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Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times

Author(s):Craig, Lee A.
Reviewer(s):Hanes, Christopher

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Lee A. Craig, Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. xvii + 474 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-4696-0695-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Christopher Hanes, Department of Economics, Binghamton University.

Most of EH.Net?s readers know Lee Craig as a skilled Cliometrician, the author of such sprightly general-interest works as “Mechanical Refrigeration and the Integration of Perishable Commodity Markets” (with Barry K. Godwin and Thomas J. Grennes, Explorations in Economic History, April 2002) and “Nonlinear Dynamics and Structural Change in the U.S. Hog-Corn Cycle: A Time-Varying STAR Approach” (with Matthew T. Holt, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, February 2006). Josephus Daniels differs somewhat from Craig’s earlier projects. It is straight biography.

I cannot imagine why Craig took on this task but I am glad he did. It needed doing. The only other full-length biography of Daniels was published nearly fifty years ago (Joseph L. Morrison, Josephus Daniels: The Small-d Democrat, 1966) and gives short shrift to the part of Daniels’ life that would interest most readers nowadays.? More importantly, Craig has produced an excellent book. I read a lot of biographies written by academic historians. Most are painful to read, with awkward, jargon-filled sentences lined up in pointless paragraphs; disproportionate emphasis given to topics closest to the author’s own micro-field of interest; and lots of tedious politically-correct scolding whenever a historical figure violates twenty-first century morality. Craig writes gracefully, forcefully, with sly humor and appropriate criticism but humane tolerance of Daniels’ many failings. The book covers all aspects of Daniels’ multi-faceted life. Except for a couple of slip-ups, Craig eschews economics jargon. Only another economist will, I think, see how the book is influenced by Craig’s day job.[1]

Before I get to that, let me answer your question: who was Josephus Daniels, anyway? He was a North Carolina political operator and newspaper editor and publisher from the 1880s through the 1940s, most importantly of the Raleigh News and Observer. He was Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, and in that capacity Franklin Roosevelt’s boss. As Naval Secretary, Daniels played an important role in the First World War. From 1933-1941 he was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Mexico, dealing with revolutionary politics and expropriation of American investments. But I expect most readers will be most interested in Daniels’ North Carolina career. Daniels was a card-carrying progressive from early on. In the 1920s, he opposed the new Ku Klux Klan.

He supported female suffrage, public education and public works, and regulation of trusts and railroads (along with, it must be said, prohibition and William Jennings Bryan). He is no small part of the reason that, until recently, North Carolina was conspicuous among Southern states for its good public schools, public universities and public infrastructure. At the same time, Daniels was virulently racist. So was Woodrow Wilson, of course. But Daniels was at the sharp, cutting edge of white supremacy. He was not only an architect of North Carolina’s laws that disenfranchised blacks at the end of the 1890s: when elections officials in Raleigh failed to apply the laws as intended, Daniels went to the polls himself to administer literacy tests. When a professor at Trinity College (now Duke University) dared to observe that Southern race relations were bad and to describe Booker T. Washington as “the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years,” Daniels campaigned for the man’s dismissal. Late in life, writing his memoirs, Daniels deplored some of his actions as “cruel.” But he never laid out the thinking that allowed him to care so much for poor whites without caring at all, even in a paternalistic way, about blacks. As Craig says, “Daniels viewed many public policy questions in terms of the rich versus the poor, and unless race was involved, Daniels unambiguously sided with the poor” (p. 133). Moreover, Daniels’ racism seemed to stop at the water’s edge. He was an anti-imperialist. He mocked Americans who, in Daniels’ own words, “wished Uncle Sam to emulate the example of Great Britain by ‘taking up the white man’s burden’ ? a polite way of describing the exploitation of the weaker races” (p. 239). Craig can only speculate that Daniels believed “As long as blacks had political power, it would most likely be exercised in support of the Republican Party, and it would be a source of contention and social turmoil throughout the [South]” (p. 148).? “Progress ? which in Daniels’ view included state funding for public education, agricultural reform, railroad regulation, and prohibition ? could only be obtained when race was no longer an element of southern politics” (p. 190).?

To the degree that it is political history, the book is not far outside the wide-ranging field of an economic historian. But Craig has written a real biography. A lot of it is the story of a small business- and family man in the postbellum South. It is in these sections that the book is most clearly the work of a social scientist. Craig portrays Daniels as an agent facing constraints and opportunities created by economic developments such as the rise of bright-leaf tobacco and changes in printing technology; finding sources of short- and long-term credit; dealing with the fundamentals of newspaper demand; playing backscratching games in state printing contracts. The picture Craig paints is not a portrait with Daniels dominating the frame, but a big busy canvas with lots of figures and lots of action. Daniels is just one finely-drawn figure among many. Craig keeps careful account of Daniels’ assets, debts, income and expenses, and his position in the relevant social hierarchy. The overall effect is not unlike a biography written by Jane Austen.

Something absent from Jane Austen’s simple society but essential to Daniels’ South was the jostling between white Protestant denominations: in order of relative desirability as dinner-party guests, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. Daniels was a strong Methodist. He remained one even after he married up into a Presbyterian family. He and his wife attended separate churches all their lives, even though (then and now) most southern men would defer to their wives in this sphere. Craig writes about Methodists and other animals with care and affectionate humor. You might be able to guess Craig is an economist, but you would never guess he is not a native Tar Heel.

1. The book needs more endnotes. At many points, Craig fails to give sources for his statements (e.g. on p. 102). But I cannot make this criticism without also noting that the book is admirably free of the spellcheck-generated spelling errors and grammatical mash-ups that have infested academic publications in the last twenty years or so, since publishers fired all the copy editors (while simultaneously raising their prices – go figure). Someone deserves high praise: either the University of North Carolina Press for continuing to meet its editorial responsibilities, or Craig for being very, very careful.

Christopher Hanes is the editor of Research in Economic History and author of numerous articles including (with Joseph H. Davis and Paul W. Rhode) ?Harvests and Business Cycles in Nineteenth-Century America,? Quarterly Journal of Economics (2009).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII