I have opted to republish my original post on this on my newer blog as well, mikeholme.substack.com. It is a lengthy read because I read the man’s autobiography in full, and I thought there were a lot of good quotes.
On January 31, 1961, Congress is considering Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas’ resolution to expand the House Rules Committee by two Democrats and one Republican for the 87th Congress. This committee, chaired by Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia since 1955, has time and again buried liberal legislation. Although Smith is a Democrat, he has been out of step with the national party for decades and has even collaborated in the demise of liberal legislation with Republican Minority Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana. President Kennedy openly supports Rayburn’s plan, as his agenda will have a better chance of passing Congress. However, the support of Kennedy and Rayburn isn’t enough. Despite Southern Democrats having tremendous respect and admiration for Rayburn, they tend to agree with Smith more. Kennedy and Rayburn need some Republican votes to make this happen. Coming to their rescue is, on his face, an unlikely source: an elderly backbencher from Massachusetts named Joe Martin (1884-1968). He expresses his belief that Republicans should give his fellow Bay Stater a chance, and his support for this resolution carries the day…the resolution passes by five votes, with twenty-two Republicans contributing to the margin, many from the Northeast (Kenneally, 285). Kennedy’s agenda now has a sufficient chance of passing the 87th Congress. It turns out Martin is no ordinary backbencher. He had once been the leader of the House Republicans and was twice Speaker of the House. Martin, however, had been ousted from his role after the disastrous 1958 midterms in favor of his former deputy, Halleck, and he took the chance to get even on the side. He had also been more cooperative with Rayburn than Halleck was. According to Martin’s biographer James J. Kenneally (2003), “Halleck and Smith, by changing the Republican approach on Rules, hoped to lead a coalition by which they could control the House” (274). Martin, on the other hand, would find ways to get legislation out of the Rules Committee through moderate Republicans. Although he denied a motive of payback, he also said that “I would not, of course, care to see either Mr. Smith or Mr. Halleck with too much power” (Kenneally, 285). Martin helping make it possible for Kennedy’s agenda to have a chance in the 87th Congress was quite a turnaround for a man who had opposed Rules Committee reform under President Truman and had been the most important factor in stopping JFK’s grandfather from being elected to the Senate. Today’s story is about Joe Martin, a powerhouse of 20th century American politics.
I have always scoffed at the prediction of the death of either the Republican or Democratic Party. One way or another, one of them will eventually screw up bad enough for the other to come back into power. The ultimate time in which the former seemed to be on the verge of death was during the Great Depression, and Martin was the man to bring it back. Congressman Joe Martin is today a forgotten man, even though he often served as his (the taxpayer) spokesman during the New Deal years. He was a short, dumpy fellow who was raised in a working-class family (his father was a blacksmith) yet he managed to save up the money he made as a paper boy to buy the newspaper and ultimately made his way to Speaker of the House. Martin delivered no memorable speeches and no laws bear his name, yet he is more responsible than anyone else for the resuscitation of the Republican Party as its House leader from 1939 to 1959.
His political start began in his hometown of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. As he said about his political affiliation, “There has never been any question about my Republicanism. I grew up a Republican simply because my family and practically all my neighbors were Republicans. The very air I breathed in North Attleboro was Republican, and it had never occurred to me to be a Democrat” (Martin, 27). He had first participated in politics when he marched in a torchlight parade for William McKinley in 1896, a youth of 11. When he was elected to the state House, serving from 1912 to 1914. Martin identified with the conservative wing of the party, backing Taft for reelection, which ran contrary to the mood of his state district, which was for Theodore Roosevelt. According to him, he was saved for reelection only by his personal popularity. Martin held in his autobiography that “It has been my observation that in politics a man who has the courage of his convictions survives longer than the man who shrinks from them” (Martin, 35). He was next elected to the state Senate, where he served from 1914 to 1917. During his time in state politics, he started as an opponent of women’s suffrage, voting against it in 1912 and 1913, but in 1917 and 1918 he voted for it and endorsed the 19th Amendment as a reward for women’s war work (Kenneally, 38). In 1922, Martin ran Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s reelection campaign, who was facing the most difficult election of his career from a strong challenge by Democrat William A. Gaston. His efforts ultimately saved Lodge by 7,000 votes, or less than 1%. In 1924, he ran in the Republican primary against Congressman William S. Greene, an octogenarian who had voted against the 19th Amendment. Martin used Greene’s age against him but the incumbent narrowly prevailed. However, Greene died shortly after the primary, leaving Martin free to run for and win the seat.
