Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Of Gentlemen and SOBs: The Great War and Progressivism in Mississippi

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Of Gentlemen and SOBs: The Great War and Progressivism in Mississippi

Article excerpt

In April 1917, John Sharp Williams was almost sixty-three years old, and he could barely hear it thunder. Sitting in the first row of the packed House chamber, he leaned forward, "huddled up, listening ... approvingly" as his friend Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress, not so much to declare war as to "accept the status of belligerent" which Germany had already forced upon the reluctant American nation. No one knew how much of the speech the senior senator from Mississippi heard, though the hand cupped conspicuously behind the right ear betrayed the strain of his effort. Frequently, whether from the words themselves or from the applause they evoked, he removed his hand long enough for a single clap before resuming the previous posture, lest he lose the flow of the president's eloquence (Houston 1:255).

"We are glad," said Wilson, "now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included; for the rights of nations, great and small, and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy." That final phrase Williams surely heard, for "alone he began to applaud ... gravely, emphatically," and continued until the entire audience, at last gripped by "the full and immense meaning" of the words, erupted into thunderous acclamation ( "President Calls").

Scattered about the crowded chamber were a handful of dissenters, including Williams's junior colleague from Mississippi, James K. Vardaman. Only a few weeks before, Vardaman had opposed the president's proposal to arm American merchant vessels in the face of Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1. Though not participating in the filibuster that talked the bill to death in the Senate, he had refused to sign a round-robin in support of the measure, earning him inclusion in Wilson's public denunciation of the "little group of willful men" who, "representing no opinion but their own," had "rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible" (Millis 411). Two days hence, Vardaman would cast one of only six senate votes against the declaration of war, and even now, as he sat, sadly, amidst the crescendo of enthusiasm for the president's call to arms, his opposition and near isolation were palpable (Holmes 315-18). Earlier, as the senators had filed two by two into the chamber, each carried in his hand or wore in his lapel a tiny American flag; at the conclusion of Wilson's speech "those who were wearing, not carrying flags" ripped them from their coats and "waved with the rest, and they all cheered wildly." Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Vardaman's fellow progressive from the other party, "stood motionless with his arms folded tight... chewing gum with a sardonic smile." Only he and Vardaman were "flagless" ( "President Calls").

There is a venerable legend, according to David Chandler, that since the United States Constitution already provided for two senators from each state when Mississippi joined the Union in 1817, the people tacitly agreed that one seat would be reserved for a gentleman, the other for an SOB; that way the whole state would always be represented (Chandler 281). In any case, these two, the urbane planter-statesman and the boisterous agrarian radical, embodied the antagonisms, the contradictions, the almost perverse ironies embedded in the Mississippi of 1917. Between America's belated entry into The Great War that year and the conclusion of a second World War in 1945, much about the Magnolia State would remain outwardly the same. Much else, however, especially beneath the surface of an archaic agrarian society, would change, as the state and its people groped their tortured way toward modernity.

John Sharp Williams was indeed a gentleman. Orphaned young, reared on his grandfather's 3,000-acre plantation in Yazoo County, and educated abroad and at the University of Virginia, he personified the Bourbon forebears who dominated the state following the overthrow of Reconstruction (Osborn 4-7, 13-21). …

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