An argument over spending tax dollars, an attempt to silence political opponents, and charges of a “kangaroo court.” This is not a current story but a faint echo of a notorious event in Texas History, the impeachment of Gov. James Ferguson. As a result of his actions, in 1917, Ferguson became the only Texas governor impeached and removed from office.
James Edward Ferguson, also called “Farmer Jim” or “Pa,” was born in Bell County in 1871. His father died when he was 4. He was kicked out of a local prep school, Salado College, at age 12 for misbehavior. He left home at 16, traveling and taking odd jobs until he returned to farm in Bell County. He became a lawyer in 1897, married Miriam A. Wallace in 1899, and expanded into real estate, insurance, and banking.
He was elected governor in 1914, his first election. He was a popular figure, signing laws protecting sharecroppers and providing state funding for rural schools. He was re-elected in 1916. Though he had signed legislation creating three new colleges, he found himself in a feud with professors at the University of Texas. Angry that two professors had openly criticized his administration, Ferguson demanded that the Board of Regents fire them. The regents refused. In retaliation, Ferguson vetoed the entire appropriation for the university.
The fight with the university touched off a massive scandal. At the same time, officials had begun looking into Ferguson’s finances. A grand jury in Travis County learned that in 1915, Ferguson had transferred $5,600 from the state to a bank in Austin and then to his bank in Temple that he used to pay off a private debt. In July 1917, he was indicted for misappropriation of funds. The legislature then came back into session to consider impeachment, an attempt Ferguson immediately condemned.
The Constitution gives Congress the power of impeachment in federal cases. The impeachment process begins with the House of Representatives. The Constitution gives the House power to impeach the president, officials appointed by the president (including cabinet officers), and judges. Similarly, the Texas constitution gives the lower house of the legislature power to impeach judges, the governor, and statewide elected officials. Impeachment is the equivalent of an indictment. To impeach, the House simply needs a majority vote on the different charges involved. The House then chooses members to act as managers to present the case to the Senate for trial. Senators will then act as jurors while the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the proceedings. The Senate can call witnesses to testify and vote to convict with a two-thirds majority vote.
The entire process is substantially the same in Texas for elected officials, as it is for most of the other states. Eight governors have been removed from office through impeachment. Oklahoma has impeached and removed two governors, and West Virginia impeached four members of its State Supreme Court at the same time in 2018.
The framers considered impeachment an important check on the power of the presidency and against corruption. Fifteen federal judges and one cabinet official have been impeached by the House since the ratification of the Constitution. Eight federal judges have been convicted in the Senate and removed from office. Though as of this writing, three presidents have been impeached, none have ever been removed from office.
With charges growing against Ferguson, the House of Representatives drew up 21 charges against him and voted to impeach. They then sent the charges to the State Senate for trial. The State Senate reduced the charges to 10, half of which dealt with the transfer of the $5,600. Three others dealt with the veto of university funding as an abuse of power and official oppression. After a trial, the Senate voted him out of office by a vote of 25-3 and banned him from holding any state office.
Though he was kicked out of office and disgraced in front of his colleagues, Ferguson was still very popular among his hard-core supporters and rallied back. He started his own newspaper that fall, Ferguson Forum, to promote his views that the impeachment was illegitimate. Barred from state office, he ran for president in 1920 on the American Party ticket. He only made the ballot in Texas, winning just less than 10% of the vote. He lost the 1922 Democratic Primary race for U. S. Senate by a wide margin.
In 1924, his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson won election as governor as a stand-in candidate in a tightly contested race. His wife was defeated for re-election in 1926, following questions of improper use of her pardoning power. She would serve one more term as governor from 1933 to 1935. Ferguson convinced his wife to run one more time in 1940. Ma placed a distant fifth. The Fergusons retired from public life afterward with James Ferguson dying in 1944 with his wife passing away in 1961.
Though no Texas official has been impeached and removed from office at the state level since Ferguson, Texas politics has hardly been scandal-free. Scandals of all sorts, from the brazen to the bizarre, have occurred for decades at all levels.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com