Early Years in Congress
Martin was a personal friend and protégé of President Calvin Coolidge and supported his policies. Recalling back, he remarked on his friend that he was “A frugal man, who would have been horrified at today’s free spending…” and that “Outwardly Coolidge was shy and taciturn. Toward his friends, however, he could be surprisingly warm even sentimental. He had a strong sense of loyalty. He was able. He possessed sound judgment. His word was good. He was well liked. He was a strong governor” (Martin, 40). Martin’s judgment of Coolidge’s presidency was, as you might expect, quite positive. He said of him, “As a President, Coolidge was not brilliant by any means, but he exercised good, hard common sense and did not try to stir up trouble. He was content to try to give the people the kind of administration they wanted and was not forever worrying them with alarums from Washington. He was the man for his time and made an excellent President” (Martin, 41).
A Glimpse Into 1920s Congress
Martin’s view of Congress in the 1920s provides a dramatic contrast to today. When he entered there was no air conditioning, no microphones, and the lighting was such that people who read for a long time got eyestrain. Circumstances forced Congress to wrap up business more efficiently. He lamented a decline in quality oratory, holding that “In older days, I was told, a member would not wish to make more than two speeches a session. The country might be better off if we returned to that custom. During my own time in Congress I have witnessed a deterioration in political oratory. Speakers are less eloquent nowadays. More personal effort used to go into the writing of speeches” (Martin, 48). Martin also observed that air conditioning lengthened the time business would go on in the House, that foreign policy was of little concern. The 1920s were marked by “the absence then of the immense pressures that came with the Depression, World War II, Korea, and the cold war” (Martin, 49). In the House, he built up vital relations with people, including ones he had many disagreements with, and some of these, particularly Southerners, would prove valuable in the future when he would do battle against the New Deal. Martin recalls Rep. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.), and says of him, “He once said to me, “I wish you were a liberal. If you were, you’d be a great leader for us.” Although we were poles apart politically, I liked and admired La Guardia. Many people complained that he was a radical; perhaps he was. That does not alter the fact that he did a great deal of good” (Martin, 50).
Leading Resistance to the New Deal
Martin tended to identify with the Republican Party’s Old Guard but could be pragmatic and embrace the occasional social reform, particularly if it helped workers. Martin’s biographer, James J. Kenneally, labeled him a “compassionate conservative”. His politics combined with his people skills and the defeats of many Republican incumbents during the Great Depression, made him an ideal choice for the fast track to leadership: staunchly conservative Minority Leader Bert Snell (R-N.Y.) certainly thought and acted so. Martin (1960) was supportive of President Herbert Hoover and his 1932 bid for reelection, but reached the conclusion in his autobiography that if Hoover had only embraced legalization of beer and wine he could have won another term (67). This might sound a bit of a limited analysis, but consider that of all of Roosevelt’s campaign proposals, repeal of Prohibition was easily his most popular and Roosevelt ran a much more conservative line than he ultimately governed. This was backed by internal polling from the Hoover campaign as well as the greater press coverage for Roosvelt repealing Prohibition rather than the proposed New Deal (Lewis). Martin opposed most of the New Deal and criticized elements of it as fascist and socialist. He voted against the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. With the latter two he did so partly on the grounds that they advantaged the South over New England. Martin also supported alternatives to work relief that placed the distribution in state instead of federal hands and opposed FDR’s tax increases. The tax increases he regarded as so objectionable as they were “…using the power of taxation to underwrite pet theories and impose a new philosophy of government on the country socialism. By collecting and spending huge sums the New Deal was causing centralization of power in Washington. When government money is being spent, the government is going to run the show. Moreover, the New Dealers were being utterly inconsistent. On the one hand they were denouncing industry for failing to provide jobs; on the other they were levying punitive taxes that penalized thrifty and cautious companies. Business was prevented from accumulating adequate surpluses with which to expand its plant and provide the very jobs the government was howling for…Heavy federal spending and increasing centralization of government in an expanding bureaucracy in Washington were other aspects of the New Deal that I fought in a great many instances because they were repulsive to Republican traditions” (Martin, 76-77). However, Martin also voted for Social Security and a federal minimum wage, seeing them as benefits to the elderly and to workers. Martin (1960) assessed Roosevelt himself thusly, “When he became President, I liked Roosevelt personally and admired ruefully at times his dynamic political skill. Of all our Presidents, he has been the shrewdest politician. Politically, he was much smarter than his party. He was a superb judge of public opinion and was wonderfully adept at creating a personal following” (68). He also found him a great conversationalist, but that he would also be very cunning. The old Congressman recalled, “He was a crafty speaker, who might devote two thirds of the time to matters far removed from Washington only to weave into the other third a skillful pitch for something he wanted from Congress” (Martin, 71).
