Thomas R. Marshall was vice president of the United States (1913-1921) and governor of Indiana (1909-1913). He was born on March 14, 1854, in North Manchester, Indiana, the only child of Martha Patterson Marshall and Daniel M. Marshall, a physician. Because of his mother’s poor health, the family moved to Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri in 1856-1860 before settling in Pierceton, Indiana. Young Thomas attended school in nearby Warsaw and Fort Wayne, and then studied classics at Wabash College (Crawfordsville, Indiana), graduating in 1873. He read law in Fort Wayne under Judge Walter Olds and was admitted to the state bar on his 21st birthday. For the next 30 years, he was a small-town lawyer based in Columbia City, Indiana. He lived with his mother until her death, and soon afterward married Lois Irene Kimsey in 1895. For years he was a heavy drinker until giving up alcohol in 1898 and becoming a spokesman for temperance.
Marshall followed family tradition and joined the Democratic Party, first becoming active during his college years. In 1876, he was selected as secretary for the Democratic County Convention and campaigned for many candidates. In 1880, he lost a race for prosecuting attorney, and for a long time thereafter resisted requests that he run for office. When approached to seek a congressional seat in 1906, he declined, but made known his interest in the governorship. The next year, his political friends organized his campaign for the gubernatorial nomination, but his initial support at the 1908 state convention was limited to delegates from northern Indiana. However, when the two major candidates deadlocked, state Democratic boss Thomas Taggart threw his support to Marshall, who was nominated on the fifth ballot. Marshall campaigned throughout the state, later claiming to have delivered the same speech 169 times. He rejected state party funding and, instead, took out loans to finance the campaign. The main issue was temperance, and he supported township option against the recent state law granting county option. Marshall was elected by almost 15,000 votes out of 712,000, becoming the first Democrat to win the office since 1896.
As governor, Marshall achieved a moderate record of progressive-type reforms, including business regulation, employers’ liability, and limits on child labor. He introduced a bipartisan, professional audit of government bookkeeping, and his preference for township option on alcohol sales replaced the county option. He and his advisors rewrote the state constitution to allow more seats in the lower house and on the state supreme court as well as an easier amendment process. The legislature followed his directive by sending the proposed constitution to the voters, but the courts ruled that a public referendum violated the amendment requirements of the current constitution. Although the “Marshall Constitution” was not implemented, it gave the governor a reputation for bold leadership.
In 1912, Marshall was the favorite-son presidential candidate of the Indiana delegation to the Democratic National Convention. He hoped the leading candidates would block each other so that delegates would turn to him as a compromise, repeating how he had become governor. Instead, state party boss Thomas Taggart, who had considerable influence as a former national party chairman (1904-1908), made a deal with Woodrow Wilson’s campaign manager, William McCombs, to shift Indiana’s votes to the New Jersey governor in return for nominating Marshall for vice president. Wilson was not aware of the plan and considered his fellow governor “a very small caliber man,” but the political importance of having someone from the Midwestern swing state on the ticket was paramount. Marshall was inclined to reject the offer, but accepted it at his wife’s urging. He campaigned in New England and the Midwest, causing a stir when one speech called for such deep cuts in tariffs that party leaders initially feared they would lose Louisiana, which relied on sugar tariffs. However, with the Republican Party divided in 1912, the Wilson-Marshall ticket won that state and the national election with an Electoral College majority of 435 to Theodore Roosevelt’s 88 and William Howard Taft’s 8. The Democrats’ popular vote was only a plurality of 42% to Roosevelt’s 27%, Taft’s 23%, and Socialist Eugene Debs’s 6%.
Marshall felt out of place in Washington and lacked confidence in his new role as vice president. When the press reported his controversial statements about issues, he soon learned to be reticent. He stopped attending Cabinet meetings after the first, never became a close advisor to President Wilson, and developed a low regard for the vice presidency. Having never been a legislator, he had to learn parliamentary procedure as presiding officer of the U.S. Senate, but quickly realized that senators did not want firm direction. Known for his wit, Marshall chided the Senate as “the Cave of Winds” and famously observed, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar” (a line he took from a comic strip, “Abe Martin”). His humorous stories were often repeated, but may have distracted from him being taken seriously as a politician. He had become popular nationally, though, and was kept on the Democratic ticket in 1916. Wilson and Marshall were reelected by defeating the Republican ticket of Charles Evans Hughes and Charles Fairbanks, 277-254 in the Electoral College and 49%-46% in the popular vote.
During his first term, Marshall had promoted American neutrality in World War I even more strenuously than President Wilson had. However, when the United States entered the war in 1917, the vice president worked diligently for the cause by speaking on behalf of Liberty bonds and helping to entertain foreign dignitaries. Against his instincts, Marshall followed Wilson’s advice to deliver hard-hitting partisan speeches during the 1918 congressional campaign, rather than calling for national harmony. The president’s strategy failed, and Republicans gained a two-seat majority in the Senate. With Wilson attending the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war (December 1918-July 1919), Marshall presided over cabinet meetings without engaging in the discussions.
When Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1919, the president’s wife, physician, and secretary did not inform the vice president and others how severely ill the president was. Marshall finally learned through a third party that Wilson might die. During that stressful time, the vice president was told he would have bipartisan congressional support to assume the presidential powers, but he refused even to lead Cabinet meetings. That task was performed by Secretary of State Robert Lansing, which may have reassured the public, but so angered Wilson when he recovered sufficiently to resume his duties that the president fired Lansing. Marshall did act as official host to foreign officials in Wilson’s absence and loyally supported the president’s insistence on Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles without reservations, even though the vice president likely favored them. Ratification failed, and the United States did not become a member of the new League of Nations.
Marshall expressed interest in the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination, but withdrew when he was unable to attract sufficient support outside of his home state of Indiana. Upon leaving office in March 1921, he practiced law in Indianapolis and supplemented his income by delivering speeches and writing syndicated newspaper commentaries. In 1922, Republican President Warren G. Harding appointed him to the Federal Coal Commission. Marshall died on June 1, 1925 in Washington, D.C., while on commission business.
Sources consulted: American National Biography (online); Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (online).