Well, good morning, and I wonder if you have the stamina for a third hour? Prop yourself up here and I’ll try to keep us all awake. My thanks to Don Livingston for his invitation to speak to you today and for all of his work organizing and hosting this event; as I’m sure you know, an awful lot goes on behind the scenes, by many, many hands. I’ve enjoyed being with all of you and seeing old friends I have not seen in many years and making new friends.
I’ve been studying the First World War, the particular War for Righteousness I have in mind this morning, in one way or another, for about twenty-five years. Mostly, I look at American religion and the war, but today I turn to the South, specifically to the opposition to Wilson and American Intervention mounted by two prominent Southerners. I venture into this topic with some trepidation (to put it mildly). When I try to write or speak about the South, I am all too aware that I am from New Jersey. And most people would claim Northern New Jersey! So, I lack the instinctive, the inborn understanding that a native son would bring to the South. I sense that I lack the intuitive feel for it that I ought to have, and much of the material I will present this hour is new to me, and I thank you for your patience as I think my way through it and try to draw out a few implications, and I’m going to overlap just a bit with what Joseph Stromberg presented on earlier today.
In 1874, a young Woodrow Wilson, or Tommy Wilson (if you can imagine it), as he was still known to friends and family, left Davidson College in North Carolina after his freshman year to recuperate from an illness. He came here to Wilmington. His father pastored Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church over on the corner of Third and Orange (which I had the privilege of touring yesterday afternoon). According to Josephus Daniels, President Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1921, and himself a North Carolinian, the adolescent Wilson “Talked to sailors on the waterfront, played shortstop on the neighborhood baseball team, and swam in the Cape Fear at the foot of Dock Street.” Secretary Daniels also reports that Tommy was the first person in North Carolina to own a bicycle and startled local residents by riding his contraption around the streets of Wilmington. Daniels admits that Wilson was something of a social misfit. The Secretary of the Navy continues his account:
“The river and the ships fascinated the youth. Their color and associations of adventure and romance fed his imagination. The lure of the sea was strong upon him and it was in those days that he had his heart set on going to the Naval Academy. His father saw that he was meant for letters and teaching and politics, and set his foot down upon a naval career. When the Navy lost Tommy Wilson as a future admiral, it gained in 1913 a commander-in-chief whose marvelous grasp of naval matters made him the real leader of the men who go down to the sea in ships.”
Well, jumping ahead forty years to the autumn of 1915, Wilson was now that Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy and Josephus Daniels’ boss. The First World War had been underway in Europe for a little over a year. Its brutal slaughter would intensify shortly in the fields of Verdun and the Somme, and it would last another three years – grim realities unknown to anyone at the time, but certain to make the world of 1918 utterly unlike the world of 1914. American intervention on the side of the Allied Powers had not yet happened in 1915, and it is important not to see the next steps as inevitable. The future at this moment is filled with potential. History could have followed another trajectory with consequences we can only speculate about for America and the world. Woodrow Wilson had called for neutrality at the War’s beginning. Few citizens a year later thought America would enter a war so far from home. War with Mexico seemed more probable. But some ambitious people did envision a remarkably aggressive, redemptive universal mission for the United States. Listen to what one publication had to say about the ideal American citizen and his role in the world at that moment in 1915:
“The imperialism of the American is a duty and credit to humanity. He is the highest type of imperial master. He makes beautiful the land he touches, beautiful with moral and physical cleanliness. There should be no doubt that, even with all possible moral refinement, it is the absolute right of a nation to live to its full intensity. To expand, to found colonies, to get richer and richer by any proper means, such as armed conquest, commerce, diplomacy. Such expansion as an aim is an inalienable right and in the case of the United States it is a particular duty, because we are idealists and thereby bound, by establishing protectorates over the weak, to protect them from unmoral Kultur.”