In 1938, Snell decided to retire and Martin was the clear choice for his successor. That year’s midterms were a triumph for the GOP, regaining much lost ground, but not near enough to be a majority. Martin was now Minority Leader. As he reflected on this period, “Through the violent years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal my role of leader put me in the forefront of the opposition not only to many of Roosevelt’s domestic spending programs, but also to measures, such as the lifting of the arms embargo, that threatened to drag us into war abroad long before Pearl Harbor did it for us” (Martin, 2). He was a man devoted to his work…his hobbies were politics, politics, politics, and collecting little elephant figurines. His lifestyle was not what people would think of as normal…he was a bachelor and didn’t smoke, drink, or dance, and lived with his mother (she had a bad case of varicose veins) right up until her death in 1957. Martin also became known for his delightful malapropisms, including “gilded muscles” instead of guided missiles and “headlights” instead of highlights for Republican programs (Time, 1968).
With this devotion to politics and his amiable demeanor, Martin was able to cultivate ties with Southern Democrats, particularly his friend on the Rules Committee, Eugene Cox of Georgia, and they were key players in the newly formed Conservative Coalition. This alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats aimed to block further New Deal measures and proved quite successful in these endeavors, leaving FDR to focus mostly on foreign policy. By World War II’s end, gone were the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration among other agencies. He reflected on his opposition, “Now, with the battles of the Thirties far behind us and the reforms forged in those controversies accepted as a normal part of our life, one cannot so easily understand what a wrench many of the innovations of the New Deal caused Republicans of my bent and background. American society as it had existed for a generation or so before the Depression was certainly not a perfect society, as anyone knew who had, like myself, lived close to the hardships of New England mill towns. Nevertheless, it was a good society, and, at its own peculiar pace, a progressive society. Above all, in a world that was flying faster than anyone realized into the clutches of regimentation it was a society that cherished the individual and fostered his enterprise” (Martin, 65). He ultimately had no regrets about his role in opposition to the New Deal. Martin (1960) said on the matter, “Looking back now on the huge spending of that period, I am convinced that I was right. It never did bring us the prosperity we groped for” (78).
On foreign policy, he supported preparation for war including the peacetime draft but opposed measures he thought would bring the United States closer to war, including Lend-Lease and the repeal of the arms embargo. His stances on foreign policy along with those of Reps. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) and Joe Barton (R-N.Y.) led President Roosevelt to include them in a rollicking taunt of “Martin, Barton, and Fish” in 1940. Martin (1960) reflected on his foreign policy, “I despised Hitler and Mussolini and certainly hoped that the Allies would defeat them once the battle was joined. On the other hand, I thought it was alarmist nonsense and interventionist propaganda to say that a Germany victorious in Western Europe could leap across thousands of miles of ocean successfully to invade the United States through Canada or Latin America. While I was alarmed by the menace of Hitler, I did not think that a German victory would put the United States in peril of its life. I did believe that the United States must make itself strong” (89). Such esteem Martin had from his colleagues in his leadership that he was made chairman of the Republican National Convention in 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, and 1956, a record.
World War II and the Truman Years
He supported the war effort of course but also supported tax relief and the Smith-Connally Act over President Roosevelt’s veto. Politics did not come to a screeching halt because there was a world war. The Republican Party maintained under his leadership during wartime the status of loyal opposition. Martin was even one of the few legislators in the know about the Manhattan Project and helped allocate funding for it in the military budget (Ford, 4). During the Truman years, Martin maintained his stance as leader of the opposition and he reflected on the nature of that time, “The years of his presidency were a period of dizzying surprises. They were crammed with drama and suspense, wisdom and folly, greatness and smallness, comedy and tragedy. The Truman era was an incredible kaleidoscope, alternately dazzling, bewildering, and distressing” (Martin, 175). He also thought at the time that Truman’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan to have been a mistake. However, similar to FDR, on a personal level they got along quite well. Martin was a personal friend of Truman’s, but remarked “Politically, because of the leading roles we played in our opposing parties, we often carried on like cobra and mongoose” (Martin, 175). In 1946, shortages, particularly on meat, wore on the American public and the GOP put out a successful campaign slogan in “Had Enough?”, which catapulted the Republican Party into Congressional majorities for the first time since the Hoover Administration.
