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The “wool hat boys” was the term used to refer to the broad-based populist group that was critical to the political career of Arkansas political leader Jeff Davis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term was intended to distinguish his supporters—white lower- and middle-class working people—from the wealthy, “silk hat” plutocrats whose interests Davis publicly derided.
Indeed, it was Davis’s efforts on behalf of the wool hat boys and their compatriots, manifested in his opposition to the state’s economic elite, that cemented the electoral coalition that propelled the charismatic Davis to one term as a hard-driving state attorney general and three terms as governor; he was also elected to two terms in the U.S. Senate, although he died before the start of the second Senate term. Davis turned the wool hat boys into a political force by employing a combination of his own personal qualities and a consistent advocacy of programs devoted to improving the lives of the wool hat boys—as much as possible at the expense of the state’s corporate interests.
In addition, his pugnacious campaign style readily indulged in race baiting, no small thing given both the overwhelmingly white nature of the wool hat boys as well as the economic reality that the state’s black population was often the only group worse off economically than they were. His campaign even included physical attacks on his opponent—in 1902, he was arrested and convicted for disturbing the peace and aggravated assault for a fight he got into on the campaign platform with opposing candidate Carroll Wood.
The term “wool hat boys” appears to have been widely used in numerous states during the populist era of the 1890s and early twentieth century. In Georgia, they were a highly organized and effective political force. By contrast, in Arkansas, the phrase “wool hat boys” was more of a descriptive moniker of the disparate but influential electoral coalition that the charismatic Davis created and that fueled his rise to power. As became evident when Davis went to Washington DC to serve in the Senate, the “machine” that elected him was a product of his personal strengths and not something that could be easily transferred, a fact made clear by the defeat of his protégé and designated successor, William Kirby, in the 1908 gubernatorial race.
Ultimately, the wool hat boys proved a short-lived phenomenon, as the populist movement was for the most part subsumed by the progressive movement’s developing domination of the Democratic Party in Arkansas in the pre-war part of the twentieth century.
For additional information:
Arsenault, Raymond. The Wild Ass of the Ozarks: Jeff Davis and the Social Bases of Southern Politics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Lucas, M. Philip Lucas. Review of Barton C. Shaw, The Wool-Hat Boys: Georgia’s Populist Party. Annals of Iowa 48 (Winter 1986): 222–225. Online at http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9157&context=annals-of-iowa (accessed November 17, 2017).
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 11/17/2017
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