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Photo of Senator James Watson of Indiana

James E. Watson

"Who is more a 'real Republican' than Jim Watson?" asked a writer for Collier's magazine in 1931. The answer to the question seemed obvious: No one.1 Indeed, the Senate's Republican leader had all the credentials necessary for membership in the Republican Old Guard—a family steeped in politics, long service in the House and Senate, and strong support for the Republican platform. Known to his Senate colleagues as “Sunny Jim,” Watson was a popular and humorous man who bridged the gap from boss politics of the 19th century to organized party leadership of the 20th century. Embodying the stereotypical politician of the “smoke-filled room,” he remained active on the political scene until his death in 1948. Even in retirement, columnist Allen Drury explained, Watson was a “sharp-eyed old man with an unfailing hail-fellow-well-met for everyone and an unflagging interest in politics.”2

Born in Winchester, Indiana, in 1864, James E. Watson was introduced to politics early in life. In 1876, at the age of 12, he accompanied his father, a lawyer, state legislator, and owner-editor of the Winchester Herald, to the Republican National Convention. Six years later, Watson attended Indiana's DePauw University, where he played baseball and football and honed his speaking skills debating such friendly rivals as future senator Albert J. Beveridge. Graduating from DePauw in 1886, he studied law, quickly passed the Indiana bar exam, and joined his father's law firm. In 1893 he established his own law practice in Rushville, Indiana.

If law was his trade, politics was his calling. Soon, he was making speeches in support of Republican candidates. He traveled across Indiana in the 1880s to campaign for Republican presidential nominees. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894, defeating the Democratic incumbent William S. Holman, in part by speaking German. Living in a district with a large German population, Watson had been fortunate to learn the language from the uncle of a schoolmate. Years later, he recalled, “I was nominated against Holman” and “defeated him by going about and making speeches in that German district in German.” He lost his bid for re-election in 1896 but returned to the House in 1899 and served a total of six terms.3

Shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C., Watson became protégé and right-hand man to the powerful Speaker of the House, Joseph C. Cannon. The Speaker maneuvered Watson into the Republican whip position, trusted him with legislative strategy, and placed him on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Watson proved to be a valuable asset to the Speaker. While Cannon had many adversaries in the House, Watson enjoyed a wide circle of friends in both parties and often acted as deal maker. He was also a good story teller and a talented orator. Colleagues came to the House Chamber just to hear him speak—not to be swayed by his political 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 first his collar and necktie, then throw aside his coat and vest, until, clad in trousers, shirt, and suspenders, he could really let himself go."4

Watson left the House of Representatives for an unsuccessful run for governor of Indiana in 1908. Out of office, he continued to support Speaker Cannon. When a coalition of Democrats and Republican "insurgents" attempted to oust the Speaker, Watson wrote an important speech for Cannon, defending the Speaker’s authority and the rights of the majority. The speech helped Cannon keep his position. During this time, Watson also served as a lobbyist for the American Manufacturers Association. Critics questioned the propriety of his new occupation, as well as other business ventures, but the criticism had little impact on Watson’s political standing in his home state where he gained status as the Republican “boss.” As a writer for the Atlantic Monthly explained, Watson’s constituents paid little attention to the critics. “Well, I see they’ve got another one on Jim,” they would say, then continue to support him.5

Watson set his sights on the U.S. Senate in 1916. As he prepared to challenge Democratic senator John W. Kern, a bitter primary battle against Harry S. New forged divisions in the state Republican Party. Watson held a slight lead among primary delegates, but according to one source, New presented "convincing affidavits of fraud."6 Fearing party defeat if they backed Watson, Republican leaders in the state hesitated to endorse him. Watson was saved by a twist of fate. As party leaders waivered, Indiana's other senator, Benjamin F. Shively, died in office, opening up a second Senate seat to be filled. In April the Republican state convention nominated New to compete against Kern for the full term and selected Watson to seek the vacant seat. New defeated Kern and Watson won election to the remainder of Shively's term. In the weeks after the election, both Watson and New came under scrutiny for misuse of campaign funds, but the charges were dismissed as partisanship. Watson was reelected in 1920 and 1926.

