When we think of the most powerful Senate Majority Leaders in U.S. history, we tend to think of people like Lyndon Johnson, Robert Taft, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, or even modern Senators like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid.
Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, however, has largely been forgotten about.
Almost immediately after being inaugurated as Governor of Arkansas in January 1913, Robinson was elected by the state legislature to the Senate after incumbent Jeff Davis died suddenly (in the process, Robinson became the last Senator elected through the state legislature before the 17th Amendment mandating direct elections went into effect). Despite only being in the governor’s mansion for 55 days, he managed to push through reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, while setting up health, banking and highway boards.
One of the sayings in the Senate is that you can be show-pony (someone who only cares about press coverage and building a national profile in preparation for a Presidential run) or a work-horse (someone who keeps his/her head down and tries to get as much legislation passed as possible). Once he got to the Senate, Robinson became a bit of both, working until all hours on legislation and study while using his speech-making skills to both advance his cause and expand his reputation.
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.Richard L. Riedel, Halls of the Mighty: My 47 Years at the Senate. (1969) via Wikipedia
Robinson was also building his behind-the-scenes power and establishing himself as one of the most influential Senators on the Hill. When it came time to select a floor leader, the Democratic Party turned to minister’s son from Arkansas, picking him as Minority Leader in 1923 and then Majority Leader ten years later after Franklin D. Roosevelt led a Democratic landslide to both houses of Congress. During that time, he also served as Democratic Presidential nominee Al Smith’s running mate in 1928, losing the election to Herbert Hoover.
Back then, the Majority Leader’s job was fairly weak and undefined, granting little more than right of first recognition by the presiding officer. The Minority Leader’s job was even weaker. From the time Robinson first became his party’s floor leader, he turned the perch into a powerful one, using the full force of his personality to bring his caucus into line. As Minority Leader, he took over patronage assignments and instituted a rule that no Democrat could be chair or ranking member of more than one major committee (a rule that exists in both parties today).
As Majority Leader, he became FDR’s top lieutenant and ensured that the New Deal passed the Senate as quickly and as painlessly as possible. “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore,” humorist Will Rogers noted. “They just wave at the bills as they go by.” It wasn’t quite as bad as this, but Robinson was quite the traffic cop. For instance, the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 passed both houses in seven hours – Senators only got copies of the bill after it was formally proposed. He shepherded a veritable alphabet soup of bills through a sometimes reluctant Senate (to say nothing of his own misgivings as a conservative, some would say “reactionary,” beliefs), including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), the Homeowners Refinancing Act and the Railroad Coordination Act.
Joe Robinson is the Old Reliable at the court of the New Deal. President Roosevelt possesses a power and disposes of an annual revenue of government which would make any rajah, gaekwar or nabob green with envy under his caste marks. But he needs an Old Reliable all the same. Should an erring congressional favorite require trampling to death, Joe tramples him, and when he is finished, the favorite doesn’t know whether he is a senator or a pancake. If a piece of legislation gets stuck in the clumsy machinery of Congress, Joe butts it through into law, and if the congressional populace shows signs of developing a mind of its own, Joe trumpets it into an appropriate submissiveness again.“Joe Robinson, The New Deal’s Old Reliable,” Joseph Alsop Jr. and Turner Catledge, Saturday Evening Post, September 26, 1936.
Historian Robert Caro had a less flattering view of Robinson’s effectiveness. In Master of the Senate, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Lyndon Johnson’s Senate career, Caro argued that Robinson’s powers derived from his subservience to the White House – even when Republicans were in power. Robinson helped Calvin Coolidge push through several bills and, under Herbert Hoover, killed or watered down bills designed to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression – in one case, taking Hoover’s side and attacking a farm bill as “socialistic” even though the vast majority of the Senators in his own caucus, as well as progressive Republicans looking for a more interventionist approach to dealing with the financial crisis, backed it. “He has given more aid to Herbert Hoover than any other Democrat,” Robinson’s old ticket-mate Al Smith declared.
Indeed, even FDR liked to brag about how he brought Robinson to heel. According to Jeff Shesol’s Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, Roosevelt, in response to an assertion that the Democratic Party could never be a liberal party due to the South, claimed that one of the things he was most proudest of was that he made conservative Senators like Robinson “swallow me hook, line and sinker.” Shesol also noted that FDR kept Robinson on the line by dangling over his head the one thing he wanted more than anything else: a seat on the Supreme Court. “[F]or all his voluability, for all his coarseness and his skill at the tactile arts of horse-trading and brow-beating, Robinson had yearned for the quiet dignity of the black robe,” Shesol wrote. “Thus, Roosevelt’s promise had sustained him through the difficult, and at times, humiliating work of carrying – on his “stableboy’s shoulders,” in Time’s phrase – the New Deal to passage.”
