On November 23, 1919, while addressing the Loyal Order of Moose in Atlanta, Vice President Thomas Marshall thought he had become president—for about ten minutes.
Easily tricked by a “false report” that President Woodrow Wilson had died—after the president had genuinely suffered a series of strokes weeks earlier—Marshall later admitted: “I dreaded the great task.” This reluctance immobilized him throughout Wilson’s infirmity. It made Marshall one of America’s worst vice presidents, which is like being ranked as the most useless desk ornament.
Marshall won the first second term as vice president in 88 years by joking about his position’s “utter uselessness and frivolity.” He often described two sons. One went to sea and drowned. The other became vice president. “Neither son was ever heard from again.” Marshall called himself “the Wilson administration's spare tire—to be used only in case of emergency.”
Sadly, when American had an emergency, Marshall lived up, or rather down, to the reputation he helped build. Woodrow Wilson’s strokes in the fall of 1919, and the cover-up by the First Lady, the presidential doctor, and a few aides, demanded action. Yet, Marshall froze—as he did onstage in Atlanta.
In fairness, this political Johnny-come-lately had one great advantage: being born in a swing state, Indiana. Thomas Riley Marshall grew up in a Civil War-haunted America. He was touched by greatness when as a four-year-old in 1858 he sat on the laps of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, during their Freeport, Illinois debate. And he was touched by violence when his family fled sadistic political opponents at least twice. Eventually, they settled in Northeast Indiana, where Marshall lived until moving to Washington as Vice President in 1913.
At Wabash College, Marshall wrote an article suggesting a female teacher flirted with some male students. When the teacher sued Marshall for libel, a prominent Indiana lawyer defended Marshall. After winning, the lawyer, Benjamin Harrison, chided his young client for being “foolish.” This began Marshall’s lifelong fascination with the law.
Marshall built a lucrative law career while dabbling in politics in Columbia City, Indiana, population 3,000. Then, in 1882, his fiancée Kate Hooper died before their wedding day.
Marshall drank his way through the next 13 years. In 1895, the 41-year-old Marshall married a 22-year-old. Lois Kimsey dried him out by locking him in their house for two weeks. Building a fairy-tale marriage, they only spent two nights apart over the next three decades.
Family money and connections insulated Marshall during his drinking years. A born-and-bred-Democrat with warm, crinkly eyes and a silver tongue, the sobered Marshall returned to politics. By 1909, he was Indiana’s governor.
In 1912, he became Woodrow Wilson’s running mate as a political payoff for Indiana’s support of Wilson during the nomination fight.
The New York Times welcomed the vice president with ritualistic naïveté, claiming: “MARSHALL TO HELP GOVERN THE COUNTRY; For First Time in Many Years Vice President Will Not be a Figurehead.”
Wilson and Marshall never clicked. A Princeton professorial hotshot, Wilson was crusading to change the country—and the world. His Fourteen Points peace plan following World War I was so ambitious that French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau sneered, “Why, God Almighty has only ten.” By contrast, Marshall was a wisecracking small-town burgher who had governed as a “progressive with the brakes on.” Marshall’s most memorable vice-presidential moment came from interrupting Senator Joseph Bristow’s grandiose, interminable, speech cataloguing “What this country needs,” again and again. Bored, Marshall blurted out the don’t-rock-the-boat lazy pol’s putdown: “What’s this country needs … is a really good five-cent cigar.”
At another time, perhaps with another boss, Marshall’s preference for wisecracking over policymaking might have made him the toast of the town. He was unthreatening enough that Wilson couldn’t drop him from the 1916 re-election effort. Marshall became the first Vice President since John C. Calhoun to be re-elected, and, ultimately, the first Veep since Daniel Tompkins in 1825 to serve two full terms. But Wilson still dismissed Marshall as a “very small-caliber man.”
Wilson’s advisers agreed. “An unfriendly fairy godmother presented him with a keen sense of humor,” Wilson’s adviser Colonel E.M. House said of Marshall. “Nothing is more fatal in politics.” True, unlike most Washington wits, “Marshall made friends, not enemies. But they looked at him as a jester.”
When Wilson was healthy, Marshall’s irrelevance was irrelevant, as he told citizens passing his White House office. “If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me.” He didn’t matter. It was Wilson’s quest for greatness that dominated D.C.
But then suddenly, on September 25, 1919, Marshall’s low standing became a big problem. President Wilson exhausted himself traveling to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, then crisscrossing the country throughout September peddling a League of Nations membership to skeptical Americans. That evening, during his 40th speech, Wilson faltered. The next day, he ended his whistle-stop tour abruptly.
