Thomas E. Watson Revisited
THOMAS HENRY IRWIN
Tom Watson made his debut in politics on 6 August 1880 at the age of twenty-three. The speech Watson delivered to the Democratic nominating convention at Atlanta on that date split the ranks of the party and provided Georgians with a choice of two gubernatorial candidates for the first time since the Civil War. Watson opposed the re-nomination of Alfred H. Colquitt who, together with Joseph E. Brown and General John B. Gordon, made up the “Bourbon Triumvirate.” They dominated Georgia politics between 1872 and 1890 as the representatives of industrial capitalism. The press and the financial interests of the state launched a vigorous campaign in Colquitt’s defense. The forces of agrarian unrest that Watson verbally cited, met with resounding defeat.
Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was the major apologist for monopoly capitalism and corporate power. Watson was one of the few men willing to speak out against the oppressive system that Grady so enthusiastically advocated:
We are told in the splendid phraseology of silver-tongued orators from the city, that our country is absolutely smothered under the plenteous flow of milk and honey of another Canaan … There is no romance in having landed property excluded from the banks, and in having twenty-five per cent upon money; no romance in being fleeced by a fifty per cent tariff, no romance in seeing other classes and other properties exempted from taxation, and realizing fabulous dividends upon their investments, when the lands are taxed to their uttermost dollar and farming has paid no dividend since the war.
In 1882 Watson was elected to the Georgia Legislature from his home county of McDuffie. He struggled unsuccessfully to curb the abuses of the powerful railroad corporations. A bill subjecting railroads to county property taxes was voted down after U.S. Senator Brown offered to provide the legislators with round-trip train fares to the Louisville Exposition. Watson resigned his seat and returned to the practice of law before his term expired. Watson declared:
In the tremendous oppressiveness of the System, the chief factor of cruelty, greed, corruption and robbery is the Corporation … These Corporations are the Feudal Barons of this Century. Their Directors live in lordly Palaces and Castles, Their Yachts are on the sea; their Parlor Cars on the rails. They spread feasts that would feed a starving factory town … The markets of the world have been clutched by the throat (in violation of Law) And the price of every commodity taken away from competition and given to the Trust. Small dealers everywhere. in everything, exist at the pleasure of the large dealer. The individual sinks before the Corporation. The man goes down under the blows of the “Ring.” Money: — combined the Court, the Church, the Legislature, the Editorial Room, the State, the School, the Home!
The Farmers' Alliance began recruiting in Georgia during March, 1887; Within three years it had grown to a membership of over 1,000. The Alliance sought to organize the farmer against the forces of exploitation which had driven him into virtual peonage. Watson noted that “while every avocation has its advocates and champions in positions of power and importance, the farmer is practically unrepresented. The entire drift of legislation has been and is yet, continuously and persistently against him.” He was one of the first politicians to join with the Alliance in resisting the depredations of ruling cliques like the Bourbon Triumvirate.
Watson established his reputation as a reformer during the summer of 1868. He writes:
A trust had been formed in St. Louis to control the price of jute bagging, the necessary cover of the cotton bale. Day after day the price was pushed up, as we have seen done in so many other cases … Heartily in sympathy with the producers, I at once wrote the call for the mass-meeting; and on the appointed day, the building was packed with excited humanity.
He urged the farmers to take independent action in the form of a boycott: “It is useless to ask Congress to help us, just as it was folly for our forefathers to ask for relief from the tea tax; and as they revolted … so should we … The Standard of Revolt is up. Let us keep it up and speed it on.” In 1889 the farmers' boycott forced the jute trust to come to terms.
Watson declared himself a candidate for the House of Representatives in the 1890 election. He ran on the St. Louis platform adopted by the Alliance the previous December, which demanded “the abolition of National Banks,” “the free and unlimited coinage of Silver,” “the passage of laws prohibiting the alien ownership of Land,” “that taxation, National or State, shall not be used to build up one interest or class at the expense of another,” “Economy … in the expenditures of the Government,” and “that the Government shall own and operate the means of Transportation and Communication.” The last plank was viewed as the only way to limit the rapine of the railroads.
George T. Barnes, who made his career as a vassal of the Bourbon financial lords, was the incumbent. The Augusta Chronicle and other representatives of the “kept press” attempted to thwart Watson’s efforts by claiming, “There is really no issue between Mr. Barnes and Mr. Watson except that Mr. Barnes is in and Mr. Watson wishes to be.” The situation was, however, soon to be reversed in accordance with Watson’s adage that “the new wine of reform is not to be placed in the old bottles of ring politicians.”
Watson wrote: “The politicians laughed at you; but when your opponent came home from Washington to meet you in debate before the mass-meetings throughout the district, lo! the people were with you, and your triumph at the polls was unprecedented in your state.” The Alliance candidates met with statewide victory.
