' Skip To Content
Woodrow Wilson | Article

Thomas Marshall

Thomas Marshall. No date. Courtesy: Library of Congress

A cheerful, self-deprecating politician from Indiana, Thomas Marshall served dutifully as Woodrow Wilson's vice president. Remarking on his limited role, Marshall famously said, "I was the Wilson administration's spare tire - to be used only in case of emergency."

 Marshall was born in Indiana in 1854 and raised in a family of Democrats. As he liked to put it, "Democrats, like poets, are born, not made." Admitted to the Ohio bar in 1875 after graduating from Wabash College, Marshall was past forty when he married Lois Kimsey. Despite a history of political activism, he did not hold elective office until he was asked to run for Congress from Indiana. Instead, he confessed an interest in being governor. A genial, self-effacing man with a dry sense of humor, Marshall insisted that his nomination -- and ultimately, his election -- to that office in 1908 was the result of the "inability of the leading candidates to obtain a majority of the votes at the convention."

Marshall was an effective governor, pushing through labor reform and other progressive legislation, yet he had no taste for confrontation. When a hostile state supreme court blocked his efforts to secure a much-needed new state constitution, Marshall let the court's veto stand rather than go on the attack.

Marshall was among the field of hopefuls nominated for president at the 1912 Democratic Convention. When Woodrow Wilson won the party's nomination, convention delegates chose the genial, low-key Marshall to be his running mate since Indiana was considered a pivotal election state. Four years later Marshall was re-elected, becoming the first vice president in nearly a century to succeed himself. A master of Senate rules, he presided with grace and tact, offered his opinions prudently, and was careful not to exceed his constitutional and legal powers.

Marshall's wit — especially the jokes he made about his office -- made him a popular vice president. He quipped, "Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again." He is perhaps best remembered for an off-handed remark he made while presiding over a Senate debate. Listening to a long-winded Kansas senator hold forth on America's needs, Marshall turned to a clerk. "What this country needs," he said, "is a good five-cent cigar."

Although the vice president's duties were largely ceremonial, the president did ask Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings while Wilson attended the post-war peace conference in Europe. When a stroke left Wilson incapacitated, Marshall was at first kept in the dark about the seriousness of the president's condition. When the Wilson Presidency ended in 1921, Marshall went home to Indianapolis where he wrote and returned to the practice of law. Asked about his plans for the future, Marshall quipped, "I don't want to work. I don't propose to work. I wouldn't mind being Vice President again." He died in 1925 while on a visit to Washington, D.C.

Support Provided by: Learn More