arbitrary use of the state militia to oust officials and his intemperate criticism of President Roosevelt. Rivers’s victory in 1936 was made possible in part by the voters’ desire for “respectable” government. The pardons scandal and the indictments by the grand juries alienated the “better element,” and because they felt that they had been betrayed, their anger was greater than ordinarily would have been the case.

Perhaps if Roosevelt’s power and prestige had continued unabated after 1937 or if Gene Talmadge and the county seat elite had not been present to thwart his best laid plans, the administration of Ed Rivers might well have ended, not in disaster, but on a note of high triumph. A gregarious, out-going individual eager to be liked by all, Rivers, perhaps, was not ruthless enough when the going got rough. Yet his contributions to Georgia were substantial. He changed the structure of state government and created system of administration adapted to both local needs and co-existence with growing federal powers. Ed Rivers was, if nothing else, “forward-looking,” an accolade deserved by few of Georgia’s chief executives during the first half of the twentieth century.


Jane Walker Herndon is professor of history at DeKalb College, central campus.

1. Sarah McCulloch Lemmon, “The Public Career of Eugene Talmadge: 1926-1939 (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1952), 189-91; Benjamin Stolberg, “Buzz Winthrop, Governor of Georgia,” Nation 142 (March 4, 1936): 270.

2. Atlanta Constitution, May 7, 1935; New York Times, October 10, 1935.

3. New York Times, April 19, 1935.

4. Allen L. Henson, Red Galluses, A Story of Georgia Politics (Boston, 1945), 181.

5. Georgia General Assembly, Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, 1937 (Atlanta, 1937) 29-94; and 210-30; Georgia Executive Department, Executive Minutes, January 11, 1941, E.D. Rivers, “Final Message.”

6. Georgia Laws 1937, 644-59.

7. Georgia Department of Public Health, Annual Report for 1937 (Atlanta, 1938), 11-14; T.F. Abercrombie, History of Public Health in Georgia, 1733-1950 (n.p., no.d.), 54, 99, 139, 144; Walter Davenport, “Bad Blood Wagon, ” Collier’s 103 (May 27, 1939): 10.

8. Michael S. Holmes, The New Deal in Georgia: An Administrative History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1975), 28.

9. Ibid. 64-73, 177-86; Georgia Department of Public Welfare, Report, 1932-1935 (Atlanta, 1935), 47-8, 97.

10. Georgia General Assembly, Journal of the House of Representatives (Atlanta, 1935), 2904.

11. Georgia Department of Public Welfare, Annual Report for the years 1939-1940 (Atlanta, 1940), 61.

12. Rivers, “Final Message,” 246, 257.

13. “Chain Gang Dropped,” Literary Digest 124 (December 11, 1937): 9-10; Tarleton Collier, Penal System: A Reflection of Our Lives, Citizens Fact Finding Movement of Georgia, Series 3, no. 7 (Atlanta, 1940), 3-5.

14. Georgia Department of Education, Annual Report for the Biennium Ending June 30, 1938 (Atlanta, 1938), 5; Rivers, “Final Message,” 239.

15. Rivers, “Final Message,” 243. M.D. Collins, “What the Legislature did for Georgia Schools,” Georgia Educational Journal 30 (September 1937): 14-15.

16. Robert Preston Brooks, The Georgia Property Tax: History and Administrative Problems, Institute for the Study of Georgia Problems, Monograph no. 7, vol. 50 (Athens, 1950), 14; Georgia Laws, 1937, 38-41, 1122-24.

17. Atlanta Journal, August 25, 26, 1940; January 24, 1941; January 4, 5, 1942; November 29, 1942.

18. Ibid., December 22, 1940; January 28, 31, 1941; Executive Minutes 1941-1943, passim.

19. Georgia State Auditor’ Department, Annual Report for the Fiscal Year June 30, 1940-July 1, 1941 (Atlanta, 1941), 12, 73-76, 510-13.