Martin was born on July 29, 1847, in Scottsville to John Samuel Martin and Martha Ann Staples Martin. He was one of eleven children. His father worked in his own father-in-law’s grocery store before becoming a partner in the store and later serving as a justice of the peace and the manager of a local woolens mill. Martin was educated at home and in local schools before enrolling at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1864. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), VMI cadets were called on to fight in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. Fifty-seven cadets were killed or wounded that day, some of them as young as fifteen years old. Martin, sixteen at the time, missed the action due to ill health, but later participated in the Lynchburg Campaign and fighting around the Confederate capital at Richmond.
After the war, Martin attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for two years, leaving in order to support his family after the death of his father. He began reading the law in 1869 and was subsequently admitted to the Virginia bar, developing a successful practice in Scottsville and the surrounding counties of Albemarle and Fluvanna. Early in the 1880s he became a district counsel to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. His work for the railroad eventually introduced Martin to Democratic Party politics, although he preferred to operate out of the public eye. A bachelor well into his forties, he shunned publicity and was not known as a commanding speaker, but he was highly regarded for his diligence, knowledge of the law, and loyalty.
Origins of a Machine
Virginia’s most powerful Democrat at the time was John S. Barbour Jr., a longtime president of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the son of a U.S. representative, and a U.S. representative himself (served 1881–1887). Barbour’s mission was to seize political control in Virginia from the Readjuster Party, led by U.S. senators Harrison H. Riddleberger (served 1883–1889) and William Mahone (served 1881–1887), a former Confederate general who also was a railroad executive. The Readjusters represented a coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats, and African Americans intent on “readjusting” some of the state’s prewar debt in the direction of West Virginia. They also sought to repeal the poll tax and increase school funding.
In 1883, just as Martin was becoming particularly active in Democratic Party affairs, the Readjusters lost their majority in the General Assembly. Attaching himself to Barbour, Martin won an appointment to the party’s state central committee in 1885, the same year Democrat Fitzhugh Lee was elected governor. Martin’s rise in the party was noted by the railroads, and a political relationship was born in which Martin served as an effective behind-the-scenes man, dispensing essential railroad campaign contributions to Democratic candidates who promised to support legislation beneficial to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
An ill Riddleberger chose not to stand for reelection, and in 1889 Barbour won his seat in the U.S. Senate. The Democratic Party boss died just three years later, however, and his spot in the Senate became the object of a contest that proved to be a turning point in Virginia political life. A respected player in state politics, Martin was still unknown compared to his opponent, Fitzhugh Lee. Lee may have been overconfident about his chances for the seat, though. He declined to lobby openly for assembly members’ votes and acted more concerned about the Lost Cause controversies surrounding his late uncle, Robert E. Lee, than he did about his own political career.
Martin, meanwhile, quietly lined up support among lawmakers and, in the context of an economic depression, cashed in on his influence with the powerful and wealthy railroad industry. (Contributions from railroads were used to convince many legislators, who were in need of funds for campaign expenses during the depression of 1893, to switch to Martin. Charges of bribery were made at the time, but it was not until years later, during Martin’s Senate campaign in 1911, that correspondence was published confirming the “money trail” and Martin’s complicity.) While the people seemed to support Lee and the symbolism that was invested in his family name, in the end the election was in the hands of the Democratic legislative caucus, which gave the nod to Martin on the sixth ballot, 66 votes to 55. It was one of the greatest upsets in Virginia political history.
And at that moment, December 7, 1893, a Democratic Party machine that had begun to take shape under Barbour came under the control of the shrewd and calculating Martin. The Democrats would not let loose the reins of power in Virginia until late in the 1960s, when the upheavals of desegregation finally finished off the Byrd Organization.
Martin married Lucy Chamblis Day, of Smithfield, on October 10, 1894, and claimed his Senate seat in 1895. Although in Washington, D.C., now, his focus was on maintaining Democratic control in Virginia. He was assisted in this endeavor by Henry D. “Hal” Flood, an exuberant young delegate to the General Assembly from Appomattox, and Claude A. Swanson, congressman from the Fifth District. (Flood was an uncle of Harry F. Byrd Sr., who would later run the Byrd Organization.) Like Barbour before them, Martin, Flood, and Swanson relied on railroad money, control of the legislature, and the support of county, or “courthouse,” officials to dominate state politics.
