Gary Mormino: Remembering Florida Gov. Millard Fillmore Caldwell

First of  four parts.

He was the last Florida governor born in the 19th century and the first to govern in the post-WWII era. Dashingly handsome with an aristocratic countenance, a wealthy lawyer and country gentleman, he never lost touch with the common folk, nor did he ever lose an election. He was Millard Fillmore Caldwell, Florida’s 29th governor.

Born in 1897, Millard Caldwell was the son of an affluent planter. He left the University of Mississippi in 1918 to enlist as a private in the Army. He attended the University of Virginia Law School.

In 1924, his father asked him to oversee the family’s timberlands in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Arriving in the Panhandle, he and his beloved wife Mary Harwood settled in Milton.

In 1928, Caldwell decided to run for office, winning a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. Early on, Caldwell displayed a plain-spoken demeanor.

“His independence was in some ways disturbing,” remembered Florida Supreme Court Justice B.K. Roberts. The young legislator so alienated Gov. Doyle Carlton that the latter campaigned unsuccessfully to unseat the impudent maverick. Caldwell reminisced that the years he served in the Florida legislature were his fondest.

In 1932, Caldwell announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. His congressional seat ranged from the Escambia River to Jefferson County. Elected by a comfortable margin, Caldwell served four terms in Congress, where he fulminated against a federal government that he distrusted. He loathed New Deal domestic policies while applauding federal appropriations to Northwest Florida military bases. “The hand that signs a war contract,” so went a popular saying, “is the hand that shapes the future.”

In 1940, Caldwell announced that he would not seek re-election to Congress. The vacancy opened the door to Robert Sikes, the original “He-Coon” who served in the House of Representatives from 1941 to 1979.

Leaving Congress involved personal and political factors. His young son Millard Jr. was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Washington. Caldwell never enjoyed the Capitol Hill life. “I left Congress because I was tired of it,” he explained. “Congress was full of deadbeats.”

The Caldwells moved to Leon County where Millard established a law practice in Tallahassee. In 1940, Leon County had a population of only 30,000 inhabitants. The Caldwells purchased the old Butler plantation, which they renamed Harwood. The house was moved a half century later to the campus of the Florida State Law School.

In 1940, Florida was the least populated state in the Deep South. Pearl Harbor galvanized the state, which became a military garrison boasting nearly 200 military installations. Twice, Millard Caldwell volunteered again for military service but was rejected.

In 1944, Caldwell announced his candidacy for governor. Why? He certainly enjoyed his comfortable status as a country gentleman and small-town lawyer. But Caldwell believed in the creed of public service. He also felt that he was more competent than the other candidate.

Next: The 1944 gubernatorial race.

Guest Author


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