The Shitty 1896, 1904, and 1908 Candidacies of Thomas E. Watson, People’s Party, Georgia.
Quick Bio: Born five years before the Civil War, Watson was, like over half of U.S. Presidents, a lawyer. He was a Democrat, no surprise as he was from the postbellum South, and served under their banner in the Georgia Legislature and then the U.S. House. During his congressional tenure, Watson felt Democratic policies disenfranchised rural families and especially black people, so he joined the upstart People’s Party. The Populists, as they called themselves, were more open-minded and strongly advocated for giving power to the people, regardless of class or race.
Watson quickly became a proponent for Populist policies. Railroads, telegram/telephone systems, and other utilities should be public-owned. Voters should elect their Senators (your state’s legislature appointed them for you until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913). Watson defended the right of black men to vote — reputedly, he once did so a literal sense by stopping a lynch mob from murdering a would-be black voter. (Black men had the right to vote according to the 15th Amendment, but during Watson’s time Southern states went to great lengths to deny black men the ability to vote. Black women — and all other women — had no guaranteed right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1920.)
Thomas E. Watson is directly responsible for establishing Rural Free Delivery from the U.S. Post Office. This gave all Americans (not just city folk) access to free mail service; hitherto, agrarian families needed to travel to a nearby town or city to collect mail, or pay a private carrier to bring it out. This left a massive mark on all local economies: now that remote farms could order goods and equipment from catalogs like Sears and Roebuck’s, small town stores could no longer gouge their customers, and indeed needed to match Sears’ selection and pricing to avoid losing business.
Watson later became a minor publishing magnate, starting with the People’s Party Paper, and had great success spreading his ideals and goals. He enjoyed that subscriptions would be delivered by the Post Office Department anywhere in the United States, making his potential outreach unlimited.
He sounds like a good dude, doesn’t he? The type you’d find as the lead character in a Frank Capra movie, the champion of the little people. And he was. At least, until about 1904 or so …
Shittiness of Watson’s Candidacy in 1896: The Populists, a fledging party, got swindled big time by the Democrats in 1896. To lure in Populist voters, the Dems offered them the Vice Presidency alongside their Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The People’s Party jumped at the opportunity, making their ticket Bryan for President and their own Thomas E. Watson for VP.
The Dems then listed their own ticket as Bryan for President and Arthur Sewall, a Maine Democrat, as VP. So William Jennings Bryan effectively got two parties’ votes for the price of one; and as their base was much larger, the Democrats’ VP candidate would’ve won too. Watson must’ve felt a total sucker. You know those Looney Tunes when Bugs Bunny is tricked into running out of an airplane hatch, and he turns into a donkey with the word “JACK-ASS” on the side?
In any event, William Jennings Bryan lost to the Republican candidate, William McKinley, and the fiasco did lasting damage to the People’s Party. Many Populists felt betrayed; in an ironic twist, some switched to become Democrats so it wouldn’t happen again.
Shittiness of Watson’s Candidacy in 1904: Eight years later, Watson ran for President on the Populist ticket. But where he once championed the rights of all citizens, Watson had now became more “nativist” — the view that “native” white folk like him, whose families had long been residents of the U.S.A., were being marginalized by the needs and desires of outsiders such as blacks. This ran counter not only to Populist theory, but to Watson’s own policies of just a decade before.
Never mind that the vast majority of those blacks were descendants of Africans forcibly dragged to the United States by white natives. Never mind that, by 1904, many of the voting-age blacks were themselves second, third, or even fourth generation Americans with no connection to Africa at all.
The voters of the People’s Party, who believed in a national unity free of class and race divides, were puzzled by this new divisive talk from their candidate, but nonetheless gave him over 117,000 votes. Watson finished fifth.
Shittiness of Watson’s Candidacy in 1908: Though the movement was still going, the People’s Party as a political entity was dissolving, and Thomas E. Watson’s opinions coalesced into open hostility toward blacks. He declared himself as a white supremacist and used the People’s Party Paper and other publications to publish scathing attacks on non-whites, socialism, Catholicism, and later, Jews. What little support he had left from the Party got him 28,000 votes for President.
Twelve years later, Watson became a Democrat again and was elected as Senator for Georgia. His brain did the world a solid by fatally hemorrhaging in 1922. His (albeit brief) successor, Rebecca Felton, became the first female Senator.
Conclusion: People’s views change over time. I myself began as a Republican, later a Democrat, and am now more of an independent. I have thus far never voted for a Clinton — we will see what happens in November. But I did not stay a Republican while promoting Democratic values. Thomas E. Watson joined the People’s Party and promoted their values … then, after his outlook changed, promoted his own. It must be difficult when you belong to a party and hold deep beliefs, then find your party’s Presidential candidate is nothing like you: some guy spewing hate and trampling all over your values. I wonder if there’s a modern parallel. Thomas E. Watson was that villain a hundred years ago.
What a shitty candidate for President of the United States.
This series started with William Howard Taft, then Daniel Webster, and will continue. For my list of Four Presidents Who Actually Got Shit Done, click here. To support me, buy my books. To insult me, a popular place to start in my last name. It rhymes with “cock.”