AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
The United States currently has the oldest sitting president ever to hold office—and it is natural that the situation has raised questions about Joe Biden’s faculties, and what would occur should he ever be unable to execute his duties. Today, we have a Constitutional amendment that spells out exactly the proper procedures for that scenario—but half a century before that amendment was passed, America’s leaders faced the confounding prospect of an incapacitated president—and a vice president who might have taken over, but did not. It is one of the great forgotten Washington dramas in our nation’s history.
The surname “Marshall” is a distinguished one in the United States, with at least three memorable figures – a key early Supreme Court chief justice (John Marshall), an important civil rights lawyer who became an associate Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall), and of course, arguably the nation’s greatest career soldier (General George C. Marshall).
But there was another Marshall, a vice president of the United States, who if he had held office today would have become president—and might have changed the entire history of the 20th century.
Thomas Marshall was born in Indiana in 1854. He was a top student in school, and eventually chose to become a lawyer. A lifelong Democrat, he ran for the office of local prosecutor, but lost narrowly. He nonetheless remained active in the Indiana Democratic Party, and in 1908 was elected governor. Limited to one term, he considered running for the U.S. Senate in 1912, but in a deal securing the Indiana delegation’s support for Woodrow Wilson at the 1912 Democratic national convention, he was chosen to be Wilson’s running mate.
That year, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, disenchanted with his own chosen successor, President William Howard Taft, formed his own “Bull Moose” third party, and divided the Republican vote, thus insuring the election of the Wilson-Marshall ticket in November.
Wilson and Marshall did not ever get along, although the Vice President played an active role as president of the Senate during the contentious debate over America’s entry into World War I. In 1917, Marshall led the effort to limit for the first time the use of the filibuster.
Despite his misgivings about Marshall, Wilson decided to promote party unity in 1918, and kept Marshall on the ticket. (Indeed, it turned out to be one of the closest presidential races ever with Wilson-Marshall winning the popular vote narrowly and the electoral vote 277-254. In a preview of the 1948 Truman-Dewey contest, Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes went to bed on election night believing he had been elected president, only to learn the next morning, as did Dewey, that he had lost when the results came in from California.)
When Wilson went to France in 1919 to sign the Versailles treaty and to promote his proposal of a League of Nations, he asked Marshall to lead cabinet meetings while he was away, making Marshall the first vice president to do so.
Soon after returning to the U.S., Wilson suffered two strokes, incapacitating him. But Wilson’s wife Edith conspired with a few close advisors to keep the President’s condition a secret from the public, and to prevent Marshall from becoming the acting president.
Marshall was a supporter of the League of Nations, but as anti-League senators feared, was known to favor compromises to the hard-line policy of President Wilson.
Secretary of State Robert Lansing and several members of Congress urged Marshall to become acting president, but the Vice President refused, not wanting to set a controversial precedent. He said he would do so if the White House issued an official statement of Wilson’s incapacity or if both houses of Congress passed resolutions asking him to become acting president. Mrs. Wilson made sure the former did not occur, and anti-League of Nations senators (fearing Marshall would agree to compromises that would enable the U.S. to join the League) blocked the latter. Wilson would not, or could not, allow compromises—so the U.S. did not become a member of the League of Nations.
Historians speculate that had Marshall ascended to the highest office, the U.S would have joined the League, and thus would have continued to be a major influence in Europe in the 1920-33 period. This probably would have averted the successful rise of Hitler and Nazism. For this reason, some historians even blame Marshall for World War II!
Other historians contend that, considering Edith Wilson’s presumptive conduct, Marshall did the right thing.
Throughout 1920, Edith Wilson ran the White House in one of the most bizarre stories in American history. Thomas Marshall remained essentially a bystander.
Yet the man who coined the phrase ‘What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar!” in 1913, apparently did not think it needed him in 1919.
It remains one of the great what-might-have-beens in our political history.