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Thomas R. Marshall, 28th Vice President (1913-1921)


Thomas R. Marshall

[I]t has not been the practice for Presidents to throw any of the burdens of their office upon the Vice President. He rules the dignified and at times irascible Senate and reflects upon the inactive character of his job. . . . He has an automobile provided for him . . . but has to buy his own tires, gasoline and supplies.
             
—Washington Evening Star, March 2, 1913

Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, who served two terms with President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1921, claimed that most of the "nameless, unremembered" jobs assigned to him had been concocted essentially to keep vice presidents from doing any harm to their administrations. One of these chores, according to Marshall, was that of regent of the Smithsonian Institution. The vice president recalled that at his first board meeting the other regents, including the chief justice of the United States and the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, discussed funding an expedition to Guatemala to excavate for traces of prehistoric man. With the breezy manner of a self-described "light-hearted Hoosier," Marshall asked if the Smithsonian had ever considered excavating in Washington, D.C. Judging from the specimens walking about on the street, he said, they would not have to dig far below the capital to discover prehistoric man. "And then the utter uselessness and frivolity of the vice-presidency was disclosed," Marshall confessed, "for not a man smiled. It was a year before I had courage to open my mouth again."

This typically self-deprecating story revealed much about Marshall's lamentable vice-presidency. His feelings of inadequacy in both himself and the position he held were reflected again in his reaction to an invitation from President Wilson to attend cabinet meetings. Vice President Marshall stopped going after a single session. When asked why, he replied that he realized "he would not be listened to and hence would be unable to make any contribution." Marshall similarly attended only one meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "I do not blame proud parents for wishing that their sons might be President of the United States," he later said. "But if I sought a blessing for a boy I would not pray that he become Vice-President."

Woodrow Wilson, a supremely self-confident intellectual, regarded Marshall as a "small-caliber man" and had not wanted him on his ticket in 1912. During their eight years together, Wilson undoubtedly made Marshall feel uncomfortable. The editor William Allen White once described presenting a proposal to Wilson at the White House. Wilson "parried and countered quickly, as one who had heard the argument I would present and was punctiliously impatient. He presented another aspect of the case and outtalked me, agreeing in nothing. I could not tell how much he assimilated." For a more insecure man like Marshall, such a response must have been excruciating. Convinced that the president and other high-ranking officials did not take him seriously enough to listen to him, Marshall learned not to speak, not to attend meetings, and not to offer suggestions. He became the epitome of the vice president as nonentity. But this condition moved from comedy to tragedy when President Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke in 1919. Faced with the crisis of having to determine whether the president was able to fulfill the duties of his office, Marshall failed miserably.

A Man of Contradictions

Thomas Riley Marshall had been little known outside his home town of Columbia City, Indiana, before he was elected governor in 1908. Born in Indiana on March 14, 1854, he was the only child of a country doctor and his sickly wife. After moving to Illinois and Kansas for Mrs. Marshall's health, the family returned to Indiana where Thomas attended Wabash College. From his youth he intended to become a lawyer and spent many of his Saturdays in the courtroom listening to such prominent Indiana lawyer-politicians as Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Hendricks, and Daniel Voorhees—who became president, vice president, and senator, respectively. Marshall read law and went into practice in Columbia City. In his early years he was a hard-drinking man, who "wanted a barrel, not a drink." His intemperance persisted for years, and he often appeared hung over in court. A seemingly confirmed bachelor, he lived with his mother until her death. Shortly thereafter, however, at the age of forty-one, he married Lois Kimsey, a deputy in the office of her father, the county clerk in nearby Angola, Indiana. After several difficult years, his wife persuaded him to stop drinking, and after 1898 he never touched another alcoholic beverage.

Marshall's biographer, Charles M. Thomas, summarized the contradictions of his subject's personality:

He was prior to 1898, a most pronounced drinker and at the same time a leader in the church and a temperance lecturer. He was inconsistent, yet he was trusted. He was a fundamentalist in religion, yet not sectarian [that is, not intolerant]. He was enjoyed as the biggest wit in town, yet his judgment was respected by those who knew him, and his leadership was accepted. His later political career proves that, despite his conflicting traits, there was something in his character which made men like him.

An Indiana Democrat

Marshall came from a traditionally Democratic family who traced their political roots back to the age of Andrew Jackson. Marshall himself was always a regular party man. In 1876 he became secretary of the Democratic County Convention and spoke for many Democratic candidates. In 1880 he lost an election for prosecuting attorney. For years that defeat dissuaded him from campaigning for office. Although he became a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, he did not run again until 1908, when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor. When the frontrunning candidates eliminated each other from the race, Marshall won the nomination. He campaigned against Republican Representative James "Sunny Jim" Watson, who would later become Senate majority leader. Marshall was elected governor that year, even though in the presidential election Republican William Howard Taft carried Indiana against William Jennings Bryan, whose vice-presidential candidate, John W. Kern, was a Hoosier. It was the first time that Indiana Democrats had won the governorship since 1896.