In May 1891, the organizational framework for the Alliance’s political wing, the People’s Party, was laid. Often called the Populist Party, it gave the common man a voice in politics. Then, Watson writes, “the Farmers' Alliance held a great national convention at Indanapolis and instructed those men who had been elected by Alliance votes to stand firm for the principles, regardless of the dictation of party caucus.” A referendum demonstrated that Watson’s district supported him in his intention to abide by the Indianapolis resolution.
Henry Grady sought “to bring peace between the agricultural and commercial interests of the state.” His Constitution trumpeted, “The Farmers' Alliance is the Democratic party.” Such rejoicing was, of course, insincere. The Bourbons were only trying to lure the newly elected Alliance representatives into collusion with the “Old Regime” and turn them against their constituents. Leonidas F. Livingston, President of the State Alliance and one of the six Georgia Congressmen sent to Washington on the wave of the farmers' revolt, was the most prominent defector.
Watson recalled: “Your political party, which in convention after convention had adopted your platform, suddenly changed front and denounced those principles. What were you to do? You decided that principles were dearer than party, and you stood by your principles.” Shortly after Congress convened in December 1891, he refused to support the Democratic candidate for Speaker, and instead caucused with a group of Midwestern Alliance Congressmen. They nominated Watson for Speaker. His weekly People’s Party Paper, launched during the fall of 1891, declared, 66so was formed the first distinctive political body known as the People’s Party.” Livingston had joined the Democratic caucus.
While serving in Congress, Watson attempted to secure homestead land loans as a way of benefitting the independent farmer and increasing the middle class. He contended that:
Any system which increases the Moneyed Class where there is an money and no work, debauches Society. Any system which increases the class where there is all work and no money debauches and endangers Society. Any system that will add to the great Middle Class where there is reasonable work and fair reward, secures to Society the best results of which humanity is capable.
A bill to create an income tax was proposed in Congress by Watson. Though he thought that such a tax would relieve the middle class of its oppressive tax burden, it was turned to the exact opposite use when later adopted. “Now who is left to pay the Federal taxes?,” he asked. “The plain people, unorganized, unprotected, absolutely helpless. They are bled on the one hand by the Federal government and by the Privileged Classes on the other.” He observed, “How much more bitterly must these burdens be resented when the citizens who pay such taxes are aware of the fact that those who are making profits are exempted from tax.” The Federal Government, according to Watson, was “The most extravagant Government the world ever saw, and getting more so every year.” Protesting that “taxes are unequally distributed, and prodigally spent,” he added, “it is a cruelty to the negro, as well as an injustice to the whites, to tax the latter to give 'higher education' to the former.”
Maintaining that “Under Tariff Systems a tax is laid upon every article the laborer uses and the proceeds put into the pocket of his employer,” Watson proposed removing the custom duties form a number of materials used in farming. “In other words,” he wrote, “these high duties on foreign goods have for their real purpose the devilish plundering of the common people by the trusts. They hold us up, all along the line, and we are forced to pay what they charge.” Watson did not oppose all tariffs, but felt they were being abused in the interest of monopoly capitalists.
Only one of Watson’s Populist legislative proposals was ratified by Congress. According to his biographer, William W. Brewton, by this proposal “he did more constructive good to the class he represented than all his colleagues from Georgia in the 52nd Congress, with all those that have succeeded them, combined, have done.” On 17 February 1893, Watson proposed an appropriation “for experimental free delivery in absolutely rural communities … amongst the farmers, in those neighborhoods where they do not get their mail more than once every two weeks, and where those deserving people have settled in communities one hundred years old and do not receive a newspaper that is not two weeks behind the times.” Brewton writes that “there has never been an appropriaton made which yielded so great a return in general benefit to the nation as that for rural free delivery.” Later, with the addition of parcel post, rural families could shop by mail. Large mail-order houses developed that catered to the needs of farmers.
In 1916, Watson reflected on his refusal to attend a caucus with the Democrats:
A similar course was pursued by Senator Robert L. La Follette, three years ago, and the logic of his position was universally admitted … But in my case it was different. A storm of abuse broke over my head, and I was held up to scorn, ridicule, hatred — called a Traitor, and accused of selling out to the Republicans.
While Watson was fighting for the people during his first session in Congress, the Establishment politicians were fighting Watson. When he returned to Georgia in 1892 to seek re-election, his congressional district had been gerrymandered to include two new counties. Watson christened his campaign a contest between “Democracy and Plutocracy,” and ran as a Populist. General Gordon, a member of the Bourbon Triumvirate that Watson had opposed since his first days in politics, described him as “base,” “false,” “cowardly,” and a “self-important little fly.” Perhaps gadfly, in the Socratic sense, would have been a more apt designation.
