James Eli Watson (November 2, 1864? - July 29, 1948) was a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from the state of Indiana. He was the Senate's second official majority leader. While an article published by the Senate (see external links) gives his year of birth as 1862, this is most probably incorrect.
He was born in Winchester, Indiana, one of six children. His father was a lawyer, a Republican state legislator, and owner-editor of the local newspaper, the Winchester Herald. At the age of twelve, Watson accompanied his father to the 1876 Republican National Convention. Watson attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana and graduated in 1886. At DePauw he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He then studied law, was admited to the bar in 1886 and joined his father's law firm. Watson campaigned for Republican candidates throughout the 1880s and moved to Rushville, Indiana in 1893. He was elected as U.S. Representative in 1894 to the 54th Congress (1895-1897), defeating the Democratic incumbent, in part by speaking German, the language of many of his constituents.
He was defeated for reelection in 1896, but was elected in 1898 to the 56th Congress and reelected to the 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Congresses (1899-1909).
Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Watson became the "right-hand man" and protege of Speaker Joe Cannon. Cannon ensured his selection as the Republican whip, trusted him with party strategy in the House of Representatives, and placed him on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. While Cannon had his share of adversaries in the House, Watson enjoyed the attention of a wide circle of friends. An enthusiastic storyteller and poker player, he attracted members from both parties. Colleagues would come to the House chamber just to hear him speak - not to be swayed by his conservative views, but to see him put on a good show. As one writer observed, Watson "would work himself up to an astonishing pitch, tear off his collar and necktie, then throw aside his coat and vest, until, clad in trousers, shirt, and suspenders, he could really let himself go."
He did not run for reelection in 1908, instead running unsuccessfully for governor of Indiana. He resumed a private law practice in Rushville,
Watson left the House to run for governor of Indiana in 1908. Opposed by organized labor, he lost the election to Thomas R. Marshall, the future vice president under Woodrow Wilson. He resumed a private law practice in Rushville, though he continued to participate in Washington politics, supporting Cannon after House Democrats and Republican "insurgents" attempted to oust the speaker in 1909. The following year, Watson wrote Cannon's famous speech defending the leadership's authority, party government, and the rights of the majority. A pivotal moment in House history, the speech enabled Cannon to keep his position, but at a great reduction in power. The House adopted a resolution that prevented Cannon and subsequent speakers from serving on or appointing members to the all-important Rules Committee.
In the years after the House rebellion, Watson remained a prominent figure on Capitol Hill. Among other pursuits, he was a lobbyist for the American Manufacturers Association. While detractors, including members of the House, questioned the propriety of his new occupation, the criticism did not hurt his political standing in Indiana. In fact, he became known as an Indiana boss, and state politicians sought his endorsement as a necessary precursor to winning elections or appointments to higher office.
In 1916, Watson entered the U.S. Senate race against Democratic Senator John W. Kern, but his bitter primary battle against Harry S. New threatened to divide the state Republican party. Watson won the majority of primary delegates, but according to one source, New had "convincing affidavits of fraud" committed by Watson. As a result, Republican leaders could not decide which candidate to support. They were saved from making the decision when Indiana's other senator, Benjamin F. Shiveley, died in March. Both Republican candidates ran for Senate seats in the general election. New defeated Kern, and Watson won the remainder of Shively's term. He was reelected 8 times, serving in the 64th, 64th, 65th, 66th, 67th, 68th, 69th, 70th, 71st, 72nd Congresses, serving from 1916 to 1933.
Watson quickly earned a reputation as a "horse trader", able to convince reluctant senators to toe the party line. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, recognized Watson's skills at persuasion, and in 1919 he had Watson organize the Senate's opposition to the League of Nations provision in the Versailles Treaty. At the time, Charles Curtis was the official Republican whip. Nevertheless, Watson quietly accepted the position's duties during the two separate occasions when the Senate voted to reject the treaty.
Prior to the second treaty vote in March 1920, President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations' chief advocate, met with Watson in the White House. "Where am I in this fight?" the president wanted to know. "Mr. President," the senator replied affably, "you are licked." Watson then predicted the vote on each of Lodge's fourteen treaty reservations. That settled, the two men, both storytellers, spent "quite an enjoyable time together for many minutes". The anecdote, recounted in Watson's memoirs, illustrates two aspects about the senator: he always knew the outcome of a vote, and even his greatest rivals enjoyed his company.
Throughout the 1920s, Watson faced no serious challenges from Indiana politicians. While he spent little time on legislation, he climbed the ranks of the Republican party. According to one critic, the "burly, hearty fellow" didn't need a strong legislative record; party loyalty was his "fetish". Watson tested his party's support in 1928 when he ran against Herbert Hoover for the Republican presidential nomination. In his usual exuberant fashion, he denounced Hoover's platform in a series of pre-convention speeches. Hoover won the nomination, and Watson, as a party liner, supported his candidacy. Yet, he made no attempts to repair the poisoned relationship with Hoover.
Much to Hoover's dismay, on March 5, 1929, the Senate Republican "regulars" selected Watson to succeed Charles Curtis as majority leader and chairman of the Republican Conference. In October, the stock market crashed, and Watson's response with high-tariff legislation did little to ward off the financial depression. He clashed with Hoover on a number of issues, including the president's rough treatment of the World War I "bonus marchers", whose Capitol protest reflected the nation's dissatisfaction with Congress and the chief executive. By the end of his term, Watson was considered the Republican leader in name only. He neglected the administrative side of his job, leaving the day-to-day management of the Senate to his floor assistants, Senators Wesley Jones and Charles McNary.
The Democrats swept both Congress and the presidency in the election of 1932, and Watson lost his Senate seat in a landslide defeat. Following the election, however, Watson remained a fixture of the Washington scene, practicing law and trading stories with his former colleagues in the Republican cloakroom. He also retained, to a lesser degree, his power over Indiana politics. Wendell Willkie, a Republican convert and fellow Hoosier, could attest that Watson's support, or lack thereof, meant everything in the state. When Willkie ran for president in 1940, Watson would not endorse the former Democrat. Reportedly, he justified his refusal by saying, "I may welcome a repentant sinner into my church, but I wouldn't want him to lead the church choir."
Watson died in 1948 Washington D.C. at the age of 83. Dr. Frederick Brown Harris, the former Senate chaplain, performed the funeral service in Washington. Until the end, Watson remained well liked, if not well respected, by House and Senate members. Perhaps only Hoover and Willkie bore a lasting grudge against him. Indeed, even his harshest critics considered Watson the man "impossible not to like". He is interred in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland.
During his Senate tenure, he was
majority leader 1929-1933 chairman, Committee on Woman Suffrage (1919-21), chairman, Committee on Revision of the Laws (1919-21), chairman, Committee on Enrolled Bills (1923-25), chairman, Committee on Interstate Commerce (1925-1929), chairman, Republican Conference (1929-33) He is credited with originating the saying If you can't lick 'em, jine 'em
Sources Senate Leaders Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
Preceded by: Thomas Taggart