The "boss" of the Indiana Democratic party at that time was the Irish-born Thomas Taggart, owner of a nationally famous hotel, health resort, and gambling casino at French Lick, Indiana. After William Jennings Bryan's two unsuccessful campaigns for president in 1896 and 1900, Tom Taggart had helped the anti-Bryan Democrats and regular machine organizations to nominate the more conservative Judge Alton B. Parker for president in 1904. Taggart managed Parker's campaign as Democratic party national chairman.

Bryan recaptured the Democratic nomination in 1908, but Taggart, a national committeeman, had enough influence in the party to ensure the choice of Indiana's John Worth Kern for vice president. In 1912 Taggart went to the Democratic convention with similar plans to recognize Indiana Democrats by winning the second spot for the governor, who could not succeed himself in the statehouse. A conventional, middle-of-the-road politician, Marshall as governor had been neither in Taggart's pocket nor much identified with his party's more progressive wing. But Indiana was a pivotal state, carried by every winning presidential candidate since 1880. Moreover, having Marshall on the national ticket would help state Democrats elect the machine's new candidate for governor.

Tom Taggart disliked New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, whom progressive Democrats were supporting. Instead Taggart hoped for the nomination of House Speaker Champ Clark. But the party boss was shrewd enough to keep Indiana's 29 votes united for Marshall as their "favorite son," until he could determine how to use them to the best advantage. The Democratic convention required a two-thirds vote to nominate a presidential candidate. On the first ballot, Clark had 440 delegates to Wilson's 324. Despite his majority of votes, Clark peaked on the tenth ballot. On the fourteenth ballot, William Jennings Bryan endorsed Wilson. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, Taggart on the twenty-eighth ballot gave all of Marshall's delegates to Wilson, who went on to win the nomination on the forty-sixth ballot. Wilson would have preferred Alabama Representative Oscar W. Underwood for vice president, but when Underwood declined, Taggart clinched the nomination for Governor Marshall. As for Marshall, he had hoped that the frontrunning Wilson and Clark would eliminate each other, giving him the presidential nomination as the darkhorse candidate. When awarded the vice-presidential nomination instead, Marshall's first inclination was to decline on the ground that the job did not pay enough. But Mrs. Marshall had always wanted to go to Washington, and her tears of disappointment convinced him to change his mind and accept. In a multicandidate race, the Democratic ticket won with 435 electoral votes to 88 for Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" ticket and only a meager 8 for Republican William Howard Taft.

Vice President

Thomas R. Marshall went to Washington "with the feeling that the American people might have made a mistake in setting me down in the company of all the wise men in the land." His job as vice president required him to preside over the Senate, but other than delivering his gubernatorial messages to the Indiana legislature, Marshall had no legislative experience. He assumed that as presiding officer of the Senate he had some authority, but it did not take him long to discover "that the Senate was not only a self-governing body but that it was a quite willful set of men, who had not the slightest hesitancy in overruling a presiding officer." Marshall and his wife also found that they were invited everywhere to social functions in Washington. After a while, however, he decided that these invitations were less out of respect for him and his office, than Washington's efforts to "size up" a new man under the microscope. With whatever illusions he might have had about his office quickly dispelled, Marshall came to agree with the early senator who had suggested that Vice President John Adams be titled "His Superfluous Excellency."

A slight, bespectacled man, with his hat pushed back on his head, a pipe or cigar always ready in his hand, Marshall knew that he "was too small to look dignified in a Prince Albert coat," and so he continued his ordinary manner of dress. "He is calm and serene and small; mild, quiet, simple and old-fashioned," as one Indiana writer described him. "His hair is gray and so is his mustache. His clothes are gray and so is his tie. He has a cigar tucked beneath the mustache and his gray fedora hat shades his gray eyes." Another observer characterized Marshall's voice as "musical, pleasant in tone, and . . . sufficient for stump-speaking out of doors, altho you wouldn't think it to hear its soft notes in conversation."

