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Thomas E. Watson: Georgia Populist Politician

The Carolina Digital Library and Archives, the Southern Historical Collection, and Documenting the American South are pleased to announce the release of the Thomas E. Watson Papers Digital Collection. The result of the Southern Historical Collection's pilot "large-scale" digitization effort, the collection presents the entirety of the Thomas E. Watson Papers manuscript collection online for historical research.

Thomas E. Watson (1856-1922), of Thomson, Georgia, was a colorful and successful criminal lawyer, a leading populist politician, a popular author, and an influential publisher. He served in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1882, the United States House of Representatives from 1890 to 1892, and the United States Senate from 1921 to 1922. As a major figure in the Populist Party, he ran unsuccessfully for vice-president as William Jennings Bryan's running mate in 1896 and for president in 1904 and 1908. His history of France (1899); biographies of Napoleon (1902), Jefferson (1903), and Jackson (1912); and his novel Bethany (1904) were praised for their populist spirit.

Watson was most influential through his various publications, including the People's Party Paper (1891-98), The Jeffersonian (1907-1917), and Watson's Magazine (1905-06, 1912-17). In muckraking editorials, he espoused populist causes that included antitrust legislation, railroad regulation, and monetary policies favorable to agrarian interests, including coinage of silver. He fought to maintain the broad-based reformist and independent goals of the Populist Party against those who favored fusion with the major parties and a narrow focus on the silver issue. Initially a supporter of the inclusion of blacks in the agrarian movement, he later turned to race baiting, advocating black disfranchisement, and to virulent anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic diatribes. His lurid crusade against Catholicism led to his trial on charges of sending obscene material through the mail.

While unsuccessful in his national political campaigns, from 1906 to 1922 Watson was a dominant power in Georgia politics, making and unmaking governors. When his bitter opposition to America's entry into World War I and to such wartime legislation as the Espionage and Conscription Acts led to the revocation of his mailing privileges for his publications in 1917, Watson became a crusader for personal liberties—at least for Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This effort, coupled with continuing attacks on blacks, Jews, and Catholics as his platform, he mounted his final, and, this time, successful, campaign for the Senate in 1920. Thomas E. Watson died 26 September 1922.

Watson's papers contain correspondence, book manuscripts, speeches, publications, scrapbooks, diaries, photographs and photograph albums. The Thomas E. Watson Papers Digital Collection contains more than 12,300 items comprised of more than 45,000 individual images. This digital collection enables researchers to browse the contents of the Thomas E. Watson collection via its finding aid in much the same way they would in person. Two of the series, Correspondence and Photographs, may be searched as well as browsed, by personal names, locations, and dates. Additionally, six audiotapes of an oral history interview with Georgia Doremus Watson Craven, Watson's granddaughter, have been digitized and are available to listen to on the website.

The Thomas E. Watson Papers Digitization Project was generously funded by a gift from the Watson-Brown Foundation of Thomson, Georgia. Work on the project began in 2007 and was completed in 2009.

For additional information on Thomas E. Watson, see C. Vann Woodward's Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel.

Maggie Dickson and SHC staff