Joseph W. Martin, Jr. - Biographical Sketch

For twenty years Joseph W. Martin Jr. was one of the most influential individuals in American life. Martin, the eldest son of eight children, began to supplement the income of his blacksmith father at the age of seven, by delivering newspapers. While attending North Attleboro High School, he worked as a copy boy and upon graduation, as a reporter, for the Attleboro Sun. At the age of twenty-four, he became editor and publisher of the North Attleboro Chronicle, which he purchased with several other business men.

Mr. Martin served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives 1912-1914, in the State senate 1914-1917, as the executive secretary of the Republican State Committee 1922-1925. In 1924 he was elected to Congress. A friend of President Coolidge, with whom he had served in the State senate, the personable and dedicated Martin moved rapidly into leadership positions. His first Committee assignment, Foreign Affairs, was followed a few years later by an appointment to the Rules Committee and then assistant whip. In 1931, New York's Bert Snell, the minority leader, selected Martin as his assistant.

Martin first came to national attention in 1936. An early supporter of Alf Landon for the Republican nomination for president, he was chosen as Landon's floor manager at the convention and then selected as his east coast campaign manager. From that position he made every effort, as he did all during his career, to attract Afro-Americans to the Republican Party. (Because of his leadership President Eisenhower gave Martin one of the pens with which he signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957, the first such measure since the Civil War.) In 1938 Martin chaired the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and received considerable credit when the GOP picked up eighty-one House seats that year.

In 1939 Martin was elected Minority Leader, a position he held until 1959 except for those years he was Speaker in the 80th (1947-1949) and 83rd (1953-1955) Congresses. This photo shows Martin being sworn in as speaker by Congressman Daniel Reed in 1953. The office would not be held by another republican until Newt Gingrich opened the 104th Congress on January 5, 1995.

Martin supported some New Deal measures such as the enactment of the social security program and was instrumental in the passage of the first minimum wage legislation, but, for the most part, was a critic of the Roosevelt administration. Nevertheless, he and the president admired each other and enjoyed a pleasant relationship.  

 Although Truman and Martin were further apart politically than Roosevelt and Martin, their relationship, too, was marked by mutual respect, with Martin the only Republican at Truman's swearing in as president in 1945. Four times during the 20th century, Democratic presidents had Republican Speakers: Wilson, Gillett; Truman, Martin; and Clinton, Gingrich and Hastert.

On New Year's Day 1947 when Martin was about to assume office Truman phoned him and then recorded in his diary, " He assured me that cooperation was at the top of his consideration. And that he wanted very much to help run the country for the general welfare. He told me he would be most happy to talk to me at any time on any subject. I am inclined to believe him." Truman, who at one time sent Martin a ceramic elephant knowing that the Speaker collected them, pushed legislation making the Speaker, after the vice-president, successor to the presidency. As a result from 1947-1949 Martin was first in line of succession to that office.

Congressman Martin also chaired more national conventions (1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, and 1956) than any other person in history. In 1940 he managed Wendell Willkie's presidential campaign and headed the Republican National Committee from 1940 to 1942 at a time when the national party was divided between internationalists and isolationists, liberals and conservatives.

Although Martin's name is unfamiliar to most, this dedicated American served his country well during some of the most tumultuous years of the American past: the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Speaker Martin died in Hollywood, Florida in 1968, a little more than a year after leaving Congress. His papers were received by Stonehill College in 1969. The Joseph W. Martin, Jr. Institute for Law and Society was established in 1989 to honor the memory of the former Speaker by housing his papers and memorabilia and serving as a center for the study of social, economic, and political issues.