Tom Watson was born in Columbia County, Georgia, on 5th September, 1856. After graduating from Mercer University he became a school teacher. Watson then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1875. He joined the Democratic Party and in 1882 was elected to the Georgia Legislature.
Watson helped form the Populist Party in 1891. The 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.
In 1891 Watson was elected to the Senate and served until March 1893. After being defeated he returned to work as a lawyer in Thompson, Georgia. He also edited the People's Party Paper.
In the 1896 presidential election the leaders of the Populist Party entered into talks with William J. Bryan, the proposed Democratic Party candidate. They thought they had an agreement that Watson would become Bryan's running mate. After giving their support to Bryan he announced that Arthur Sewall, a conservative politician with a record of hostility towards trade unions, would be his vice presidential choice. 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 and won 217,000 votes.
The defeat of William J. Bryan severely damaged the Populist Party. While Populists continued to hold power in a few Western states, the party ceased to be a factor in national politics.
Under the leadership of Watson the party moved to the right. He denounced socialism and called for the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan. He was the party's presidential candidate in 1904 but won only 117,183 votes. The party's fortunes continued to decline and in the 1908 presidential campaign, attracted only 29,100 votes.
Watson also became hostile to Jews and Catholics. In 1913 he played a prominent role in inflaming public opinion in the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory worker accused of murdering a female colleague. In 1915 Frank was dragged from his prison cell and lynched.