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Death of a Majority Leader

July 14, 1937

On the morning of July 14, 1937, a cleaning woman entered the Methodist Building, across the street from the Capitol. When she turned the key to the apartment of her client, the Senate majority leader, a terrible sight awaited her. There sprawled on the floor, a copy of the previous day's Congressional Record lying near his right hand, was the pajama-clad body of Arkansas senator Joseph Taylor Robinson. At the height of his powers, with hopes of a Supreme Court appointment as his reward for services to a grateful president, the grievously overworked 64-year-old Robinson had succumbed to heart disease.

Today, Robinson's portrait hangs just outside the Senate Chamber's south entrance. It suggests the warm and gentle demeanor he displayed when relaxing with friends. Another artist, however, might have captured a different side of his personality—the one that he occasionally displayed as Democratic floor leader. "When he would go into one of his rages," reported a close observer, "it took little imagination to see fire and smoke rolling out of his mouth like some fierce dragon. Robinson could make senators and everyone in his presence quake by the burning fire in his eyes, the baring of his teeth as he ground out his words, and the clenching of his mighty fists as he beat on the desk before him."

Joe Robinson entered the Senate in 1913, weeks before the Constitution's Seventeenth Amendment took effect, as the last senator who owed his office to election by a state legislature. In 1923 his Senate Democratic colleagues elected him their floor leader, a post he retained for the next 14 years. Iron determination, fierce party loyalty, and willingness to spend long hours studying Senate procedures and legislative issues allowed Robinson, more than any predecessor, to define and expand the role of majority leader.

In 1933, at the head of a large and potentially unruly Democratic majority, he helped President Franklin Roosevelt push New Deal legislation through the Senate in record time. In the blistering hot summer of 1937, he rallied to the president's call a final time. Ignoring doctors' orders to avoid stress, he labored to salvage Roosevelt's legislative scheme to liberalize the Supreme Court by expanding its membership to as many as 15, adding one new position for every sitting justice over the age of 70. Robinson's death cost the president his Court packing plan and deprived the Senate of a towering leader.