Under Martin’s leadership, the 80th Congress pushed a conservative agenda on domestic policy and an internationalist agenda on foreign policy. The Congress passed over President Truman’s veto the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, tax cuts, and a bill loosening anti-trust regulations on railroads. On foreign policy, they passed the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece and Turkey, both measures President Truman championed. Martin had come to the conclusion that foreign aid was a highly necessary tool in prosecuting the Cold War, as America needed to compete for influence in Africa and Asia. This Congress also conducted the House Committee on Un-American Activities Hollywood hearings, resulting in contempt citations for the “Hollywood Ten”, members of the American Communist Party, that landed the men in jail. Truman nonetheless derided the 80th Congress as the “do-nothing Congress” in the sense that they did nothing he wanted on domestic policy. Martin (1960) said on his oppositional Congress, “…as Speaker of the Eightieth Congress in 1947-48, I led the Republicans in what looks in retrospect like the last stand against heavy federal spending, high taxes, centralization, and extravagance” (177). It was also his view that the Speaker of the House, despite the reforms against Joe Cannon in 1910, was still a highly powerful figure in that they have the ultimate say who goes on what committee in Congress and they decide who rises in the ranks. Despite such power, Martin (1960) understood that it should be used judiciously, “In order to maintain his effectiveness a Speaker has to be fair. He is no longer a Reed or a Cannon. His rulings can be overturned by the House” (181). Truman successfully ran against the 80th Congress, resulting in the loss of GOP majorities as well as presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey’s (who wouldn’t defend the Congress) loss. When Dewey had campaigned in North Attleboro, Martin’s mother, as he wrote, “admonished him with more wisdom than any of us realized at the time “Don’t take it so easy” (Martin, 19). Out as Speaker, he early and often opposed President Truman’s proposed successor to the New Deal, the Fair Deal. Except this time, the Conservative Coalition was mostly successful in stopping it. Martin (1960) believed that Dewey’s 1948 loss was a disaster for political stability, stating “Instead of two healthy parties, we had one party bloated with a too-long tenure and aother party reduced to dark frustration. In this unwholesome state some Republicans turned to extremism because, as the Dewey defeat seemed to prove, the course of moderation had failed us once again. The nation sank into division and bitterness it need not have known, nor would have, under anything like normal circumstances. If Dewey had been elected in 1948, we never would have experienced the McCarthy era because Republican energies would have been working in a different direction, discharging the responsibilities of administering the government” (197-198).
On April 6, 1951, Martin sparked drama when he read a letter from General Douglas MacArthur to him into the Congressional Record, which criticized President Truman and his allies’ conduct of the Korean War. MacArthur was promptly fired, resulting in a tremendous controversy. He regretted his exposure of the letter, as he hoped it would further MacArthur’s cause instead of getting him fired. He arranged for MacArthur to deliver his famous “Old Soldiers Never Die” address to Congress on April 19th (Patriot’s Day in New England), a speech that moved many Republican members to tears. Representative Dewey Short (R-Mo.), himself a masterful orator, praised the speech, “We saw a great hunk of God in the flesh. We heard the voice of God” (Kenneally, 188). Not everyone saw it that way. President Truman, for instance, read the speech and in an interview after his presidency remarked that “It was nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit” (Weintraub). Martin continued to attack the administration on foreign policy, blaming the loss of China on George Marshall and attempting to deny Secretary of State Dean Acheson his salary. Martin reflected on his attack, “We believed that Secretary Acheson was largely to blame for the administration’s course…There was no personal vindictiveness on my part. Acheson was simply in the line of fire as I had been in Roosevelt’s when he delivered his ‘Martin, Barton and Fish speeches'” (Kenneally, 188).