Governor William J. Northern, a pawn of Eastern financial interests, was heard to say that, “Watson ought' to be killed and it ought to have been done long ago.” An assassination attempt occurred while Watson was delivering a speech in a rural county. He later surveyed the election’s outcome: “The counties voted for me as before; but, in the City of Augusta, votes were repeated, by gangs of hired negroes, until there were 18,000 votes in the boxes, when the whole list of voters numbered only 12,000. In this fraudulent way, I was driven out of Congress.”
By the 1894 Congressional campaign, Grover Cleveland’s reactionary financial policies and the Panic of 1893 had fanned the flames of agrarian rebellion. Watson charged that “The bankers opposed silver, and, for the purpose of having the law providing its issue repealed, they precipitated the panic.” The “Alliance Democrats,” like Livingston, h6d helped elect Cleveland President.
C. Vann Woodward, another Watson biographer, relates that his attempt to win back his seat “was not so much a campaign as a crusade, for the people did not listen so much as participate. The contemporary accounts of the enthusiasm evoked by the speeches of Watson border on the incredible.” But enthusiasm could not triumph over what Woodward describes as “wholesale repeating, bribery, ballot-box stuffing, voting of minors, and intimidation.” Bourbon tactics had been so blatantly unfair that a new election was held; but the same corrupt practices once again prevailed. Watson relates: “Three times I renewed the struggle; three times the same methods were used against me; and then I quit — broken in purse, in energy, in spirit, and almost in mind.”
All of the Cleveland administration’s groveling devotion to corporate and banking interests could not save it from another sort of insolvency — that of the political kind. Cleveland was not re-nominated for a second term. Instead, the 1896'Democratic National Convention chose William Jennings Bryan in an attempt to subvert the People’s Party and turn the tide of Populism to its own advantage. The Vice-Presidential candidate, Arthur Sewall, was proof that the Democrats had adopted only the rhetoric of reform. The president of both a bank and trust, he was known for his exploitative labor policies.
The People’s Party held its Convention in July. Senator Sam K. Jones, Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, attended in hope of persuading the Populists to nominate the Democratic ticket. Watson cautioned that “the party had proven its insincerity, and you will get nothing at its hands nor will your principles.” Jones made representations to the Populist leaders that if they would endorse a Bryan-Watson candidacy, the Democrats would drop Sewell and do the same. The Populists did their part, but a few days after the Convention Jones wrote: “Mr. Sewall will, of course, remain on the ticket, and Mr. Watson can do what he likes.”
Though Bryan was unable to free the nation from a “cross of gold,” his campaign nailed the People’s Party to one of silver. He virtually ignored the Populist principles verbalized in the 1889 St. Louis platform. Recognizing the propaganda value of simplistic appeals for free silver, he held this measure out as a cure for the country’s ills.
Watson alerted the Populists to Bryan’s silver demagoguery, writing that “certahi wire-pullers in Washington were scheming to side-track the People’s Party by having it surrender an of its platform excepting the Free Silver Plank.” He proposed free silver as a remedy for the artificially high dollar, created by a corner on the gold market. However, he knew that any metal, including silver, could be similarly misused when given an inherent value.
Watson wrote: “To say that a Government promise or pledge is without value unless redeemed in Gold or Silver is a vicious heresy.” Pointing out that “money is a mere product of agreement, convention, law,” Watson attacked the “money-changers who use the coin fetish to hypnotize and plunder the nations of the earth.” He added, “This tyranny of the banker is world-wide … He first chains the nations to the word 'coin;' — then he gets his grip on the supply of 'coin;' — thus he holds the chain which fetters the globe.”
Seeking to end the dominance of money over government, Watson proclaimed that “We stand for the principle that the government should create the money and distribute it.” He warned that “in abdicating in favor of six thousand national bankers the sovereign power of creating money, the government has surrendered a power infinitely more precious than that of regulating foreign commerce.”
Watson maintained that:
There can never be too much Money in circulation as long as each dollar afloat is the result of that much produce. There will never be enough Money afloat as long as Commodities suffer because there is no Money to effect their ready exchange. A Currency System should be flexible; that is, the supply should increase as the demand increases and diminish as the demand ceases.
Such flexibility, he thought, would ensure stable prices.
“To smash the Money Trust, whose monstrous rapacity preys on every Nation,” Watson counseled that
it is but necessary that the state shall assert its inherent power to create its own currency. A dollar, whether in metal or paper, should be inscribed, “This Dollar.” That declaration, and the law which makes a dollar a legal tender for debts, are sufficient … Absolutely nothing more is necessary to make that currency as good and as strong as the Government which creates it.