Now that world, “Kultur,” referred to Germany and its imperial ambitions. Clearly some Americans had already made up their minds one year into the war, that that United States had a major role to play in world affairs and that the principle obstacle to those ambitions was Germany. But notice that American colonialism would be unlike Germany’s. It would be beautiful and moral and benevolent. These extraordinary words about America’s righteous imperialism came from an anonymous writer for Seven Seas Magazine in its November, 1915 issue. This journal was the short-lived mouthpiece for the Navy League, an organization founded in 1902 (during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration), on the model of similar organizations in Britain and Germany. Its purpose was to promote construction of an offensive, modern naval fleet, second to none. It still exists. It boasts 50,000 members and lobbies Congress for large defense expenditures.
Mobilized by the coming of war in 1914 and then by Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915, the Navy League called for a dramatic build-up of armaments, seeking half-a-billion dollars in new spending, back when half-a-billion dollars was a lot of money and did more than service a few minutes of debt. The Navy League’s members included a number of high-profile leaders from industry, Wall Street, politics, and religion. With executives from steel and other heavy industries that would profit handsomely from increased Naval appropriations, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this organization’s purposes were pretty transparent: its backers stood to gain much.
The Seven Seas article was quotable, to say the least, and it stirred up a furor of responses, ranging from the pacifist Henry Ford, to prominent socialists, to an assortment of liberal clergymen allied with the Federal Council of Churches. Ford took out large advertisements in such periodicals as Successful Farming to sound the alarm in America’s heartland. Arranging saber-rattling patriotic organizations like the Navy League on one side and political and religious pacifists on the other, it would be easy to frame the story of America’s division over war-preparedness and intervention from 1914 to 1917 as a simple story of interventionists vs isolationists, of conservatives vs. liberals, of right-wing vs. left-wing. But these artificial categories don’t work and only mask a more complex and interesting reality.
In the 1930’s Dorothy Parker famously commented that actress Katharine Hepburn’s performance “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” I think of this witticism every time I encounter historians who offer narrow accounts of the past that masquerade as the whole story, who offer false choices that pretend to be the whole range of opinion and available options for policy-makers. These historians (and journalists and politicians and TV-celebrities) focus our attention narrowly on a spectrum of judgments ranging only from A to B and leave us with the impression that we have the whole story from A to Z, telling the story of the debate over American preparedness and subsequent intervention into the First World War only through the framework of artificial categories. If we do that, we miss great swathes of historical reality.
I have taken this digression to prepare the way for another reaction to the ambitions of the Navy League and kindred spirits, a reaction to military preparedness and intervention that we shouldn’t allow to remain invisible: the rest of the alphabet. To help fill in those gaps in our collective memory, I offer you a sketch this morning of the resistance to Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy from two Southerners: the North Carolinian Claude Kitchin, and the Georgian Tom Watson (and I will indeed overlap just a bit with Joseph Stromberg).
I cannot offer now, in this presentation, a generalized description of the South’s response to intervention in 1917. It varied tremendously among Southern politicians, clergymen, bankers, lawyers, and small-town newspaper editors. For every Southern Senator willing to defy the President and vote against the War Resolution, there were several who backed him and his policies. For every Southern House member who voted against the War Resolution, there were several who voted for it, and more than a few Southern Congressmen could spout Wilsonian platitudes with the best of them. But a simple tally of up and down votes among Southern Senators and Congressmen reveals less, I think, than it might appear to, and it’s possible that the fact that the South wound up fighting in World War One matters less than how they thought and spoke about the war, about America’s traditions, and her place in the world. I think a parallel appropriate here would be to Macon (that we heard about yesterday), [who] voted for the war but his reasonings about the war matter a lot. It is obvious that the South wasn’t pacifist in 1917, but it is also obvious that it wasn’t militarist or imperialist either, at least not for Kitchin and Watson.
Before I proceed to these two men, I need to beg your indulgence and make one more digression to explain the title of my talk, although I should probably drop the “s” and just say “America’s War for Righteousness.” What is a “war for righteousness?” And you will note similarities here to Richard Weaver’s diagnosis. I have borrowed this phrase in the past and again today from the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield. I probably quote him too often, but his concept of a “war for righteousness” is the most helpful way I know of to think about one important tendency in American thought that helped justify U.S. intervention in the First World War, a troubling tendency that Claude Kitchin and Tom Watson resisted, even if with little success.