There had in the past been talk of Joe Martin as either president or vice president, and it wasn’t talk he pushed hard to entertain. In 1952, he thought MacArthur would be the prime choice for president and early on surreptitiously was helping Taft. Indeed, reports from people familiar with Taft on the subject of who he would pick as vice president, the top two were MacArthur and Martin, with Taft’s Massachusetts campaign manager Basil Brewer reporting his pick would have been Martin (Kenneally, 191). If Taft had clinched the nomination, picked Martin, and won the presidency, he would have been the 35th president as Taft would die the next year of cancer. Once it was clear Eisenhower was going to win, Martin suppressed dissent and proclaimed him the victor. Journalist William Allen White had said of a possible dark horse Martin candidacy in 1940, “He will make…if the dice roll right, a liberty-loving president” (Ford).
The Eisenhower Years: Martin as an Eisenhower Republican
After the 1952 election, Joe Martin was back as Speaker and dedicated to pushing the Republican Party agenda and regarded the president’s agenda as synonymous. Therefore, he moved to support measures that bore similarity to measures that Martin and other Republicans had staunchly opposed under President Truman. This included substantive foreign aid packages, federal aid to education, and the construction of some public housing. The only issue Martin could not back Eisenhower on in his first term was on the St. Lawrence Seaway, as one of its impacts would direct commercial traffic away from New England. However, he also did not try to obstruct the project. Martin also saw Senator Joseph McCarthy as useful up until the point he started attacking the Eisenhower Administration with the same fury he had the Truman Administration (Martin, 237).
The more hardline conservatives in the party were unhappy with the moderate course of Eisenhower, such as Hamer Budge of Idaho and Noah Mason of Illinois, who would later play roles in challenging Martin’s leadership. However, Martin stood firm, thinking of these measures as for the good of the party and the country. He recounts Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.) telling him, “Joe, we’ve got to make the Eisenhower administration a success. We’ve all got to cooperate to this end, because if it fails, the next administration will be a radical one” and that he would impart this point to his reluctant colleagues (Martin, 232). His perspective also reflected the reality that Republican control of the 83rd Congress was slight and he needed Democratic votes to pass President Eisenhower’s programs. He also maintained a close personal friendship with the Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who he referred to as “the gentleman from Rayburn, Mr. Texas” (Time, 1968). This led to accusations that Martin gave in too much. He disputed this in his autobiography, holding that “Another thing that my young Republican associates forgot was that my friendship with Rayburn enabled me to obtain for our side a good deal more patronage, such as jobs around the Capitol, than we, as the minority, ever would have got otherwise. Ironically, some of the men who had benefited most from this unexpected patronage were to vote against me” (Martin, 9). Rayburn himself would not campaign against Martin. When once he was asked to do so once he responded, “Speak against Joe? Hell, if I lived up there, I’d vote for him” (Time, 1968).
Although the Republicans had gained Congress in 1952 only to lose it in 1954, they did maintain fairly healthy numbers until Martin’s argument wore thin in 1958. The 1958 midterms were a disaster for the Republican Party and many Republicans placed the blame on him. While in 1956, President Eisenhower had publicly supported him staying leader, this time he maintained silence as did Vice President Nixon, leaving the door open for Charles Halleck of Indiana, Martin’s more conservative deputy, to make a credible challenge. However, the stance from the White House was only on its face neutral. As Martin (1960) recounted, “The President said that he was neutral. It was, however, a strange state of neutrality in which Eisenhower took no sides while his legislative liaison officials egged Halleck on. I was the President’s leader in the House; I had made enemies in pushing legislation that he wanted passed. If the President was going to remain impartial, he should have required the same impartiality of his subordinates. This is particularly true since the attitude of those presidential assistants who shuttle back and forth between the Capitol and the White House is regarded in Congress as reflecting the sentiments of the President himself” (5). It was also of note that it was Rep. Bob Wilson of California who initiated the challenge against Martin, as Wilson was a close ally of Vice President Nixon. Eisenhower and Nixon in other words had fully approved of Halleck’s push for leadership. Many party conservatives agreed and backed him, and Martin narrowly lost the leadership contest, 74-70, the first time a party’s leader had been defeated in Congressional history. He was bitter over his defeat. Martin reflected on his loss in his 1960 autobiography, “I lived in a false sense of security in my established position as the leader. I had every reason to feel I was secure. I had served my party honorably for a very long time. For twenty years in the House I had guided the party’s course, often through perilous sessions” (Martin, 3). Unlike many leaders of today would after such a blow, he didn’t retire and join a lobbying firm.
