Vinson was born in Baldwin 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 when he was sworn in on November 3, 1914.
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 1950's, 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 oversaw the procurement of the first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers starting with the USS Enterprise in the late 1950s.
In 1956 staunch segregationist Carl 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.
In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the U.S. Navy, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was named for him, the USS Carl Vinson; Vinson became one of a handful of living Americans to have a Navy vessel named for them. On March 15, 1980, at age 96, he attended the ship's launching.
Vinson Massif, Antarctica's highest mountain, is also named after him.
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 1994, when the mark was surpassed by James Whitten of Mississippi.
For his commitment to Duty, Honor, Country, 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.
Vinson did not have children, but his grand-nephew, Sam Nunn, served as a Senator from Georgia for 25 years. Nunn followed in his grand-uncle's footsteps, serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee for nearly his entire tenure in the Senate.