314: Thomas R. Marshall, VP, 1913-21: Contributed to the rise of Hitler?
Thomas Riley Marshall (March 14, 1854 – June 1, 1925) was an AmericanDemocratic politician who served as the 28th Vice President of the United States (1913–1921) under Woodrow Wilson. A prominent lawyer in Indiana, he became an active and well known member of the Indiana Democratic Party bystumping across the state for other candidates and organizing party rallies that later helped him win election as the 27th Governor of Indiana. In office, he proposed a controversial and progressive state constitution and pressed for other progressive era reforms. The Republican minority used the state courts to block the attempt to change the constitution.
His popularity as governor, and Indiana’s status as a critical swing state, helped him secure the Democratic vice presidential nomination on a ticket with Wilson in 1912 and win the subsequent general election. An ideological rift developed between the two men during their first term, leading Wilson to limit Marshall’s influence in the administration, and his brand of humor caused Wilson to move Marshall’s office away from the White House. During Marshall’s second term he delivered morale-boosting speeches across the nation during World War I and became the first vice president to hold cabinet meetings, which he did while Wilson was in Europe. While he was president in the United States Senate, a small number of anti-war senators kept it deadlocked by refusing to end debate. To enable critical wartime legislation to be passed, Marshall had the body adopt its first procedural rule allowing filibusters to be ended by a two-thirds majority vote—a variation of this rule remains in effect.
Marshall’s vice presidency is most remembered for a leadership crisis following a stroke that incapacitated Wilson in October 1919. Because of their personal dislike for him, Wilson’s advisers and wife sought to keep Marshall uninformed about the president’s condition to prevent him from easily assuming the presidency. Many people, including cabinet officials and Congressional leaders, urged Marshall to become acting president, but he refused to forcibly assume the presidency for fear of setting a precedent. Without strong leadership in the executive branch, the administration’s opponents defeated the ratification of theLeague of Nations treaty and effectively returned the United States to anisolationist foreign policy.
The situation that arose after the incapacity of President Wilson, for which Marshall’s vice-presidency is most remembered, revived the national debate on the process of presidential succession. The topic was already being discussed when Wilson left for Europe, which influenced him to allow Marshall to conduct cabinet meetings in his absence. Wilson’s incapacity during 1919 and the lack of action by Marshall made it a major issue. The constitutional flaws in the process of presidential succession had been known since the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, but little progress had been made passing a constitutional amendment to remedy the problem. Nearly fifty years later, the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, allowing the vice president to assume the presidency any time the president was rendered incapable of carrying out the duties of the office.
Historians have varied interpretations of Marshall’s vice presidency. Claire Suddath rated Marshall as one of the worst vice presidents in American history in a 2008 Time Magazine article. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that had Marshall carried out his constitutional duties, assumed the presidency, and made the concessions necessary for the passage of the League of Nations treaty in late 1920, the United States would have been much more involved in European affairs and could have helped prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler, which began in the following year. Morison and a number of other historians claim that Marshall’s decision was an indirect cause of the Second World War. Charles Thomas, one of Marshall’s biographers, wrote that although Marshall’s assumption of the presidency would have made World War II much less likely, modern hypothetical speculation on the subject was unfair to Marshall, who made the correct decision in not forcibly removing Wilson from office, even temporarily.