Butterfield argued in short essay entitled “The War for Righteousness,” published, I think, in the 1950’s, that the massive destruction, loss of life, and duration of the First World War were attributable not to modern technology and industrialized warfare alone. The war’s destructiveness required an act of will to use those perfected means of mass slaughter against the enemy. The scale and intensity of that war had at least as much to do with the decision on all sides to wage a war of ideas, an unlimited war of unlimited means for unlimited ends, a revival, he feared, of the zeal of the 16th-century Wars of Religion that brought so much suffering to Europe after the Reformation. Significantly, Butterfield pointed to the American Civil War as the first reappearance of that righteous zeal, a war to impose an idea, as Dan McCarthy explained last night. Or, to borrow Edmund Burke’s description (this is my borrowing, not Butterfield’s), to borrow Burke’s description of the French Jacobins: “a war waged with an armed doctrine.” The First World War quickly became such a “war for righteousness,” an ideological crusade, and many Americans embraced that formula for how they pictured themselves, the enemy, and the meaning of the war. They followed President Wilson into a 20th Century “crusade,” a word that he used more than once.
Recall what the Seven Seas Magazine claimed back in 1915: “we are idealists.” What kind of a war will you end up fighting if you combine a self-righteous, redemptive universal mission with a world-class navy and army? What did a couple of non-interventionists from the South make of all this and what can we learn from them? And while I’m asking questions, let me lay out what I think the real questions were from 1914 to 1917, that is from the outbreak of the war in Europe until America’s intervention. (In case you’re taking notes here, let me go through these questions slowly): Was the United States adequately armed? That’s the first question confronted by Congressmen and others. Was the United States adequately armed? If so, was it adequately armed for what end? For its own defense? That would be one thing. For intervention? That would be another. Or maybe for empire? That would be something else entirely. There are further questions: Just what exactly was the policy objective? Who has the Constitutional responsibility to formulate that policy? Who should judge its merits? And how it should it all be paid for? The debate in Washington and within the Democratic Party that was in power in 1915 was not between the nation being unarmed or armed, vulnerable or safe. Let me repeat: whatever the impression left at the time and since, the debate was not between pacifists and militarists. The press might spin it that way, but these were false choices and they remain false choices.
Congressman Claude Kitchin saw that very article in Seven Seas Magazine. He was not a fan. He was a North Carolina native from near Scotland Neck, almost due north of here, and about parallel with Kitty Hawk, and not too far from Nathaniel Macon’s home, as Troy Kickler noted yesterday. An agrarian traditionalist and enemy of Henry Grady’s industrialized New South, Kitchin held the Second District’s House seat for over twenty years, from 1901 until his death in 1923. He served as Speaker of the House from 1915 until the Republican mid-term victories in 1918 cost the Democrats control of the House. He also chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and sat as a prominent and well-informed member of the Naval Affairs Committee. In short, Kitchin was a formidable and well-respected politician who supported his party and the Wilson Administration when he could, but was nobody’s lapdog. Up to 1915, President Wilson had publicly opposed the naval armament recommendation coming from the government’s own Naval Board. He and Kitchin agreed on this, but Wilson got behind the armaments push in the summer of 1915, and Kitchin’s letters (which I won’t quote here) show that he clearly suspected Wilson of intending to enter the war as early as 1915.
In an important speech in New York City on November the 4th of 1915, President Wilson announced the scale of the proposed build-up, including the Navy, armaments, and a 400,000-man citizen army which he called the “continental army,” that would be ready to mobilize on short notice. According to his biographer Arthur Link, the naval legislation would, in the first five years, augment the Navy by “ten battleships, six battlecruisers, ten cruisers, fifty destroyers, 100 submarines and lesser craft, at a cost of 500-million dollars.” This plan, if implemented, would put the U.S. on a trajectory to reach parity with Great Britain, mistress of the world’s largest navy, within ten years. Kitchin met with Wilson, as you might expect, as House leader, four days later to discuss the legislation. He and the President disagreed profoundly, but both publicly said that the vote on this proposal was a matter of individual conscience and not a party matter. But given Kitchin’s rank as Democratic Speaker of the House, it is hard to imagine that politics didn’t figure somewhere in their conversation, and Wilson cannot have been pleased.