Independence and Instruction as a Backbencher
Now that he was out of leadership and relegated to the status of backbencher, Martin charted his own course. His record had grown more moderate during the Eisenhower years, and this trend accelerated. Martin thought highly of Nelson Rockefeller as a future presidential candidate, but he still seemed to maintain some of his traditional anti-New Deal stances. In his autobiography, My First Fifty Years in Politics, he stated, “Many of the experiments of the New Deal seemed to us to undermine and destroy this society” (Patterson, 306). Although out of the halls of power, his service to the party continued as he would sit next to Republican freshmen and mentor them on where and when to speak, how to move up the ladder in committees of the House, and giving them tips on how to deal with the various other aspects of being a member of Congress, including addressing constituent issues (Kenneally, 285). The freshmen were grateful for Martin’s sage advice, and he helped make better representatives for the Republican Party. One of these nuggets of sage advice, which he got himself as a young representative, is one that frankly many could use today, which is “…don’t talk too much. The fellows that talk, talk their way out of Congress” (Martin, 236).
In 1960, Massachusetts strongly voted for Kennedy; the state gave him his third best margin in the nation. The Bay State was moving in an increasingly Democratic direction and that included Martin’s district, one of the more Republican in the state. However, he was able to be reelected, even in this era of Democratic ascendency, at least in part because of his long history of top-notch constituent service. Democrat Patrick Harrington, who would run for Martin’s seat in 1966, held that his district was ripe to be won by a Democrat, but only if Martin wasn’t the incumbent as “he gets the votes of Democrats on the basis of personal favors he has done for them over a period of 40 years in Congress” (Hill). Martin said much the same in his autobiography. He stated, “It has been a personal rather than a strictly political following that has kept me in office despite the rising Democratic tide. Over the years I established a reputation as a fighter for New England, and the voters have kept reelecting me because I have given them service. Every year that I have been in Congress it has been my practice to visit each post office in my district at stated times to make myself available to discuss their problems with the people” (Martin, 55). To hammer it in once more, constituent service is important! His new independence as a legislator also didn’t hurt. In 1961, upon only recently hearing of the John Birch Society, Martin offered a nuanced opinion that “if done right” its goal of stopping Communism would be helpful, but months later he regarded them as extremists “whom we can control” and warned that if it stuck to “ultra conservatism” it could do well but if it was just a hate group (which he believed it was) that it had no future (Kenneally, 288).
The most repeated instance of Martin exercising independence during the 1960s was on raising the debt limit. He would support raising the debt limit even when no other Republicans in the House would, and this got him some praise in the press as a bipartisan gesture. Martin’s reception to the New Frontier and Great Society was considerably friendlier than his responses to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, as he supported making the Rules Committee permanently larger in 1963, federal aid to education, federal aid to mass transit, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (reluctantly), Medicare, selling wheat to the USSR, higher foreign aid spending, and the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Martin had not gone full liberal, however: he opposed the 21-day rule to expedite the exit of legislation from the Rules Committee, he maintained his traditional opposition to public works spending for job creation, opposed rent subsidies, maintained his opposition to government encroachment into the field of power generation, opposed expansion of the food stamp program, and opposed the repeal of the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act. He also often supported Republican alternatives to Democratic domestic plans, including on Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Martin and Civil Rights: An Advocate
Although Martin closely worked with Southern Democrats, his record on civil rights was mostly favorable. He had consistently supported anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation since 1937 and had worked to attract black support for the GOP. However, Martin stopped short at endorsing a mandatory Fair Employment Practices Committee and in 1950 backed a voluntary substitute. During the Eisenhower Administration, he worked hard for strong civil rights legislation in 1956 and 1957, and on one occasion chewed out Republican Russell Keeney of Illinois in front of fellow colleagues for helping Southern Democrats by sponsoring a weakening jury trial amendment. Martin would also vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and supported fair housing legislation.
