An early champion of poor farmers in the shambles after the Civil War, Thomas Watson was the voice of the Populist Party. In his later years, however, he was known as a divisive and racist politician.
Watson earned his political stripes as an advocate for farmers. Georgia was struggling to define itself in the throes of Reconstruction. Some believed in the “New South,” a move away from the traditional agrarian economy. Watson did not. He was a defender of the old way of life. He became a supporter of the Farmer’s Alliance, a statewide organization that called for better schools and roads, and changes in tax laws that would benefit farmers. The Alliance called for tighter regulation of the railroads that charged farmers to ship their goods, and it sought to regulate banks that burdened farmers with high interest rates on loans. Within a few years, the Farmer’s Alliance had grown into a political party, the Populists.
Watson ran for U.S. president as the Populist candidate in 1904 and 1908, but he never garnered more than one percent of the national vote. Though not accepted nationally, he still enjoyed widespread support in Georgia. He became a Democrat, and he won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1920, his first political victory in decades.