Although the Populists had been betrayed, Watson did his best to gain support for his party’s ticket. He campaigned throughout the West, even in Bryan’s home state of Nebraska; this brought Bryan his only victory there during his three unsuccessful bids for the Presidency. Yet Bryan refused to associate himself with Watson, and never joined him on the speaker’s platform. Theodore Roosevelt commented, “Mr. Watson really ought to be the first man on the ticket, with Mr. Bryan second; for he is much the superior in boldness, in thorough-going acceptance of his principles according to their logical conclusions, and in sincerity of faith.”
Looking back, Watson wrote that:
the Democrats lost the race because they violated the St. Louis compact … Had the Democratic leaders furnished … ever so small portion of the “rising above party,” Bryan would have been elected. But they thought they could swallow us in the West, and crush us in the South, and they sacrificed Bryan in the effort to destroy Populism. They destroyed Populism as an organization.
Politically, Watson was ruined: He writes,
Then you shut the world out of your life; buried yourself to an but the very few; called around you the companionship of Great Authors … And then … you reached out for your pen and wrote. Ah, how your heart did forget its own troubles, in that work!
During 1889 his two-volume work, The Story of France, appeared. The New York Evening Journal called it “the best history ever written by an American.” Watson published a biography of Napoleon in 1902, and one of Jefferson in 1903. The historical novel Bethany: A Story of the Old South appeared in 1904. That same year Watson was offered the editorship of William Randolph Hearst’s Morning American on the t:ondition that he move to New York. He chose to remain at Hickory Hill, his estate in Thomson, Georgia.
From Hickory Hill he embarked on a journalistic career that brought his political philosophy to the attention of the South and the entire nation. He founded the monthly Watson’s Magazine in 1905, which was supplemented by the Weekly Jeffersonian in 1906. These publications were in the vanguard of the fight for Jeffersonian democracy. Watson contended that “all the upholders of class rule go back to Hamilton; all the upholders of a government of the people, by and for the people, get their creed, so far as this Republic is concerned, from Jefferson.”
The March 1906 issue of Watson’s Magazine thundered, “The Wall Street Railroad Kings rule and rob our state, and they do it by means of the men who control the machinery of the Democratic party. Hoke Smith is leading a great revolt against this Wall Street domination, and he is doing it superbly. He is going to win, because the people know he is right.” With these words Watson renewed the struggle against Georgia’s aristocracy, which he had begun in 1882, by supporting a county railroad tax. Hoke Smith, an anti-corporation lawyer, was his standard-bearer in the 1906 gubernatorial contest. Together they wrote a Democratic platform that included many Populist demands. An article by Herbert Quick in The Reader described it as “the most radical platform ever adopted, with perhaps one exception, by a state convention of either of the two great parties of these times.” Watson dubbed Smith’s opponent, Clark Howell, “the Corporation Candidate for Governor.”
Regarding the constitutional amendment to disfranchise blacks that he and Smith proposed, Watson wrote, “The people of Georgia are hell-bent on smashing that Wall Street ring which rules and robs our state. They are determined to put White Supremacy INTO LAW, so that they shall never again be vexed or intimidated by the scare of Negro domination.” He noted that “In Georgia they do not dare to disfranchise him, because the men who control the Democratic machine in Georgia know that a majority of whites are against them. They need the negro to beat us with.”
We have studied this problem from all points of view,” Watson reasoned,
and our matured conviction is that the only salvation for the negro in America is the acceptance, in good faith, of his legal rights as the full measure of what is due him. The sooner he abandons his attempt to share political power and privileges with the whites, the better for him … We made civilization; the negro never made this, or any other. He has degraded every governmental system that he has been allowed to influence. As a duty to our forefathers, to ourselves, and our posterity, we must see to it that the negro makes no Haitian hell of the United States.
Smith was elected Governor by an overwhelming majority. The Bourbon dynasty had come to an end. Under Watson’s guidance, Smith increased the railroad commission in size and importance. A special State’s Attorney was appointed to prosecute corporations that violated its rulings. The small businessman and the farmer were no longer subjected to exhorbitant freight charges and other unfair practices. Steps were taken to end corporate bribes. Quick placed Smith “second only to La Follette, if second to any, as a trustbusting governor.” The Independent ran an article entitled “Georgia’s Example to the Nation.”
Between 1906 and 1917 Watson was the dominant force in Georgia politics. By rallying his Populist followers behind him, he was able to exercise a decisive influence on many election campaigns. Most successful gubernatorial candidates began their quest for office by seeking endorsement from the “Sage of Hickory Hill,” as he, was now called. Some were undone when they deviated from the Populist principles Watson was pledged to.
