John Nance Garner was born in a log cabin near Detroit, now in Red River County, Texas in 1868 to John Nance III (1834-1919) and Sarah Jane Guest (1850-1932) Garner. He was the first of about a dozen children. He attended law school at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, but did not graduate. In those days, it was common to serve as an apprentice to another lawyer and then sit for the Texas bar exam. Jack Garner passed the bar exam and set up a law practice in Uvalde, Texas where he met his future wife, Ettie Rheiner. A life long Democrat, Garner was elected county judge in 1893 and five years later elected as state representative.
There are a number of theories about how he got his nickname, one being a reference to his prickly but witty and eccentric personality. Another being that he once introduced a bill that the cactus bloom be named the state flower, but this flowering bloom was declined in favor of the bluebonnet. We tend to favor the latter explanation as being the most likely origin. His home spun demeanor might have led some to believe that he was just a poorly educated cowboy, but he was called the “best read, most highly intelligent politician in Washington.”
He helped establish the 15th congressional district and served as its United States representative for fifteen two year terms from 1903 to 1933. He became better known on a national basis and considered making a run for President in 1931. He was somewhat successful but the next year, he realized that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the front runner, had a better chance to win and recommended that his Texas and California delegates go over to Roosevelt, for which he was selected to be Roosevelt’s running mate.
Once he became vice president with Roosevelt’s election, he was quite vocal about what he called the uselessness of the office, referring to it as the “spare tire of government,” and “almost wholly unimportant,” and as not being worth a “pitcher of warm spit,” among other more earthy expressions. This quote is attributed to Garner, “Worst damn-fool mistake I ever made was letting myself be elected Vice President of the United States. Should have stuck to my old chores as Speaker of the House. I gave up the second most important job in the government for one that didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
However, despite Garner’s bellyaching, he has been referred to as one of the most effective vice presidents in history, helping to secure many of Roosevelt’s New Deal accomplishments. Particularly of interest to Texans was the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Prior to its enactment, only 2% of Texas farms had electricity and over the next thirty years under the Act, by 1965, only 2% of farms were without electric power. Differing with Roosevelt over spending, Garner declined to run with Roosevelt in 1940 (he may have been uninvited to run again) and was replaced on the ticket by Henry A. Wallace. Returning to Texas, Garner retired from politics and moved back to Uvalde. He had served in politics a total of forty-six years, twenty-seven of them in Congress, “spanning from the horse and buggy days to the rocket age,” it was said of him.
Garner’s unique looks and personality made him a natural subject for political cartoonists. Garner is depicted below as congratulating Sam Rayburn on his election as House Majority Leader in 1937.
(Image credit: C. K. Berryman political cartoon –
UNT Portal to Texas History)
He enjoyed many years of retirement. He would quip that people would come by to see him just to see what a former vice president looked like. In 1958, he celebrated his 90th birthday in Uvalde. The invitation list included then Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. He never lost his ability to craft a witty reply. At his party, a reporter asked him, “Are we invited to your party?” to which Garner replied, “Invited, Hell! You don’t need to be invited. It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Garner’s birthday was also the same day of the Kennedy Assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Cactus Jack is believed to have received Kennedy’s next to last phone call, made from the President’s suite in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. Kennedy had wished Garner a happy 95th birthday.
The following quote is attributed to Cactus Jack and is from an acceptance speech he delivered in 1932. “There are just two things to this government as I see it. The first is to safeguard the lives and properties of our people. The second is to insure that each of us has a chance to work out his destiny according to his talents. This involves proteting him from being injured or oppressed by those of superior acquisitiveness and perhaps less conscience.”
Garner died two weeks before his 99th birthday on November 7, 1967. He is buried in the Uvalde Cemetery. His home was converted into the John Nance Garner Museum.
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