A Populist’s Path: From Advocate of the People to Inspiration for the KKK

Tom Watson, white supremacy in America, Ku Klux Klan, populism, US populism, history of American populism, disenfranchisement of black voters, US immigration, Tom Watson populism, anti-Catholicism in America

St. Simons Island, Georgia, USA © 9387388673 / Shutterstock

January 17, 2019 10:34 EDT

Tom Watson promoted himself as a leading voice of Southern white supremacy, nostalgically evoking images of the “Old South” that drew legitimacy from its grounding in a combination of Jeffersonian political theory and cultural agrarianism.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Georgia, the most southern of the original colonial states. One of the reasons why I was thrilled to come to Georgia was that it allowed me to visit the estate of one of the most eminent icons of late 19th-century agrarian populism — Tom Watson from Thompson, a small town close to Augusta, the city best known for its annual hosting of an important golf tournament. Most Americans probably have never heard of Tom Watson other than his namesake, the professional golfer who twice won the Masters Tournament at Augusta.

In fact, most Georgians probably never heard of the populist Tom Watson, and that despite the fact that for more than 80 years a rather bombastic monument to Tom Watson stood in front of Georgia’s capitol building in Atlanta.

It no longer does. In 2013 workers removed his statue from the front of the capitol and moved it across the street to a park, behind a locked gate. Although state government officials claimed that the statue was moved for reasons of public safety, this was a rather disingenuous explanation. Tom Watson was a deeply flawed populist politician, who started out as a leading advocate of agrarian populism in the 1890s and ended his career as a “white supremacist who vilified blacks, Catholics and Jews.”

Watson, a provincial lawyer from Georgia, gained national prominence in the run-up to the 1896 election, when the People’s Party — the political expression of various populist and progressive movements — nominated him as the running mate of William Jennings Bryan. Although a Democrat, Bryan ran on a platform that largely adopted many core populist demands, most notably “free silver,” or the return to a bimetallic standard, scuttled by the Mint Act of 1873 that had put an end to the striking of silver bullion into legal tender. The “crime of 1873,” which was a first step toward the country’s official adoption of the Gold Standard (de jure adopted in 1900, but virtually in place since 1873), resulted in a prolonged period of deflation, which was particularly devastating to farmers in the South and the Midwest.

At the same time, farmers were hurt by the protective tariff supposed to defend America’s “infant industries,” which protected particularly Northeastern manufacturing interests and urban industrial workers. What farmers wanted was higher prices for agricultural products (inflation induced by the increase in the money supply) and lower prices for agricultural inputs (via heightened competition resulting from a substantial reduction of the protective tariffs on manufactures). The industrial sector, of course, wanted the exact opposite.

The End of Populism

Bryan’s defeat in the presidential election of 1896 not only marked the victory of both “goldbugs” and protectionists; it also marked the beginning of the end of the populist movement. One of the few major populist leaders to continue holding up the standard of populism was Tom Watson from Georgia. Watson had started his career as a lawyer for the Southern Alliance (which he could not join because, as a lawyer, he was a “non-producer” of wealth living off the hard work of ordinary workers) — an interest organization representing the demands of Southern farmers, which would become one of the pillars of the populist movement.

From there he moved into politics, first on the state, then on the national level. As a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, he championed the cause of the Alliance, without getting much support from his own party. In response, Watson joined the newly founded People’s Party. Despite widespread support at home, he was twice defeated in his bid for reelection (in 1892 and 1894), largely because of election fraud and (black) voter intimidation by his former party.

Agrarian populism was a progressive movement that garnered widespread support in the early years of the 1890s when the United States was in the throes of a severe economic depression. Edward Bellamy, author of the utopian 1888 socialist novel Looking Backward, argued that the People’s Party was the equivalent to Europe’s socialist parties, only more radical in terms of demands and strategy. With good reason: Among other things, the populists not only called for the nationalization of the railroads and the national communication system but also asked for the federal government to “take some limited responsibility for the social well-being of American citizens.” At the height of the depression, its most radical exponents petitioned Congress to commission large-scale, publicly funded infrastructure programs designed to create jobs for the unemployed.

At the time, Tom Watson was perhaps best known for his efforts to find common ground between white and black Southerners. Although hardly impervious to white supremacy and racism, Watson was convinced that only by gaining the support of the black population would the populists have a chance to prevail in the South. As Watson famously put it, it would be “to the interest of both” whites and blacks “that each should have justice. And on these broad lines of mutual interest, mutual forbearance, and mutual support the present will be made the stepping-stone to future peace and prosperity.”