In fact, it was this obsession with the Court that set up Robinson’s final act. During a bitterly divisive debate over FDR’s proposed plan to add Justices to the Supreme Court in response to several decisions striking down New Deal laws as unconstitutional, Robinson put everything on the line to try and please his boss and secure his reward. The bill was controversial and threatened to split the Democratic Party. According to Shesol, in addition to ideological misgivings about the bill, many in the Democratic caucus saw it as a chance to finally stand up to FDR and his autocratic style. Unbeknownst to anyone, including himself, Robinson’s health was failing and he dropped dead of a massive heart attack in July 1937 – right as the bill was nearing passage. Any momentum the court-packing plan might have had died with him.
Perhaps the reason why Robinson has been, more or less forgotten about is because he’s been eclipsed in Arkansas history by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton and in the Majority Leadership ranks by the likes of Johnson and others. Indeed, when doing research for this piece, I only came across one book devoted, exclusively, to Robinson – and it was an honors dissertation that was published as a book.
So maybe it’s fitting that the coin that bears his portrait has also gone down in history as one of the more forgettable commemorative coins in U.S. history. As mentioned in another post, the system of minting commemorative coins to raise funds or pay for pet projects had become ripe with abuse. 1936 was, perhaps, a banner year as several coins of questionable merit found their way to the public.
In fact, Arkansas’s centennial had already been commemorated in 1935 with a specially issued silver half dollar. That coin, which featured conjoined busts of a Quapaw Indian and Lady Liberty on the obverse and a large eagle in front of a rising sun on the reverse, was well-received and sold well. As such, Arkansas saw dollar signs and decided to try and get three more coins out of the government. And why not? After all, they had the single most powerful Senator in the D.C. If anyone could get the bill through the Senate, surely Joe Robinson could.
So it was a bit curious when it wasn’t Robinson but his state’s junior Senator, Hattie Caraway, who appeared before the Senate Banking Committee during a hearing to consider a number of commemorative coin bills, including one to authorize five different designs for a Texas centennial half dollar. Or rather, her staff secretary did. Caraway was no Robinson in terms of her stature, influence or profile. Known as “Silent Hattie” because she rarely spoke on the Senate floor, Caraway made her mark behind the scenes, bringing home tons of federal funding and projects during World War II (including two Japanese internment camps) and working to pass the Equal Nationality Treaty of 1934, which gave women certain nationality rights that had, previously, only been available to men.
She was also responsible for getting the 1935 Arkansas commemorative half dollar through the Senate. As such, it made sense for her to try again – especially since Robinson had more pressing matters to attend to. “As far as Arkansas is concerned, this is an exceedingly important thing. Arkansas being a small state, we have been handicapped by lack of funds; and anything that would help increase these funds, anything that can be done legitimately, we want to take advantage of,” Garrett Whiteside, secretary to Senator Caraway, told the committee.
Ultimately, Caraway got her wish, but with strings attached. The state would only be allowed one new coin instead of the three asked for, and the new coin would share the old coin’s reverse design. When it came time to design a new obverse, the state decided to honor its favorite son – then the most powerful politician in D.C. not named “Roosevelt.” In doing so, the Robinson commemorative marked the fourth time a living person was depicted on a U.S. coin (in violation of U.S. law). The previous three were also commemoratives from this era.
Despite everything it had going for it, the Robinson coin flopped. Sales were slow and dealers were able to easily buy them in bulk for resale. Robinson’s portrait was praised by some albeit in a backhanded manner. For instance, numismatist Cornelius Vermeule called it “the very summation of the modern senator” while opining that “this businesslike apotheosis of a local hero turned what had been an artistically miserable coin into a passable aesthetic commodity.”
Retroactive reviews haven’t been kind. PCGS claimed that “no particular attention is paid to them, apart from their necessity for inclusion in either a type set or complete set of commemorative pieces.” Coin Update called it a cautionary tale of what might have been. “If the other commissions had gotten their way, it is possible that many more classic commemoratives would have been issued in the second part of the 1930s,” Coin Update wrote. “Luckily for the collector this never happened and the 1936 Arkansas-Robinson is the only commemorative testifying to ‘what could have been.'”
I bought this coin, mainly, because I enjoy collecting early U.S. commemorative coins. The one I got is in pretty good condition, which makes sense since so many coins went directly from the Mint to the dealers. I actually like it more than the 1935 Arkansas coin, which I also own. The portrait of Robinson seems classier than the dual busts on the 1935 coin, which look weirdly futuristic. With his suit and tie, as well his stern visage, this coin does a good job recreating what it might have looked like to see the Leader at his podium, about to let loose with a stream of furious invectives at whoever happened to be opposing him. Or as he was about to throw down with a fellow Senator, like he almost did with Wisconsin progressive Robert La Follette during World War I.
Who knows? Maybe I bought this coin so I could learn more about an otherwise forgotten politician. Someone should really do a comprehensive book about him…