Joseph Taylor Robinson was born in a log cabin near Lonoke, Arkansas, in 1872. He attended the University of Arkansas for two years and then read law with Judge Thomas C. Trimble before taking a law degree at the University of Virginia in 1895. Even before he was called to the Arkansas bar he was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly. In 1902 Robinson was elected to Congress from the Sixth District of Arkansas and served five terms. He supported progressive measures to reform government and control big business and voted for the income-tax and woman-suffrage amendments.

In 1912 Robinson was elected Governor of Arkansas on a platform of fiscal and administrative reform. He was inaugurated on January 14, 1913, ten days after the death of Jeff Davis, U.S. Senator from Arkansas. On January 28, Robinson was elected Senator by the Arkansas General Assembly, so serving as Congressman, Governor, and Senator within a two-week period. He was the last Senator to be elected by vote of a state legislature.

Robinson was re-elected to four more Senate terms. In 1928 he was nominated for Vice President on the Democratic ticket with Al Smith of New York, but Herbert Hoover was elected President. He was Majority Leader under Franklin Roosevelt from 1932 until his death in 1937, and the leading spokesman for the Roosevelt New Deal in Congress. He died of a heart attack while working for Roosevelt's "court-packing" proposal in 1937.