Thomas Edward "Tom" Watson (September 5, 1856 - September 26, 1922) was an American politician, attorney, newspaper editor and writer from Georgia. In the 1890s Watson championed poor farmers as a leader of the Populist Party, articulating an agrarian political viewpoint while attacking business, bankers, railroads, Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party. He was the nominee for vice president with William Jennings Bryan in 1896 on the Populist ticket (but there was a different vice presidential nominee on Bryan's Democratic ticket of 1900 and 1908).
Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1890, Watson pushed through legislation mandating Rural Free Delivery, called the "biggest and most expensive endeavor" ever instituted by the U.S. postal service. Politically he was a leader on the left in the 1890s, calling on poor whites and poor blacks to unite against the elites. After 1900, however, he shifted to nativist attacks on blacks and Catholics (and after 1914 on Jews). Two years before his death, he was elected to the United States Senate.
Thomas E. Watson was born September 5, 1856, in Thomson, the county seat of McDuffie County, Georgia. He was of entirely English descent. After attending Mercer University (he did not graduate; family finances forced withdrawal after two years), he became a school teacher. At Mercer University, Watson was part of the Georgia Psi chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Watson later studied law and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1875. He joined the Democratic Party and in 1882 was elected to the Georgia Legislature.
As a state legislator, Watson struggled unsuccessfully to curb the abuses of the powerful railroad corporations. A bill subjecting railroads to county property taxes was voted down after U.S. Senator Joseph E. Brown offered to provide the legislators with round-trip train fares to the Louisville Exposition of 1883. In disgust, Watson resigned his seat and returned to the practice of law before his term expired. He was a presidential elector for the Democratic ticket of Grover Cleveland and Allen G. Thurman in the 1888 election.
Watson began to support the Farmers' Alliance platform and was elected to the United States House of Representatives as an Alliance Democrat in 1890. He served in the House from 1891 until March 1893. In Congress, Watson was the only Southern Alliance Democrat to abandon the Democratic caucus, instead attending the first People's Party congressional caucus. At that meeting, he was nominated for Speaker of the House by the eight Western Populist Congressmen. Watson was instrumental in the founding of the Georgia Populist Party in early 1892.
The People's Party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines, and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators. As a Populist, Watson tried to unite the agrarians across class lines, overcoming racial divides. He also supported the right of black men to vote. The failures of the Populists' attempt to make political progress through fusion tickets with the Democrats in 1896 and 1898 deeply affected Watson....