Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dangerous Populist Tom Watson

Thomas Edward "Tom" Watson (September 5, 1856 – September 26, 1922) was an American politician, attorney, newspaper editor and writer from Georgia. In the 1890s Watson championed poor farmers as a leader of the Populist Party, articulating an agrarian political viewpoint while attacking business, bankers, railroads, Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party. He was the nominee for vice president with William Jennings Bryan in 1896 on the Populist ticket (but there was a different vice presidential nominee on Bryan's Democratic ticket of 1900 and 1908).

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1890, Watson pushed through legislation mandating Rural Free Delivery, called the "biggest and most expensive endeavor" ever instituted by the U.S. postal service. Politically he was a leader on the left in the 1890s, calling on poor whites and poor blacks to unite against the elites. After 1900, however, he shifted to nativist attacks on blacks and Catholics (and after 1914 on Jews). Two years before his death, he was elected to the United States Senate.


Watson began to support the Farmers' Alliance platform and was elected to the United States House of Representatives as an Alliance Democrat in 1890. He served in the House from 1891 until March 1893. In Congress, Watson was the only Southern Alliance Democrat to abandon the Democratic caucus, instead attending the first People's Party congressional caucus. At that meeting, he was nominated for Speaker of the House by the eight Western Populist Congressmen. Watson was instrumental in the founding of the Georgia Populist Party in early 1892.

The People's Party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines, and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators. As a Populist, Watson tried to unite the agrarians across class lines, overcoming racial divides. He also supported the right of black men to vote. The failures of the Populists' attempt to make political progress through fusion tickets with the Democrats in 1896 and 1898 deeply affected Watson.

Rural Free Delivery

Watson, though a member of a minority faction in Congress, was nonetheless effective in passing landmark legislation. The most significant was a law to require the Post Office to deliver mail to remote farm families. Rural Free Delivery (RFD), legislation that Watson pushed through Congress in 1893, eliminated the need for individuals living in more remote homesteads to pick up mail, sometimes at distant post offices, or to pay private carriers for delivery. The legislation was opposed by private carriers, and by many small-town merchants who worried the service would reduce farm families' weekly visits to town to obtain goods and merchandise, or that mail order merchants selling through catalogs, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company might present significant competition. RFD became an official service in 1896. That year, 82 rural routes were put into operation. A massive undertaking, nationwide RFD service took several years to implement, and remains the "biggest and most expensive endeavor" ever instituted by the U.S. postal service.

Shifting Racial Views

Watson had long supported black enfranchisement in Georgia and throughout the South, as a basic tenet of his populist philosophy.  He condemned lynching and tried to protect black voters from lynch mobs. However, after 1900 his interpretation of populism shifted. He no longer viewed the movement as being racially inclusive. By 1904, he was engaged in nativist attacks on blacks. By 1908 Watson identified as a white supremacist and ran as such during his presidential bid. He used his highly influential magazine and newspaper to launch vehement diatribes against blacks.

Election to the U.S. Senate and Death

Watson rejoined the Democratic Party, and in 1920 was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating his bitter rival Hoke Smith.

Watson died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1922 at age 66. Rebecca L. Felton was appointed to succeed him and served (for 24 hours) as the first female U.S. Senator.

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