The Twilight Years
In 1964, Martin cast his vote for Gerald Ford over Charles Halleck as Minority Leader, a post the future president won, thereby Halleck suffered the same fate as Martin. Despite that year being difficult for the Republican Party and especially so in the Northeast, he still won reelection with 63% of the vote. He would continue to vote as a moderate in the Great Society Congress. In 1965, Ford delivered a tribute to Martin, in which he praised his long party service and gave an example of his devotion: when the Republican National Committee was evicted from its building after it came under ownership of the CIO, Martin, although not personally wealthy, bought another building and obligated himself as a personal liability for the $33,000 lease (Ford, 3). By 1966, however, he was noticeably in decline; he was an octogenarian like his predecessor Greene and his health issues had over the last several years been causing increasingly long absences from Congress. Nonetheless, Martin felt up for just one more term and promised that this would be his last election. Complicating his plan was a 35-year-old attractive woman named Margaret Heckler, who ran in the GOP primary against him to his left. He fought the challenge, but Heckler brought up his old campaign against Greene on age in 1924 and won the primary with 56% of the vote. Politics was Martin’s life, and with his career finally at an end, he lived only a little over a year after leaving office, dying on March 6, 1968, of “peritonitis, secondary to acute gangrenous appendicitis, ruptured” apparently with no antibiotics or other drugs (Time, 1968). It seems like Martin was done and just allowed himself to die.
In the end, Joe Martin was consistently interested in what he thought was best for the Republican Party and the nation, be that a Coolidge conservatism in the 1920s, a resistance to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, or Rockefeller Republicanism. This is reflected in his lifetime MC-Index score of 76%, with his score between 1925 and 1953 being an 86%, while it was a 54% between 1955 and 1967, with his highest Congress being the 73rd at 97% and the lowest being the 88th at 24%. Martin’s Americans for Democratic Action scores ranged from 0% in 1949 to 78% in 1957, and his ACA-Index scores ranged from 22% in 1964 to 92% in 1959. It could be said in the end that he was a Republican with a big “R” and a conservative with a small “c”, although he might have disputed the latter part of that characterization. Robert J. Donovan, the journalist who interviewed Martin for his autobiography, walked away impressed with the character of the man and frankly so do I. Joe Martin couldn’t make it in politics today…he’d be insufficiently partisan and too conservative for Massachusetts. Indeed, in his autobiography he wrote, “In the 1920s, when automobiles and roads were crude by modern standards, campaigning by car held more hazards than it does now. In the 1926 campaign my Democratic opponent was a woman named Minerva Kepple. Like myself, she used to drive from town to town making speeches. One day when I was spinning along near Somerset I came upon a car that had broken down. As I pulled alongside, I saw Minerva sitting at the wheel bewildered and dejected. She was due at a rally in Somerset, where she was to deliver a speech that would no doubt beat my brains in. I suppose if I had had brains worth beating in, I would have left her there and gone on to have Somerset to myself. But I said, “Come on Minerva, I’ll get you there,” and I whisked her into town in time for her speech. I defeated her without any trouble on election day. I have heard that in later years she always voted for me for Congress. I believe that has been true also of others I have defeated. If so, it is one good fruit of the rule that I have always followed never to wage a vicious campaign. I have always tried not to hurt an opponent personally” (Ubertaccio). Martin is proof that good people can succeed too in politics and the GOP owes a great debt to him for their continued survival. He dedicated his autobiography to “The millions of Republicans and to the many Democrats and Independents as well who fought with me through the years to maintain the two-party system of government in the United States” (Martin).
Correction, 8/15/22: Lodge’s 1922 opponent was not John F. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ran for governor that year and it was William A. Gaston who ran against Lodge. I regret the error.
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Ford, G.R. (1965, May 24). Testimonial for Joseph W. Martin, Jr. Ford Library Museum.
Hill, R. (2018, April 8). Mr. Speaker: Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts. The Knoxville Focus.
Hill, R. The Defeat of Congressman Joe Martin. The Knoxville Focus.
Kenneally, J.J. (2003). A compassionate conservative: a political biography of Joseph W. Martin Jr. Washington, D.C.: Lexington Books.
Kenneally, J.J. (2009, August 5). Black Republicans During the New Deal: the role of Joseph W. Martin, Jr. The Review of Politics, 55(1).
Kirby, M. (2011, July 17). Truman, MacArthur, and the infamous letter. The Sun Chronicle.
Lewis, K. (2018, August 3). How did FDR really win in 1932? Boston Globe.
Martin, J.W. & Donovan, R.J. (1960). My first fifty years in politics. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
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