Garner, John Nance (1868–1967)

By: Lionel V. Patenaude

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: August 31, 2021

John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner, the thirty-second vice president of the United States, the first of thirteen children of John Nance and Sarah (Guest) Garner, was born on November 22, 1868, in a log cabin near Detroit, Texas. He went to school at Bogata and Blossom Prairie. At eighteen he went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he stayed only one semester, possibly because of ill health. He returned to Clarksville, Texas, read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1890. After an unsuccessful run for the office of city attorney he moved to Uvalde, where he began law practice.

In Uvalde Garner joined the law firm of Clark and Fuller and was appointed to fill a vacancy as county judge. When he ran for the regular term in 1893 his opponent was Mariette (Ettie) Rheiner, whom he married on November 25, 1895. He served as county judge from 1893 to 1896. A son, Tully, was born to the Garners on September 24, 1896.

Broadening his political horizon, Garner was elected in 1898 to the state legislature, where he served until 1902. While in the legislature he had the opportunity to establish a new Fifteenth Congressional District and at thirty-four was elected its representative. He entered the Fifty-eighth Congress as a Democrat on November 9, 1903, and served continuously for fifteen terms, until March 4, 1933.

Garner's early career in the legislature was without distinction, for he spent most of his time listening and examining the legislative process. Indeed, it was January 5, 1905, before he uttered a word in the House, and eight years before he made his first speech. His main efforts appear to have been devoted to obtaining a federal building for Eagle Pass and a new post office in his district. During his early years in Congress he adhered to his number-one rule for success: get elected, stay there, and gain influence through seniority. By 1909 Garner had become party whip. During World War I he was recognized as a leader and became the liaison between President Woodrow Wilson and the House of Representatives.

After the war Garner pursued his policy of saying little while acquiring friends in both houses. As a result he served as minority floor leader in the Seventy-first Congress, and when the Democrats organized the House in 1931 he became speaker. With his prominence as speaker and with William Randolph Hearst's backing, Garner became a serious candidate for president in the spring of 1932. Although he did not pursue his campaign vigorously, as convention time approached he acquired the ninety Texas and California votes, which a candidate had to have to be nominated. When he gave his votes to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the fourth ballot, Roosevelt became indebted to Garner and to the state of Texas. As a result Garner was offered the vice-presidential nomination, which he reluctantly accepted. On November 8, 1932, he was simultaneously elected to the vice presidency and reelected to Congress. He resigned from Congress on March 4, 1933 (see GREAT DEPRESSION).

Next to the president Garner was the single most important man in the New Deal. When he became vice president he had thirty years' experience in the House, including two as speaker. Now his ability to make friends and his political knowledge combined to give him respect and great persuasive powers. Moreover, he was talented in other areas tangential to politics, such as whiskey drinking and poker playing.

Because of Garner's knowledge of the legislative process the president made him his liaison with Congress. This decision proved to be a wise move, for Garner had his own congressional machine. Moreover, nineteen members of the Senate had served with him in the House, and he was a personal friend of virtually every legislator. Garner also had tremendous influence with the Texas congressional delegation and especially with Samuel T. (Sam) Rayburn. This was invaluable, for from 1933 to 1938 no fewer than eight Texans held regular committee chairmanships, and two chaired special committees. Also, Rayburn became House majority leader in 1937. The Texas delegation probably had no peer in congressional history. With this force behind him Garner was ready to add a new dimension to the office of vice president.

He was influential in undercover work. Because he knew the strengths and weaknesses of both houses he was able to push bills through or bury them. He was, as one writer stated, "a mole rather than an eagle." A master at circulating on the Senate floor or buttonholing a friend, he was the "wise old man of Congress." On most evenings after a legislative session Garner would hold court over bourbon and branch water and counsel reluctant congressmen in his "Board of Education," or, as some called it, his "Dog House." He was in his element here, and most of his contemporaries agreed that his persuasive tactics made him the most powerful vice president in history. In the course of the "Hundred Days," the special session of the legislature called by Roosevelt to inaugurate New Deal programs, Garner was extremely effective in helping to push through the legislation that characterized this phase of the Roosevelt program. Although Garner was not always in accord with administration programs, especially deficit spending, he continued to support the New Deal until the spring of 1937. One of his methods was to make certain that the right men were appointed to conference committees in order to assure that New Deal legislation would pass. He was, moreover, especially good at gaveling bills through the Senate. His activity was thus of paramount importance to the administration.

