Josephus Daniels (1862 – 1948)

Written By Shane Williams

Josephus Daniels was a prominent journalist and newspaper editor from North Carolina. He purchased the Raleigh News and Observer in 1894 and became a leading “New South” political commentator.  He was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Navy during World War I.  He later served as ambassador to Mexico under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Daniels was born in Washington, North Carolina on May 18, 1862, to Josephus and Mary Seabrook Daniels. Daniels father was a shipbuilder for the Confederacy and was killed on a steamship in 1865. Soon after, Daniels and his mother moved to Wilson.  There she became a postal worker, and he enrolled at the Wilson Collegiate Institute.

In Wilson, Daniels worked several jobs, including picking cotton and working in a drug store and in a printing office. Daniels soon developed a passion for journalism and became an editor of the Wilson Advance. Daniels also became an editor at Our Free Blade and espoused progressive political viewpoints. In 1882, Daniels bought the Wilson Advance and also established the Free Press in Kinston, North Carolina. While writing for the Free Press, Daniels supported presidential candidate Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party.  He also became partial owner of the Rocky Mountain Reporter and President of the North Carolina Press Association. With help from businessman Julius S. Carr, he also bought Raleigh’s State Chronicle and the Farmer and the Mechanic. He merged both publications as a daily and with its influence was elected to Printer to the State in 1887, 1889, 1891 and 1893. When the State Chronicle became unprofitable, he sold the paper in 1892 and started the North Carolinian.

Daniels’s political positions have been described as Populist and others have been considered Progressive.  He was an ardent Democratic Party supporter, who favored railroad regulation, better public schools, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws and anti-trust laws. In 1892 he was appointed to the Department of Interior under Grover Cleveland but left after two years to return to North Carolina. While in Washington he purchased the News and Observer and merged it with the State Chronicle and the North Carolinian. Over the next few years Daniels strongly endorsed Charles B. Aycock for governor to the wide readership the News and Observer.  That significantly helped Aycock win the 1900 gubernatorial election.  (The News and Observer became the first newspaper to acquire more subscribers than the population of its home city.)

Daniels was a member of the Democratic Executive Committee and supported Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election. For his support, Daniels was appointed to Secretary of the Navy, a position he filled from 1913 to 1921. During his tenure, Daniels opposed corrupt military contractors, wanted an increase in the number of navy chaplains, supported shipboard schools, and appointed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Daniels also prohibited alcohol for enlisted men, and according to legend, sailors started calling coffee a “Cup of Joe.”

Daniels returned to North Carolina in 1921 and began dispersing more newspapers over the next two decades. During the 1930s Daniels became a trustee at the University of North Carolina was a strong supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR appointed Daniels as ambassador to Mexico.  He served from 1934 to 1941. During his tenure, he endorsed Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, universal education in Mexico, advocated the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and advised U.S. consular officials to not meddle in other nations affairs. Daniels returned to North Carolina in 1941 due to poor health and returned to writing and editing for the News and Observer.

Over the years Daniels published several books, including The Navy and the Nation in 1919 and Our Navy at War in 1922.  The books were essays on his position as Secretary of Navy. He also published The Life of Woodrow Wilson in 1924, and The Wilson Era in 1944.

Daniels died in 1948 from pneumonia and was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC. The News and Observer was passed to his son Jonathan and remained in the family until 1995.