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When politics was populated by statesmen

POSTED: May 11, 2014 12:30 a.m.

While there are debates in these political times, they aren’t what they used to be. Nowadays, campaigns depend on big money to buy big television ads. Elections seemingly are won by who has the most money to buy TV time.

Sound bites unfortunately apparently sway a lot of voters. A few debates are televised, and there is a smattering of them in local venues.

When there was no television, radio or telephones to bombard voters with recorded “robo calls,” candidates had to stand their ground face-to-face with the people. Huge crowds would show up for debates and rallies, often in local halls of government. The more skilled candidates were sharp orators equipped with witty vocabularies to entertain their audiences.

A historic debate in Gainesville occurred in the fall of 1876 during the 9th District congressional campaign. Judge Hiram Bell, the Democratic establishment candidate, faced Emory Speer, a fledgling politician.

Bell had voted against secession and resigned from the state Senate to serve in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Forty-eight years old, he was a veteran politician while Speer, only 28, was an up-and-coming whippersnapper.

Speer, however, was running as an “independent” Democrat and cast fear into the regular party powers. Therefore, they brought in the great Robert Toombs, for whom Toombs County is named, to support Bell and debate Speer.

Toombs had been a founder of the Confederacy and a general in its army. Though he opposed secession of Georgia from the Union, he was against equal rights for blacks. A former state representative, he also served in the U.S. House, where he gained a reputation for his fiery speeches, bullish tactics and acerbic wit.

The Toombs-Speer debate occurred in the old Hall County Courthouse, situated then on the public square. Toombs wasted no time in exploiting the youth of Bell’s opponent, proclaiming he “did not believe the intelligent constituency of the 9th District wanted a beardless youth to represent it in the mighty halls of Congress. But, I am a friend of young men, and I advise the youngster to keep his collar up and maybe in years to come he will be rewarded by the people.”

The crowd chuckled and applauded appreciatively. It didn’t seem to faze the youthful candidate. When Toombs took his seat, Speer rose “with his accustomed and inimitable smile,” the Gainesville News reported, “and with a poise that would have done credit to even men like Ben Hill and Alex Stephens (statesmen of the day) replied that he had no desire to possess a hirsute adornment in which even a billy goat was superior to the average man and particularly to the great statesman and Georgian who has just taken his seat.”

The audience laughed heartily at Speer’s counterpunch, as he continued, turning toward Toombs, “But, sir, as for keeping my collar up, I advise you to keep the lower extremity of that same garment tucked well down into your breeches.” That really broke up the crowd, who yelled themselves hoarse, according to the newspaper report.

A canvass of the audience determined Speer won the debate with Toombs. However, he lost the election to Judge Bell, a native of Jefferson and a schoolteacher and lawyer in Cumming. Speer’s youth didn’t seem to matter two years later as he won election to Congress in 1878 as an independent Democrat and again in 1880 as a plain Independent. He lost his congressional seat in 1882, but became a federal judge and longtime dean of Mercer Law School.

Speer died in 1918 and is buried in Macon. Bell died in 1907 and is buried in the Cumming cemetery.

• • •

Harold Westbrook has a good memory of the Poultry Festivals in the 1950s and ’60s. He had broken both arms sliding down the sliding board at Candler Street School in the third grade. His father took him from their home in nearby Longstreet Hills to the Poultry Festival parade at the point where dignitaries were watching from bleachers brought up to Green Street from City Park.

One of the dignitaries, Sen. William F. Knowland, California Republican, noticed Harold wearing casts on both arms and gave him a red straw hat like all the VIPs had been given and autographed it for him. Harold treasured that hat for many years.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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