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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.
(1) Tom Watson, People's Party Paper (31st July, 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.
(2) Theodore Roosevelt, Review of Reviews (September, 1896)
Mr. Watson really ought to be the first man on the ticket, with Mr. Bryan second; for he is much the superior in boldness, in thorough-going acceptance of his principles according to their logical conclusions, and in sincerity of faith. Mr. Watson belongs to that school of southern Populists who honestly believe that the respectable and commonplace people who own banks, railroads, dry goods stores, factories, and the like, are persons of mental and social attributes that unpleasantly distinguish Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and other worthies of later Rome. If he got the chance he would lash the nation with a whip of scorpions, while Bryan would be content with the torture or ordinary thongs.
(3) James K. Jones, Democratic National Committee, quoted in the New York World (3rd August, 1896)
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.
(4) Tom Watson, quoted in the New York World (28th September, 1896)
The menace which endangers Mr. Bryan's success today 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.
(5) Tom Watson, People's Party Paper (13th November, 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.
Last updated: 6th September, 2002