Across the street from the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta lays a small enclosure at the intersection of Washington and Mitchell Street called Talmadge plaza. When you stroll past Governor Herman Tallmadge’s statue there, a twelve-foot tall bronze figure can be seen overlooking the small square. The somber epithet “Honor’s Path He Trod” is chiseled beneath the figure’s feet. It’s the statue of the infamous Southern demagogue himself, Thomas E. Watson.

Statue head of Thomas Watson. Photo by author.

Headstone of Thomas Watson. Photo by author.

He spent most of his life fighting to preserve the agrarian lifestyle of the South and for the rights of the common man but would eventually leave behind a legacy of bigotry that ultimately ruin his life’s work. Originally, his likeness had loomed over the front steps of the State Capitol for eighty years before coming to the plaza, but today it stands with its back turned against the golden dome, flanked by staircases and shrubbery, out of sight and out of mind for many Atlantans. Yet it remains here today still as a symbol of the city’s and region’s struggle with race. The following will be an inquiry in why the progressive, forward thinking politician was lowered into the narrow-mindedness of racial supremacy, and how his legacy has been forever tarnished in the historical record as a result.

To understand Thomas E. Watson, one must go back and first examine the childhood that he had experienced. Born in 1856 in Thomson, Georgia, Watson could remember Southern life before the war and saw first-hand the effects Reconstruction had on Georgia. He idolized old Confederate politicians like Stephen Anderson and filled his imagination with tales of gallant Klansman on moonlit raids in youth[1]. His first home was on a modestly sized plantation but due to his father’s financial troubles after the war, the land once held for several generations was sold and the Watsons moved from farm to farm, constantly in a state of flux[2]. Young Thomas excelled in school however, where he gained a reputation among his teachers as a precocious student obsessed with the Greek classics, poetry and history. He would later attend Mercer University in 1872 after he heard that his favorite schoolteacher was hired to teach Latin there. Financial woes back home however caused the young scholar to drop out of his studies, and Thomas went out of Mercer in search of employment. By 1875, after working as a schoolmaster in rural Georgia, Thomas passed the bar and became a practicing attorney before his 21st birthday[3]. The wealth he acquired in his practice would later be spent establishing his progressive publishing companies that he would use often for a personal platform in politics.

Thomas Watson as a lawyer. Courtesy of University of North Carolina Libraries.

Thomas Watson as a Congressman, 1892. Courtesy of the Watson-Brown Foundation.

Watson had always expressed an interest since childhood in becoming a politician and with this new wealth Watson initiated his political career as a Southern Alliance Democrat in 1890, becoming the de facto leader of the Populist Party of Georgia by 1892[4]. Georgia during the Gilded age was an especially corrupt state; Banks refused issuing loans, Wall Street speculators drove Cotton prices eighty percent lower than they were in the 1870’s, and the Railroad companies were buying votes and avoiding taxes with criminal determination. It’s in this environment that the platform of progressivism really spoke to those who felt downtrodden. Their goals were decidedly progressive: public ownership of railroads, direct representation of Senatorial elections and labor reform were among some of the primary platforms that guided the movement. Watson addressed black farmers on their shared plight with white farmers regarding the rampant corruption that defined Gilded-era politics. The North was not here this time to free the slaves, but to make slaves out of all southerners, white and black included[5]. The cost of working with black voters was ever apparent to Watson though. Appearing overly eager to help black voters could ruin his political ambitions.

You might beseech a Southern white tenant to listen to you upon questions of finance, taxation, and transportation; you might demonstrate with mathematical precision that herein lay his way out of poverty into comfort. You might have him “almost persuaded” to the truth, but if the merchant who furnished his farm supplies or the town politician came along and cried “Negro rule!” the entire fabric of reason and common sense which you had patiently constructed would fall…The Negro has been as valuable a portion of the stock in trade of a Democrat as he was of a Republican.

Despite being a member of a minority party, Watson proved his abilities as an effective legislator in Congress. In 1893 Representative Watson authored the Rural Free Delivery act, a congressional bill that compelled the US Postal Service to deliver mail to the most remote parts of Georgia and the rest of the United States.  Farmers whom were disconnected from the main arteries of transportation would no longer have to pay expensive, middle-men delivery services to bring them their mail. When the Rural Free Delivery act was finally authorized in 1896 and in full effect by 1902, millions of Americans in rural sectors were sufficiently connected to the outside world. The bill would become the most expensive endeavor of the US Postal Service had ever attempted in its entire existence, and remains his most enduring political achievement[6].

A crowd gathers to hear Watson. Courtesy of the Watson Brown Foundation.

A crowd gathers to hear Watson speak, approx. 1900-1915. Courtesy of the Watson-Brown Foundation.


