Last modified on May 18, 2023, at 15:19

Joseph T. Robinson

Joseph Taylor “Joe T.” Robinson

In office
March 10, 1913 – July 14, 1937
Preceded by William M. Kavanaugh
Succeeded by John E. Miller

In office
March 4, 1933 – July 14, 1937
Preceded by James Eli Watson
Succeeded by Alben W. Barkley

In office
December 3, 1923 – March 4, 1933
Preceded by Oscar Underwood
Succeeded by Charles McNary

Chairman of the
Senate Democratic Caucus
Assumed office 
December 3, 1923
Preceded by Gilbert Hitchcock (acting)
Succeeded by Alben W. Barkley

In office
January 16, 1913 – March 8, 1913
Preceded by George Washington Donaghey
Succeeded by William Kavanaugh Oldham (acting)

U.S. Representative for Arkansas's former 6th Congressional District
In office
March 4, 1903 – January 14, 1913
Preceded by Stephen Brundidge, Jr.
Succeeded by Samuel M. Taylor

Born August 26, 1872
Lonoke, Arkansas
Died July 14, 1937 (aged 64)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) Ewilda Gertrude "Billie" Miller Robinson
Children No children

James Madison and Matilda Jane Swaim Robinson

Alma mater University of Arkansas (Fayetteville)

University of Virginia (Charlottesville)

Religion Methodist[1]

Joseph Taylor Robinson (August 26, 1872 – July 14, 1937), known as Joe T. Robinson, was a Democrat politician and attorney from his native state of Arkansas who served only fifty-five days as the 23rd governor of his state, a post that he relinquished to become a United States Senator from 1913 to 1937.

He was named the Senate Majority Leader in 1933 and had earlier been his party's unsuccessful vice presidential nominee in 1928 on the ticket headed by Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. The Democrats were defeated that year in a large margin by the Republican Hoover/Curtis ticket.


Robinson was born in Lonoke in central Arkansas, to the former Matilda Jane Swaim (1832–1899), a Tennessee native, and James Madison Robinson (1816–1892), a physician, farmer, and lay preacher originally from New York. Young Robinson chopped cotton and worked in his father's apple orchard. He taught first grade for two years before he spent a year studying at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville but dropped out upon his father's death. Back in Lonoke, he studied law with Thomas Clark Trimble, III (1878–1965), later a federal judge. He also attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, after which he was admitted to the bar. He married the former Ewilda Gertrude "Billie" Miller; the couple had no children.[2][3]


In 1894, at the age of twenty-two, Robinson was elected to the Arkansas legislature and served one term. In 1902, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives for the since abolished 6th congressional district and was re-elected to four subsequent terms ending in 1913. In 1912, Robinson was elected governor, in which capacity over a few weeks he advocated funding to complete the new state capitol building in Little Rock, to establish a labor statistics board, to create the state highway commission, and adopt the official state flag. He left the governorship to succeed U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis, who had died on January 3, after the legislature had re-elected him to a new term beginning on March 4, 1913.[4]

A progressive, Robinson was a staunch supporter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He was the chairman of the 1920 Democratic National Convention, which nominated the losing James M. Cox-Franklin D. Roosevelt ticket, defeated by Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.[5] In 1923, Robinson's colleagues named him the Senate Minority Leader. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination as a "favorite son" candidate in 1924 but lost out to John William Davis (1873–1955), a corporation attorney from West Virginia, who subsequently voted against Franklin Roosevelt.

When the Democrats took control of the Senate in 1933 with the election of Franklin Roosevelt as President Robinson was named Senate Majority Leader, in which capacity he helped to pass much of the New Deal agenda. He was the last U.S. Senator elected by a state legislature rather than by direct popular vote, mandated by the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which took effect on April 8, 1913.

In the Senate

From the outset, Robinson delivered well-crafted speeches and mastered the complicated rules and practices of the Senate. He arrived at the Senate early, left late, and studied legislation in his Washington, D.C., apartment. He championed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act and the regulation of railroads and other industries. He led the Senate to arm merchant ships and voted to declare war on Germany. He also led the unsuccessful effort in the Senate to ratify the failed Treaty of Versailles of 1919.[3]

Robinson gained influence in the Senate and later was the chairman of the 1920 Democratic National Convention. Robinson was re-elected to the Senate in 1918, 1924, 1930, and 1936. In 1923, the Senate Democratic floor leader, Oscar Wilder Underwood (1862–1929) of Alabama, resigned because of illness.[5] Senior Democratic Senator Furnifold McLendel Simmons (1854–1940) of North Carolina was expected to succeed Underwood but withdrew from consideration after Robinson challenged him.[5] By unanimous acclamation, Robinson became the Democratic leader, a position he would hold until his death in 1937.[5]

As minority leader, Robinson took over the distribution of patronage appointments and reformed the committee assignment process, decreeing that no senator could chair or be the ranking member of 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.[5] Known as a "horse trader," he worked quietly to reach compromises with the three Republican presidents of the 1920s.[5]

National forefront, party leadership

Robinson had presidential aspirations of his own. In 1924, he was a "favorite son" contender for the Democratic nomination. He carried the backing of the southern conservative members of his party.[5] That year, however, an incident on a golf course overshadowed his presidential bid. At the Chevy Chase Country Club in Maryland, a surgeon asked Robinson to permit him to move ahead of the slow-moving foursome that Robinson was playing. After a few angry words, he knocked the doctor to the ground. The club expelled Robinson from its membership, and the press began referring to him as the "pugilist" senator.[5]

