Indiana at 200 (75): Vice President Marshall

April 18, 2016

by Andrea Neal

For nearly a century, Indiana has been known as the “Mother of Vice Presidents.” From 1868 to 1916, ten vice presidential nominees hailed from Indiana.

In 1916, Indiana could not miss: Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City was running for re-election as Woodrow Wilson’s vice president on the Democratic Party ticket. Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis was running as the Republican Party nominee on the ticket headed by Charles Evans Hughes. (Fairbanks had already served from 1905 to 1909 as vice president under Theodore Roosevelt.) Wilson and Marshall won, with Marshall going on to complete a second full term.

Marshall was the only vice president born in Indiana until 1988 when Dan Quayle was elected as running mate to George H. W. Bush. Five lived in Indiana at the time of their election, second only to New York with 11.

Indiana State Road 9 between Marshall’s home in Columbia City and Quayle’s home in Huntington bears numerous signs declaring it the “Highway of Vice Presidents.” The other Hoosier vice presidents were Schuyler Colfax, Jr. from New Carlisle, who served with President Ulysses Grant from 1869-1873; and Thomas A. Hendricks from Shelbyville and Indianapolis, who served as vice president with President Grover Cleveland from March 4, 1885, until Hendricks’ death eight months later.

Marshall was born in North Manchester in 1854, spent much of his childhood in Pierceton and attended Wabash College before studying law. He worked as an attorney in Whitley County from 1875 until becoming governor in 1909.

During that time, he lived in a two-story Italianate home in Columbia City. The Whitley County Historical Society was formed in 1958 to purchase his home, which is maintained as a county history museum. Curator Aaron Mathieu says local residents have pitched in to restore Marshall’s home to much of its original condition.

Mathieu points out that, in 1919, Marshall was faced with a monumental decision that no other American has faced or ever will. Woodrow Wilson had suffered a debilitating stroke. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on Marshall to become acting president. At the time, there was no process for him to do so. Fearing that he would precipitate a constitutional crisis, Marshall declined to assume the presidency. Wilson’s cabinet and Marshall, with help from Wilson’s wife, functioned as best they could without a transfer of power.

Did Marshall make the right decision? That question is still debated; even Marshall detractors acknowledge that it took quite a man to step away from the opportunity to become president. Mathieu believes that Marshall’s decision was in the finest American tradition of putting the Constitution above personal glory. In 1967, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana shepherded the 25th Amendment to the Constitution through ratification, establishing a constitutional process for transfer of power in the event a president is incapacitated.

Marshall was known for his self-deprecating wit. In his acceptance speech as vice president, he promised to “acknowledge the insignificant influence of the office.” His best known saying, “What the country needs is a really good five-cent cigar,” reflected his belief that the common man should be the focus of government policy.

Marshall died of a heart attack in 1927. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Note to readers: This is the 75th of 100 essays on Indiana history leading to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org. 

Directions: The Whitley County Historical Museum is at 148 West Jefferson Street in Columbia City.

The museum maintains Thomas Marshall's home much like it would have looked in 1900. Photo courtesy of Whitley County Historical Museum.

The museum maintains Thomas Marshall’s home much like it would have looked in 1900. Photo courtesy of Whitley County Historical Museum.



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