Political Misfortunes

Unfortunately, history does not always conform to expectations, leaving disillusionment and rancor in its path. The series of defeats in the 1890s left Tom Watson deeply embittered. Although never giving up on his populist vision, he increasingly directed his venom against those he considered responsible for his political misfortunes. Dispassionate analysis would have suggested that this was above all Southern Democrats who had “defeated Watson by using fraud, corruption, the purchase of votes, stuffing or theft of ballot boxes, false registration, and purposeful intimidation of voters.” Instead, he targeted African-American voters who, “plied with liquor, money, and favors” had been “marched from one polling place to another” by the Democrats to vote “in herds” against Georgia’s most prominent populist politician.

Tom Watson was a Jeffersonian; he not only wrote a biography of Jefferson but also called his own monthly journal The Jeffersonian. Watson adored Jefferson and his vision of a community of self-sufficient independent yeomen constituting an ideal republican commonwealth as the basis of genuine democracy. Jefferson had been convinced that African Americans were incapable of developing that independence of spirit he considered fundamental to republicanism, civic virtue and democracy. Watson’s string of defeats as a radical populist politician seemed to confirm his conviction that Jefferson had been right after all: African-Americans were easily manipulated, ready to sell their democratic birthright to the highest bidder.

At the same time, he was convinced that, as long as the Democrats could conjure up the specter of “negro domination,” white voters would not dare to rise up in revolt. In response, Watson became a vocal advocate of the most extreme of measures — the disenfranchisement of the African American electorate in his native state.

American Anti-Catholicism

Southern blacks were hardly the only targets of Watson’s resentment and disdain. Starting in 1910, Watson turned his vitriol full-blast against Catholicism. American anti-Catholicism, of course, had a long pedigree, going all the way back to the early years of the republic. In the decades that followed the end of the Civil War, anti-Catholicism waxed and waned, occasionally erupting onto the political arena. One of these occasions was the populist era of the 1880s and 1890s, which witnessed the rise of the American Protective Association (APA), a secret anti-Catholic society whose positions exerted significant influence on parts of the Republican Party.

The populists were adamant in rejecting the politics of anti-Catholic resentment promoted by the APA. This was hardly surprising given the inclusive nature of the populist movement; some of whose leading figures, such as the orator Mary Lease and Ignatius Donnelly, the author of the famous preamble to the Populist Platform of 1892, happened to be Irish Catholics.

By 1910, however, the glory days of progressive populism were nothing but a distant memory, its failure hardly apt to serve as a basis from which to launch a new reform project. Stoking the fire of nativism, on the other hand, was an entirely different thing. In the pages of his popular monthly magazine, The Jeffersonian, and via the Guardians of Liberty, an anti-Catholic association, which he co-founded in 1911, Watson appealed to “American Americans” to support restricting immigration and curbing any designs on the part of Catholic authorities to subvert and undermine the principles of American democracy.

Watson’s anti-Catholic crusade was hardly disinterested. Anti-Catholicism sold magazines, particularly when they promised lurid tales of lascivious monks and priests cavorting with nuns and using the confessional to seduce innocent women — a favorite topic of titillating Protestant quasi-pornography since the tremendous success of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk in 1836 and, some 45 years later, in 1880, The Priest, the Woman and the Confessional.

Tom Watson was a “man of his time” — a time marked by an upsurge of “scientific” racism, eugenics and “Anglo-Saxonism,” namely the proposition that Anglo-Saxon racial superiority served to justify American imperial expansion in the Philippines and the Caribbean as well as restricting immigration. 

What ultimately motivated Watson’s revival of anti-Catholic prejudices, however, was as much political as it was religious. One of the central dicta of American nativism had always been that Catholics lacked the fundamental notions of individual liberty and independence of mind indispensable for full participation in American democracy. Instead, Catholic immigrants were characterized as easy game for manipulation by priests and unscrupulous politicians — particularly the Democrats, whose political machines (the best known of which was Tammany Hall in New York City) controlled a good deal of the immigrant vote in the big Northeastern cities.

In this respect, Catholics were hardly treated differently from blacks, particularly if they happened to be Irish. In fact, cartoonists such as the German-American Thomas Nast had routinely depicted the Irish with ape-like features, lending more than a tinge of racism to anti-Catholicism.

