William Gibbs McAdoo

One of the ablest Democratic politicians of his time, William Gibbs McAdoo (1863-1941) was a superb administrator and organizer who served as a U.S. senator and a Cabinet officer in Wilson's administration.

The son of a southern jurist, William Gibbs McAdoo was born near Marietta, Ga., and educated at the University of Tennessee. After practicing law in Chattanooga, Tenn., for several years, he opened a law office in New York City in 1892. Ten years later he organized and directed the company that completed construction of the railroad tubes under the Hudson River. After service as vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1912, McAdoo became President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of the Treasury. In addition to his duties as secretary, he served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Farm Loan Board, the War Finance Corporation, and the United States section of the International High Commission. He also floated four Liberty Loans and was responsible for extending credit to the Allied Powers in World War I. In January 1918, with the railroads on the verge of collapse, he became director general of railways and instituted operational reforms. A widower, he married the President's daughter, Eleanor Randolph Wilson. (They were divorced 20 years later.)

McAdoo's superior abilities won him a strong following within the administration. If President Wilson had withdrawn himself categorically from contention for a third nomination in 1920, McAdoo would undoubtedly have been selected, although he could not, as the President's sonin-law, make an open bid. McAdoo would probably have won the nomination in 1924, also, but he was linked indirectly to the Teapot Dome scandal (though not involved in the scandal itself) and had committed certain professional improprieties. As it was, he and Al Smith deadlocked the Democratic nominating convention for dozens of ballots, and only after both men reluctantly withdrew was John W. Davis named on the 103rd ballot.

McAdoo had support from the agrarian progressives, the railroad brotherhoods, the temperance forces, and the Ku Klux Klan. A jaunty man of great personal charm, McAdoo also had a strong strain of opportunism. As Walter Lippmann wrote in 1920, he was not "fundamentally moved by the simple moralities" and his "honest" liberalism catered largely to popular feeling.

Embittered by his failure to win the nomination, McAdoo practiced law in California until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932. He was a staunch supporter, but not truly a leader, of the New Deal. He was defeated for renomination in 1938 and died three years later.


Further Reading on William Gibbs McAdoo

McAdoo lacks a biography. Crowded Years, an autobiography (1931), ends with his resignation from the Cabinet. It should be supplemented with the many books on the Wilson administration. The best coverage of McAdoo's part in the presidential nominations of 1920 and 1924 is in David Burner, The Policies of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (1968).