Thomas Marshall was born in North Manchester, Indiana on March 14, 1854 to proud parents Daniel and Martha Marshall. Two years later, a sister was born, but she died in infancy. Martha had contracted tuberculosis, which Daniel believed to be the cause of their infant daughter's poor health. While Thomas Marshall was still a young boy, his family moved several times in search of a good climate for Daniel to attempt different "outdoor cures" on Martha. They moved first to Quincy, Illinois in 1857.
Daniel Marshall was a supporter of the American Union and a staunch Democrat, and took his son to the Lincoln and Douglas debate in Freeport in 1858. There the four-year-old Marshall met Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln and sat on the lap of whichever candidate was not speaking. He later referred to this as one of his earliest and most cherished memories. The family moved to Osawatomie, Kansas in 1859 but the violence on the frontier led them to move to Missouri in 1860, and eventually Daniel succeeded in curing Martha's disease.
As the American Civil War neared, violence spread into Missouri during the Bleeding Kansas incidents. In October several men led by Duff Green demanded that Daniel Marshall provide medical assistance to the pro-slavery faction. He refused, and they left. After their departure, the Marshalls' neighbors warned them that Green was planning to return and murder them. They helped the Marshalls quickly pack their belongings and escape to Illinois by steamboat. The Marshalls remained there only a brief time before continuing to Indiana, even farther from the volatile border region.
On settling in Princeton, Indiana, Marshall began to attend public school. His father and grandfather became embroiled in a dispute with their Methodist minister when they refused to vote Republican in the 1862 election. The minister threatened to expel them from the church, to which Marshall's grandfather replied that he would "take his risk on hell, but not the Republican Party. The dispute prompted the family to move again, to Fort Wayne, and convert to the Presbyterian church. In Fort Wayne, Marshall attended high school, graduating in 1869. At age fifteen his parents sent him to Wabash College, a Presbyterian school in Crawfordsville where he received a classical education. His father advised him to study medicine or become a minister, but neither interested him; he entered the school without knowing which profession he would take upon graduation. He graduated in June 1873, receiving the top grade in fourteen of his thirty-six courses in a class of twenty-one students. Marshall chose to learn the law, and read law in the office of Walter Olds, a future member of the Indiana Supreme Court. He studied in the office for over a year and was admitted to the Indiana bar on April 26, 1875.
In 1880 he lost an election for prosecuting attorney. For years that defeat dissuaded him from campaigning for office. Although he became a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, he did not run again until 1908, when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor. When the frontrunning candidates eliminated each other from the race, Marshall won the nomination. He campaigned against Republican Representative James "Sunny Jim" Watson, who would later become Senate majority leader. Marshall was elected governor that year, even though in the presidential election Republican William Howard Taft carried Indiana against William Jennings Bryan, whose vice-presidential candidate, John W. Kern, was a Hoosier. It was the first time that Indiana Democrats had won the governorship since 1896.
The Indiana constitution prevented Marshall from serving a consecutive term as governor. He made plans to run for a United States Senate seat after his term ended, but another opportunity presented itself during his last months as governor. Although he did not attend the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, his name was put forward as Indiana's choice for president. He was suggested as a compromise nominee, but William Jennings Bryan and his delegates endorsed Woodrow Wilson over Champ Clark, securing the nomination for Wilson.
Indiana's delegates lobbied to have Marshall named the vice presidential candidate in exchange for supporting Wilson. Indiana was an important swing state, and Wilson hoped that Marshall's popularity would help him carry it in the general election. He had his delegates support Marshall, giving him the vice presidential nomination. Marshall privately turned down the nomination, assuming the job would be boring given its limited role. He changed his mind after Wilson assured him that he would be given plenty of responsibilities.During the campaign, Marshall traveled across the United States delivering speeches. The Wilson–Marshall ticket easily won the 1912 election because of the division between the Republican Party and the Progressive Party.
Thomas Marshall was not impressed by the Vice Presidency. During his inaugural speech, he promised to "acknowledge the insignificant influence of the office" and accept his second-class role "in a good-natured way." As President Woodrow Wilson's number two, he frequently complained about his "nameless, unremembered" duties and once told a bodyguard that his job was pointless because no one ever shoots a Vice President. The fact that Wilson disliked him personally probably didn't improve his attitude either.
Marshall and Wilson's relationship was one of functioning animosity — the Felix Unger and Oscar Madison of Presidential politics. While Wilson was stoic and businesslike, Marshall was full of handshakes and one-liners. He once gifted the President with a book inscribed, "From your only vice."
Marshall's lack of enthusiasm showed in his job. He stopped going to cabinet meetings after his first session, and he asked to switch offices to some place where he could put up his feet and smoke. And yet, Wilson kept him on as Vice President during his second term, asking Marshall to head the cabinet while he traveled to Europe at the end of World War I to lobby for the League of Nations.After Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in October 1919, Marshall refused to take his place, worrying that if Wilson recovered and demanded the Presidency back, the country could erupt into a civil war. And of course, he wasn't very enthusiastic about the job. When Calvin Coolidge was elected as the next Vice President, he received a note from Marshall that read, "Please accept my sincere sympathies."