The American journalist and statesman Josephus Daniels (1862-1948) was secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's Cabinet and served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to Mexico.
Josephus Daniels was born in Washington, N.C., on May 18, 1862. After his father was killed in the Civil War, his mother moved to Wilson, where he was raised and sent to school. In his early teens he developed an interest in journalism and upon graduating from high school became a partner in, and then the owner-editor of, the local weekly newspaper. He studied law at the University of North Carolina and eventually moved to Raleigh, where he edited two papers.
A dedicated and active Democrat, Daniels worked in Washington, D.C., in 1893 as chief clerk in the Department of the Interior. Upon returning to Raleigh, he bought the News and Observer and soon established himself as an influential man in the state. In national politics Daniels supported William Jennings Bryan, and during Bryan's three unsuccessful bids for the presidency Daniels stumped throughout the country on his behalf.
In 1911 Daniels supported Woodrow Wilson and was appointed the new president's secretary of the Navy. As his assistant secretary, Daniels chose an aristocratic young New York politician named Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Daniels had little previous experience with the Navy, but he did have some set beliefs about how American institutions should be run. He ran afoul of the officer corps by trying to abolish some of their traditional privileges and institute more humane and democratic treatment of enlisted men. A devout Methodist and a teetotaler, he is perhaps most famous in the Navy for having banned alcoholic beverages from ships. He served as secretary of the Navy until 1921, when the defeat of the Democrats sent him back to North Carolina to his lifelong love, journalism.
Roosevelt and Daniels had had some differences in the Navy Department (Roosevelt tended to sympathize much more with the Navy brass), but they had ended their association in Washington with deep mutual respect. Thus, when Roosevelt became president in 1933, he rewarded Daniels with the ambassadorship to Mexico. This aroused considerable consternation in Mexico, for Daniels had supervised the occupation of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution in 1914.
Daniels however, turned out to be an ambassador with charm, good sense, and, above all, a deep concern for the Mexican people. In 1938, when the Mexican government nationalized the foreign-owned oil industry, Daniels argued for U.S. government restraint against Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the spokesmen for the oil interests, who demanded drastic retaliatory action. Daniels believed that the nationalization was an act of nationalism, not of communism, and that the long-run economic benefits to the United States, in terms of a higher Mexican standard of living and increased purchases from the United States, would far outweigh the short-run losses.
In 1941 Daniels retired to Raleigh and from there, even at an advanced age, continued to keep in touch with Mexican affairs and Mexican friends. He died in Raleigh on Jan. 15, 1948.
In his later years Daniels wrote a long, rambling autobiography; the three volumes are Tar Heel Editor (1939), The Wilson Era: Years of War and After, 1917-1923 (1946), and Shirt-sleeve Diplomat (1947). The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels: 1913-1921, edited by E. David Cronon (1963), is a useful source on both Daniels and the Wilson administration. The best single book on Daniels is Cronon's Josephus Daniels in Mexico (1960), which concentrates on his time as ambassador. Jonathan Daniels, The End of Innocence (1954), and Joseph L. Morrison, Josephus Daniels: The Small-d democrat (1966), are flattering portraits. □