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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Bishop Cannon's influence on Virginia politics in the early 1900s

Bishop James Cannon supported prohibition ardently. Dabney argues that Cannon's strength lay in his ability to intimidate voters and to rouse their religious prejudices.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
Were the big stories of the '20s, in looking back, prohibition and Cannon's influence in politics?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, in the late '20s. But Cannon was also the big story in the 1900's, from 1906 to 1916, approximately. He was big news all that time. Then after prohibition came in, he was not nearly as active or in front of the news as he had been. Then later, when the agitation arose to repeal prohibition, he began moving back into the front of the picture. He was the spokesman, in Virginia at least, for the prohibitionists, and he also became active on a national scale in 1928, in the Al Smith-Hoover campaign when he led the fight against Smith.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You covered that campaign in Virginia?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I did and saw a little of the bishop personally and covered some of his speeches and became interested when I heard from some of my friends among the Methodists that he was going to be tried on various charges. They tipped me off to the fact that he was going to be tried in Dallas, for example, a couple of years before it happened. I decided to write a book about Cannon, to be published at the time that he was tried, when he would be on all the front pages, but I couldn't get any publisher to risk it. I now see that they were perfectly right because he would sue at the drop of a hat. His regular technique, when there was something of a controversial and critical nature involving him, was immediately to file suit, whether he was guilty or not and he would frighten the defendant into paying a couple of thousand dollars not to have to go to court. That happened over and over Some of those concerned decided that they weren't going to be bluffed. The Philadelphia Record was one and a Catholic paper in Buffalo was another. I quote both of them in the book on Cannon, which I couldn't get published until several years after he died. By that time, most people didn't even remember who he was. The younger generation wanted to know, "Who is Cannon?" They had never heard of him. He was dead as a publicity factor in 1949, when the book came out.
DANIEL JORDAN:
What were some of his character traits that made him successful for awhile, in that he dominated politics for a brief period in 1928?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, he was absolutely brilliant and he knew how to mobilize the drys into a solid phalanx, so much so that he prohibition over in the referendum of 1914 by a substantial margin and was the boss of the state in any area that he wanted to be boss, for a couple of years from '14 to '16. Then he gradually faded out. He had one of the best political minds of anybody that I ever saw. He was a true politician. He knew how to lobby and how to intimidate people in public life. He knew from A to Z about everybody in the legislature, how they had voted in the past, how to threaten them with dire retribution if they didn't vote right in the future and he had them jumping through hoops. A lot of those who had voted wet turned around and became dry. In the Al Smith-Hoover campaign, he organized the South in the most expert way and carried Virginia to the astonishment of most of the politicians. They thought they were going to hold it. He mobilized the anti-Catholic vote and the Klu Klux vote in the most blatant way and then became righteously indignant if anybody said that he was anti-Catholic. I don't know if you've gone through my book or not, but I've got verbatim statements of the most violent anti-Catholic character made back in 1908, '09 and '10.
DANIEL JORDAN:
We've both read the book and one thing that struck me as a small thing, but nonetheless interesting, is that he and Mencken apparently became social friends.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
That was really curious. Mencken studied him like a frog under a microscope. He found Cannon fascinating and would have him and and Mrs. Cannon to meals. They had pleasant relations, at least on the surface.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
You obviously didn't think a whole lot of Cannon as a person, while you might admire him as a politician or as . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
He was a brilliant individual, nobody was smarter. I didn't admire him in any other way.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Is it just because he did things that you thought were a little bit questionable?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, surely. I think he was a sincere prohibitionist, but the methods that he used to put it over and the things that he did in his personal life . . . a bishop of the Methodist Church gambling in bucket shops, hoarding flour during the war contrary to law, and so on. That's enough for us.
DANIEL JORDAN:
And then to add to that, this sort of self-righteous air.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Oh yes, and to be a bishop of the Methodist Church and preach to everybody else.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
He apparently got away with quite a bit of money under various circumstances.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
He did. There's that thing about selling his house in Washington. He knew it was going to be condemned by the Supreme Court, but he pretended that this was his home, and that he didn't want under any circumstances to give it up. He didn't let on that he knew it was going to be condemned, so he stuck them for all it was worth. He took the money and probably gambled in bucket shops with it. He didn't buy any home then. It was six years or more before he bought a home in Richmond.