In a statement to the press released on November 20th, Speaker Kitchin quoted loosely from the same paragraph of the Seven Seas Magazine article that I read earlier. He pointed out a few salient facts. The United States [Navy] was already large, growing, and modernizing under existing legislation. Kitchin argued at length that the navy and coastal batteries were adequate for defense. More than that and the object must be something other than the protection of the United States. It must be, he reasoned, to intervene in Europe or to build an empire of our own. He accused the Navy League and its Magazine of stimulating the public appetite for “big militarism and navalism.” He called the program “big, enormous, revolutionary.” In January and early February 1916, Wilson toured the Midwest to campaign for the legislation and returned to the White House confident that public opinion would swamp any opposition in Congress. But Kitchin wrote to his friend William Jennings Bryan: “I see no real change in the attitude of the members since the President’s western tour.” Kitchin was probably right, but events and the legislative process (and the political process) would soon overtake him.
Joining forces, the President and Republicans in the Senate and House managed in mid-August to pass the largest naval armaments bill in U.S. history, or “in history period,” Secretary Daniels boasted. They did so by a wide margin in the House of 283 to 51, with thirty-five Democrats voting “no” out of those fifty-one “no’s,” a telling pattern. With the exception of one Congressman from Pennsylvania, all the no votes came from the Midwest and the South. The New York Times noted Kitchin’s frustration with the administration for changing course so abruptly. He complained, the paper reported, that Wilson: “expects me today to eat my words uttered when I opposed such a program as originally offered in this House by the Republican minority. Approval of this building program,” the floor leader continued, “means that the United States, today becomes the most militaristic naval nation on earth.” The larger story of Claude Kitchin and his often lonely fight against the Wilson Administration in the metropolitan newspapers would take us into matters of how the expanded navy and army would be paid for, and later, into the struggle over the conscription law. (Which, incidentally, more Congressmen, far more Congressmen, voted against the conscription law than voted against the declaration of war. It was far more controversial). The only book on Claude Kitchin that I can point you to is Alex Arnett’s 1937 volume, Claude Kitchin and the Wilson War Policies. Arnett’s book received mostly positive reviews from his peers at a time when the memory of the war and of the political controversies surrounding it was still fresh. Arnett’s book joined a substantial and growing list of so-called revisionist histories in the 1920’s and 30’s that, in the words of one reviewer, “argued that the entrance of the United States into the World War was a tragic mistake.”
But we need to turn quickly to the Spring of 1917 and the declaration of war. President Wilson delivered his war message on Monday evening, April 2nd. The Senate debated and voted for war by an overwhelming margin on April 4th, a vote of eighty-two to six. The House debated throughout the week and into the early hours of Friday, April 6th. Good Friday, as it happens, a tempting symbol that Congressmen eager to fight a redemptive war just couldn’t resist mentioning. Kitchin spoke around midnight April 5 into April 6. He voted against the resolution for war, one of only fifty in the House to do so. But he retained his position as Majority Leader right through the war, despite the predictions of the press. Kitchin began his speech before his colleagues by rebuking those who suggested that the impending vote on the war resolution would mark the difference between patriot and coward. “It takes neither moral nor physical courage to declare a war for others to fight,” he said. Moreover, “it is evidence of neither loyalty nor patriotism to urge others to get into a war when he knows that he himself is going to keep out.”
Kitchin affirmed that in voting against the war measure his conscience was clear and his action was a legacy his descendants would be proud of: “I cannot leave my children lands and riches. I cannot leave them fame. But I can leave them the name of an ancestor who, mattering not the consequences to himself, never dared to hesitate to do his duty as God gave him to see it.” (That delightful and unexpected verb, “mattering.” “Mattering not the consequences to himself,” that caught my eye, and the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that it is very rare and goes back to the 1670’s). Kitchin then called America “the last hope of peace on earth, good will toward men,” and “the only remaining star of hope for Christendom.” That might be stronger language than I would be comfortable with, but the absence here and throughout the speech of anything resembling a religious crusade is unmistakable, especially in contrast to the extravagant claims of many of his colleagues and of his President. America, in Kitchin’s judgment, was the last holdout against a world gone mad. Its entry would mean that the European war, already the greatest war in human history, would become a truly global war. “Whatever be the future,” he said, “whatever be the rewards or penalties of this nation’s step, I shall always believe that we could and ought to have kept out of this war.”
