Tom Watson

By Michael Magidson, Vassar '00

Thomas Edward Watson was born on his family's small plantation outside the village of Thomson, Georgia on September 5, 1856. The family owned forty-five slaves and more than one thousand acres of land; hardly aristocrats, though definitely not poor. Throughout his life, those early, idyllic days on the plantation would remain the paramount ideal for Watson, even as the social order of the antebellum South was being dismantled. His grandfather died in 1863 and Watson's father, a twice-wounded Confederate veteran, sold the plantation after the Civil War and moved the family to a smaller farm nearby.

Watson experienced some poverty in his youth, but as an adult, he made a small fortune as a lawyer and landowner. He prospered and entered politics in the 1880s. He was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1882, but impatiently resigned before his term expired in 1884.

He soon came to support the Farmers' Alliance platform, and was elected to Congress as an Alliance Democrat in 1890, the year the Alliance made huge inroads across Georgia by applying its "yardstick test" to candidates but not requiring them to officially join the organization. Watson, unlike most Alliance Democrats, wished to see a true third party grow out of the Alliance in the South. 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.

Watson's reelection campaign that same year fell victim to wholesale fraud and intimidation, as the Democrats employed bribery, ballot box stuffing, voting of minors, repeat voting, out-of-state voters and violence to defeat him. Watson responded with an off-year campaign in 1893, during which he stumped the state in support of Populism. Subscription to his newspaper, The People's Party Paper, jumped during the campaign. He was renominated in 1894 for Congress, and again defeated through blatant Democratic fraud. The fraud was so bad that, as a remedy, Watson's opponent proposed a special election the following year. Watson agreed, but through the passage of fraudulent registration laws and black voter intimidation, the Democrats prevailed once again.

Watson did not attend the Populist Party convention in St. Louis in July, 1896. In the main, the Southern delegates, among whom Watson was revered, were "mid-roaders," opposing fusion with the Democrats, who had employed so many devious and illegal methods to defeat the Populists. In the West, however, where the Democrats were the minority party behind the Republicans, fusion enjoyed much more support. The national leadership of the Populist Party had fallen to Westerners, and a rule was implemented at the convention awarding delegates on the basis of successes in the past three elections. This greatly benefited the Western fusionists, for Democratic fraud and violence, as mentioned above, had snatched victory from Southern Populists time and again.

During the confusion of that hotly-debated convention, Watson was nominated for Vice President, while William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Presidential nominee, was nominated for President. Bryan accepted the Populist nomination, but ignored his running mate. Meanwhile, Watson and the "mid-roaders," as those who opposed fusion with the Democrats were known, demanded that Bryan drop his Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Arthur Sewall, a conservative businessman who was anathema to die-hard Populists like Watson. The Democrats refused to budge, for in many Western states, where they were outnumbered by Republicans, deals had been struck with Populist leaders to support the Bryan-Sewall ticket in exchange for support of various Populist candidates for state and congressional offices.

Watson found himself in a most uncomfortable position. Repudiated by his running mate, denounced by many in his own party, he lashed out against Wall Street and Democratic and Populist fusionists with equal fervor. As punishment for opposing fusion, the Bryan-Watson ticket was withdrawn from the ballot in many Southern states. In defeat, Watson received 217,000 votes in seventeen states, and twenty-seven electoral votes.

After 1896, Watson left politics - but only briefly. He was the Populist candidate for President in 1904 and 1908, but these campaigns bore little resemblance to those of the 1890s. Watson was now a virulent racist, a far cry from the Populist leader of the 1890s who had openly called for black political equality and racial unity along class lines. As his own wealth grew, he denounced socialism, which had drawn many converts from the ashes of Populism. He was a vigorous anti-Catholic crusader who called for the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan. He played an inflammatory role in the 1913 case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a young female worker. Watson and the Southern press sensationalized the case, hurling racist and anti-Semetic epithets at Frank while making wild, unsubstantiated charges. Frank was dragged from his prison cell and lynched in 1915 after his death sentence was commuted.

Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920, where he rabidly attacked the Wilson administration and its foreign policy. He was very sick by this point, however, and suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in 1922 at the age of sixty-six.

Tom Watson

...A swashbuckling, nagging, vulgar scold, indifferent to the amenities...
-description of Watson in the New York Times, July 26, 1896

If the Democratic managers should refuse to make any concessions at all it would show that our efforts toward unity have all been thrown away. If they continue to demand that the Populists shall go out of existence as a party, they will prove to the world their object in adopting our platform was not so much to get free silver as it was the bury the People's Party.
-Tom Watson, People's Party Paper, July 31, 1896

Altogether, he is a better man than either Hobart or McKinley, thinks less of himself and more of the people, and a syndicate could no more buy Watson or own Watson than it could buy or won a star. No Hannas go with the Horoscopes of such as Watson.
-Alfred Henry Lewis in the New York Herald

As a general rule the Southern Delegates were not a creditable class. They practically admitted while at St. Louis that they were out for nothing but spoil. They said that there was 'nothing in it' for them to indorse the Democratic nominees, and this same spirit will probably dominate their action in the future. They will do all they can to harass the Democracy and create confusion, and in the end they will just as they are doing now in Alabama, fuse with the Republicans and vote for McKinley. They will go with the negroes, where they belong... I suppose that Watson really believes that he can 'bluff' us into withdrawing Mr. Sewall. Just as though such a proposition could be considered for a moment by any right thinking man! Mr. Sewall will, of course, remain on the ticket, and Mr. Watson can do what he likes.
-Senator James K. Jones of Arkansas, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in the New York World, Aug. 3, 1896

They have taken our doctrine, but they don't like our doctors. They are fond of our physics, but they don't like our physicians. They want to run our ship, but they want to expel our crew... They say they want fusion. So they do. It is the fusion that the earthquake makes with the city it swallows.
-Watson on the Democrats

The menace which endangers Mr. Bryan's success to-day is the profound dissatisfaction which exists among the humble, honest, earnest Populists who have built up the People's party. Through storms of abuse and ridicule these men have fought the battles of Populism, preached its gospel, paid its expenses and followed its progress with the hopeful devotion of the Israelite who followed the pillar of fire through the nights of dreary trial. Deep down in the hearts of men who want no office and hunger for no pie, is settling the conviction that they have been tricked, sold out, betrayed, misled... If McKinley is elected the responsibility will forever rest upon those managers who had it in their power to control by fair means 2,000,000 votes and lost them by violating the terms of the compact.
-Watson in the New York World, Sept. 28, 1896

...Populism is allowed to come to furnish all the campaign principles, all the self-sacrifice and patriotism, and the two million votes which the Democrats need, but they are not allowed to furnish a candidate for either place on the ticket... it appears the Democratic managers would be willing to make a sacrifice of both Bryan and silver, if they can but destroy Populism...
" -Watson in the People's Party Paper, Nov. 13, 1896


1. Woodward, C. Vann, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1938).

2. McMath, Robert C., Jr., American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College