Incorporated in 1910 by the Georgia lawyer, author, and statesman Thomas E. Watson, the Jeffersonian Publishing Company was the official mouthpiece of Georgia’s firebrand Populist. The company printed most of Watson’s literary works—pamphlets, monographs, biographies, and histories—but it was known primarily for Watson’s newspaper, The Weekly Jeffersonian, and his monthly literary magazine, Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine. Initially given to trenchant muckraking editorials written in the Populist Party spirit, both magazine and newspaper eventually included Watson’s fierce attacks against the Catholic Church hierarchy and the domestic and foreign policies of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. Watson’s publications survived an organized Catholic boycott and a federal prosecution for mailing obscene literature, and would not be silenced until finally suppressed by the Wilson administration under the Espionage Act of 1917. Despite controversy and opposition, Watson’s weekly and monthly publications commanded a loyal political force, and no Georgia governor between 1906 and 1922 was elected without Watson’s support.
A celebrated criminal defense lawyer for much of his career, Watson still was no newcomer to publishing. The intellectual force behind the Populist revolt of the 1890s, Watson launched and edited the successful weekly People’s Party Paper in 1891. He was a frequent contributor to the Populist journal Arena and other national periodicals and was the author of several books: The Story of France (1899), Napoleon: A Sketch of His Life, Character, Struggles, and Achievements (1902), and The Life and Times of Thomas Jefferson (1903). In the midst of his failed 1904 presidential campaign, Watson refused repeated offers from William Randolph Hearst to edit the New York American. He instead launched Tom Watson’s Magazine in 1905, a monthly literary magazine published from New York. The first issue sold more than 100,000 copies. With articles from such contributing authors as lawyer Clarence Darrow and novelist Theodore Dreiser and with 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 business partner, W. D. Mann. In late 1906 Watson moved the magazine’s publication to Atlanta, where it joined its sister weekly newspaper begun months earlier, and underwent a name change, to Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine. Aided by the mailing list of Hoke Smith’s Atlanta Journal , Watson’s weekly and monthly enjoyed continued popularity with loyal constituents and former Populists. Watson affectionately dubbed his readers “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 his friend and political ally and the future Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture J. J. Brown as vice president and moved managing editor Alice Lytle to Thomson. The 9,000-square-foot plant employed thirty people and was equipped to print, stitch, and bind Watson’s periodicals and books.
Also in 1910 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 on June 3, 1912, for sending through the U.S. mail 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 thirteen-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 days in 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 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 Wilson’s policies regarding the Conscription Act and American involvement in World War I and the League of Nations. As it did with the 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 Wilson’s internationalism in 1918 in the pages of his newly purchased weekly Columbia Sentinel, but in fact the Jeffersonian Publishing Company was silenced forever. Like Watson, it was foreordained to a short-lived and turbulent career.