Politics was [for Watson]… a potent magic whereby a distraught and oppressed people might conjure up forgotten, as well as imaginary, grandeurs, unite with intense purpose, and cast off their oppressors.—C. Vann Woodward

Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Paul Greenberg has described the Pulitzer Prize winning historian C. Vann Woodward as the “quintessential quiet Southerner.” The Arkansas scholar listens, ponders, weighs things carefully, and creates “a quiet bulwark of reason and imagination” in his works in order to give us a lasting understanding of “the sorrowful but redemptive qualities of Southern history.” In this way he is very different from the strident Tom Watson (1856-1922), the Georgia populist, whose career Woodward studied at length. This other sort of Southerner, according to Greenberg, is “by turns scholarly and unlettered, slovenly and eloquent, decadent and noble.”

Greenberg looks at Woodward’s work in terms of regional culture (in his essay collection Resonant Lives). But Woodward’s classic biography Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938) can also be read on another level, as a psychological profile of extremism. Though I would not agree with him on all points—he was a devotee of progressivist Charles Beard in economics—Woodward offers a well-written and insightful narrative.

The young Watson, we’re told, was not without charm. He devoured literature, both classical works and popular novels, and tried his hand at verse. He precociously outstripped the mediocre education offered him by local schools. Yet the danger of any autodidact is that his learning is apt to be random and fastidious. He needs old-fashioned humanist discipline to counteract flights of fancy—whether dreaming of the battles of Napoleon or the conquests of romantic heroes—with the virtues of wisdom and prudence. Amid this intellectual activity there is a remoteness that is unpleasant. The future senator was a gregarious rabble rouser, yet remained aloof from the common aspirations of mankind.

What was true of Watson on a political level was true spiritually as well. As Woodward says, “When a ‘revival’ came along, he even tried religion, embracing it with the impulsiveness and emotionalism that characterized his conversion to anything from an economic doctrine to a political platform.” But religiosity was a passing fad for this lifelong devotee of Voltaire.

Though well-read within his narrow range of interests, the Georgia politician was an ideologue, who lived according to the Baconian truism that knowledge is power. He never thought things through very deeply. This evinced itself in the kind of glaring contradictions that we find among radicals and reactionaries, as opposed to real conservatives. Watson was an admirer of Napoleon, but also an anti-imperialist and isolationist. He lauded Lenin and the Russian Revolutionaries even as he indulged in anti-black and anti-Jewish tirades. He also described Catholicism as the “deadliest menace to our liberties and our civilization.” (Woodward refers to his attacks on the Church as “pathological.”)

Watson was a professional muckraker, who knew that the shortest route to power is feeding on the envy and discontent of the mob. That explains his apparent vagaries, from being a socialist populist who once saved a black man from a lynching to a racialist populist who later called for the rope to keep blacks in line. After a spell as a Democrat in the Georgia legislature, he founded the state’s Populist Party in 1892, advocating public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines and telephone and telegraph systems. He also favored a progressive income tax. In 1896 he became the vice presidential candidate in William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign on the Democratic ticket. Bryan lost and in 1904 and 1908 the disillusioned Watson ran for president on the Populist ticket.

Having accumulated a small fortune from the publication of best-selling, if not very accurate, studies of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and the French Revolution, Watson abandoned the left-leaning reformism of his youth for a race-based radicalism, though his invective against mainstream political and business interests remained an unvarying theme.

In his 1910 booklet Socialists and Socialism, Watson displayed vestiges of his once charming sense of humor. It had turned bitter and acidulous. He described a leading contemporary radical as “the Socialist leader who worked a get-rich-quick scheme by marrying a millionaire’s daughter—after which he publishes a book on ‘Poverty,’ and began to wear pink socks.” But Watson’s dispute with leftist rivals seemed due mainly to their opposition to his views on sectionalism and slavery. He was often accurate in his refutation of Marxism. Mere negation is easy. Yet he adopted a determinism of his own, blaming social decline on “mongrelism” and the mixing of “superior” with “inferior” races.

It was a tragic irony that Watson went from being a successful defense attorney, who was the bane of public prosecutors, to one of the loudest voices calling for the death of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory foreman who was wrongly convicted of murder and later hanged by a vigilante mob in 1915, largely at Watson’s instigation. In a final character judgment, Woodward says that the senator’s outlook remained the same “whatever other ideas and principles he professed were superstructure, whether they were in part populist, socialist or fascist.” Life for Watson meant always asserting himself, proving that he was “somebody.” His egotism was all the more dangerous because it was wrapped in the mantle of disinterested idealism.

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