You may know that Wilson campaigned for re-election just months before, on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Kitchin once boasted: “We kept him out of war!” But the Speaker knew that this was no longer possible. Nevertheless, at this late hour, (literally, this late hour, and figuratively), he still tried to remind his colleagues and the nation that there was enough guilt to go around among the Allied and Central Powers. Despite the simple story America might be telling itself at that moment, the war could not be understood as a contest between light and dark, the righteous and the damned, Christ and anti-Christ. Kitchin recounted the history of Britain’s violations of American neutrality since the beginning of the war. In fact, Britain’s conduct seemed so similar to Germany’s that the U.S. had as much reason to go to war with one as the other. America could continue a policy of armed neutrality, a strategy Kitchin had voted for, in support of the President a month earlier. It could do so without sacrificing its honor, safety, or interests.
Here is one paragraph that seems to me to sum up Kitchin’s objections best:
“The House and the country should thoroughly understand that we are asked to declare war, alone not to protect American lives and American rights on the high seas. We are to make the cause of Great Britain, France, and Russia, right or wrong, our cause. We are to make their quarrel, right or wrong, our quarrel. We are to fight out, with all the resources in men, money, and credit of the government and its people, a difference between the belligerents of Europe, to which we were and are utter strangers. Nothing in that cause, nothing in that quarrel, has or does involve a moral, equitable, or material interest in or obligation of our government or our people.”
At this point, the House Speaker promised to give his full support to the war effort should the Constitutional process of deliberation by the people’s representatives result in a declaration of war that night. And he kept his word. From that moment, Kitchin led the House as it debated war mobilization measures, ranging from the contentious issue of the draft (as I mentioned), to heated debates over taxes to pay for the war. He might continue to disagree with the administration over how to fight and pay for the war, but he ruined his own health working to assure American victory once the “final word,” as he called it, had been spoken. The memory of Claude Kitchen’s courageous stance in April 1917 seemed to stamp his reputation from that moment forward. One after another of the memorial addresses given in the House after his death in 1923 mentions that dramatic night and the word “courage” appears as a constant refrain. Republican Representative William Green of Iowa, who voted for the war, said of his late colleague:
“I never knew a man who had more courage and I remember quite well, as many of you do who are now before me, the time he stood here when we declared war against Germany. It was a most fateful decision that he was making. An overwhelming majority, not only of his own side of the House, but of my own side was against him. Public opinion was aroused and the disposition was to treat everyone who did not support the declaration as one who was almost a traitor to his country. Truly, he was compelled to walk the path almost alone, and many felt that he himself must have feared that he had taken a course which would lead to his political ruin. But no matter how much we might have disagreed with him at that time, with reference to the vote that was to be cast, every man who listened to him knew that Claude Kitchin was absolutely sincere in his convictions and directed by them alone in the action which he took.”
Well, my time is short, so let’s turn our attention, abruptly and briefly, to Tom Watson. In the 1870’s, we left Woodrow Wilson cycling around the streets of Wilmington. By the early 1880’s, he had graduated from Princeton, had passed his bar exam in Georgia, and was now practicing law in Atlanta in the New South. The Civil War was a recent memory and former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was Georgia’s governor. Unknown to Wilson, a young State representative named Thomas E. Watson walked past his law offices on Marietta Street every day on his way to the State House. Tom Watson was born near Thompson, Georgia in 1856, the same year as Woodrow Wilson and about a decade before Claude Kitchin. He practiced law in Thompson beginning in 1877, served in the Georgia House in 1882, was elected to one term in the U.S. House in 1890, ran for Vice President on the Populist Party ticket in 1896, and then as the Populist Party candidate for President in 1904 and 1908. In 1920, as you heard earlier, he won election to the U.S. Senate from Georgia and held that office until his death in 1922. As author and editor, he wrote biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Napoleon, and a two-volume history of France, and he edited the Jeffersonian and Watson’s Magazine.