Since Watson was not himself a candidate for office, he was able to devote much time to his journalistic and literary efforts. In his two periodicals, often referred to as the Jeffersonians, he continued to espouse the tenets of the Populist creed. Historical works still flowed from his pen. Sketches from Roman History, written from an agrarian perspective instead of the usual imperial one, appeared in 1908. History of Southern Oratory was published in 1909. A study of the battle of Waterloo followed in 1910. In 1912 came his biography of Jackson.
Watson’s political philosophy was based on a committment to popular democracy and individual rights; on this basis he defended the states against the encroachments of the Federal Government. He warned: “The national character of the Federal Government becomes more pronounced, from year to year, and the federated idea grows more shadowy and feeble.” He observed that “the Constitution was never even voted on 'by the people of the United States.' It was voted on by each state, acting seperately, in conventions and legislatures.” He criticized men who were “lacking in faith in the people, and wanted the strongest possible concentration of power in the Federal Government.” “The irony of fate has willed,” wrote Watson, “that these tremendous advances in centralization have been made, mostly, at the instance of fanatical 'reformers,' who didn’t care two buttons about the ultimate consequences to our mixed system of government.”
Watson told a group of supporters:
Under our present system of Government, through the representative, it is practically impossible for you to keep up with what is going on. The newspapers won’t always tell you the truth … To a large extent, our daily papers, especially, are controlled by corporate interests, who want legislation in their favor at your expense. There are some things you cannot get a chance to say in these newspapers. When they have got something especially unjust to put through, that is the very thing that is put through on the sly, and you will learn about it when it is too late.
Watson proposed the system of initiative, referendum, and recall as a remedy for legislative abuses. He reminded his listeners, “You exercise self-government through the men you choose to represent you. They are not free agents. They are not at liberty to follow their own personal inclinations, and give way to their personal prejudices.” Regarding the initiative, he said, “Send around a petition, demanding the passage of this, that and the other law, and see who will sign it. When that petition is signed by a representative percentage of the people, then it ought to be made the duty of the legislature to put that law upon its passage.” While discussing the referendum, he told his audience: “The legislature, the town council, the Congress, whenever it passes any kind of law, ought to refer it back to you, and ask you, Do you approve of this? You are the man who has got to obey it, and you are … the man who will have to pay these salaries and these taxes and conform to these regulations.” Explaining the recall, he said, “You vote a judge in office, why shouldn’t you have the right to vote him out of office, if you find he isn’t the man you thought he was? Why keep him two years or four years? … The same with Congressmen, Senators, Governors.”
Watson opposed “Our American judicial Oligarchy,” writing that:
The construction given to the general welfare clause, and the elastic quality of the Implied powers (in the Constitution), have enabled the Government to adopt almost any sort of law the old lawyers on the Supreme Bench consider desirable. In the last resort, therefore, our laws depend upon the will of nine men chosen from one profession. These nine Supreme Legislators are usually the graduates of corporation law offices, foisted upon the people by partisan Presidents.
Federal judges, who were corporation lawyers before they became judges, are halting the sovereign States, reducing them to the station of mere private trespassers, and retaining them, by ever-ready injunction, from the exercise of governmental powers. Insolent corporations and usurping judiciary are moving step by step to a situation which a free people cannot endure.
Watson vigorously defended Populism against socialism in the Jeffersonians. He pointed out that “no Socialist experiment ever succeeded.” “In spite of all the terrible abuses which prevail in Europe and America,” he wrote, “the non-capitalistic nations are the backward nations … Turkey, India and China cannot be called the victims of Capitalism; but we wouldn’t exchange places and conditions with them. Capitalism itself, is enormously advantageous, when Special Privilege is driven out.”
Concerning collective ownership, he wrote: “and it is because I have been a laborer, know the feelings of a laborer, and always expect to keep in touch and sympathy with the real laborer, that I stand so stoutly for the doctrine that the best reward and highest honor Labor can attain is the ownership and enjoyment of what it produces.” He contrasted the Populist and socialist views of property: “The Jeffersonian Democrat says, 'Destroy Special Privilege; make the laws conform to the rule of Equal Rights to all, and you will put it in the power of every industrious man to own his home.' The Socialist says, 'Let Society own the homes, and let Society move the man about, from house to house, according to the pleasure of Society.'”
To the advocates of “Marxist democracy,” Watson replied that where Socialism prevails … they propose to give their men such a power over the lives and the labor of their fellow men as was never before proposed in the annals of the human race.” Regarding socialist demands for reform, he argued: “The Discontent is warranted, but the remedy would substitute one slavery for another.” “It can be shown,” Watson wrote, “that all abuses at which the Socialist justly rails, — grow out of violations of the principles of our system. The true remedy therefore is to vigorously assert those principles.”
