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Robinson, Joseph


Joseph Taylor ("Joe T") Robinson (1872–1937) was the Democratic leader of the Senate from 1922 to 1937 (the majority leader from 1933 to 1937) and in 1928 was the Democratic candidate for vice president on the unsuccessful ticket headed by Al Smith.

Born August 26, 1872, in rural Lonoke County, Arkansas, Robinson, the ninth child of farmer and doctor James Madison Robinson and Matilda Swaim Robinson, attended the local elementary and secondary schools, one semester at the University of Arkansas and a summer law program at the University of Virginia. He became a successful lawyer after only a few months of study, partnering with local Democratic Party leader Tom Trimble.

In 1896 Robinson began a long, successful political career. Serving as a Democratic presidential elector, he gave up his position to form a fusion ticket for William Jennings Bryan with the Populist Party; in 1900 he received the same position, presidential elector. Two years later he won a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he supported progressive legislation during his five terms. In 1912 he won the governorship of Arkansas, but before he was inaugurated, Arkansas Senator Jeff Davis died suddenly, throwing the state's politics into turmoil. Days later, the legislature elected Robinson to fill the Senate vacancy.

In the Senate Robinson became a national figure. His staunch defense of President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace treaty led Democrats to choose him to be chair of the 1920 party convention, a position he held again in 1928 and 1936. Just three years later he became minority leader of the Senate, leading Arkansans to back him in his failed bid for president in 1924. In 1928 Al Smith chose Robinson for the Democratic vice-presidential slot because of his fierce stand against religious bigotry. And in 1932 he delivered enough Democratic votes to pass Herbert Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation; Hoover then named Robinson's friend, Harvey Couch, to the board.

After the 1932 election, Robinson became majority leader; in that capacity he guided much of the New Deal legislation through the Senate. In one instance, on March 8, 1933, the day before Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the Emergency Banking Act, Robinson shocked presidential advisers when he promised that the "bill will be passed tomorrow" (Weller, Jr., 1998, p. 137). Less than eight hours after its introduction, the measure passed the Senate. Robinson had only two major failures during the New Deal. In the first, he lost the battle for U.S. membership in the World Court, 52 to 36, seven votes short of the necessary two-thirds needed for victory. The Supreme Court "packing" plan was an even greater disappointment. Roosevelt promised Robinson that when the court-packing bill passed, he would appoint him to the Supreme Court. After bitter wrangling in the Senate, Robinson believed that he had enough votes to pass the bill in July 1937. But in the sweltering summer heat of Washington, Robinson pushed himself beyond his limits in fighting for the measure. On July 14, 1937, Robinson's death from a heart attack also killed the court-packing plan.



Alsop, Joseph, and Turner Catledge. "Joe Robinson, the New Deal's Old Reliable." Saturday Evening Post (September 26, 1936): 5–7, 66–74.

Neal, Nevin Emil. "A Biography of Joseph Taylor Robinson." Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1958.

Weller, Cecil E., Jr. Joe T. Robinson: Always a Loyal Democrat. 1998.

Weller, Cecil E., Jr. "Joseph Taylor Robinson: Keystone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Supreme Court 'Packing' Plan." Southern Historian 7 (1986): 23–30.

Cecil E. Weller, Jr.

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