A New Jersey attorney from a middle class Irish-Catholic family, Joseph Tumulty became an important figure in state-level Democratic circles, in the progressivist mold of William Jennings Bryan. After a stint in the New Jersey Assembly (1907-1910), where he sponsored unsuccessful reformist legislation to regulate railroad and utility rates, Tumulty served as an adviser to gubernatorial candidate Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1911. Pleased with Tumulty's assistance, Wilson appointed Tumulty his private secretary in 1911. Tumulty ably served for ten years.
During his tenure as Wilson's secretary, Tumulty filled many different roles, including press secretary, public relations, campaign organizer for the Catholic and Irish vote, and adviser for minor patronage appointments. His relationship with the president was nearly severed over his opposition to Wilson's remarriage only a few months after the death of his first wife, but Wilson declined Tumulty's offer to resign. Despite this, however, the relationship between the two was never again as close.
A 'conservative progressive' in his own estimation, Tumulty was a proponent of women's suffrage and war-time censorship, and was a supporter of A. Mitchell Palmer's deportation of 'red' aliens in 1919. His support of Palmer and of the 'wet' Catholic presidential candidate, James M. Cox ultimately led to his final break with Wilson in 1922, and ended Tumulty's influence in Washington. He remained in the city as a practicing attorney until his death in 1954.