In 1891, while in Congress, Tom Watson launched the People’s Party Paper with novelist C.C. Post. A national weekly newspaper devoted to the principles of the Farmer’s Alliance and Jeffersonian popular government, the People’s Party Paper was intended to compete with the Southern Alliance Farmer, the weekly run by L.F. Livingston, president of the Georgia Farmer’s Alliance whose questionable political loyalties attracted Watson’s increasing mistrust.
Despite its early struggle for circulation, its financial strain (Watson personally absorbed all costs) and the heaping ridicule it received from the Democratic press, the People’s Party Paper ran unabated for eight years with Watson at the helm. By 1893, two years after he launched it and a year after he had been counted out of Congress, Watson claimed the paper went to every state in the union and its circulation was second in Georgia only to the Atlanta Constitution. Three years later, riding the high water mark of the People’s Party, Watson’s paper was nationally known and quoted routinely. Watson also was a frequent contributor to the Populist journal, Arena, and to other national periodicals.
Watson scuttled the People’s Party Paper after the disastrous Populist defeat of 1896. While demanding that the principles of Populism were as vital as ever, Watson conceded his party was wrecked. For all practical purposes Watson exited the political stage to recuperate in his personal library and to begin a serious writing career.
In 1898 The Macmillan Company offered Watson a publishing contract to write a two-volume history of France. The subject matter was both pragmatic and philosophical. Watson had periodically written essays on France for the People’s Party Paper and in 1896 had published a small, three volume French history that amounted to an expansion of historical essays. As an apostle of Thomas Jefferson, and therefore an ardent Francophile, Watson recognized the populist allegory in France’s epic drama and rarely failed to compare the lessons of the past to contemporary domestic struggles.
In 1899 Macmillan published The Story Of France in two volumes. Totaling more than 1,700 pages, Watson’s work was a literary and commercial success. Reviews were supportive and the work was received well stateside and abroad. It sold more than 50,000 copies while published by Macmillan.
Watson’s history of France was followed immediately by a passionate and apologetic 700 page biography of Napoleon, which was published by Macmillan in 1902. Napoleon also enjoyed considerable success. A biography of Thomas Jefferson, published by D. Appleton and Company, followed in 1903. In 1904 Watson completed Bethany: A Story of the Old South, his first and only published novel.
In 1904, Watson refused a lucrative offer to edit William Randolph Hearst’s Morning American. The following year he launched Tom Watson’s Magazine, a literary and reform magazine published from New York. The first number sold more than 100,000 copies. With articles from contributing authors such as Clarence Darrow and Theodore Dreiser and Watson’s sensational editorials that abused class rule and runaway capitalism, the magazine was identified with other well-read muckraking and reform journals of its day.
His magazine’s early success notwithstanding, Watson was soon at odds with the management practices and unsavory reputation of his New York business partner, W. D. Mann. In late 1906 Watson moved the magazine’s publication to Atlanta, where it joined its sister weekly, the Weekly Jeffersonian, begun months earlier. Aided by the mailing lists of Hoke Smith’s Atlanta Journal, Watson’s weekly and monthly enjoyed continued popularity with loyal constituents and former Populists he affectionately dubbed “Old Man Peepul” and “Aunt Sarah Jane.” Focusing on national issues, the Weekly Jeffersonian rivaled the Journal and Clark Howell’s Atlanta Constitution for circulation and statewide influence.
In 1910, Watson purchased the copyrights to his books, constructed a modern printing plant within sight of his Thomson home, Hickory Hill, and moved his publications one last time. He named friend, political ally and future Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, J.J. Brown, vice president of The Jeffersonian Publishing Company and moved to Thomson managing editor Alice Lytle. The 9000 square foot plant employed 30 people and was equipped to print, stitch and bind Watson’s periodicals and books.
1910 was also the year Watson began a deliberate serial crusade against the Catholic hierarchy. While his mistrust of foreign missions and the historic political activities of the Catholic Church had manifested itself earlier in both his periodicals and histories, Watson’s campaign of 1910 took on a more vitriolic complexion. His bitter attacks in “the Jeffs” against the abuses of the Church and a wealth of purported sexual crimes ran unabated for seven years, attracted an effective Catholic boycott and, eventually, a federal indictment. Watson was arrested June 3, 1912, for sending through the U.S. mails a Latin quotation considered obscene for the day—a quotation Watson reprinted to illustrate the vile nature of questions asked of female parishioners by their confessors. Watson led his own defense and in 1916, after a quashed indictment and a mistrial, won his own acquittal.
Watson’s contentious publications again found the national spotlight in 1914, after Watson bristled at an Atlanta Journal editorial urging a retrial for Leo Frank. A wealthy, northern, Jewish manager of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Frank had been convicted a year earlier of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a working class 13-year-old company employee. Frank’s conviction was subsequently upheld on five appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. Watson, who had refused offers to assist in the defense and in the prosecution, remained publicly silent on the case until Hoke Smith’s newspaper printed the editorial.
Watson assailed the Journal for judicial tampering (the case was under appeal), took on northern publishers who clamored for a new trial, and began a two-year defense of Georgia’s judicial system and demonstration of the guilt of the “libertine Jew.” Editorials in his weekly exploded into expansive evidentiary and trial reviews in Watson’s Magazine. Georgia Governor John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence during his final day of office, outraging many Georgians and prompting Watson to ask his readers “whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.” Two months later Leo Frank was taken from the jail in Milledgeville by a group of prominent Marietta citizens, driven back to Marietta and hanged. Watson responded to the news through the Jeffersonian: “Now let outsiders attend to their own business, AND LEAVE OURS ALONE.” For many, the episode branded Watson as an anti-Semite for the only time in his life.
Through it all, Watson’s paper and magazine continued to attack Wilsonism, American involvement in World War I, the Conscription Act, and any U.S. involvement in the League of Nations. As it did with Socialist Eugene Debs, the Wilson administration ultimately silenced Watson’s printed protests in 1917 by denying his paper and magazine the use of the U.S. Mail under the Espionage Act. Unlike other progressive reformers and Debs, Watson narrowly escaped federal prosecution.
Watson would continue his fight against Wilsonism in 1918 in the pages of his newly purchased weekly Columbia Sentinel, but in fact the Jeffersonian Publishing Company was silenced forever.