Review: ‘Josephus Daniels, His Life & His Times’

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2013 

  • Nonfiction Josephus Daniels, His Life & Times Lee A. Craig

    University of North Carolina Press, 592 pages

At The News & Observer, where I labor, it is hard to ignore Josephus Daniels. His portrait hangs in the board room, his bust is in the lobby, a Daniels statue faces the newspaper in the park across the street.

But his name no longer stirs the blood across North Carolina as it once did, a function of both the passage of time and the influx of newcomers. During the first third of the 20th century, however, few North Carolinians were more politically influential or more controversial.

Daniels was a shrewd businessman who built The N&O into a profitable enterprise and the dominant voice in the eastern half of the state. He was a Democratic power broker who helped elect governors and played a key role in Woodrow Wilson’s ascent to the presidency.

He served as Wilson’s Navy Secretary and Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Mexico. He took part in post-World War I negotiations in Versailles, knew former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, and dined at Windsor Castle with King George V and Queen Mary.

He was also a white supremacist who played a critical role in making sure that black people were excluded from the state’s civic life.

Daniels’ life and contradictions are the subject of a superb new biography, “Josephus Daniels: His Life & Times,” by Lee A. Craig, an economics professor at N.C. State University. Craig’s work follows a biography of Daniels written by Joseph Morrison in 1966. Craig’s effort is the one that will stand as the definitive account of Daniels’ life.

Few would have predicted that Daniels, son of a widowed Wilson County postmistress, would rise to such heights, buying his first newspaper at age 18 and The N&O at 32.

Daniels ascent dovetailed with that other press barons such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – when newspapers had a monopoly on news before electronic media. Daniels’ formula was to provide lots of news, and Daniels, according to Craig, helped invent the modern newspaper, with its sports pages, comics and sections devoted to national and local news and to opinion.

His politics mirrored those of many small Eastern North Carolina farmers he grew up with, who were suspicious of big business.

“While Daniels was amassing his own fortune, he served as one of generation’s most articulate and persistent critics of unregulated capitalism, never failing to call for government control, or out right ownership, of various private enterprises – including the era’s greatest industry, the railroads,” Craig writes. “His newspapers pushed for the passage of the nation’s landmark antitrust laws and the hard-nosed prosecution of other capitalists.’’

While Daniels was regarded as progressive for his time, it was progressivism for whites only. He was one of the architects of the vicious white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that wrested control of state government from a coalition government of Republicans and populists.

The campaigns led to banishment of most black voters through literacy tests, the enactment of Jim Crow laws, and Democratic rule through most of the 20th century.

The Daniels story takes the reader to some unexpected places. He boosted FDR’s career by naming him assistant Navy secretary. He helped spread jazz across the country by closing down the whorehouses in New Orleans in an effort to improve the morals, if not the morale, of nearby Navy personnel. He oversaw “splendid little wars” in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

I found the details of the financial side of the newspaper business a bit tedious. I would have also liked to read a little more about Daniels’ role in the white supremacy campaigns. But those are minor quibbles about a book that achieves the sweet spot for historians – a thoroughly researched work that will satisfy scholars and is also a cracking good yarn for the engaged reader.

Rob Christensen is author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”

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