Martin’s power was never total, however. The political environment of the day included fierce battles over prohibition and the inflationary monetary policy of free silver, and Martin thrived because of his ability to find compromise among conservative and progressive Democrats and Populists. The Republican Party, meanwhile, was saddled with the legacies of Reconstruction and the Readjusters and so never proved to be much of a threat.
Ever mindful of the political winds, Martin shrewdly chose his battles, his pragmatism frequently overriding his personal sentiments. In the controversial election of 1896, he made a last minute conversion and abandoned the Democratic administration of U.S. president Grover Cleveland to support the free silver candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in order to preserve Democratic unity. Bryan was also supported by Populists and Silver Republicans, and that he lost (and then, famously, lost again in 1900 and 1908) mattered less in Virginia than Martin’s ability to manage these sorts of coalitions.
The state’s Democratic Party leader also knew when to hold back, a case in point being the debate over whether to call a state constitutional convention in 1901. The momentum for a convention had been developing for years, with progressives taking aim at government corruption, at black suffrage, and sometimes at Martin himself. While Andrew Jackson Montague, Virginia’s attorney general, vigorously supported the convention, Martin worried that the progressives might arrange to expand the electorate. He kept quiet, however, in an effort to seem moderate in the midst of a political storm. In the end, he need not have worried. The convention met and approved the Virginia Constitution of 1902, a document that restored white supremacy in the state by disenfranchising large numbers of blacks and working-class whites. The Martin Organization was more powerful than ever.
Martin seemed to live a charmed political life. He survived a vote for the Hepburn railroad reform bill in 1906 over the objections of his railroad industry friends, the same friends who had first sponsored his political career. Also, while Martin opposed the introduction of a primary election system, he handily won primary victories in 1905 and 1911 against the independent, anti-Martin Democrats such as Carter Glass who had demanded the new system in the first place.
The defeat of the independent Democrats in 1911 left Martin more time to devote to the U.S. Senate, where his seniority now elevated him into positions of considerably more power. He had become highly regarded by his Senate colleagues, who valued his quiet behind-the-scenes leadership, although he had vocal critics in the national progressive movement. For example, Josephus Daniels, a Democratic newspaper publisher from North Carolina, accused Martin of being “married, as nearly always, to corporations desiring public favor.” Nevertheless, Martin, without the support of another important national progressive voice, William Jennings Bryan, was elected the U.S. Senate’s Democratic Minority Leader in 1911.
The election of progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson as U.S. president in 1912 posed problems for Martin. The two men disliked each other, although as fellow Democrats they learned to work closely with one another for the good of the party agenda. Wilson had opposed Martin’s reelection in 1911, leading the Virginia senator to obstruct until the last moment the nomination of Wilson at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912. Yet Martin and Wilson had reason to settle their differences. Martin served on the Senate’s Commerce, Appropriations, and Naval Affairs committees, and because Democrats had only a slim majority in Congress, Wilson needed his support for key legislation.
For his part, Martin could not afford to have the president dispensing all the federal patronage to his enemies, especially Virginia progressive Democrats; thus the two reached an accommodation. Although Martin was denied the majority leadership position, he won the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, secured a spot on the Naval Affairs Committee for his longtime compatriot, Claude Swanson, and successfully defended the seniority system from progressive reform. Most importantly, Wilson began dispensing more key federal jobs to Martin Organization supporters than to Virginia independents.
Martin reluctantly supported Wilson’s agenda in the Senate, telling Josephus Daniels, Wilson’s new secretary of the navy, “Swanson and I will vote for every damn thing he [Wilson] proposes [in order] to show the Wilson men of Virginia that they would be foolish to retire us from the Senate … but it makes us damn mad to have to do it.” Still, even such tepid backing won Martin the position of Senate Majority Leader and president pro tem in 1917, and during World War I (1914–1918) he was responsible for directing key legislation through the Senate. Martin ran unopposed in 1918, and although the Republicans won control of Congress that year, he remained Democratic floor leader. He died at his home in Charlottesville on November 12, 1919, and was buried at the University of Virginia Cemetery.