During the mid 19th century throughout many northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania, Catholics were socially and politically ostracized by Protestants.[1] During this time, Catholics living in Florida did not experience a strong anti-Catholic movement like the Know-Nothing political party that campaigned around several northern states.[2] But by 1910, anti-Catholic feeling was on the rise in Florida.[3] The propaganda campaign initiated by a disillusioned populist politician, Tom Watson, corrupted rural areas in Florida with anti-Catholic propaganda.[4] Between the years of 1910-1917, the misinformation initiated by Watson helped rupture Florida’s church-state relationship with Catholics.[5]  

During 1855 residents of Florida, notably the political participants in the American Party that represented Leon County, expressed resentment towards the arrival of new Catholic immigrants to the state; however, the majority of Florida did not hold any strong animus towards Catholic immigration.[6] Florida differed from the national trend during the mid-19th century because the state did not engage in a heavy anti-Catholic campaign like many northern states.[7] Catholics were typically viewed unfavorably in Florida, as there was a distrust of Catholics held by Protestants, but these feelings did not manifest into any significant anti-Catholic movement until the 20th century.[8]  


During August 1910, Tom Watson, a rambunctious and radical Georgia populist politician published an article in his weekly publication, the Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine, entitled “The Roman Catholic Hierarchy: The Deadliest Menace to Our Liberties and Our Nation.”[9] Watson instigated anti-Catholic fervor in the South.[10] Watson’s publication “resorted to red-type tactics in its efforts to inflame Watson’s redneck followers.”[11] Watson then published another article titled “The History of the Papacy and the Popes.” Watson was dedicated to writing anti-Catholic propaganda and he distributed his magazine by the thousands.[12] Watson’s publication was widely circulated and read in Florida.[13] The Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine was a journal comprised mostly of editorial prejudices, and the publication was used to aid Watson’s seven-year anti-Catholic campaign.[14] Watson was successful at raising concern for his anti-Catholic message. National organizations such as the group Guardians of Liberty, which started in New York in 1911, moved to Florida and developed a strong anti-Catholic prejudice perpetuated by the guidance of Tom Watson.[15] The Guardians of Liberty were comprised of prominent clergy men, military officers and businessmen.[16] By 1912, the Guardians wielded political power in Florida.[17]

During the second decade of the 20th century, anti-Catholic rhetoric spread throughout rural Florida.[18] The Menace, created by Wilbur Phelps, was a publication that responded to Watson’s editorial success with issues dedicated to anti-Catholic propaganda.[19] By 1915, The Menace had a weekly circulation of 1,500,000 copies.[20] Watson and his fellow anti-Catholic propagandists concocted horrific accounts of speculative activities inside the popish Church.[21] Adult enslavement, infant murders, secrecy and sexual nocturnal adventures were the sensationalized stories Watson and his followers published for their readers.[22] By 1916, anti-Catholic prejudice developed strong political strength in Florida.[23] Floridians rallied around this propaganda and they congregated at local town and city halls to hear lecturers denounce Papism.[24] Florida’s religious prejudice developed intensity at the local level and then intruded into Florida’s state and national forums.[25]

Prior to the elections of 1916, religion had been negligible in Florida politics.[26] The 1916 Florida Senate campaign between incumbent and Catholic tolerant Senator Nathan P. Bryan and his political rival Governor Park Trammell represented the rising political separation between Protestants and Catholics in Florida.[27] On January 6, 1916, for the first time in the State of Florida, religious tests known as the Sturkie Resolutions were suggested by the Democratic executive committee.[28] The Resolutions asked the voter to pledge that he was not a participant in “Any secret organization which attempts in any way to influence political action or results.”[29] During April 1916, The Philadelphia American Citizen, a publication of the Guardians of Liberty, released 100,000 copies of the paper throughout Florida in an effort to triumph Park Trammell over Senator Bryan.[30] Trammell defeated Bryan on June 6, 1916, with a total vote count of 43,589 to Bryan’s 23,183.[31] Trammell performed well all across Florida, particularly in the rural counties.[32]

The anti-Catholic movement started in areas like New York and Philadelphia.[33] The movement radiated from the Mid-Western areas of the country, and then found even more support among the local hillbillies and the hicks in the South.[34] Protestantism in Florida felt threatened by the newly formed labor unions and they felt threatened by the economic advancements of the North.[35] World War I also had an impact on many aspects of American life during the second decade of the 20th century.[36] In Florida, the threat of the economic North, coupled with uncertainty generated by World War I, provided a foundation for individuals with personal problems looking to blame someone.[37] Tom Watson had impeccable timing for preying on such insecurities while appealing to the religious intolerance of a large mass of voters.[38] Watson was the immediate cause that started the anti-Catholic movement in Florida.[39]








[1] Bennett, David H., The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement. (The University of North Carolina Press, 1988) pgs. 90, 124

[2] Page, David P.,“Bishop Michael J. Curley and Anti-Catholic Nativism in Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 45, no. 2 (1966) p.102, http:www.jstor.org/stable/30147738 (accessed November 4, 2012)

[3] Ibid., pg. 102

[4] Ibid., pgs. 102-103

[5] Ibid pg., 101

[6] Thompson, Arthur W., “Political Nativism in Florida, 1848-1860: A Phase of Anti-Secessionism.” The Journal of Southern History 15, no. 1 (1949) pgs. 43, 49, 50, 53,http://www.jstor.org/stable/2198072(accessed November 3, 2012)

[7] Ibid, pg. 53

[8] Page, David P., pg. 102

[9] Ibid, pg. 103

[10] Rackleff, Robert B., “Anti-Catholicism and the Florida Legislature, 1911-1919,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1972) pg. 354, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30147306(accessed November 2, 2012)

[11] Hicks, Alfred E., “Tom Watson and the Arthur Glover Case in Georgia Politics,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1969) p. 267, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40578989(accessed November 1, 2012)

[12] Page, David P., pg. 103

[13] Kerber, Stephen, “Park Trammell and the Florida Democratic Senatorial Primary of 1916,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1980) pgs. 257-258, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30146043(accessed November 2, 2012)

[14] Rackleff, Robert B., pg. 354

[15] Ibid, pg. 355

[16] Kerber, Stephen, pg. 257

[17] Page, David P., p. 104

[18] Rackleff, Robert B., pg. 356

[19] Ibid, pg. 355

[20] Ibid

[21] Page, David P., 103

[22] Ibid

[23] Kerber, Stephen, pg. 265

[24] Rackleff, Robert B., pg. 356

[25] Ibid, p.353

[26] Page, David P., pg. 104

[27] Kerber, Stephen, pgs.  256, 258, 263

[28] Ibid pgs. 258, 260-261

[29] Ibid, pgs. 260-261

[30] Ibid, pg. 266

[31] Ibid, pg. 269

[32] Ibid

[33] Page, David P., pg. 104

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid, pg. 102

[36] Kerber, Stephen, pg. 265

[37] Bennett, David H., pgs. 102-103

[38] Flynt, Wayne, “Sidney J. Catts: The Road to Power,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1970) p. 107, http//www.jstor.org/stable/30140376 (Accessed November 4, 2012)

[39] Page, David P., pgs. 102-103