In later years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt loved to tell the story of Vice President Marshall's arrival aboard the cruiser Colorado, anchored off the Panama-Pacific Industrial Exposition, that took place in 1915 in San Francisco. As assistant secretary of the navy, FDR had designed the first vice-presidential flag, which was flown when Marshall came on board. Apparently, the vice president had not been instructed about naval etiquette. He came up the gangplank in the formal attire that the occasion required: silk hat, frock coat, gloves, and cane, and his ever-present cigar. When the band struck up the "Star Spangled Banner," the vice president "realized his predicament," shifted the cane from right hand to left, took the cigar out of his mouth, got the hat off his head and saluted. But when the first gun went off: "the whole works went two feet into the air." After the hat, gloves, cane and cigar were retrieved, Marshall tried to shake hands with the first saluting sailor he approached. "By that time," Roosevelt recalled, "the Admiral and I had sprinted across the deck and rescued the Vice President." Later at the exposition, Roosevelt and Marshall watched a motion picture that included the scene aboard the cruiser. "My God," said Marshall, "if I looked like that I will never go on board another ship as long as I live!"

Witty but Overshadowed

From these descriptions, it is not surprising that Vice President Marshall gained a reputation as a rustic provincial. He also won notice for his folksy stories and down-home wit. In those days the Capitol guides escorted visitors through the corridor behind the Senate chamber. Whenever the vice president left the door to his office open, he could hear the guides pointing him out as if he were a curiosity. One day he went to the door and said, "If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me." Seeking more space and more privacy, Marshall requested and received an office in the recently opened Senate Office Building, where he could "put his feet on the desk and smoke."

Compared with the president, or even the Speaker of the House, Vice President Marshall could boast few perquisites of office. He had to share his small quarters in the Capitol with a secretary and stenographer. His $12,000 annual salary compared poorly with the president's $75,000 stipend, and he lacked travel and housing allowances. Awarded an automobile and a $1,000-per-year chauffeur, Marshall had to finance auto repairs from his personal resources. Each of the recent vice presidents had accepted from the Senate a solid silver inkstand as a memento of their office, but Vice President James Sherman had declined the honor, leaving Marshall to wrestle with the inevitable questions of propriety.

Serving under a vigorous and innovative president, Marshall had difficulty determining his own role. Woodrow Wilson broke tradition in April 1913 by personally coming to the Capitol to address a joint session one day and the next by visiting the President's Room outside the Senate chamber to lobby senators in support of his tariff proposals. It was clear that the president intended to be his own lobbyist on Capitol Hill and had no particular use for his vice president. Marshall quickly ascertained that he was "of no importance to the administration beyond the duty of being loyal to it and ready, at any time, to act as a sort of pinch hitter; that is, when everybody else on the team had failed, I was to be given a chance." Marshall was probably also aware of Wilson's belittling comments about the vice-presidency in his 1885 book Congressional Government. The position, Wilson the scholar of government declared, "is one of anomalous insignificance and curious uncertainty," whose chief importance "consists in the fact that he may cease to be Vice President."

Although both men had served as Democratic governors and both were Calvinist Presbyterians, Wilson and Marshall in fact had little in common. Marshall had considered himself a progressive governor of his state, but the president and his closest advisers looked upon him as a conservative. The White House rarely consulted him, and many months often elapsed between meetings of the president and vice president. Marshall loyally supported Wilson's program but was by nature too iconoclastic to embrace wholeheartedly Wilson's idealism. For instance, the vice president never reconciled himself to child labor laws or woman suffrage. Certainly Marshall lacked Wilson's imagination and determination, two qualities that the vice president admired greatly in his chief executive. "Whether you may like Woodrow Wilson, or not, is beside the point," Marshall wrote, "this one thing you will be compelled to accord him: he had ideas and he had the courage to express them. He desired things done, and he had the nerve to insist on their being done."

Even in the Senate, Marshall was overshadowed by his two fellow Indianans, both progressive Democrats. Indiana's senior senator was Benjamin Shively, whom Marshall described as "one of the finest specimens of physical manhood in the Senate—tall, commanding, of striking appearance, and his brain was as large as his body." Shively was also "a great orator, and a great logician, and when he spoke his words commanded careful consideration." The junior senator from Indiana was John Worth Kern, chairman of the Democratic caucus and floor leader for Wilson's New Freedom program. Kern was "strong in debate, gentle as a woman in his relations with his fellow-men, full of good ways and good works." The majority leader had "a weakness for the telling of stories, and he told them in an inimitable way."

Correspondent Louis Ludlow, who covered Washington for various Indiana newspapers, rated Marshall highly for his irrepressible wit. Marshall's funny remarks "at the expense of the Senate's dignity" had at first shocked the older and more staid senators, "but out in the cloakroom they would laugh over his sayings until their sides ached." Marshall described the Senate as "the Cave of Winds" and used humor to belittle "the idols of clay" that populated it. President Wilson apparently enjoyed hearing Marshall's stories and often repeated them at cabinet meetings and dinner parties. But Wilson's close confidant, Colonel Edward House, believed that Marshall's wit diminished his standing as a serious statesman and made him appear just a jester. "An unfriendly fairy godmother presented him with a keen sense of humor," House commented. "Nothing is more fatal in politics."

