Tom Watson and Resistance to Federal War Policies in Georgia during World War I

Article excerpt

HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE PACKED THE MCDUFFIE COUNTY COURTHOUSE in Thomson, Georgia, on February 12, 1916, to hear the most influential and controversial figure in Georgia politics. The speaker, the former Populist Party leader Thomas E. "Tom" Watson (1856-1922), was soliciting the crowd's support in the face of federal obscenity charges that stemmed from the hate-filled rants in his newspaper and magazine concerning the case of Leo Frank. Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent, was lynched in Cobb County by a Georgia mob in August 1915 after his death sentence for murder was commuted by the governor. In Watson's remarks, as in much of the rhetoric in Watson's Magazine and in his weekly newspaper, the Thomson Jeffersonian, the razor-tongued Georgian described the federal charges in terms of a corrupt, tyrannical outsider imposing its will on the white rural South, whose interests and values were embodied by none other than Watson himself. "From the foundation of this Government to this very moment," he claimed, "the South has never had justice in history or in legislation." According to Watson, the federal government had favored northern manufacturing interests since the earliest days of the republic, while "those infamous Jaws have become more and more outrageously unjust to the South." For the past hundred years, he contended, the national administration had allowed northern moneyed interests a free hand in business and a comfortable position above the law. His obscenity charge, Watson argued, was merely a continuation of this trend: "She [the South] has never got it [justice], and now the proposition is that this Government of one hundred millions of men, with criminals every which way going unwhipped, this great Government, will pick out one southern man and use the powers of the Government to grind him to powder." (1)

In the same courthouse in June 1917, Watson addressed another large crowd--between five hundred and six hundred listeners--about what he saw as another example of federal power being abused to benefit "Big Money," an epithet he used often. Over two months earlier, President Woodrow Wilson and the members of Congress had thrust the United States into a war with Germany that, at best, only a large minority of Americans supported. The point of the meeting was to organize support for a legal challenge to the Selective Service Act, which Congress had passed on May 18, 1917. Again crafting his appeal in sectional terms, Watson began his two-hour speech by addressing the growing inequality between rich and poor, claiming that economic conditions were worse in the South in 1917 than during the Civil War. The Wilson administration, Watson argued, had begun implementing plans to conscript poor southern men, both white and black, to act as cannon fodder on faraway battlefields to further the interests of northern capital. (2) In the case of wartime conscription, the sons of working-class Georgians were those whom the federal government wished to grind into powder.

This article's examination of the power of Watson's wartime rhetoric suggests that the Populist reform impulse of the 1890s was central to the popularity of his antiwar and antidraft crusade in the South and in Georgia, in particular. The effectiveness of Watson's class-based arguments against the Selective Service Act of 1917 inspired federal repression of his publications and his followers. Repression of the latter, in at least one instance, resulted in violent resistance to a display of federal force in the Georgia upcountry. When examined alongside the language that he used throughout the life of the Populist Party, returned to in the Leo Frank matter, and spouted during the period of American neutrality, the antiwar and antidraft sentiment that Watson provoked in rural Georgia during World War I reveals the persistence of class antagonism, antimilitarism, and southern nativism, as well as important intellectual and emotional continuities, in his long public career. …

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