Vinson was born in Fulton County, Georgia, attended Georgia Military College, and graduated with a law degree from Mercer University in 1902. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1908. After losing a third term following redistricting, he was appointed judge of the Baldwin County court, but following the sudden death of Senator Augustus Bacon, Representative Thomas W. Hardwick of Georgia's 10th congressional district was nominated to fill Bacon's Senate seat and Vinson announced his candidacy for Hardwick's seat in Congress. Vinson won over three opponents. He was the youngest member of Congress (30 years old) when he was sworn in on November 3, 1914.
Vinson served as a Representative from November 3, 1914, to January 3, 1965. During his tenure in the U.S. House, Vinson was a champion for national defense and especially the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. He joined the House Naval Affairs Committee shortly after World War I and became the ranking Democratic member in the early 1920s. He was the only Democrat appointed to the Morrow Board, which reviewed the status of aviation in America in the mid-1920s. In 1931, Vinson became chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. In 1934, he helped push the Vinson-Trammell Act, along with Senator Park Trammell of Florida. The bill authorized the replacement of obsolete vessels by new construction and a gradual increase of ships within the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty, 1922 and London Naval Treaty, 1930. Initial funding for the Vinson-Trammell Navy Act was provided by the Emergency Appropriations Act of 1934. This was necessary as during the previous administration, not a single major warship was laid down and the US Navy was both aging and losing ground to the Japanese Navy, which would repudiate the Treaties in late 1934. He later was primarily responsible for additional naval expansion legislation, the Naval Act of 1938 ("Second Vinson Act") and the Third Vinson Act of 1940, as well as the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. The ambitious program called for by this series of laws helped the U.S. Navy as the country entered World War II, as new ships were able to match the latest ships from Japan.
At the end of the war, Congress had authorized four Naval four-star officers to be promoted to Fleet Admiral. A staunch partisan of Admiral William Halsey, Jr., Vinson blocked the nomination of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, thought to be more deserving by the majority, multiple times to ensure that Halsey got the fourth billet. Congress eventually responded by passing an unprecedented act which specified that Spruance would remain on a full admiral's pay once retired until death.
Following World War II, the House Naval Affairs Committee was merged with the Military Affairs Committee to become the House Armed Services Committee (this consolidation mirrored the creation of the Department of Defense when the old Departments of War and of the Navy were consolidated). With Republicans winning control of Congress in the 1946 election, Vinson served as ranking minority member of the committee for two years before becoming Chairman in early 1949. He held this position, with the exception of another two-year Republican interregnum in the early 1950s, until his retirement in 1965. In this role, Vinson adopted a committee rule that came to be known as the "Vinson rule". Accordingly, each year junior members of the committee could ask only one question per year of service on the committee. As chairman, Vinson oversaw the modernization of the military as its focus shifted to the Cold War. He was also committee chair, when Congress authorized the procurement of the first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers starting with USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in the late 1950s.
A staunch segregationist, in 1956, Vinson signed "The Southern Manifesto".
Vinson did not seek re-election in 1964 and retired from Congress in January 1965. He returned to Baldwin County, Georgia, where he lived in retirement until his death. He is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville, Georgia.
In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the U.S. Navy, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was named the USS Carl Vinson, an honor rarely given to a person while living. On March 15, 1980, at age 96, he attended the ship's launching.
Vinson Massif, Antarctica's highest mountain, is also named after him, together with the related Mount Vinson and Vinson Plateau.
Carl Vinson served 26 consecutive terms in the U.S. House, rarely running against significant opposition. He served for 50 years and one month, a record that stood until 1992, when the mark was surpassed by Jamie L. Whitten of Mississippi.
For his commitment, Vinson was awarded the prestigious Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Vinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Special Distinction, the highest award the President can give to a civilian. During his own tenure in the House, Johnson had served for years as a junior member of the House Naval Affairs Committee under Vinson.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, serving veterans in Central and Southern Georgia, is named for Vinson.
Vinson did not have children, but his grandnephew, Sam Nunn, served as a Senator from Georgia for more than 24 years. Nunn followed in his grand-uncle's footsteps, serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee for nearly his entire tenure in the Senate. Sam Nunn's daughter, Michelle Nunn ran unsuccessfully for one of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats in 2014. Vinson considered his longtime assistant Charles Tillman Snead, Jr. his surrogate son, and Snead's wife Molly Staeman Snead was Vinson's wife's nurse for several years. Snead's son and grandchildren maintained this familial bond to Vinson until his death in 1981. At the time of his death, Vinson was the last living member of the House of Representatives who was serving at the time of the United States' declaration of war against the German Empire, which precipitated the United States' entry into World War I.