Robinson was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1928, as the running mate of the Roman Catholic Alfred E. Smith. Early in 1928, Robinson clashed with Senator James Thomas Heflin (1869–1951), a Democrat from Alabama, who frequently inserted anti-Catholic sentiments into his speeches. Robinson admonished his views, stating that religious affiliation had no bearing on a person's credentials for higher office.[5] On one famous occasion, he declared,[5]

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,[5]

The Senator from Arkansas cannot 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 compelled the senators by a near unanimous vote to pledge their continued support to him.[5]

Though Smith lost to Republican Herbert Hoover, 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 minority leader, but his cooperative relationship with Hoover riled the members of his party. They understood that no other senator possessed Robinson's perseverance and influence.[5]

Robinson became Senate Majority Leader by a unanimous vote in 1933 when the Democrats gained a large majority. He was the first Democrat to serve as the formally designated Majority Leader. He took his duties seriously, having refused to delegate his numerous responsibilities to other senators.[5] Some Senators resented his autocratic style. In debate he often grew red in the face, pounded his desk, and stomped his feet.[6]

Anti-Lynching Legislation

Major legislation:



In 1935, liberal Democratic senators Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert F. Wagner of New York, being part of the minority faction of the congressional New Deal Coalition which supported civil rights, introduced an anti-lynching bill, the Costigan–Wagner Act.[7] When the Senate was deadlocked over the bill as Southern Democrats fought tooth and nail to defeat it, a motion was made to adjourn, which Robinson joined fellow racist Southerners and some Northern Democrats in voting for.[8]

The Costigan-Wagner Act was ultimately defeated, and later anti-lynching legislation such as the Gavagan-Wagner Act and Gavagan-Fish Act also proved unable to pass the U.S. Senate due to filibusters by the Southern bloc.


Richard L. Riedel, a Senate press gallery attendant in the 1920s and 1930s, recalled:[9]

When [Robinson] would go into one of his rages, it took little imagination to see fire and smoke rolling out of his mouth like some fierce dragon. Even when he kidded me, he spoke in loud gasps while puffing his cigar. Robinson could make Senators and everyone in his presence quake by the burning fire of his eyes, the baring of his teeth as he ground out the words, and the clenching of his mighty fists as he beat on the desk before him.

"Scrappy Joe," as the press called him, nearly came to blows with Senate colleagues Robert Marion LaFollette, Sr., of Wisconsin, Porter James McCumber (1858–1933) of North Dakota, James Thomas Heflin (1869–1951) of Alabama, and Huey Pierce Long, Jr., of Louisiana. When Robinson opposed Long's Share Our Wealth proposals, the Louisiana demagogue accused him of being a stooge for big business interests.[10] Robinson several times would have assaulted Long had it not been for him being restrained by colleagues on the Senate floor.

Once the United States entered World War I, Robinson denounced his colleagues who opposed the war effort. After La Follette opposed it, Robinson questioned his patriotism on the Senate floor and La Follette had to be restrained in a near brawl with Robinson.[5] He also punched in the face a guard who questioned his credentials at the 1920 Democratic convention held in San Francisco, California.[5] Despite this temper, he still managed to court strong friendships across party lines.[11]

Court-packing proposal

In 1937, Robinson supported Roosevelt's "Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937," also known as the Court Reorganization Act, the infamous court-packing scheme.[5] The plan would have permitted up to fifteen justices, one for each over the age of seventy who did not retire. It has been speculated that Roosevelt promised Robinson the next appointment to the high court, but Robinson's death made such a promise moot.[12] Robinson pushed strongly for the court-packing plan, but it was killed by the bipartisan Conservative Coalition.[5]

The strain of this fight over the court caused Robinson's friends to worry about his health.[5][13] U.S. President Joe Biden in early April 2021 appointed a commission to study bringing back FDR's court-packing plan.[14]

On July 14, 1937, Robinson's housekeeper found his body lying face down on the floor of his apartment in the United Methodist building. Death came from heart failure. Two days after Robinson's sudden death, his funeral was held in the Senate chamber. Thousands of mourners came to the Arkansas capitol, where Robinson lay in state.[5]


He and Ewilda are interred at Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock.[4]

Robinson’s portrait hangs outside the Senate’s South Entrance. His home in Little Rock, the Joseph Taylor Robinson House, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994. He is the namesake of the Arkansas National Guard's Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, and several schools in northwestern Little Rock bear his name.


  1. Robinson, J.. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved August 25, 2021.
  2. Joseph Taylor Robinson. Retrieved on February 24, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Joseph Taylor Robinson (1872–1937). Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Retrieved on February 24, 2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Joseph T. Robinson. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress. Retrieved on February 24, 2021.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 U.S. Senate: Art & History Home > Senate Leaders. United States Senate. Retrieved on February 24, 2021.
  6. Donald C. Bacon, "Joseph Taylor Robinson, The Good Soldier," in First Among Equals: Outstanding Senate leaders of the 20th century, Congressional Quarterly, Inc., p. 64.
  7. Simkin, John. Costigan-Wagner Act. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved August 25, 2021.
  9. Richard L. Riedel, Halls of the Mighty: My 47 Years in the Senate, (Washington and New York: Robert B. Luce Publishers, 1969), p. 142.
  10. Simkin, John. Joseph T. Robinson. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved August 25, 2021.
  11. Bacon, 65, 68.
  12. Noah Feldman (2010). Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices. Hachette Business Portal. 
  13. Sen. Joseph T. Robinson dies at age 64. (July 14, 1937). Retrieved on February 24, 2021.
  14. Bernstein, Brittany (April 9, 2021). Biden to Form Commission to Study Packing the Supreme Court. National Review. Retrieved August 25, 2021.