News - Editorial
DYCHE | Who Was Watterson?
Although the Watterson Expressway connects Louisville's eastern and western ends, a road honoring Henry Watterson should really run north and south.
By John David Dyche
He was the editor of the Courier-Journal. If the millions who travel the Louisville expressway named for Henry Watterson know anything about him it is probably that.
For half a century from 1868 to 1918 Watterson was that once great newspaper's editorial voice. But he was much more than a mere newspaperman.
Although the Watterson Expressway connects Louisville's eastern and western ends, a road honoring Henry Watterson should really run north and south. He passionately pursued reconciliation between the North and South after the Civil War.
The son of a Tennessee journalist and politician, Watterson opposed secession. When the Civil War came, however, he enlisted in the Confederate army and served on the staffs of some of its most formidable generals, including Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Watterson's claim to wartime fame came from editing the Rebel, a newspaper widely read throughout the South and popular with soldiers. This gave Watterson considerable credibility in opposing post-war extremism, whether by Northern radical Republicans or lawless Southern groups like Forrest's Ku Klux Klan.
An ardent admirer of Lincoln, Watterson wanted the earliest possible end to Reconstruction. His New Departure doctrine envisioned a modern, industrialized, and more tolerant South.
The mustachioed editor did things that his modern counterparts in the press, although every bit as partisan, would not dream of. He briefly served in the U. S. House of Representatives, chaired a party convention, and was personally involved in plenty of political campaigns.
Dissatisfied with both the incumbent, U. S. Grant, and the Democratic nominee, Horace Greeley, a famous fellow newspaperman, Watterson unsuccessfully stumped for a liberal Republican alternative in 1872. It would not be the last time he strayed from the Democratic straight and narrow.
Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, was long Watterson's beau ideal of a statesman. During the disputed presidential election of 1876 Watterson issued a controversial call for 100,000 unarmed Democratic men to assemble in Washington on the day the electoral votes were to be counted in order to influence the outcome for Tilden.
When that appeal fell flat Watterson reluctantly accepted the process that put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House. It was some consolation that the corrupt compromise also closed the curtain on Reconstruction.
In 1896 Watterson resisted when Democrats lost their minds for "free silver" populist William Jennings Bryan. "No compromise with dishonor," he declared, but circumstances soon compelled him to repent and seek forgiveness from his party.
His anti-Bryan apostasy had alienated partisan readers and put the Courier-Journal in financial peril. Of such occasional feuds with fellow Democrats Watterson once said, with characteristic color, "Things have come to a hell of a pass when a man can't whip his own jackass."
Watterson had a tempestuous relationship with Theodore Roosevelt. The man they called "Marse Henry" admired the one called "T.R." for his progressive reforms, but their personalities were too similar for peaceful co-existence.
At home in American high society, the salons of Europe, or at his Jeffersontown estate, Mansfield (now a subdivision), Watterson seemed to know everyone. His pen and his persona were famous across this country and across the Atlantic.
Watterson was an early backer of former Princeton president and New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, the personification of intellectual progressivism. The pair fell out over fundraising during the 1912 presidential campaign, however, and despite an intervening rapprochement their breach soon reopened over events surrounding World War I.
It was almost a century ago when Watterson published what is perhaps his most memorable phrase. During World War I he wrote derisively of German leadership, "To Hell with the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs." After the war was won, however, Watterson broke not only with Wilson, but also with the Courier-Journal's new ownership, over the League of Nations.
After a long and successful partnership with Walter Haldeman, who handled the business matters, Watterson and one of Haldeman's two sons forced out another Haldeman son with whom they had bitterly quarreled. The purchasing pair soon sold out to Robert Bingham, but Watterson stayed on for a while as editor emeritus before retiring amid disagreement with the new owner over Wilson's peace plan.
There are several fine sources on Watterson's life. The biography Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel by Joseph Frazier Wall with an introduction by Alben W. Barkley is balanced, beautifully written and well-researched.
Will Kentucky ever see another media figure with the national, indeed international, influence and reputation of Watterson? Not likely. The expressway that bears his name may not be the most fitting form of tribute to this great man, but Louisvillians do depend on it daily as they once did Watterson's words.