Tom Watson

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Thomas Edward Watson

In office
March 4, 1921 – September 26, 1922
Preceded by M. Hoke Smith
Succeeded by Rebecca L. Felton

Born September 5, 1856(1856-09-05)
Thomson, Georgia, U.S.
Died September 26, 1922 (aged 66)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Nationality American
Political party Democrat, Populist
Spouse(s) Georgia Durham Watson
Alma mater Mercer University
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Editor, Publisher, Teacher

Thomas Edward Watson (September 5, 1856September 26, 1922), generally known as Tom Watson, was an American politician 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). He had been a champion of Black rights[1] but after 1900 he became known for his writings that attacked blacks, Jews and Catholics. Two years prior to his death, he was elected to the United States Senate.

Early career

Watson was born in Thomson, the county seat of McDuffie County, Georgia. After attending Mercer University (he did not graduate; family finances forced withdrawal after two years), he became a school teacher. At Mercer University, Watson was part of the Georgia Psi chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Watson later studied law and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1875. He joined the Democratic Party, and in 1882 was elected to the Georgia Legislature.

As a state legislator, Watson 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 Joseph E. Brown offered to provide the legislators with round-trip train fares to the Louisville Exposition of 1883. In disgust, Watson resigned his seat and returned to the practice of law before his term expired. He was a presidential elector for the Democratic ticket of Grover Cleveland and Allen G. Thurman in the 1888 election.

Thomas E. Watson as a younger man.


Watson began to support the Farmers' Alliance platform, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives as an Alliance Democrat in 1890. In Congress, he was the only Southern Alliance Democrat to abandon the Democratic caucus, instead attending the first Populist 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 Populist 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 African American men to vote. Unfortunately, the failures of the Populist Party's attempt to make political progress through fusion tickets with the Democrats in 1896 and 1898 deeply affected Watson.

Watson served in the House of Representatives from 1891 until March 1893. After being defeated he returned to work as a lawyer in Thomson, Georgia. He also served as editor of the People's Party Paper.

Vice Presidential candidacy

In the 1896 presidential election the leaders of the Populist Party entered into talks with William Jennings Bryan, the proposed Democratic Party candidate. They were led to believe that Watson would become Bryan's running mate. After giving their support to Bryan, the latter announced that Arthur Sewall, a more conservative banker from Maine would be his vice presidential choice on the Democratic ticket.

This created a split in the Populist Party. Some refused to support Bryan, whereas others, such as Mary Lease, reluctantly campaigned for him. Watson's name remained on the ballot as Bryan's vice presidential nominee on the Populist Party ticket, while Sewall was listed as Bryan's Democratic Party vice presidential nominee. Watson received 217,000 votes for Vice President, less than a quarter of the number of votes received by the 1892 Populist ticket. However, Watson received more votes than any national Populist candidate from this time on.

Bryan's defeat damaged the Populist Party. While Populists held some offices in western states for several years, the party ceased to be a factor in Georgia politics.

Presidential candidacies

As his own personal wealth grew, Watson denounced socialism, which had drawn many converts from the ashes of Populism. He became a vigorous antisemite and anti-Catholic crusader, and advocated reorganizing the Ku Klux Klan.[2]

Watson was nominated as the Populist Party's candidate in 1904 and received 117,183 votes. This was double the Populist's showing in 1900, but less than one-eighth of the party's support from just 12 years earlier.

The Populist Party's fortunes declined in the 1908 presidential campaign, and Watson as the party's standard bearer attracted just 29,100 votes. While Watson never received more than 1% of the nationwide vote, he had respectable showings in selected Western and Southern states. In the 1904 and 1908 campaigns, Watson received 18% and 12% respectively in his home state of Georgia.

Subsequent influence

Through his publications Watson's Magazine and The Jeffersonian, Watson continued to have great influence on public opinion, especially in his native Georgia.

In 1913 Watson played a prominent role through his newspaper in inflaming public opinion in the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish American factory manager who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory worker. Frank was convicted of murder on August 25, 1913 after a month-long trial and sentenced to death by hanging by Judge Roan. At the eleventh hour, on June 21, 1915, departing Governor of Georgia John M. Slaton commuted the sentence of Frank to life in prison. The clemency decision followed a lengthy failed appeals process over a two-year period.[3] On August 16, 1915 at 11 PM, Frank was abducted from his prison cell by a group of prominent men and lynched in the early hours of August 17, 1915, an act which Watson had both called for and later celebrated on the pages of The Jeffersonian.[4]


Watson rejoined the Democratic Party, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1922 at age 66. Rebecca L. Felton was appointed to replace him and served (for 24 hours) as the first female U.S. Senator.

Legacy and honors

  • Watson is honored with a 12 ft bronze statue on the lawn of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta over the legend "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause."[5]


  • The Story of France (1899)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1900)
  • Napoleon: A Sketch of His Life, Character, Struggles, and Achievements (1902)
  • The Life and Times of Thomas Jefferson (1903)
  • Bethany: A Story of the Old South (1904)
  • The Life and Speeches of Thos. E. Watson (1908)
  • Socialists and Socialism (1910)
  • The Roman Catholic Hierarchy (1912)
  • The Life and Times of Andrew Jackson (1912)
  • The African (1912)
  • Political and Economic Handbook (1916)

External links


  1. A Mask for Privilege, by Carey McWilliams, page 32
  2. C. Vann Woodward. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. Oxford University Press, 1938.
  3. Dinnerstein, Leonard. Leo Frank Case, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987: 123-34. Accessed via Google Book Search, August 12, 2008.
  4. Oney, S., 2003, And the Dead Shall Rise
  5. Jonathan Turley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 2000Aug13
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