Watson’s mocking reply to egalitarianism was, “Even human nature is going to lose its meanness, for Socialism is going to make Man after its *own image, to replace the Man that God made.” Watson appraised human nature more realistically, writing that “No matter how equal material conditions might be made today by legislation, the inherent inequality in the capacities of men, physically, mentally, spiritually, would evolve differences tomorrow. There is no such thing as equality among men, and no law will ever give it to them”
Watson’s remarks about socialism and immigration apply well to today’s invading Third World legions:
When a few million immigrants who haven’t been here long enough to get the foreign twist out of their tongues, go to parading the streets, carrying the Red Flag … it is not a theory that makes them do it. No theory could convince the intelligence of these newly-arrived foreigners that they have any natural right to a share in the wealth they find here. They are governed by their passions, not their reason. It is cupidity that controls them, not altruism. They care no more about the fine-spun theories of Karl Marx than Alaric and Attila cared for the Justinian Code or the Nicene Creed.
Watson knew that the international banking establishment was as much a threat to American liberties as socialism. “Take the Rothschild family for an example,” he wrote.
Theirs is a typical case. Study it a moment. A small Jewish dealer and money-lender in Frankfurt is chosen by a rascally ruler of one of the German States as a go-between in a villainous transaction whereby the little German ruler sells his subjects into military service to the King of England. These soldiers, who were bought, are known to history as the Hessians, and they fought against us in the Revolution. This was the beginning of the Rothschild fortune, the transaction having been very profitable to the Rothschild who managed it.
By the time Napoleon was overthrown at Waterloo, the Rothschild family had become so rich and strong that it spread over the European world. One member of the family took England, another France, another Austria, another Belgium, the parent house remaining in Germany, and to this day the Rothschild family is the dominant financial influence of the European world. In other words, by the power of money and the power of usury, they were able to make a partition of Europe and they are more truly the rulers of nations than are the Habsburgs, the Hollenzollerns, the Romanoffs or any other one dynasty which wields the sceptre.
The Sage of Hickory Hill fought the tyranny of international bankers with the Jeffersonian creed:
We Jeffersonians stand for the doctrine that the world’s stock of wealth and of opportunity belongs to all mankind — to be won or lost on the basis of merit or demerit … The holder of wealth has no right to legislate his fortune out of the reach of the risks and changes of legitimate business. He has no right to legislate his wealth into a mortgage upon the revenue of the government and the annual produce of all labor. He has no right to legislate special favors to himself, whereby enormous accumulations are held together, not by force of energy, industry and superior ability, but by reason of the special privileges and exemptions created by law.
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Tom Watson took up the most important struggle of his political career. He did battle with the forces of internationalism and militarism that were to plunge our country into war and threaten its sovereignty afterwards with the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson led these forces in an attempt to subjugate and plunder the American people.
Wilson was re-elected on the slogan, “He kept us out of War.” Watson commented, “What war? Where did we have a chance to get in one? What did he do to keep us 'out'? … We had no cause to go in.” During the election campaign Wilson had advocated military preparedness as the best guarantee of peace. Watson saw that Wilson’s “preparedness” was only a guise for militarism and denounced, “the insane notion that belligerence of attitude and conduct lead to peace.” He wrote that “big armaments, instead of insuring PEACE, insure WAR.”
“Is it worth while to remind our public servants in Washington,” Watson asked, “that this Constitution does not authorize or contemplate any other kind of war, except one for self-defense?” He scouted Wilson’s “Hun” propaganda and advised nonintervention:
It is absurd to say we are menaced by German danger. Germany cannot send troops here … The Law of Nations and our own common sense, tell us that what England, France, and Germany do to each other is none of our business. It is not cause for us to send a million of our boys, to sacrifice their lives, so far from home.
Exposing what he termed Wilson’s “sham neutrality,” Watson said, “If we have loaned money to England and France to help make war, we have not been neutral. We are still doing it-the liberty Bonds prove it. J.P. Morgan cleaned up ninety million dollars as part of his share.” He identified the real forces behind the interventionists: “'The world must be made safe for democracy,' said our sweetly sincere President; what he meant was, that the huge investment, which our Blood-Gorged Capitalists made in French, Italian, Russian and English paper, must be made safe. Where Morgan’s money went, your boys'must go, ELSE MORGAN WILL LOSE HIS MONEY.”
On 18 August 1917 Watson brought a test case before Federal Court, challenging the constitutionality of Wilson’s Conscription Act. In his “Speech Against the Conscription Act,” delivered during June of that year, he asked, “How does the Conscription Law, rushed upon the people by Congress, in April, 1917, accord with the time-honored principles of Magna Charta, as embodied in the Bill of Rights of every State, and as crystalized in the Constitution of the United States?” A candidate for Congress in Iowa was sentenced to ten years in the Federal Penitentary for publishing and distributing excerpts from Watson’s address.