Ironically, Vice President Marshall did not deserve authorship of his most famous quip about "a good five-cent cigar." Although there are many versions of this story, the most often repeated alleges that Kansas Senator Joseph Bristow had been made a long-winded speech with the repeated refrain "What this country needs—" causing the vice president to lean over and whisper to one of the Senate clerks: "Bristow hasn't hit it yet. What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar." Newspapers repeated the quote and cigar makers gratefully showered the vice president with their products. Immortalized in every dictionary of quotations, the "five-cent cigar" quote remains just about the only thing for which Thomas R. Marshall is remembered today. But historian John E. Brown has traced the quotation back to the Indiana newspaper cartoonist Kin Hubbard, who put the words in the mouth of his popular character "Abe Martin." As a fan of the cartoon strip, Marshall simply picked up the phrase, repeated it, and became its surrogate father.

In 1916, the Democratic Convention renominated Wilson and Marshall. Wilson gave little indication whether he wanted to retain or replace Marshall. In late 1915, Arizona Senator Henry F. Ashurst had learned of a plan to "ditch" Marshall from the ticket and had called on the president to endorse Marshall for a second term, but Wilson simply replied: "I have a very high regard for Vice-President Marshall and I wish you would tell him so." When the senator pressed harder, asking if he could say that President Wilson was for Marshall's renomination, Wilson "gurgled out" a positive response. Nevertheless, Secretary of War Newton Baker had the strong impression that the president would have preferred him for a running mate. Meanwhile, Marshall had increased his income by giving numerous after-dinner talks on the lecture circuit whenever Congress was not in session and had made himself a nationally popular figure. With a difficult reelection campaign ahead, the Democrats hesitated to drop the well-liked (if not necessarily well-respected) vice president from the ticket. In November, Wilson and Marshall won a narrow victory over the Republican ticket of Charles Evans Hughes and Charles Fairbanks (also from Indiana—which went Republican in the election). Marshall became the first vice president since John C. Calhoun, almost a century earlier, to be reelected to a second term.

A Stressful Second Term

Marshall's second term proved difficult and stressful. In April 1917, the United States entered the First World War, joining the allied forces against Germany. Marshall spent much of the war speaking at rallies to sell Liberty bonds. Victory on the battlefield then thrust the United States into the negotiations to end the war and determine the future of Europe and the world. On December 4, 1918, President Wilson sailed for France to negotiate the peace treaty. Except for the few days between February 24 and March 5, 1919, Wilson remained out of the country until July, after the Treaty of Versailles had been signed. During Wilson's unprecedented long absences from the United States, he designated Vice President Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings in his place. The request startled Marshall, but he complied gamely. On December 10, 1918, he presided over the cabinet for the first time, and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels recorded in his diary that Marshall "was bright & full of jest." However, a photograph taken of him presiding showed a man trying to look resolute but appearing decidedly uncomfortable. As Louis Ludlow noted: "This was the first instance in history when a President showed an inclination to make a real use of his spare tire."

Marshall presided only briefly over the cabinet, withdrawing after a few sessions on the grounds that the vice president could not maintain a confidential relationship with both the executive and legislative branches. Still, he had established the precedent of presiding over the cabinet during the president's absence, making it particularly difficult to understand why he failed to carry out that same duty in October 1919, after Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke. Initially, Wilson's wife Edith, his personal physician Admiral Cary Grayson, and his secretary Joe Tumulty, kept the vice president, the cabinet, and the nation in the dark over the severity of Wilson's illness. Noting with understatement that the eighteen months of Wilson's illness were "not pleasant" for him, Marshall recalled that the standing joke of the country was that "the only business of the vice-president is to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of health of the president." In fact, Marshall was admittedly afraid to ask about Wilson's health, for fear that people would accuse him of "longing for his place."

Secretary of Agriculture David Houston met Marshall while lunching at the Shoreham Hotel, and recorded in his memoirs:

The Vice President was evidently much disturbed and expressed regret that he was being kept in the dark about the President's condition. He asked me if I could give him the real facts, which I was unable to do. . . . The Vice President expressed the view that he ought immediately to be informed; that it would be a tragedy for him to assume the duties of President, at best; and that it would be equally a tragedy for the people; that he knew many men who knew more about the affairs of the government than he did; and that it would be especially trying for him if he had to assume the duty without warning.

