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Senate Leaders

Joseph T. Robinson by Nicholas Richard Brewer

Joseph T. Robinson

Joseph T. Robinson never lost a battle. From schoolyard fights to clashes in the Senate, he defeated all challengers. In the end, it was not a person but a bill that struck down the powerful Democratic leader—Robinson had a fatal heart attack while struggling to pass President Franklin D. Roosevelt's controversial Court packing plan in 1937. Colleagues from both parties mourned his passing, while newspaper editorials recalled his two distinctive personalities: the respected senator who swayed recalcitrant members with intelligence and good humor; and the combustible autocrat, who persuaded his Senate colleagues through sheer intimidation.

Born in 1872, Robinson grew up in rural Lonoke, Arkansas, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse before studying at the University of Arkansas and then attending an intense summer-long program in legal studies at the University of Virginia. Before passing the bar in 1895, Robinson served a single term in the Arkansas state legislature. He chose not to run for reelection. Instead, he joined a criminal law practice in Lonoke and became a skilled defense attorney, winning several high-profile cases. Robinson's successes in court elevated his public profile, and in 1902 he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a U.S. representative, Robinson promoted anti-trust and low-tariff legislation, supported efforts to end child labor, and helped to create the Federal Trade Commission. In 1912 he ran for governor of Arkansas on a platform calling for changes in campaign finance laws and prison reform, beating the Democratic incumbent in a heated primary election. He resigned from the House on January 14, 1913, and two days later was inaugurated as governor. Shortly before the inauguration, however, Arkansas senator Jeff Davis had died in office. On January 28, the state legislature elected Robinson to fill the Senate vacancy. On March 8, 1913, he resigned as governor and began his Senate career.

As a freshman senator, Robinson backed every measure in President Woodrow Wilson's "New Freedom" legislative agenda. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he continued to support Wilson and denounced senators who opposed the war effort. He called into question the patriotism of those who opposed Wilson’s policies, particularly Wisconsin’s progressive senator Robert La Follette. Enraged by Robinson’s attacks, La Follette had to be restrained from charging at Robinson in the Senate Chamber. In return, Robinson taunted La Follette, suggesting they take their battle outside, living up to his nickname—“Scrappy Joe.”1 At war’s end, Robinson worked to rally Democrats behind Wilson’s efforts to win approval of the Treaty of Versailles. When Republican opposition steered through reservations to alter the treaty, however, Robinson joined a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who responded to Wilson’s plea to reject the amended treaty. Wilson applauded Robinson’s loyalty, calling him the Senate’s "real moral and intellectual leader.”2

In 1923 Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama resigned his position as Democratic leader due to illness. As the most senior Democrat, Senator Furnifold Simmons of North Carolina was expected to lead the Democratic Conference as party leader, but Robinson challenged him. The younger Robinson vowed to turn the Democratic Conference into a fighting force capable of blocking the Republican agenda and initiating its own programs. Simmons withdrew his name from consideration and, on December 3, 1923, he nominated Robinson for party leader and conference chair. By unanimous vote, Robinson became the Democratic leader, a position he held until his death in 1937.

With his party in the minority, Robinson took over the distribution of patronage appointments and reformed the committee assignment process, decreeing that no senator would hold the top Democratic position in more than one important committee. A Capitol Hill resident, he never strayed far from the Senate Chamber and kept a constant watch over the proceedings in order to capitalize on any dissension within the Republican ranks. A deal maker, Robinson worked with senators of both parties and helped facilitate negotiations with the era's Republican presidents.

Robinson had presidential aspirations of his own. In 1924 he was a minor contender for the Democratic nomination. As a favorite son candidate, he drew the support of his Arkansas constituents and the southern conservative members of his party, but his performance on a golf course brought him more attention than his short-lived race for the presidency. At the Chevy Chase Country Club just outside Washington, D.C. (a favorite haunt for Capitol Hill politicians), a fellow golfer named James Mitchell asked to move ahead of Robinson’s slow-playing group of senators. Robinson and his colleagues reluctantly agreed, but Robinson’s anger at the interruption soon reached a boiling point. “Go on and play before I hit you,” he screamed at Mitchell, who gibed in return, “You wouldn’t hit anybody.” Robinson punched the golfer, knocking him to the ground. The club expelled Robinson and his reputation as a pugilist grew stronger.3