This is where things began to take a turn for the worst for the nascent politician. Watson’s popularity soared into a nomination of Vice President with William Jennings Bryan for the 1896 Presidential election. Bryan however opted to keep Arthur Sewall, a wealthy northerner, on his ticket and invited Watson to “do whatever he wants” regarding the snub[7]. Because of numerous failures, subsequent defeats and betrayals throughout his political campaigns, Watson’s ideals of racial solidarity began to change. Whether or not he changed out of convenience or by conviction really depends on the individual’s opinion of the man, but he acknowledged to himself that “everybody knew that Disenfranchisement was the cause of our success”[8].He spoke in favor of disenfranchising black voters throughout the region. He felt that African-Americans were owed nothing by civilization itself, and reasoned that black voters were oblivious to the trickery of both the Northern Republicans and the equally disdainful Democrats, viewing them thusly in patrician scorn[9]. It was during this time in 1906 while stumping for Hoke Smith’s gubernatorial campaign that Watson latched on to the rhetoric that black men were becoming increasingly impudent and in need of being put back in their place. With editorials such as “The Ungrateful Negro” being released under his name, some of his readers felt that his stance on African-Americans put him in the same standing as the forces he claimed to be fighting against. In the end, his publishing partners moved to have him removed from the news magazine that bore his own name before the end of the year[10].


Watson speaking before a spellbound crowd, aprox. 1910-1920. Courtesy of the Watson-Brown Foundation

This led to the incorporation of his new magazine, Watson’s Jeffersonian Weekly, a more candid magazine centered on Watson’s editorials instead of objective news which enjoyed a modest readership until 1913, when the Leo Frank case captured the nation’s attention. The Jeffersonian would become solely focused on the trial and demanded justice for Mary Phagan, the victim of a brutal murder that Frank was accused of committing. Watson, influenced by the reasoning of his own populist ideals, felt that the national outrage represented the outside intrusion of moneyed interests and foreign interference against justice itself, and thus responded with acidic editorials against their efforts to free Frank. “Frank belonged to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile[11]. As the trial progressed, Watson’s headlines became increasingly threatening. “If Frank’s rich connections keep on lying about his case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN”. Upon Frank’s commutation in the case, he was kidnapped by a mob and lynched, much to Watson’s satisfaction. He compared the actions of the mob to their Revolutionary forefathers. “When ‘Mobs’ are no longer possible, Liberty will be dead[12]


Watson’s Statue, photo by Author.

Watson’s success as a newspaperman led him to saddle up for one more campaign, running for Georgia’s 1920 Senatorial race and defeating the incumbent Hoke Smith. For the first time in over thirty years Thomas Watson was an elected official, and this time as a Senator no less. His victory was short lived however. He fell ill in his first term with bouts of asthma and bronchitis, yet insisted on staying in Washington before the Senate adjourned that year in 1922. He eventually suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage and passed away in Maryland. When his body returned to his beloved Hickory Hill, nearly ten-thousand mourners came to pay their respects. The Ku Klux Klan did as well, leaving an eight-foot tall cross made from roses for the demagogue[13]. A statue was dedicated in his honor in 1932 and as stated before, it stood by the front steps of the Capitol for nearly eighty years. On October 22, 2013 Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order to move the statue, due to ‘deterioration of the original site’ and unceremoniously relocated it to a safer location[14]. The statues new home is oddly befitting of his legacy though. The figure of Watson, the fiery orator, stands before an empty square, motioning action from a crowd that no longer exists for him.

[1] C. Vann Woodward, Agrarian Rebel (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1938), 2-6

[2] William Brewton, Life Of Thomas Watson, (New York, The Vail-Ballou Press, 1926), 376

[3] William J Northern, Men Of Mark in Georgia, IV (Raleigh, Edwards and Broughton Printing, 1911), 225

[4] Alex Arnett, Populist Movement in Georgia,(New York, Columbia University Press, 1922), 156-157

[5] Augusta Chronicle, Sept. 14, 1888

[6] George Brown Tindall, A Populist Reader. Selections from the Works of American Populist Leaders (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), 118-128

[7] Hal Williams, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan and the Remarkable Election of 1896, (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2010), 115-117.

[8] C. Vann Woodward, Agrarian Rebel (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1938), 379

[9] Thomas Watson, vo.l IV, Thomas Watson’s Magazine, June 1905, 298

[10] C. Vann Woodward, Agrarian Rebel (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1938), 382

[11] Thomas Watson, “The Celebrated Case of Leo Frank vs. the State of Georgia”, Thomas Watson’s Magazine, Aug. 1915, 222

[12] Thomas Watson, Watson’s Jeffersonian Weekly, June, 1915

[13] C. Vann Woodward, Agrarian Rebel (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1938), 486

[14] Kristina Torres, “Tom Watson Statue Removed From Georgia’s Capitol Steps”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (Atlanta, Georgia), Nov 29, 2013