Unraveling Thomas Staples Martin

Published:November 13, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Thomas Staples Martin

This is apropos only of the difficulty but also, let’s face it, the extreme coolness of sitting down and editing an encyclopedia entry about Thomas Staples Martin. Who is Thomas Staples Martin? you ask.


Martin was a longtime U.S. Senator (1895–1919) and the Democratic Party poo-bah in Virginia before the legendary Harry F. Byrd came along. Before the Byrd Organization, there was the Martin Organization. And this quiet, unassuming Charlottesville-based railroad lawyer happens to occupy this rather out-of-the-way little corner of political history in which he interacts with all kinds of people and issues that are, for non-historians, completely obscure today—free silver, for instance, or Little Billy Mahone and the Readjusters. (Sounds like a band name, doesn’t it? As I’ve noted before, Mahone by himself is one of the most interesting figures in Virginia history.)

Anyway, these politics have always been pretty confusing to me until I figured out that the Democrats were split into factions—conservative and progressive—and the progressives, contra to how we might think of them today, were often unrepentant racists (Woodrow Wilson, take a bow). The Populists were something else altogether. And the Martin Organization existed as a central power base, designed to maintain conservative Democratic control in Virginia. Of course, Martin had to be a pragmatist, as our learned contributor points out in his entry, because there were so many different groups running around.

But by the 1920s, when Harry F. Byrd took over, politics in Virginia had simplified somewhat. I don’t mean that the issues had simplified. But there were basically just the Democrats and the Republicans. And the Byrd Organization tightly controlled everything and Martin-style pragmatism, I think, was less important. If you were to be governor or senator or maybe even dogcatcher, you had to get the nod from Byrd. And they literally called it that—getting the nod. If you were a Democrat and you opposed the Organization, you were dismissed as an “anti” and frozen out. Your career was finished. It was like a nonviolent political mob.

The problem with Byrd, in the end, was that the national Democratic Party swung far to the left with Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. And Byrd and his Virginians ended up being in the role of antis themselves. They didn’t stand for anything so much as they stood against everything: against the New Deal, against the New Frontier, against the New Society, and more than anything else, against desegregation.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. For starters, they stood for fiscal conservatism (Byrd’s famous pay-as-you-go approach to government), and it was hardly their fault that such a philosophy was in deep eclipse in those days. But sometimes the judgment of history isn’t fair.

Anyway, this is my still somewhat tentative understanding of the big picture, and for me, it started with Thomas Staples Martin.