Gov. Scott, You’re No Sidney Catts

Listening to Gov. Medicare Fraud stutter his way (and yes, I can say that) through a bland menu of Chamber of Commerce applause lines yesterday, a couple of thoughts occurred to me.

First, consider this riff from Scott’s speech:

If the conditions Florida offers aren’t the best, businesses go elsewhere. What does it take to create that favorable business climate? Florida has to offer the best chance for financial success. Not a guarantee -just the best chance.

Three forces markedly reduce that chance for success—taxation…regulation…and litigation.

For virtually my entire adult, professional life, I have listened to Florida’s conservative governors and state legislatures talk earnestly about the dire need to create a favorable business climate in which taxation, regulation, and litigation are banished from the realm.

You would think they might have accomplished that by now.

I mean, really, who is stopping you? Languid Democrats? Please. What exactly were Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio doing all those years, other than jamming feeding tubes back into brain dead women? Maybe, just maybe, the fact that you got your way for most of the last two decades and STILL drove the state into an overbuilt black hole suggests that “favorable business climate” does not mean what you think it means, to paraphrase the always relevant Inigo Montoya.

Second, when did angry outsider fake populists become so verbally untalented? I’m generally not one of these, “Oh we’re in decline” types. But I consider today’s political rhetoric hopelessly inferior and euphemized in comparison to the days of yore, when even the vicious bozos ran literate smack against their cultural, religious, and ethnic enemies. The best we get out of angry rightwingers today is their insistence that the jobless won’t work because their $1,000 or so a month allows them the good life.

Anyway, I’m publishing here, for the first time, a brief excerpt from the book about Florida history that some of you know I’m writing. It concerns Gov. Sidney Catts, the first true outsider to take on Florida’s political establishment and win the governorship in 1916. The piece includes a little historical background on Catts, an itinerant preacher, and quotes from his inaugural address. He shows you how to do it, old school style. I’ve relied on various contemporary accounts and some information from Catts’ biography “Cracker Messiah,” written by Wayne Flint. And you’ll notice that the tenets of angry populism have jumbled themselves over the years in fascinating ways. Believe it or not, there’s even some relevance here to the great Grady Judd/atheist debate. I hope you enjoy it:

Sidney Johnston Catts

Sidney Johnston Catts
(1862–1936)
Oil on canvas, Emma F. White, 1920

Sidney Johnston Catts had lived in Florida only since 1911, where he came to DeFuniak Springs in the panhandle after the Baptist church he pastored in Tuskegee, Alabama ran him off because of his tendency to harangue congregants over their perceived moral failings while demanding more of their money and running their church affairs capriciously.

Prior to his forced departure, Catts apparently enjoyed rather warm relations with Booker T. Washington, despite the fact that Catts’ wife once asked Washington if he wanted work tending to her yard. Catts spoke several times at Tuskegee Institute at Washington’s invitation, a fact worth remembering, as we move forward in this story. During his first Tuskegee lecture, titled “Persecutions and Martyrdoms of the Church,” he declared he had “been struck with awful force by the cruelties of the Roman Catholic Church towards others when in her power.”

He later declared himself scourge of incipient radicalism at Tuskegee, a charge that would have made W.E.B DuBois and James Weldon Johnson chuckle. Catts declared in a newspaper letter-to-the-editor that any efforts to impose Reconstruction-type ideas of equality in his earshot would find the business end of Catts’ military genius, such as it was.

“If any such effort is ever made in reality,” Catts wrote, “here is one man who will change his commentaries into works on military tactics — his pen and plow into a sword and… go down Dallas and Lowndes and organize the boys for war.”

That’s basically how Catts rolled during the 1916 campaign in Florida, turning a traveling salesman gig and anti-whiskey, anti-Catholic, anti-railroad, anti-corporate pathologies into Florida’s only truly successful outsider candidacy for governor, an accomplishment all the more remarkable for his achieving it in a state with almost total one-party rule. Catts hated the educated, reasonably secular, business elite of the Democratic party, almost as much as he hated priests and nuns. Running against all their kinds, he steadily built popular support throughout the winter and spring of 1916 and emerged as the prime threat to William V. Knott, the railroad and business-friendly party man backed by the establishment.

