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Senate Leaders


Joseph T. Robinson by Nicholas Richard Brewer

Joseph T. Robinson
The "Fightingest" Man in the U.S. Senate

He never lost a battle. From schoolyard fights to clashes in the Senate, Joseph T. Robinson defeated all challengers. In the end, it was not a person, but a bill that struck down the first Democratic Senate majority leader–Robinson had a fatal heart attack during his campaign to pass President Franklin Roosevelt's controversial "court packing" plan in 1937. Colleagues from both parties mourned his passing, while newspaper editorials recalled two distinctive men: the respected senator, who swayed recalcitrant members with intelligence and good humor, and the effective autocrat, who bossed the Senate through sheer intimidation.

Born in 1872, Robinson grew up in rural Lonoke, Arkansas, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse. His father, a country doctor and minister, supplemented his son's education with books from the family library. The ninth of ten children, "Joe T." soon learned to command attention, seeking contests to show off his physical and intellectual strength. Known as a fearsome disciplinarian, Robinson taught school in order to pay for his law classes at the University of Arkansas and the University of Virginia.

Before passing the bar in 1895, Robinson served as a Democrat for one term in the Arkansas state legislature. He chose not to run for reelection, but instead joined a criminal law practice in Lonoke. Early in his legal career, he won the release of seven African American defendants charged with murder. In another famous case, he persuaded a judge to dismiss his clients' revenge killings as "justifiable homicide." Robinson's successes in court elevated his profile in the Democratic party, and in 1902, he was elected to Congress from the Sixth Congressional District of Arkansas.

In the House of Representatives, Robinson promoted anti-trust and low-tariff bills and helped frame the legislation creating the Federal Trade Commission.  Opposed to children working long hours in factories, he took charge of the Child Labor Act, which was later deemed unconstitutional. In 1912 he ran for governor of Arkansas, beating the Democratic incumbent in the primary election. He resigned from the House on January 14, 1913 and, two days later, he was inaugurated as governor. Shortly before the inauguration, however, Arkansas Senator Jeff Davis died in office. On January 28, the state legislature elected Robinson to fill the Senate vacancy, but Robinson remained the governor until the start of Congress in March.

As a freshman Democratic senator, Robinson backed every measure in President Woodrow Wilson's "New Freedom" legislative agenda. Once the United States entered World War I, he denounced those senators against the war effort. During one harangue, he questioned the patriotism of Robert La Follette. Enraged, the Wisconsin Progressive had to be restrained from charging Robinson on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, "Scrappy Joe" taunted La Follette, "Let's settle this outside."

Following the war's conclusion in 1919, Robinson rallied Senate Democrats in favor of the Versailles Treaty and Wilson's League of Nations. Although the Republican-controlled Senate voted down the treaty, the president was impressed by Robinson's loyalty, calling him the "real moral and intellectual leader of the Senate." As chairman of the 1920 Democratic National Convention, the "moral leader" punched a guard for questioning his credentials. Otherwise, he won high praise for his performance as chair, and his colleagues chose him to head two succeeding conventions.

In 1923, Senator Oscar Underwood, the Democratic floor leader, resigned his leadership position due to illness. As the most senior Democrat, Senator Furnifold Simmons expected to assume the role of minority leader and chairman of the Democratic Conference. The much younger Robinson campaigned for the positions, however, vowing 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 minority leader and Conference chair. By unanimous acclamation, Robinson became the Democratic leader, a position he would hold  until his death in 1937.

As minority leader, 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, but kept a constant watch over the proceedings in order to capitalize on any dissension within the Republican ranks. Known as a "horse trader," he made deals on both sides of the aisle and helped facilitate negotiations with the era's GOP presidents.

Robinson had presidential aspirations of his own. In 1924, he was a minor contender for the Democratic nomination. A "favorite son" candidate, he drew the support of his Arkansas constituents and the southern conservative members of his party. That year, however, his performance on a golf course brought him more attention than his short-lived race for the presidency. At the Chevy Chase Country Club (a favorite haunt for Washington politicians), a fellow golfer asked to move ahead of the senator's slow-playing foursome. Robinson refused to extend the courtesy to the local surgeon. After a few angry words, he hit the doctor, knocking him to the ground. The club expelled Robinson from its membership, and the press gave him a new title; he was now the "pugilist" senator.  

Early in 1928, Robinson clashed with Senator James Heflin, a Democrat from Alabama, who frequently inserted anti-Catholic sentiments into many of his speeches. When New York's Catholic governor, Alfred E. Smith, announced his candidacy for president, Heflin made Smith the target of  his criticism. Robinson admonished his views, stating that religious affiliation had no bearing on a person's credentials for higher office. On one famous occasion, he declared, "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." Helfin retorted, "The Senator from Arkansas can not remain leader of the Democrats and fight the Roman Catholics' battle every time the issue is raised in this body." Interpreting the remark as a challenge to his authority, Robinson held a vote of confidence to gauge his colleagues' loyalty. By a near unanimous vote (Heflin was absent), the senators pledged their support to their leader and his stance against bigotry.

Later that year, Robinson accepted the offer to be Al Smith's running mate. The pairing represented two "firsts" in American politics: it was the first time since the Civil War that a southerner was seriously considered for a national office, and it was the first time in U.S. history that a Catholic won a presidential nomination. While Herbert Hoover decisively beat Smith in the general election, the 1928 presidential race provided an opening for future Catholic and southern candidates, most notably John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  

Robinson emerged from the campaign a national figure, now known for the impassioned speeches he had made around the country on behalf of Smith and the Democratic platform. He continued to score victories as the Senate's minority leader, but his cooperative relationship with Hoover riled the members of his party.  They understood that no other senator possessed Robinson's tenacity and influence, however, so they accepted his leadership, infuriating as it could be.

In 1932, the Democrats swept the national elections, capturing the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. By unanimous vote, the Democratic Conference elected Robinson to be the Senate leader. Robinson's term commenced in March 1933, fourteen years after the Democrats had last commanded the Senate. Prior to the 1920s, the Senate had no official majority leaders. Therefore, Robinson was the first senator to represent the Democratic party in the role. He took his duties seriously, refusing to delegate his numerous responsibilities. As Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal "marshal," he ensured the passage of countless bills relating to the Depression and social policy, his most impressive victory being the Emergency Banking Act, which he pushed through both houses of Congress in seven hours.  

Robinson had a much more difficult time with the president's Court Reorganization Act, designed to add liberal justices to the Supreme Court. For weeks in 1937, he spoke, fought, and cajoled for the bill, but he could not stifle the criticism of 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. He had not given up the battle, but his heart had.  

Two days after Robinson's sudden death, stunned colleagues, friends, and family attended his funeral in the Senate chamber. His casket, blanketed with flowers, rested in the green-carpeted pit, the site of his greatest speeches. The Senate chaplain gave a brief sermon, and the Capitol Police escorted his body to a funeral train headed to Little Rock. Thousands of  mourners traveled to the Arkansas capitol to witness Robinson's lying-in-state ceremony and to express their grief and their enormous admiration for the majority leader:  the "fightingest" man in the U.S. Senate.