Tumulty eventually sent word to Marshall through a friendly intermediary, Baltimore Sun correspondent J. Fred Essary, that the president's condition was so grave that he might die at any time. A stunned Marshall sat absolutely speechless. "It was the first great shock of my life," he later told Essary. Still, he could not bring himself to act, or to do anything that might seem ambitious or disloyal to his president. It was Secretary of State Robert Lansing rather than Vice President Marshall who determined to call cabinet meetings in the president's absence. Without the participation of either the president or vice president, the cabinet met regularly between October 1919 and February 1920, presided over by Secretary of State Lansing, or in his absence, Secretary of the Treasury Carter Glass. When Wilson recovered sufficiently, he fired Lansing for attempting to "oust" him from office by calling these meetings. Wilson, who was never himself after his stroke, argued that these meetings held no purpose since no cabinet decisions could be made without the president. Yet Wilson himself had sanctioned the cabinet meetings over which Marshall had presided a year earlier. If nothing else, for the cabinet to hold regular meetings at least assured the American public that their government continued to function.

The Constitution declares that the vice president could assume the duties of president in case of the president's "Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office," but until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was adopted in 1967, the Constitution said absolutely nothing about how he should do it. Marshall was clearly in a difficult situation. As editor Henry L. Stoddard observed, "Wilson's resentment of Lansing's activities is proof that Vice President Marshall would have had to lay siege to the White House, had he assumed the Presidency." The eminent historian of American diplomacy Thomas A. Bailey noted that President Wilson "clung to his office, without the power to lead actively and sure-footedly, but with unimpaired power to obstruct." In his classic study of Wilson's handling of the Treaty of Versailles, Bailey speculated that if Wilson had died rather than been incapacitated by his stroke, the results would have been far more positive, and that Wilson's historical reputation would have eclipsed even Abraham Lincoln as a martyr. Had Wilson died, the Senate might well have been shamed into action on the League of Nations. "Much of the partisanship would have faded, because Wilson as a third-term threat would be gone, and Vice President Marshall, a small-bored Hoosier, was not to be feared," wrote Bailey:

Marshall of course would have been President for seventeen months. Having presided over the Senate for more than six years, and knowing the temper of that body, he probably would have recognized the need for compromise, and probably would have worked for some reconciliation of the Democratic and Republicans points of view. In these circumstances it seems altogether reasonable to suppose that the Senate would have approved the treaty with a few relatively minor reservations.

Indeed, Marshall presided over the Senate during the "long and weary months" of debate on the Treaty of Versailles. Although he stood loyally with the president, he believed that some compromise would be necessary and tried unsuccessfully to make the White House understand. "I have sometimes thought that great men are the bane of civilization," Marshall later wrote in his memoirs, in a passage about the clash between Woodrow Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: "[T]hey are the real cause of all the bitterness and contention which amounts to anything in the world. Pride of opinion and authorship, and jealousy of the opinion and authorship of others wreck many a fair hope."

Despite assurances from members of both parties in Congress that they would support him should he assert his claim to the presidency, Thomas R. Marshall never sought to fill Woodrow Wilson's place. His years in Washington had convinced him that he desired the good will of others rather than the "pomp or power" of the presidency. Rather than act as president, or even preside over cabinet meetings, Marshall contented himself with replacing Wilson as "official host" for the many visiting European royalty and other dignitaries who came to Washington to offer thanks for American assistance during the First World War. By shrinking from a distasteful duty, Marshall gave himself peace of mind but deprived the nation of whatever leadership he might have offered in trying times.

Marshall himself told the story of riding on a train behind a man and a woman who were discussing the news that President Wilson had removed Secretary of State Lansing for holding cabinet meetings. "Why what else could Mr. Lansing have done?" the woman asked. "Here the President was sick. A lot of big questions had to be talked over and there was the Vice President, who doesn't amount to anything. The only thing Mr. Lansing could do, I tell you, was to call these Cabinet meetings, and I think he did the right thing." Said Marshall, "There you have it in a nutshell. The woman was right. I don't amount to anything."

Although Thomas Marshall publicly hinted that he would accept the Democratic nomination for president in 1920, few delegates outside of Indiana cast any votes for him. Instead, Democrats nominated James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lost overwhelmingly to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Marshall left office as vice president in March 1921 and returned to Indiana. He died while visiting Washington on June 1, 1925, at age seventy-one. In 1922 President Harding had appointed him to serve on the Federal Coal Commission to settle labor troubles in the coal mines, but otherwise Marshall insisted he had retired. "I don't want to work," he said. "[But] I wouldn't mind being Vice President again."

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