Catts won the primary vote in June, complicated by a thoroughly confusing second-choice ballot scheme, by just 544 votes over Knott. That set off a shady recount that would undo his victory and nominate Knott by a remarkable 21 votes. Fueled by reports of extensive ballot stuffing and other typical machine behavior on behalf of Knott, Catts decided to run against Knott in the general election as the nominee of the Prohibition Party, whose name suggests its platform. And he won, along the way publicly accusing a Catholic cardinal of giving Knott $180,000 to steal the election.

The text of Catts’ inaugural address in Tallahassee, delivered on Jan. 2, 1917, opened like this:

“Citizens of Florida:

This is the supreme hour of your triumph, to have gained this victory over all the forces of opposition so masterful and strong as were those that stood arrayed against you; and to have withstood them and conquered them, places this hour of your success with the historic ones, when the people of England raised Cromwell to peer, or when the citizens of France desolated the feudal system in the rejection of the Catholic Heirarchy and kingcraft of the age, by the French Revolution or when the colonies of America stood by Thomas Jefferson as he gave to the world the supremest bill of man’s rights, the Declaration of Independence.

Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the vast corporations, and the railroads, the fierce opposition of the daily and weekly press, and the organization of the negro voters of the state against you, the judiciary of the state partisan to your needs, and the power of the Roman Catholic Heirarchy against you. Yet, over all these the common people of Florida, the every day masses of the cracker people have triumphed…”

Catts vowed to move forward with his campaign pledge to force the “opening of all closed institutions within the state of Florida for police inspection, such as convents, parochial schools and other institutions of like nature…”

From the eastern steps of the old Florida capital, Catts thundered what he termed his “doctrine” to the assembled thousands:

“The little red school house to stand as an emblem of the nation’s liberty. No money ever to be given for any sectarian schools from our treasury forever; the freedom of speech, conscience, and press, and entire separation of church and state forever; to vote for no man for any office, nor appoint any, who owes his allegiance to a foreign national potentate, or foreign ecclesiastical power on American soil; the suppression of the whiskey traffic for the state and the nation, and the crowning political dogma for all, ‘America for Americans throughout eternity.”

From 2010, it’s jarring to read a gospel-flogging, hellfire-fearing Protestant preacher jab a political finger in the air in fierce support of the separation of church and state. Today’s equivalent would say there’s no such thing, and those who believe it violate the religiosity of the founders.

The rhetoric shows the reliably flexible principles of angry populism, which the Sidney Cattses of the world always seem to conjure at just the right time to curse with abstraction a particular type of person. And it shows just how hostile the air must have felt to U.S. and Florida Catholics in 1916 and how interwoven with protestantism the existing public school system was and continued to be for years.

By no means was Catts the only purveyor of Catholic-baiting in the 1916 campaign. Outgoing Gov. Park Trammel, while running for U.S. Senate, ordered the arrest of three nuns with the Sister of St. Joseph order in St. Augustine because of their efforts to teach black children after a group of citizens complained.

And Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union described Catts as winning the election “with the full support of the Ku Klux Klan.” That didn’t mean much in late 1916, when no formal chapters yet existed in Florida, and national membership barely reached into the thousands. But the Klan’s slogan of “100 percent Americanism” meshed beautifully with Catts “America for Americans throughout eternity.” As it had throughout the state, the Catts campaign, in Putnam County, both harnessed and helped loose forces that would rip apart the relative stability of the early 1910s.

We’ve had it worse, my fellow Floridians.

7 thoughts on “Gov. Scott, You’re No Sidney Catts

    • And by the way, I harbor no bitterness for your shattering of my comment records with the Grady basketball post. Or so I keep telling myself.

        • Are you two under some impression the comments aren’t randomly constructed out of scripts from late-night TV programming? Programming and editing are sister arts, gentlemen.

          As far as the number of comments per article…than’s a random number with the seed generated from the number of Guinness sold at Mollys the night before.

  1. Nice. I’m always appreciative of any reference to obscure politicians. They usually said – and did- the most entertaining things.

  2. Funny thing about racist Sidney J Catts he never told anyone about his Half brother Hunter Catts (My GGF) a mulatto of Pleasant Hill, Alabama. Their father, Samuel W. Catts was very busy on the plantation keeping my GGGM and Adeline R. Catts happy!

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