Early in 1928, Robinson clashed with Senator James Heflin, a Democrat from Alabama who frequently inserted anti-Catholic sentiments into his speeches. When New York's Catholic governor, Alfred E. Smith, announced his candidacy for president, Heflin attacked Smith’s religious beliefs. Robinson defended Smith, stating that religious affiliation had no bearing on a person's credentials for elective office. "I have heard [the senator] denounce the Catholic Church and the Pope of Rome and the cardinal and the bishop and the priest and the nun until I am sick and tired of it, as a Democrat,” Robinson declared. Helfin replied that Robinson could not continue as leader of the Democrats and “fight the Roman Catholics' battle.”4 Interpreting the remark as a challenge to his authority, Robinson called for a vote of confidence to gauge his colleagues' loyalty. By a near unanimous vote, the senators pledged their support to Robinson.

Later that year, Robinson accepted the offer to be vice-presidential running mate for Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to gain a party nomination for president. Although Herbert Hoover decisively beat Smith in the 1928 election, Robinson emerged from the campaign a national figure, known for his impassioned speeches on behalf of Smith and the Democratic platform. Continuing as the Senate's minority leader, he built a cooperative relationship with Republican president Hoover. This riled many members of his party, but Robinson’s tenacity and influence kept him in power.

The Democrats swept the general elections in 1932, capturing the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. By unanimous vote, the Democratic Conference re-elected Robinson as party leader, and he became the majority leader. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed his New Deal agenda, Robinson took his duties as majority leader seriously, refusing to delegate his numerous responsibilities. As Roosevelt's New Deal "marshal," he ensured the success of countless bills addressing the crisis of the Great Depression and advancing a more expansive social policy. In 1933 he gained passage of the Emergency Banking Act in just seven hours, passing the bill through both houses of Congress within Roosevelt’s first week in office.

Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936 kept Robinson and his Democratic colleagues in the majority, but Roosevelt’s second term presented Robinson with a particularly daunting challenge. In 1937 the president called for a plan to expand the U.S. Supreme Court—the Court packing plan—in order to add liberal justices to the Court who would look favorably on his New Deal policies. Through the spring and into the summer of 1937, Robinson spoke, fought, and cajoled for the bill, but he could not stifle the criticism from scores of Republicans and Democrats. The constant strain showed on his face and in the stoop of his shoulders, and his friends began to worry about his health. On July 14, just as the legislation seemed likely to split his party into two warring factions, Robinson's housekeeper found his pajama-clad body lying face down on his apartment floor, the victim of a heart attack.

Two days after Robinson's sudden death, stunned colleagues, friends, and family attended his funeral service in the Senate Chamber. His casket, blanketed with flowers, rested in the well of the Chamber, the site of his greatest speeches and legislative battles. “Senator Robinson gave his life to his country,” stated Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg. “I have no doubt that the excessively heavy burdens which he has carried as majority leader of the Senate hastened his untimely end.”5 That evening, nearly 100 members of Congress boarded the train carrying the fallen leader to Little Rock. Along with thousands of mourners, they attended a lying-in-state ceremony in the Arkansas State Capitol before seeing Robinson laid to rest on July 18, 1937. “A pillar of strength is gone,” declared President Roosevelt at the White House. “A soldier has fallen with face to the battle.”6


1. “Robinson’s Last Interview, Given Day Before His Death,” New York Times, July 15, 1937, 1.

2. Cal Ledbetter, Jr., “Joe T. Robinson and the Presidential Campaign of 1928,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 55, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 100.

3. Cecil Edward Weller, Jr., Joe T. Robinson: Always a Loyal Democrat (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998), 102; Charles Rappleye, Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 219–20.

4. Kenneth C. Barnes, Anti-Catholicism in Arkansas: How Politicians, the Press, the Klan, and Religious Leaders Imagined an Enemy, 1910–1960 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016), 134.

5. “Tributes are Paid Senator Robinson,” Hartford Courant, July 15, 1937, 14.

6. “Fallen Soldier, Says President,” Boston Globe, July 15, 1937, 9.