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A governor with great gumption

by Tom Dillard | December 3, 2017 at 2:04 a.m.

Saturday was the birthday of John E. Martineau, a former governor and federal judge whose leadership and courageous actions helped Arkansas develop a highway system, recover from disasters, and find a way to end the prosecution of 12 innocent men sentenced to death in the aftermath of the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919.

John Ellis Martineau was born in Missouri on Dec. 2, 1873, to Sarah Lamb Martineau and Gregory Martineau. His father was a farmer who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Quebec. Young John was a child when his large family--he had nine siblings-- moved to a Lonoke County farm. While growing up, Martineau became friends with another Lonoke County youngster, Joe T. Robinson, the future governor, congressman, senator, and majority leader during the early years of the New Deal. This alliance would prove valuable to both men as they developed their political careers.

Martineau graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1896, and took a job as principal of the Chickasaw Male Academy in Indian Territory. He stayed at the Academy for one year before relocating to Little Rock, where he took a position in the Argenta public schools. This allowed him to study law at night, and he began his law practice in 1899.

Not long after beginning his legal practice, Martineau plunged into politics. He was elected as a state representative in 1902 and re-elected two years later. He was a successful legislator, serving as chairman of the House judiciary committee, and also played an important role on the penitentiary committee. In 1907, acting Gov. X. O. Pindall appointed Martineau to a vacant chancery judgeship, a position to which he was re-elected without opposition for three terms.

Martineau was a part of what historians call the Progressive Movement, a period of widespread social and political reform during the first two decades of the 20th century. In the social realm, Martineau worked in 1912 with progressive Little Rock Mayor Charles Taylor, serving as chairman of a committee to deal with the numerous houses of prostitution in the city.

Like several other progressives, Martineau was a moderate on racial matters--at least by Arkansas standards. His ancestors in Canada had been active in protecting the Indians, a legacy which might have given him added sensitivity to the large number of black citizens living in near peonage in eastern Arkansas.

Martineau earned a special place in Arkansas history in 1921 when as a chancery judge he signed a writ of habeas corpus petition blocking the execution of the 12 Elaine defendants. Along with everyone else, Judge Martineau knew he had no jurisdiction in the criminal case, but his granting of the petition bought time for appeals and negotiations to proceed.

He was a foe of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been reborn in Arkansas during the 1920s and had grown to a staggering size. The political power of the Klan was undeniable. For example, in 1924 gubernatorial candidate Tom Terral was so anxious to have the Klan endorsement that he applied for membership three times in the Little Rock Klan and once in El Dorado before finally being accepted by the Klan in Morehouse Parish, La. Terral went on to win the election, defeating Martineau, who was running as an anti-Klan candidate, and three others.

Encouraged by his good vote in the 1924 primary, Martineau challenged Terral again in 1926. Terral's two years as governor had been a disaster, with the governor being charged with incompetence and mismanagement. Still, the tradition in Arkansas was to give governors two terms, so Martineau had his work cut out. Terral attacked Martineau as weak on prohibition and ridiculed Martineau's plan to issue bonds to rescue the state's quagmire of local highway improvement districts, warning ominously of "Bonds and Booze."

The election was close, but Martineau edged out Terral by about 16,000 votes. Thus, John E. Martineau was the first person in Arkansas history to defeat an incumbent governor running for a second term.

Martineau's record as governor is considered a good one despite his brief time in office. One of his biographers believes that "Martineau's most lasting achievement ... was laying the foundation of the modern state highway system in Arkansas." The advent of the automobile age caught Arkansas unprepared, and a road building explosion after World War I saw the creation of dozens of local road building districts, all paid for through taxes on the lands through which the roads ran.

Martineau's plan, which was adopt-ed, was for the state to assume the debts of the road districts and issue bonds to pay for road construction. Costs were transferred to the users through gasoline taxes and license fees.

Martineau had been in office only a short time before much of the state was inundated by the great flood of 1927. Fully 13 percent of Arkansas was under water, and suffering was widespread. Gov. Martineau worked closely with federal and state authorities in battling the flood, including serving as chairman of the Tri-State Flood Commission.

Martineau's work battling the flood brought him to the attention of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who prevailed upon President Calvin Coolidge to promote the governor to the federal bench in March 1928.

After serving nearly nine years on the bench, Martineau died of influenza on March 6, 1937. He was buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 12/03/2017

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