Anti-Catholic sentiments had flared up in the 1880s and 1890s, partly in response to an unprecedented “surge of strength and activity” of the Catholic Church in the United States, and partly in response to the massive influx of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans — particularly poor Polish and Sicilian peasants. By the first decade of the new century, the vast majority of new immigrants originated from Southern and Eastern Europe, and also Asia; most of them were unskilled, a significant number illiterate, many ending up in the slums of the major Northeastern cities.

Leading nativists, such as Prescott F. Hall, from the Immigration Restriction League, who cited these numbers in an article published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science from 1904, were more than alarmed. For, as Hall would put it some two decades later, what was at stake was nothing less than the “balance of the race-stock” in the United States. Unrestricted immigration, or so he asserted, was bound to work to the disadvantage of the “Nordic races” (British, Scandinavian and German) — so much so that it threatened to bring about nothing less than “The Passing of a Great Race,” to quote the title of a popular volume from 1916.

A Man of His Time

These sentiments sound eerily familiar today. In fact, it is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that The Passing of a Great Race reflected growing “white displacement anxiety” by a native-born Protestant majority apprehensive of getting submerged by the flood of new immigrants ethnically and culturally far removed from the original stock of European settlers. Then as today, the fear was that immigration would fundamentally alter the demographic, cultural and, ultimately, political makeup of American society, and with it existentially threaten white Protestant dominance. Tom Watson’s tirades against the Catholic Church, against “Black domination” and, increasingly, against “rich Jews” appealed to these apprehensions and stoked the fire of bigotry. In the process, Watson promoted himself as a leading voice of Southern white supremacy, nostalgically evoking images of the “Old South” that drew legitimacy from its grounding in a combination of Jeffersonian political theory and cultural agrarianism.

Tom Watson was a “man of his time” — a time marked by an upsurge of “scientific” racism, eugenics and “Anglo-Saxonism,” namely the proposition that Anglo-Saxon racial superiority served to justify American imperial expansion in the Philippines and the Caribbean as well as restricting immigration. Watson could count on support from illustrious academics, such as the presidents of Harvard and Stanford, both associated with the Immigration Restriction League, and Francis A. Walker, the president of MIT, a professor of economics and director of the 1870 and 1880 US census.

Walker dedicated much effort to warn his readers, as he did in the 1891 “Immigration and Degradation,” of the “extensive … replacement of the native by foreign elements” brought about by the arrival “of vast hordes of foreign immigrants” on America’s shores. Large-scale immigration, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, if allowed to continue unchecked, could only but end in the “degradation” of the nation’s population. For what arrived from Europe on America’s shores represented “the utterest failures of civilization, the worst defeats in the struggle for existence, the lowest degradation of human nature,” most of whom were illiterate and of below average intelligence, ignorant of American institutions and, “having been brought up in atmosphere of pure force,” neither had any “sympathy with the political ideas and sentiments which underlie our social organization” nor “often even the capability of understanding them.”

From the pen of Tom Watson, what in the early 1890s could be dismissed as the highbrow musings of an academic patrician, at the beginning of the new century turned into a seductive message for mass consumption in the hands of a skillful demagogue. It is hardly a coincidence that a recent article on a white supremacist website quotes a 1911 passage from Watson’s magazine, which is a perfect reflection of his nativist/racist doctrine of American white supremacy:

“White men made our social system what it is. White men made our governmental system what it is. White men founded our educational and religious systems. And white men should maintain what their ancestors established. We don’t need any of the colored and inferior races to defend our homes and firesides, our institutions and our liberties. We don’t need the negro in the army, nor in the civil service. We don’t need the Chinaman, the Jap, or the Hindoo. The uniform, the gun, the office, the ballot belong to white men, and our future will never be safe until we exclude from military and political privileges every colored man whomsoever.”

A decade later, Tom Watson was elected to the United States Senate, this time as a Democrat. This was perhaps a fitting end for a political trajectory from populist advocate of ordinary people to anti-Catholic nativist to rabid white supremacist racist. The 1920s saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which, by combining populist rhetoric against local elites and physical terror against minorities, quickly became a formidable force. Death in office in 1922 prevented Watson from experiencing the Klan’s reemergence and rise — a development for which he had been instrumental in paving the way. As his (largely sympathetic) biographer noted in the late 1930s, “if any mortal man may be credited (as no man may rightly be) with releasing the forces of human malice and ignorance and prejudice, which the Klan merely mobilized, that man was Thomas E. Watson.”

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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