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This Day in Georgia History

September 05, 1856

Tom Watson Born

To view an image of Tom Watson, see the Digital Library of Georgia.

Populist politician, lawyer, writer, and editor Tom Watson was born near Thomson, Georgia. Attending Mercer University for two years, he read law and was admitted to the bar in 1875. In 1882, Watson was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Resigning after a year, he returned to the practice of law. In 1890, based on his support of the Farmers’ Alliance, he was elected to Congress, where he continued trying to work on behalf of distressed farmers. His main accomplishment in Congress was helping to launch a trial program in rural free delivery of mail. In 1891, Watson joined the Populist Party and launched publication of an an Atlanta weekly, the People’s Party Paper. In his 1892 reelection campaign, Watson urged both white and black farmers to unite behind him. Losing that bid, he ran as the Populist Party’s 1896 vice presidential candidate. After losing that election, Watson temporarily retired from politics, returning to the practice of law and taking up a new avocation–writing novels, histories, and biographies. He also again became an editor, establishing Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine in 1907. In 1904 and 1908, he agreed to run as the Populist candidate for president under the People’s Party banner. By the early 1900s, however, the Populist movement was waning and Watson’s presidential run only attracted marginal voter interest. Despite his earlier efforts to court black voters, Watson racial views had evolved. Now, he openly called for black disfranchisement and even expressed support for lynching. Catholics and Jews also received his disdain. Perhaps the most notable example of this was his vicious condemnation of the commutation of Leo Frank’s death sentence from the famous trial in the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913. His writings fanned the flames of hatred and may well have contributed to Frank’s lynching in 1915. In 1920, Watson mounted one last campaign - this time a successful race for the U.S. Senate on a platform to keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations. Two years later, Watson died leaving a complex legacy of populist reformer on one hand and bitter racist plagued by deep emotional problems on the other.