It seemed strange to Watson that a President so concerned with saving democracy abroad should pass the oppressive Espionage and Sedition Acts at home. He said, “On the pretext of waging war against Prussianism. in Europe, the purpose of Prussianizing this country has been avowed in Congress, with brutal frankness, by a spokesman of the administration.” He feared that the Republic would be “transformed into a German military camp.” “Already,” he warned, “the Executive branch of Government has swallowed the Legislative, and the President has demanded -and secured more personal power than any Kaiser ever possessed.”
Watson had scheduled an interstate convention. in Macon, Georgia to discuss “the recent unconstitutional and revolutionary acts of Congress.” Ifiterference bythe federal authorities and threats of military violence forced him to call it off. At the end of August, the Jeffersonians were banned under the Espionage Act and Watson’s prediction of “prodigious sacrifices of treasure and blood” was soon to come true.
Personal tragedy was mingled with public ruin when Watson’s remaining daughter died a week after the Jeffersonians were banned. Another daughter had been lost during infancy. During the U.S. war effort, reference was made to the “seditious utterances” and “un-American writings” Watson had brought forth in his “disloyal, incendiary publications.” His health worsened and he moved to Florida to seek relief. John Duram Watson, his last surviving child, was seized with convulsions and died there during a visit. Watson reflected: “Perhaps, you had come to realize that you were one of those men with whom Fortune deals grudgingly, one of those whom Hope deceives and Success laughs at; one of those who always has wind-and wave against him, and who never by any sort of chance finds himself in league with luck.”
Yet Watson would not give up. He returned to Georgia and renewed his fight against Wilson’s policies. Soon after the Armistice he began publication of a new-weekly paper, the Columbia Sentinel. Because he was still under a governmental ban, he had to post his newspaper from a neighboring town. Watson spoke from experience when he wrote:
Not always is it easy to know the right,-very often is the road rough. Human praise can be won by shorter routes. Honor and riches are not always its rewards. Pleasanter days and calmer nights can be yours, if you float smoothly down the tide of policy, -steering deftly by the rules of the expedient.
During 1918, the Sage of Hickory Hill watched Senator Thomas W. Hardwick go down to defeat in his re-election campaign because of his opposition to the League of Nations. His challenger, who favored the League, had received Wilson’s personal support. Watson was one of the League’s greatest foes. Pointing out that George Washington “was a nationalist and not an internationalist; an American and not a cosmopolitan,” he said,
Let us stand by the wisdom of the farewell address. Let us stand by the words of wisdom. Let us be content with the prosperity which has been ours under the historic, purely American policies. Let us not embark at this late day, into European intrigue, dynastic quarrels, disputes between emperors and Kings, aristocracies and autocracies, involving our country in things which we do not understand and which we need not try to understand. Why should we? Let Europe and Japan tend to their own affairs, and let us attend to ours.
Intending to avenge Hardwick’s loss, Watson announced his candidacy for the Senate in 1920. His enemies laughed that he had been “shelved so long he was dusty.” The old Populist ran against two of the most powerful politicians in the state, Senator Hoke Smith, the incumbent, and Governor Hugh M. Dorsey. Smith had deserted the Populist principles that he had espoused during his days as a reform governor; having worked with Wilson in the Senate, he now refused to take a firm stand against the President’s pet project, the League of Nations. Dorsey ran as an outspoken advocate of the League.
Watson traversed the state three times in an automobile, though suffering from asthma and bronchitis. Only one state newspaper, Hearst’s Atlanta Georgian and Sunday American, gave him his support. Even the American Legion opposed him, And yet the people of Georgia were tired of war and internationalism. At one point during the campaign a crowd of 20,000 besieged an auditorium Watson was to speak at in Atlanta. By 5 o'clock in the afternoon the building contained 10,000 people, and the fire department announced that the rest would have to be turned away. Watson’s supporters waited three hours to hear him speak, filling not only the seats but the floor, the aisles, even parts of the stage.
Watson made clear his complete rejection of the League of Nations:
In the league, the great charter is engulfed, the sovereignty of the people disappears, and a universal monarchy is at last established. The council of the league will absorb within itself judicial power, legislative power, and executive power. It will be a supreme court of the world, a supreme legislature of the world, a supreme executive of the world. It will evolve its own army, its own treasury, its, own system of finance, its own civil service. It will have in its hands both the purse and the sword, and nowhere on earth will there be a power to veto its measures or resist its usurpations.
