Carl Vinson: A Legend in His Own Time
by Melvin B. Hill, Jr. Robert G. Stephens, Jr., Senior Fellow in Law and Government Director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1983-1996
Every now and then someone will call and ask “Who was Carl Vinson, anyway?” Of course, this does not happen that often—nor is it a question often asked by those who were born and raised in Georgia and have started shaving. However, it is a question that is likely to be asked with increasing frequency as time marches on and institutional and personal memories fade. So, for the record and to help preempt any more embarrassment for the uninformed, here is a brief profile of a great Georgian who became a legend in his own time.
Perhaps the best way to begin is at the end. On November 16, 1973—at the celebration of Carl Vinson’s ninetieth birthday, held as part of the one hundredth anniversary of the Walter F. George School of Law in Macon, Georgia—then-President Richard Nixon paid tribute to Vinson by saying:
“I am honored to be here for two reasons. First, because it is the 100th Anniversary of a great educational institution; and second, because it is the 90th birthday of a man who has served longer in the House of Representatives, in the Congress, than any man in our history, and one who is a legendary figure for those who did not know him, and one who is a loved figure for those like myself who had the privilege of knowing him.He served eight Presidents, four of them Republicans, four of them Democrats. He had the confidence of every one of them and he served each one of them as loyally whether they were of his party or the other, and it is the kind of service which puts America above party that he represents and that America can always use today.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the fact that Carl Vinson was a man who stood for a strong national defense. He was Mr. Armed Services, he was Mr. Navy, he was Mr. American, and he was Mr. Congressman. He was all of those things, but he must not be just remembered and thought of that way, because Carl Vinson was a broad-gauged man. In his first speech, listen to what he said: “I devoutly hope that the casting of every gun and the building of every ship will be done with a prayer for the peace of America. I have at heart no sectional nor political interest but only the Republic’s safety.” In those words, we capture the life of a very great man. “I have,” he said, “at heart no sectional nor political interest.”
Herman Talmadge, then senior Senator from Georgia, had this to say:
“Carl Vinson came to Congress when the Springfield rifle was our nation’s principal weapon. Under his leadership, the country’s defense establishment evolved from horse and buggy days to the modern era of the Polaris submarine and intercontinental ballistic missile. Carl Vinson had never seen a battleship until he achieved prominence in the Congress. Yet he was a founding parent of the two-ocean navy, which became vital to our nation’s survival during World War II. He did not like to fly in airplanes Yet he was a forceful and persuasive advocate of an expanded United States Air Force when it became apparent to him that command of the skies in the modern world was just as important as command of the seas a generation ago.In his own remarks that day, Carl Vinson expressed sincere gratitude for all the kind words that were being offered about him and responded:
Only once in his entire lifetime did he set foot outside the United States, and that was when he went on an inspection trip of the Panama Canal Zone in the early 1920’s. Mr. Vinson used to say that his responsibilities in the House of Representatives kept him too busy to go travelling all over the world. Mr. Vinson was known by the military establishment as “the Admiral” because of his early affection for the United States Navy. By his colleagues in the House he was known as the “Swamp Fox” because of his masterful grasp of parliamentary procedure and virtual unerring strategy in getting important legislation through Congress. Mr. Vinson is known and loved in Georgia as “Uncle Carl.”
“I cannot give you the secret of longevity, for I do not know what produces it, except perhaps to suggest that maintaining a vigorous pace in all my mental and physical activities has played a very important part. However, if I had to select one factor that may have played a dominant role in reaching my years, I would name the challenge of Public Service.”It was this record and this spirit that led the University of Georgia in 1983 to name its Institute of Government in honor of this great Georgian.
Carl Vinson’s story was not unlike that of many other Americans born into humble circumstances and yet went on to achieve prominence at the state and national levels. His story began in Baldwin County, Georgia, where he was born on November 18, 1883. The great-grandson of a Methodist preacher, the grandson and son of a farmer, Carl was one of seven children born to Edward Storey Vinson and Annie Morris Vinson. He attended the Middle Georgia Military and Agricultural College in Milledgeville at a young age (the college taught both sexes and all grades) and by all accounts was a serious student. Carl’s father made the children work either on the farm or in town after school, and Carl chose the latter. He worked in Culver and Kidd’s Drug Store, delivered newspapers for the The Atlanta Journal, and later worked for two local department stores.
