Florida Governor Sidney J. Catts: the Polarizing Populist

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Governor Sidney J. Catts courtesy of Florida Memory

Sidney J. Catts served as the 22nd Governor of Florida from 1917 to 1921. While he only held office for one term, this colorful character certainly left his mark on Florida history. Originally a Democrat, he ended up running for governor on the Prohibition Party ticket after a close and contested primary. Beyond calls for prohibition, Catts mobilized rural voters by promoting an explicitly anti-Catholic platform. As we’ll explore today, these two aspects of his campaign were interrelated and reflect the imagined fears of a subset of Floridians during the early 20th century.

Born July 31, 1863 in Pleasant Hill, Alabama, Catts attended various colleges before graduating with a law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee in 1882. He became both a Southern Baptist and a minister of the faith in 1886 despite having no theological or pastoral training. Known for having a divisive personality, Catts didn’t tend to last very long as pastor of any given church. As historian and Catts biographer Wayne Flynt puts it, “Sydney Catts was a visceral man who lived by the emotion of the moment, and many a temper tantrum would be followed by many a remorseful apology” (Flynt 2). Catts moved his family to DeFuniak Springs, Florida in 1911, where he worked as a pastor and insurance salesman.

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Pensacola journal-June 4, 1916

Catts initially entered the 1916 gubernatorial race as a Democrat. After a close primary, which Catts initially won, multiple recounts resulted in his opponent, William J. Knott, receiving the party nomination. Not deterred by this setback, Catts decided to run as a Prohibition Party candidate, which allowed him to criticize both the Democratic Party and what he perceived to be foreign influence in politics. His campaign took him to rural areas of Florida not usually visited by traditional politicians, and he is remembered for pioneering the use of the automobile to campaign in more remote parts of the state.

It appears the press in Florida had rather mixed opinions on Catts during the 1916 election. Discussing a study of the Florida press, Flynt states “before the June ballot, the press generally had dismissed Catts as a back country buffoon from the panhandle; but after the Supreme Court denied him the nomination, many papers defended him as the real party nominee” (Flynt 81-82). This column from the Palatka News and Advertiser highlights the opinions of several newspapers in the state. While another column from the Punta Gorda Herald reports that some of Catts’ more far-fetched assertions were making headlines in Havana, Cuba. This of course, refers to his belief that the Pope would take over the U.S and move Rome to San Antonio, Florida.

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The Punta Gorda herald-October 12, 1916

The platform that Catts ran on “struck one major theme: the Democratic machine, supported by partisan courts, had stolen the nomination from the people’s choice” (Flynt 77). He linked this position to larger conspiracies about government influence; the most notable being that the Pope in Rome was planning to take over America and would do so by mobilizing American Catholics to rebel against the government. This would be possible, he believed, because nuns and monks in convents and monasteries were stockpiling weapons. Despite there being no proof of such activities, Flynt comments that “Catts’s oratory manifested an almost psychotic anti-Catholicism” and that to “protect himself, he carried two revolvers which he displayed prominently on the podium to quite unruly crowds and awe his followers” (Flynt 80). Although Catholics only made up about 12% of the population of Florida in 1890, Catts was able to capitalize on anti-Catholic sentiment related to fears about immigration that existed in Florida (and the rest of the United States) during most of the late 19th and early 20th century (Gaustad et al. C.17). In that sense, according to historian David Page, Catts “was rather a shrewd observer of the swelling tide of anti-Catholic prejudice” which “he played upon” when “visiting the backwoods regions of Florida” (Page 113). He used the fear of Catholicism and disillusionment with the mainstream Democratic Party to mobilize his supporters. His words must have resonated with the voting populace, because on Election Day he won “thirty-eight counties, while losing only fourteen” (Flynt 90).

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Pensacola journal-January 3, 1917

Catts’ fear of Catholic influence carried over into his tenure as Governor. In his inaugural address, he promised to encourage the passage of a law that would open “all closed institutions to police inspection.” Catts believed that such a law would allow for the more careful monitoring of “convents, parochial schools and other institutions of like nature” in order to neutralize the threat of Catholic take over. The legislature responded positively to the governor’s request, and passed a bill establishing a board to monitor such institutions during the 1917 legislative session. Despite being codified into law, the bill wasn’t enforced and was ultimately repealed in 1935 (Page 116). Catts was also successful in getting the legislature to approve a prohibition amendment, which the people ratified in 1918. While less explicitly anti-Catholic, many Protestants like Catts believed prohibition would curb Catholic immigrant drinking culture and help them more quickly adopt dominate American (Protestant) culture.

While Catts was unabashedly anti-Catholic broadly, he nonetheless maintained relationships with some individual Catholics including his own daughter-in-law (Flynt 15). This inconsistency resulted in many Florida newspapers relishing at opportunities to point out when Catts appointed a Catholic to public office. A one-term governor, the state press largely ignored Catts during the 1920 U.S. Senate race (which he lost). Catts ran for governor of Florida again in both 1924 and 1928, but he wasn’t able to mobilize the same state-wide support he found in 1916. After failing to get his party’s nomination in 1928, Catts, never afraid to oppose his own party, spent considerable effort campaigning against Al Smith, the Democratic (and Catholic) presidential candidate (Flynt 326). Smith lost the election, and shortly thereafter Catts retired to DeFuniak Springs where he died on March 9, 1936.

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The Ocala evening star-July 3, 1917

A polarizing figure, Governor Sidney J. Catts represents the populism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism which flourished in the early 20th century. His novel approach to campaigning allowed him to reach a rural population who rallied behind his call for prohibition. Unquestionably motivated by his Baptist faith, Catts made headlines before, during, and after his tenure as governor.

Citations and Additional Resources

Flynt, Wayne. Cracker Messiah: Governor Sidney J. Catts of Florida. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Graham, Thomas. “The First Developers.” In The History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon, 276-295. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Phillip L. Barrow. New Historical Atlas of Religion in America 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Josh. “Bone Dry: The Road to Prohibition in Florida.” The Florida Memory Blog. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2014/07/16/bone-dry-the-road-to-prohibition-in-florida/.

Page, David P. “Bishop Michael J. Curley and Anti-Catholic Nativism in Florida.” The Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 45 No. 2 (Oct., 1966): 101-117.

Portrait of Florida’s 22nd Governor Sidney Johnston Catts. Between 1917 and 1921. Accessed February 8, 2017, https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/128339.

Rivers, Eugene Larry. “Florida’s African American Experience: The Twentieth Century and Beyond.” In The History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon, 444-469. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.