It pretends to assimilate the yellow race, the brown race, the black race, and the white race. It pretends to harmonize democracy with imperialism, the Kings with the republics. It pretends to reconcile the Buddhist with the Confucianist, the Mohammedan with the Christian … It pretends to expect international melody out of 33 discordant national notes.
If the real purpose is to create an international guaranty and collection agency for the great bankers and bondholders of indebted nations, then the League will be a success.
The President (Wilson) admits that we will lose our independence in the league. Therefore he himself admits that he went to France and surrendered the very thing that our soldier boys fought and died to maintain … What he has done is immensely more than equivalent to the destruction of the documents which contain the Declaration and of the Farewell Address. He has signed away independence itself, he has signed away the Americanism of the Farewell Address; he has surrendered what our forefathers gained under the shadow of a European crown.
The Treaty of Versailles also met with Watson’s unyielding opposition. He asked, “What sort of peace was imposed upon the German people, whom Wilson said he 'loved'?” He pointed out that such treaties “will naturally arouse jealousy. Germany will not always be prostrate. Sixty-odd million people can not be kept down.” He scoffed at those who claimed, because of a treaty, “that a millenium of brotherly love will ensue; that there will be no future wars, although humanity remains unchanged.” He could not understand how “experienced men of affairs, like the President of the United States, could believe for one minute that you can make any kind of agreement, signed up in any sort of way, which will banish war.”
Watson won the senatorial contest. The popular vote he received was almost twice that of his opponents combined. His biographer (Brewton) describes the outcome as “the most signal victory ever recorded in Georgia politics.” Hardwick had renewed his struggle against the League by entering the gubernatorial race, and was elected Governor.
The great Populist leader had been vindicated. After thirty years he was back in Washington. The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations were never ratified, in part due to Watson’s efforts. In the Senate he continued his struggle against internationalism by opposing the Four-Powers Treaty, which linked America with the imperialist interests of Europe. He cautioned that “the Republic can not be the partner of an imperialism, without a reaction coming from the imperialism affecting the democratic institutions and ideals in this country.”
Watson fought the financial tyranny of the Federal Reserve Board, just as he had earlier done battle with the National Bank. Referring to a dangerous drop in farm prices, he charged that the Board had “destroyed the money, decreased the circulation, and brought on the panic which they called deflation.” He asked President Harding to remove the five members of the Board and appoint others, contending that they were bankers in the service of Wall Street interests.
Senator Watson was tormented by chronic attacks of asthma during his term in the Sixty-Seventh Congress. His health compelled him to abandon the Washington hotel fife and take up residence in Chevy Chase, Maryland. At one point he required the constant attention of a nurse for eight weeks. Despite such difficulties, he did his best to attend to his senatorial duties.
On 17 September 1922 Watson suffered a painful asthma attack and the doctor insisted that he remain in bed for a week. However, he was determined to attend the closing of the second session of Congress on the twenty-second; there, he spoke out for a group of striking Pennsylvania coal miners who had recently been evicted from their homes. With his efforts in their behalf, Tom Watson had fought his last battle. He suffered a severe attack of asthma and bronchitis on the night of the twenty-fifth, and died the next morning — at the age of sixty-six. On September 28th 10,000 people attended his funeral at Hickory Hill.
The Sage of Hickory Hill still excites enmity from the foes of democracy and adherents to imperialism. A recent work sponsored by the Zionist Anti-[sic]Defamation League alleges that “Tom Watson wrote one of the dirtiest chapters of bigotry in the South.”
Though twenty-nine speeches were given in his honor when Congress held memorial services during 1923, Senator Watson himself wrote the words that best serve as his epitaph:
Let the tide ebb — it must be so; let the daylight fade, it must be so — but this much any poor mortal can do, and should do: Hold aloft, to the very last, the banner of your creed; fight for it as long as you can stand; and when you go down, let it be possible for you to say to those who love you: Lay a sword on my coffin; for I, also, was a soldier in the great struggle for humanity.
A Short Watson Bibliography
There are two biographies of Tom Watson: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, by C. Vann Woodward, and The Life of Thomas E. Watson, by William W. Brewton. Both biographers give their subject a sympathetic treatment. Besides the historical works mentioned in the text, Watson wrote numerous books and pamphlets on political questions. The People’s Party Campaign Book and the Political and Economic Handbook are systematic expositions of his political philosophy. The Life and Speeches of Thomas E. Watson contains his most famous pieces of oratory. Sketches: Historical, Literary, Biographical, Economic, Etc. and Prose Miscellanies are anthologies of articles from the Jeffersonians. Marxism and related creeds are subjected to a populist analysis in Socialists and Socialism. Mr. Watson’s Editorials on the War Issues is a collection of his writings in opposition to World War I.