In his late teens, Carl decided he wanted to be a lawyer and started reading law in county judge Edward R. Hines’ law library. He entered Mercer University Law School in 1900, graduated two years later, was admitted to the State Bar, and returned to Milledgeville as a junior partner with Judge Hines. In 1904, and again in 1906, Vinson was appointed County Court Solicitor. In 1909, at the age of twenty-five, he ran for and won a two-year term in the Georgia General Assembly. He was reelected in 1911 and served as Speaker Pro Tempore during his second term.
During the legislative reapportionment process following the 1910 census, Baldwin County (Vinson’s home district) was moved from the Sixth Congressional district to the Tenth, which was then referred to as the “Bloody Tenth.” In the 1912 general election, voter backlash in Baldwin County over the new alignment contributed to Vinson’s 5-vote loss in his own race for a third term in the state house. The Governor then appointed him judge of Baldwin County Court, but on February 14, 1914, Augusta Bacon—Georgia’s senior U.S. senator—died. U.S. Representative Thomas W. Hardwick of the new Tenth District announced his candidacy for the vacant Senate seat, and Carl Vinson announced for the vacant House seat. Vinson won the election handily against three wealthy opponents, winning all but four of the twelve counties in the Tenth District.
On November 3, 1914, fifteen days before his 31st birthday, Carl Vinson was sworn in as the youngest member of Congress. Due to the timing of the vote, he was elected to both the unexpired term in the Sixty-third Congress and a full term in the Sixty-fourth. Thereafter, Vinson would be reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 consecutive terms, usually against only token opposition (except in 1918, when he narrowly defeated the former populist leader Thomas Watson). His federal legislative career spanned 50 years and one month, a record of service that was unsurpassed until 1994 when Congressman James Whitten of Mississippi passed Vinson’s mark.
Early in his tenure in Congress, Vinson’s interest in national defense and sea power earned him a seat on the House Naval Affairs Committee. In 1931, he became committee chairman, serving in that capacity until 1947, when the Naval Affairs Committee and the Military Affairs Committee combined to become the House Armed Services Committee. Vinson’s effectiveness on the Naval Affairs Committee is attested to by the fact that in the first nine years of his chairmanship, the House defeated only one bill that he sponsored. He served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee for the remainder of his legislative career, except for four years of Republican control of Congress. His influence over defense policy was so great that when asked by reporters in 1952 about a possible appointment as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Vinson replied, “No, I’d rather run the Pentagon from here.”
Carl Vinson received numerous awards and honors throughout his career. In 1964 President Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Special Distinction, the highest award that a president can bestow upon a civilian. In 1973, at the very same ceremony at Mercer University celebrating Vinson’s 90th birthday, President Nixon announced: “As you know, we have just begun to develop nuclear carriers. The first one was named the Eisenhower, the second one was named the Nimitz, the great naval commander of World War II. The third is just beginning, and it will be named the Carl Vinson..”
When he retired in 1965 at the conclusion of the 88th Congress, Carl Vinson had held public office for 59 consecutive years. He returned to his beloved farm in Baldwin County, and lived the last years of his life in Milledgeville at the home of Molly Sneed, widow of his Congressional administrative assistant and long-time friend of Carl and his wife.
Carl Vinson had no children, but it appears that his interest in politics and military affairs was passed on to his grand-nephew, Sam Nunn of Perry, Georgia. In 1972, Nunn was elected to the United States Senate, where he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee for almost a quarter century. Until his retirement in 1997, Sen. Nunn followed “Uncle Carl” as a widely respected leader in maintaining a strong national defense for this country.
On March 15, 1980, Carl Vinson became the first living American to have a U.S. Navy ship named after him. At age 96, he and Molly Snead attended dedication ceremonies for the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier at Newport New, Virginia.
When it came time to launch the carrier, Vinson insisted that his long-time family friend Molly perform the christening honors. To considerable fanfare, the huge ship slid into the water and active Naval duty.
The highest mountain area in Antarctica - a central ridge area of the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains some thirteen miles long and eight miles wide with an elevation of 16, 745 feet - was named Vinson Massif in honor of Carl Vinson.
On June 1, 1981, Georgia’s legendary Congressman died at age 97. Today, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia continues as a living legacy to the life of a great Georgian who devoted half a century in public service to his state and nation.