Regrettably, little serious scholarship has been devoted to Watson. One biography appeared in the 1920’s, with utterly inadequate treatment of Watson’s reaction to the First World War, and in 1938, C. Vann Woodward published his biography, and that’s about it. But I was pleased to discover in the course of working on this presentation, that the Library of the University of North Carolina has digitized and made available for free on the web, the archives of the entire Watson Collection of correspondence, photographs, issues of his magazine, even silent film footage of Watson at home. There is a wealth of material available and really no excuse for Watson not being better known.
No word is really too strong to capture Watson’s abiding animosity toward Woodrow Wilson. He loathed him. He loathed him in his various incarnations as historian, Ivy League educator, reformer, Presidential candidate, and President. Wilson provoked Watson as early as 1903, when Wilson was early in his tenure as President of Princeton and known as the author of a five-volume history of the American people. It irked Watson that a man born in Virginia and tied to South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, could display such partiality for New England and slight the South’s contributions to American history. Watson chastised Wilson no fewer than eight times in the text and footnotes of his biography of Thomas Jefferson. In 1905, he called Wilson “an insufferable, an impractical prig” for his proposal to moralize the big business trusts. When Wilson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1912, Watson campaigned for his Democratic challenger, Oscar Underwood, instead and said he could never vote for Wilson. True to his word, he actually backed Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose progressive party in the three-way race that year, 1912, against the incumbent Taft, a strategy resorted to by several Southern newspaper editors who couldn’t hold their noses long enough to vote for Wilson. One South Carolina editor called him “a climatized Yankee.” (One of my favourite lines in all of American history).
When the First World War broke out, Watson wielded his editorials against the preparedness campaign, militarism, intervention, the draft, and the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917. His relentless assaults on the administration led the Attorney General and the Postmaster General to shut down the Jeffersonian by denying it the use of the mails under the provisions of the Espionage Act, the terms of which could have meant prosecution for Watson and jail time in the Federal prison in Atlanta. Just picture this, where he would have joined an odd assortment of socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, German orchestra conductors and musicians, and fellow newspaper editors. Stopped at the post office in Savannah for opposing the draft law, the Jeffersonian suspended publication in the summer of 1917. And, living as we do in a world of Wikileaks, it is hard to imagine a time when a President and his cabinet could impose censorship so effectively.
The Jeffersonian, or simply “the Jeff,” as its subscribers called it, at turns angry, sarcastic, clever, or a bit crude, but always barreling ahead at full throttle, fumed over massive loans to the Allies, the rapid consolidation of wartime power in Washington, the breakdown of Constitutional limits and strict construction, and the indignity of conscription. Watson’s historical memory went back all the way to the War of 1812 and he quoted often from opposition to the draft then by Daniel Webster and others. To emphasize how revolutionary he thought Wilson was, Tom Watson said nice things about Daniel Webster and Grover Cleveland, and even pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had resorted to conscription, suspension of habeas corpus, and emancipation as emergency war measures. Wilson, Watson charged, was under no such urgent compulsion to defend America in 1917.
Let me raise one caution here in case you decide to read more of what Tom Watson wrote. If I read some of his editorials aloud now, you would wince at some of his harsh comments on Blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics. You might even wonder is these views might discredit anything Watson had to say about the war, the Constitution, and limited government. There’s a vulnerability here. Critics of the South will immediately challenge the sincerity of Watson’s principles by claiming they were anything but principles, and merely a cover for entrenched racism and a desperate attempt to deny the Federal government any increased power, lest it wield that power to interfere with race relations in the South. But it strikes me as unfaithful to the full record of the past, however, to dismiss Watson’s principles as nothing more than rhetorical fancy dress to cover up a cranky populism that couldn’t make its peace with modernity, social progress, and America’s world role. But I have to say that I find it difficult to sort through all this, and I think Watson poses a challenge that a conference like this ought to discuss. How do we defend Watson’s constitutionalism when he seems so vulnerable to attack? And if we use his arguments, do we make our own challenges vulnerable?
