Josephus Daniels was a North Carolina newspaper mogul, Democratic party kingmaker, Prohibitionist, progressive leader, ardent Methodist, equally ardent segregationist, friend to William Jennings Bryan, and counselor to Woodrow Wilson. He was an anti-imperialist who conquered and ruled parts of six nations, a pacifist who, as secretary of the Navy during World War I, shipped two million American soldiers to Europe, and the ambassador to Mexico during the Depression under Franklin D. Roosevelt—who had served as Daniels’s assistant secretary of the Navy.
Born during the Civil War, Daniels lived into the Cold War. During the 1890s, he acquired the Raleigh News & Observer, which his grandson ran into the 1990s. Part of the same generation as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, Daniels transitioned his papers, like so many other publishers of that time, from strident partisanship to (aspired) impartiality. His merchant father was killed by Confederate fire while on a Union gunboat. Likely sensitive about the implications, Josephus Daniels was an ardent white Southerner, scarred by Reconstruction, who successfully toiled to politically suppress blacks and Republicans. His most shameful editorial crusade inspired a murderous race riot.
Daniels is chiefly recalled as FDR’s boss at the Navy Department during the Wilson administration. Alternately portrayed as clueless and long-suffering (while a dashing, headstrong young Roosevelt did as he pleased), the ever-shrewd Daniels, Lee A. Craig persuasively argues, managed and mentored FDR, charmed by his charisma, prescient about his destiny—and, privately, occasionally, miffed by his insubordination.
Oddly, in a rare oversight, this biography omits what other histories sometimes highlight about FDR’s relations with Daniels: that he may well have helped save Roosevelt’s political career by quietly ending the employment at the Navy Department of FDR’s likely lover, young Lucy Mercer, who had earlier worked as Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary. It is more commonly remembered that Daniels nearly destroyed Roosevelt’s career by mishandling the investigation of a homosexual ring at the Newport naval base, ordering undercover personnel to entrap targets. A congressional investigation, requiring FDR’s testimony, left him justifiably anxious about his political future. Roosevelt survived, of course.
Whatever their earlier tensions, Daniels was a stalwart supporter of FDR in 1932, just as he had backed Woodrow Wilson in 1912. A grateful Roosevelt, who always referred to Daniels as “Boss,” dispatched him to Mexico City as ambassador for eight years, where he successfully kept Mexico aligned with the United States as World War II approached. As a younger man, FDR had thought his onetime boss a “hillbilly,” but he later recognized Daniels’s political acumen. Daniels could easily have sought office himself, but he preferred kingmaking to the spotlight.
From a modest background, and forever devoted to his widowed mother, Daniels was a tireless entrepreneur who successfully displaced more socially prominent Carolina gentry as newspaper proprietor and Democratic boss. As husband, father, and churchman, he was impeccable in his personal morals: He robustly espoused Methodism, without bigotry, and he touted Prohibition, usually without undue interest in the private habits of others. He famously banned alcohol from naval ships.
Daniels was a lifelong Democrat who saw Yankee-backed Republican commercial interests as the intrinsic foe of agrarian North Carolina. Republican power in the South was only possible through black votes; in the 1890s, black and white Republicans gained power in North Carolina in alliance with “fusionist” populists. Daniels helped smash their alliance and power through skillful organization and race-baiting, ensuring the restoration of a white, Democratic hegemony in the state for the next 80 years. He thought most blacks could not be trusted with votes because manipulative Republicans would inevitably exploit them.
William Jennings Bryan was a natural enthusiasm for Daniels. But after Bryan suffered three national defeats, Daniels understood that the Great Commoner was no longer viable and helped to replace Bryan with Woodrow Wilson. Like Bryan, Daniels espoused a soft form of pacifism, which did not preclude his service as Navy chief under Wilson. Nor did it preclude his siding with Wilson against Secretary of State Bryan over the question of preparedness. Under Wilson, Daniels dispatched gunboats and Marines to Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Cuba.
Although slow to embrace America’s entrance into World War I, Daniels conveyed over two million soldiers to Europe within months of American entry. And the fact that there were no losses at sea from enemy fire is rightly considered one of the age’s military logistical triumphs. Originally opposing a large Navy as a budget-buster and invitation to adventurism, Daniels eventually urged U.S. naval supremacy, persuading Wilson to prioritize the Pacific fleet. Less successfully, he urged upon Wilson a soft peace towards defeated Germany and, ever the realist, saw Wilson’s defiance of the Senate over the League of Nations as folly.
Although most of his years were spent in the 20th century, Josephus Daniels remained very much a creature of the 19th century. He always wore the loose three-piece suit and floppy bowtie of a post-Civil War small-town Southern merchant. His appearance and unaffected drawl invited under-estimation by business and political foes throughout the decades. Although a visionary political and business pragmatist who pivoted away from principles in pursuit of larger victories, Daniels seems never to have envisioned the postracial, mostly suburban, middle-class New South that would escape the shadows of the Civil War, slavery, and racial strife.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.