Watson began his Senate career on November 8, 1916. He quickly earned a reputation as a compromiser who could not only convince reluctant Republicans to toe the party line but also persuade Democrats to cross the aisle to support bipartisan agreements. In 1919 Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the Senate’s Republican leader and at that time majority leader, recognized Watson's skills of persuasion and engaged his support in the battle with President Woodrow Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles and the proposed League of Nations. Hoping to amend the treaty by reservations, or defeat it outright if reservations were not adopted, Lodge asked Watson to quietly lead the effort to sway Democratic votes and manage the debate among Senate Republicans. As Lodge introduced his 14 reservations, collectively designed to maintain national power and avoid military intervention overseas, Watson quietly maneuvered them through Senate debate.

On November 19, 1919, the Senate rejected the treaty. As another vote on the treaty approached in 1920, Watson met with President Wilson at the White House. "Where am I in this fight?" the president asked. "Mr. President," Watson replied, "you are licked." Watson then accurately predicted the vote on each of Lodge's reservations and the ultimate defeat of the treaty. He encouraged the president to accept Lodge’s reservations, but Wilson refused and the treaty again went down to defeat. Despite the contentious nature of the discussion, Watson recalled that the two men spent "quite an enjoyable time together for many minutes." Recounted in Watson's memoirs, the anecdote illustrates the fundamental base of Watson’s success. He was an astute observer of the political scene, and even his greatest rivals enjoyed his company.7

Throughout the 1920s, Watson remained a powerful if amiable political boss who maintained his control over state politics by dispersing lucrative patronage posts to his supporters. He did not build a strong legislative record—few bills carried his name—but his steadfast party loyalty kept him in power. “Party regularity is his fetish,” wrote a contemporary, “conservatism is in his blood.”8 In 1928 Watson threw his hat into the presidential ring, running against Herbert Hoover for the Republican nomination. He denounced Hoover's platform in a series of pre-convention speeches, but Hoover won the nomination. Remaining a party loyalist, Watson supported Hoover in the general election, although he made little effort to repair their damaged relationship.

On March 5, 1929, with their party in control, Senate Republicans elected Watson as conference chair and party leader. As majority leader, he hoped to be a conciliator, but the crises of the time got the better of him. Just months after becoming leader, the nation entered an unprecedented economic emergency. The stock market crashed in October of 1929, signaling the onset of the Great Depression. Over the next four years, Watson clashed with President Hoover on a number of issues, including the president's treatment of the World War I bonus marchers, whose Capitol protest reflected a national dissatisfaction with Congress and the president. In 1930 a protracted debate over the proposed Smoot-Hawley protective tariff exhausted him, stirring concerns about his health among family and friends. He ran for reelection in 1932, but his flagging energy resulted in a lackluster campaign that could not hold back the forces of the Democratic landslide of that year. He lost the election to Frederick Van Nuys.

Following his election defeat, Watson remained a fixture of the Washington, D.C., scene, practicing law and trading stories with his former Senate colleagues in the Republican cloakroom. Remaining an Indiana “favorite son,” he also retained, to a lesser degree, his influence in state politics, courted by future candidates seeking his endorsement. He died on July 29, 1948, at the age of 83.


1. “A ‘Real Republican,’” Collier’s, October 10, 1931, 28.

2. Allen Drury, Three Kids in a Cart: A Visit to Ike, and Other Diversions (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 47–48.

3. James E. Watson, As I Knew Them: Memoirs of James E. Watson, Former United States Senator from Indiana (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1936), 22–23.

4. Frank R. Kent, “Senator James E. Watson: The Professional Public Servant,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1932, 185.

5. Kent, “Senator James E. Watson,” 186; “Portrait of a Senator,” New York Times, January 21, 1932, 20.

6. Kent, “Senator James E. Watson,” 186.

7. Watson, As I Knew Them, 189–91; 201–2.

8. Kent, “Senator James E. Watson,” 188.