Watson’s wartime strategy was to hammer away in editorials in the Jeff at violations of such founding principles as delegated and enumerated powers, limited government, and civil liberties. He charted the growth of the Leviathan state through the crises of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and now the Great War. If Germany posed an imminent threat to the United States, he asked, why did the U.S. Army have to cross three-thousand miles of ocean to engage the enemy? And he made it clear that he was not a pacifist: “I am not too proud to fight, as the President said he was, but I am too conservative to leave the New World and go hunting for a fight in the Old World.”
Here is an example of Watson’s strategy. In one issue of the Jeff, he reacted to Wilson’s message of May 30th, 1917, speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Let me read just a few of the President’s words that agitated Watson and that take us nicely back to the larger point about a limitless “war for righteousness”:
“In the providence of God, America will have an opportunity to show that she was born to serve mankind. We are saying to all mankind that we did not set this government up in order that we might have a selfish and separate liberty. We are now ready to come to your assistance and fight out upon the fields of the world the cause of human liberty. In this thing America attains her full dignity and the full fruition of her great purpose.”
To these claims, Tom Watson unleashed the following barrage:
“If you can filter this sentimental moonshine into something tangible and practical, you are gifted with more grey matter than God gave to me. If that sort of talk means anything at all, it means that, after we shall have rectified governmental affairs in Europe, we must next turn our Quixotic attention to Asia, then to Africa, then to Oceanica, and after we shall have remodeled the internal concerns of India, Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan, China, Japan, and a few other countries where conditions are not so ideal as they are in this republic, when, I say, we shall have finished our circuit of Creation, as universal redressers of national wrongs, we may at length be content to come home and stay there and attend to our own business.”
Wow! Don’t you wish he had a blog? This is the voice Wilson and his cabinet silenced in the summer of 1917. These were difficult years for Watson’s family and his health, and although he found the strength to win a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1920, and seemed to enjoy himself immensely, he died of a stroke in 1922, one year before Claude Kitchin and two years before Woodrow Wilson.
What can we learn from this brief and inadequate overview of key Southern opposition to Woodrow Wilson and intervention? As a historian I hesitate to reduce a complex past into a set of bullet-point lessons, but Kitchin and Watson do help us ponder certain things of enduring significance to America. I’ll offer you three.
First, in their insistence on limited, Constitutional government, we hear distinct echoes of the Anti-Federalists of the 1780’s, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, and Jefferson’s warning in his First Inaugural in 1801 against entangling alliances with Europe. John Devanny’s list yesterday of republican principles was still Claude Kitchin’s list. Let me see if I have this list right, if I took good notes: hatred of offensive war, States’ Rights, fear of executive branch power, fear of standing armies and military establishments, opposition to public debt and high taxes, and defense of individual liberties. It matches exactly the complaints of Claude Kitchin. Think also of the presentation on Macon yesterday and his opposition to conscription and to large armies and navies. Against tremendous odds, that tradition survived in 1917. Bringing Southern resistance to America’s global mission during the First World War back into our account of the past, letting it complicate the story just a bit, might help reopen a conversation about our Constitution, our republic, and the threat of empire to both.
Secondly, and relatedly, the reaction of these Southerners to World War One helps us to answer the question of how and when America lost its fear of power. And I mean here political power. I’m not saying we’ve lost our fear of all kinds of power, but we seem to have lost our fear of political power. One of the most consistent threads in Colonial America and the early republic was the certainty that power would be accumulated and abused. Earlier this week I happened to be re-reading Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution to prepare my freshman American history class. In his ninth and last resolution, Jefferson wrote: “Free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.” In his conclusion he reemphasized this point: “In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in Man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Claude Kitchin and Tom Watson proposed to bind Wilson down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution in 1917.
Thirdly, these Southern opponents of America’s “wars for righteousness” remind us of a stance on U.S. foreign policy that was neither pacifist nor militarist., neither doctrinaire isolationist, nor doctrinaire interventionist. A conservative foreign policy falls into neither of these ideological traps. Perhaps you will think of other implications we ought to draw out of the experience of 1917. If you encounter Tommy Wilson cycling around the streets of Wilmington, stay alert, stay out of his way, and consider the legacy of American intervention in the First World War and the neglected legacy of Southern opposition to “wars for righteousness.” Thank you.