Garner's relationship with Rayburn was especially fruitful. On their shared rides to the Capitol they often discussed and settled issues of decisive importance to the administration. Although they disagreed on some issues, they remained fast friends who were at the apex of the New Deal power pyramid.

It was inevitable that Garner would split with the president, for his view of the Democratic party differed considerably from Roosevelt's. As an old-line Democrat with Progressive Era background, Garner distrusted Wall Street, and so he championed New Deal legislation aimed at correcting the putative excesses of the financial markets. But as the New Deal drifted toward welfare-state concepts, he demurred. From the beginning of his association with Roosevelt he had never tried to conceal his philosophy. In the spring of 1934 he had warned the president to slow down. By 1935 he began to refer to some programs as "plain damn foolishness." The sit-down strikes that closed 1936 marked a breaking point in the Garner-Roosevelt relationship. Garner thought the strikers had violated property rights, and he became furious because he thought that Roosevelt gave tacit support to the unions. Early in January 1937 Garner had an angry discussion with the president over this issue. Their disagreement emphasized the differences between them. Afterward, Garner believed that Roosevelt preferred the suggestions of liberal advisors rather than his own or those of congressional leaders. Therefore, he began to oppose the president in the cloakrooms.

The event, however, that sealed the split between Garner and the president was the Court-Packing Plan of 1937, whereby the president was to receive unprecedented powers in the appointment of Supreme Court justices. The shock waves radiating from the proposal split the Democratic party. Garner, whose loyalty was first to the party, vehemently opposed the plan. In the midst of the struggle he went on vacation to Uvalde, an act that publicized the rift between him and the president. Moreover, the split was exacerbated by Garner's growing hostility to New Deal programs in general.

As 1937 drew to a close Garner was recognized as the second most powerful man in Washington. He was the leader of a group of conservative Democrats and Republicans dedicated to retard, change, or scuttle various phases of the New Deal. One commentator called Garner the "conniver-in-chief" of the opposition. Now almost anything that did not meet with Garner's approval was in trouble. By 1938 he was opposed to most of the New Deal proposals, especially those involving government spending. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said that Garner was "sticking his knife into the President's back." The final blow to the fast-fading Garner-Roosevelt friendship was the proposed purge of conservative Democratic congressmen by the president. Garner used all his influence to prevent the action. With him at the head, an opposition bloc now began to vote against almost everything the president desired. After the failure of the purge Garner, in the interest of party harmony, was willing to seek a reconciliation. He met with Roosevelt on December 17, 1938, for the first time in six months. No one is certain what happened, but the meeting did nothing to restore Roosevelt's confidence in Garner.

Though Garner never openly acknowledged his split with Roosevelt, their mutual hostility continued, and the president grew to despise Jack. Garner reciprocated by transferring his dislike of the New Deal to the president himself. Because of their mutual distrust, during the last two years of Roosevelt's second administration Garner opposed virtually everything the president wanted. In effect he became "the leader and the brains of the opposition" to the man with whom he had been elected.

Opinions about Garner's vice presidency vary widely. John L. Lewis characterized him as a "labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man," but the New York Times praised his "political miracles." James Farley thought Garner was "more responsible than anyone" for implementing Roosevelt's programs, yet it is realistic to state that Garner prevented completion of the New Deal.

In spite of his age Garner's political stature made him a prominent Democratic candidate in the 1940 election. As early as 1938 the Texas state Democratic convention endorsed him as a candidate. By March 1939 both houses of the Texas legislature followed suit, and in June a Garner-for-president committee was formed. Polls indicated that Garner would be the leading candidate if Roosevelt did not run. Even though Garner declared in December 1939 that he would accept the nomination, his actions indicate he did so primarily because he opposed a third term for Roosevelt. The president's machine, however, was too powerful, and Garner was handily beaten in the primaries he entered. After the convention he packed his belongings and prepared to return to civil life. After the inauguration, at age seventy-two, after thirty-eight years of government service, he crossed the Potomac for the last time.

Garner spent the rest of his years in Uvalde in relative seclusion. In the late 1940s his wife burned his public and private papers, leaving only his scrapbook collection, which is housed in the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin. John Nance Garner died on November 7, 1967, a few days before his ninety-ninth birthday, and is buried in Uvalde.

Lionel V. Patenaude, Texans, Politics and the New Deal (New York: Garland, 1983). Bascom N. Timmons, Garner of Texas (New York: Harper, 1948).

Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lionel V. Patenaude, “Garner, John Nance,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

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August 31, 2021