On October 2, a severe stroke incapacitated Wilson, depriving Americans of their president as they transitioned from war to peace.
Modern historians enjoy saluting Wilson’s First Lady and second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, for stepping in, and showing how effective a woman could be in this tough job. But Mrs. Wilson wielded power secretly, illegitimately, with a few others.
Fearing that the republic was skating into dangerous territory, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, among others, wanted Marshall to lead.
Marshall was as uninterested in seizing power as he was unprepared to wield it. It took more than two weeks—and more medical crises—before Wilson’s aide Joseph Tumulty sent a reporter, the Baltimore Sun’s J. Fred Essary, to brief the Vice President. Marshall listened in stunned silence. Years later he apologized to Essary: “I did not even have the courtesy to thank you for coming over and telling me. It was the first great shock of my life.”
Perhaps the second shock was realizing how sneaky the president’s cabal was. After two months of not seeing Wilson, Marshall grumbled that those with “access to him … should properly be in jail.”
Forty-seven-years before the 25th Amendment fine-tuned presidential succession, the Constitution did not specify how a vice president could take power from an incapacitated president. Joking that he “didn’t amount to anything,” Marshall was also haunted by his earliest political memories. “I could throw this country into civil war,” he told Lois, “but I won’t.”
All this made that most revealing phony phone call in American history particularly cruel. Marshall was in mid-oration in Atlanta, praising George Washington. A police officer approached an attorney sitting onstage, C.J. Haden, directing him to interrupt the Vice President. Haden told Marshall to call Washington immediately: Wilson was dead.
Marshall froze, before four-thousand eyeballs. Muttering, “I cannot believe it,” he bowed his head. Haden announced: “News has just been received from Washington that President Wilson is dead.”
Marshall finally said, “I cannot take up the burden of the great chieftain unless every patriotic man in the country helps me.” The organist played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” as audience members cried, prayed and dispersed, spreading the bad news.
When Marshall picked up the telephone in the lobby, the line was dead. Georgia Governor Hugh Dorsey tried getting Washington back on the line. The long-distance operator reported that no call had come in from Washington. Marshall had been fooled.
A special edition of the Atlanta Constitution soon confirmed that this was a “Cruel Hoax.”
Wilson and Marshall served out their term together as scheduled, with the president paralyzed by strokes and the vice president paralyzed by fear.
To historians, “if” is a four-letter-word, never to be uttered. Nevertheless, after World War II, most historians agreed that if Marshall had stepped up and made some necessary compromises regarding the League of Nations, the Senate would have ratified the Versailles treaty—and averted the international disasters that followed. The Wilson scholar Arthur Link insisted: “In a world with the United States playing a responsible active role, the possibilities of preventing the rise of Hitler were endless.”
Neither Wilson’s illness nor Marshall’s spinelessness created the diplomatic stalemate, the growing inflation, or the cultural anxieties that unnerved America in 1919. But the Wilson-Marshall leadership vacuum illustrates just how much America’s White-House-centered system needs fit, fair, far-seeing presidents.
Fortunately, 1919 showcases the Constitution’s stability too. History suggests that even while fighting ailing, incompetent, or corrupt presidents by day, we can sleep well at night, trusting that the republic is more resilient than partisans fear.
Although Marshall claimed he was Wilson’s “only Vice,” Marshall later excused himself by calling “great men”—meaning Wilson—“the bane of civilization… the real cause of all the bitterness and contention which amounts to anything in the world.” Yet as 1919 staggered into 1920, as America endured strikes, race riots, Red Scare demagoguery, mass deportations of immigrants, the country clearly needed more than a “five-cent cigar”—or a mediocre vice president cowering behind wisecracks.
Some “great men”—or worse, those who think themselves great—can do great damage; but good people who dodge great challenges can cause great harm too.
For Further Reading:
David J. Bennett, He Almost Changed the World: The Life and Times of Thomas Riley Marshall (2007)
A. Scott Berg, Wilson (2013)
David Glaser, Robert Lansing: A Study in Statecraft (2015)
Jeffrey Graf, “What This Country Needs is a Really Good Five-Cent Cigar,” Indiana University Libraries (2018)
Thomas R. Marshall, Recollections of Thomas R. Marshall: A Hoosier Salad (1925)
“False Report of Death of the President Halts Address by Marshall,” Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1919, p. 1.
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University. The author of ten books on presidential history, his latest works include The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, and editing the updated version of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel, History of American Presidential Elections.