Friday Interview: Daniels Plays Key Role in 20th-Century Politics
He never served as president, governor, or U.S. senator, but Josephus Daniels was one of the most important and powerful figures in 20th-century North Carolina political history. Dr. Lee Craig, head of the Department of Economics and distinguished undergraduate professor at N.C. State University, tells Daniels’ story in the book Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times. Craig discussed his work with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: Josephus Daniels. Many people who know North Carolina history, especially 20th-century history, know his name. Why did you think it was a good idea to put together a book about this man?
Craig: Well, in my research in other areas, I came across Daniels several times. He had his thumb in many different pies. He was one of the creators of the modern newspaper industry. The newspaper as we knew it before … the industry started to die was created on his watch.
He was also the leader of the white supremacy campaign in North Carolina, which disenfranchised African-American voters and ushered in the Jim Crow era. He also leveraged his economic and political careers in North Carolina into a national political career and became secretary of the Navy during both of Woodrow Wilson’s administrations, and that made him secretary of the Navy during the First World War, which was also a period of tremendous technological change in navies around the world. The submarine and the battleship were basically perfected on his watch.
And then, finally, Daniels was the person who brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Washington, made him his assistant secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, and then, eventually, when Roosevelt becomes president, he names Daniels ambassador to Mexico and he serves during a very interesting time when Mexico expropriated U.S. oil properties, and he persuades Mexico to be an ally during the Second World War.
Kokai: Any one of those four things could have made Josephus Daniels important for good or for ill, especially in that white supremacy campaign. Just how significant is it that one person had his thumb in so many pies?
Craig: What we want to remember is, in those days there’s no Twitter, no Internet, no television, no radio. So the news came from the newspaper. So being in control of a newspaper made you a powerful person economically, socially, and politically. Daniels, in 1894, takes over the Raleigh News & Observer and makes it arguably the most important newspaper in the South. So not only is it an economic success — is there a business history story here? — but then, in those days, the powers in politics were often the people behind the scene.
Today, when you watch on television, political analysts will talk about the smoke-filled rooms. Well, it was the players in the smoke-filled rooms who were deciding who the people out on the stage would be, and Daniels was that player in the Democratic Party for 50 years.
Kokai: So he had a lot of smoke around him!
Craig: Even though he didn’t smoke, he was a player in the smoke-filled rooms, yes.
Kokai: You mentioned the News & Observer — obviously, still, even in the dying days of the newspaper industry, an important newspaper. Just how much was the News & Observer a springboard for the rest of the things that Josephus Daniels did?
Craig: Oh, it was absolutely the springboard. I mean, he was a player in local politics going back to when he was a teenager in Wilson, N.C., and bought his first newspaper, The Wilson Advance, at the age of 18. He owned three newspapers by the time he was 21. But there was a limit to how far he could go in those small-town newspapers.
The Raleigh News & Observer opened him up to a regional audience, and it also meant that he had — to put it crassly — he had more money because of the profits from a larger enterprise that he could then use to leverage his political career.
Kokai: Let’s switch gears now to Washington, D.C. You mentioned he was secretary of the Navy. Someone hearing that today might think, “Oh, that’s sort of significant.” But as you also mentioned, he was secretary of the Navy during World War I. Just how important was he, in terms of the national government and the war effort, during that time frame?
Craig: First of all, he was one of Wilson’s closest advisers. Daniels never served in the service except for maybe taking a ferry to the Outer Banks to visit on occasion. He knew nothing about the sea or the water. He was brought to Washington in the spring of 1913, from the beginning of Wilson’s administration, as a political adviser. They stuck him in the Navy Department because that was an open slot, and no one anticipated — at least no one in Washington at that time — was anticipating the First World War.
So he was there as a political adviser. Once war comes to Europe, then he becomes a very important military leader. It turns out that his organizational skills as an entrepreneur and a capitalist running newspapers back in North Carolina turned out to serve him and the country well during his tenure as secretary of the Navy. And he’s absolutely crucial in ending the war sooner rather than later.
Once the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, the blockade of the continent, starving Germany into submission and putting millions of troops on the field in the Western Front, those are two things that military historians can argue over, but I think we can all agree those were two parts that were very important in ending the war.
Kokai: We’ve talked about some of the positives of Josephus Daniels’ legacy, but you have mentioned already that probably the second chronological piece of his life that was very important was his involvement in the white supremacy campaign in North Carolina. Some people might be surprised to learn that someone involved in that role then became a national player with Woodrow Wilson. What was his role in this campaign?
Craig: He was the voice of the campaign. Daniels viewed the white supremacy campaign as part of his political progressive agenda. And here was a guy who, on just about every item that we would check off as being “liberal” — using that term in a modern context — he was liberal except for the race issue.
And what had happened is, after the Civil War, of course African-Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican. Daniels was a staunch Democrat, and he saw the political power of Republicans. White Republicans, African-Americans, and angry Democrats in the 1890s formed a coalition called the Fusionist movement, which got control of the state legislature and the governorship. Well, in order to get the Democrats back in power, what Daniels and the white supremacists did in the campaigns of 1898 and 1900 was basically just drive a wedge into that Fusionist coalition and peel off African-Americans by disenfranchising them.
Kokai: Very interesting. Our time is running short, but what’s one story about Josephus Daniels people probably don’t know, that they should?
Craig: When Daniels was a supporter of Prohibition — although he did it more for political than personal or religious reasons — when he became secretary of the Navy, early in his tenure he eliminated alcohol from the ships and the naval bases. And of course the quartermasters had the same budgeted amount of revenue, so instead of buying alcohol, they bought more coffee and milk and so forth.
And so as the coffee allocations went up, the seamen, who were angry about missing out on their alcohol, started referring to coffee as “a cup of Josephus Daniels.” That became shortened to “a cup of Joe Daniels” and eventually “a cup of Joe.” So the expression “cup of Joe” came from Josephus Daniels substituting coffee for alcohol in the U.S. Navy. That may be an expression your listeners are familiar with and didn’t know the story behind it.