McAdoo, William G. (1863-1941)


U.S. secretary of the Treasury from 1913 to 1918.

Born near Marietta, Georgia on October 31,1863, William G. McAdoo began to practice law in New York City in 1892. In 1902, he became president of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company and built the first traffic tunnel under the Hudson River. In 1912 McAdoo, who supported Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, chaired the Democratic National Committee. During the 1912 presidential campaign, McAdoo wrote articles discussing and defending Wilson’s economic policies, and he called for the election of new officials not affiliated with the monopoly of manufacturers. With Wilson’s election, McAdoo became secretary of the Treasury, serving from 1913 to 1918. In 1914, he married Wilson’s daughter, Eleanor Randolph Wilson. McAdoo served as director general of U.S. railroads, a wartime position, from 1917 to 1919. Dale Shook has contended that McAdoo’s endeavors reflected his “ambition, a desire for prestige and respect, a sense of public service, and a secondary goal of making money.”

As secretary of the Treasury, McAdoo revised the tariff law—a high-priority item in the Wilson administration. McAdoo believed that tariff laws were overprotective and discouraged the development of new industries. The tariff laws also resulted in higher prices and lower wages, he contended. The Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913 resulted in lower duties on imports and removed tariffs from (among other items) wool, sugar, steel rails, and iron ore. To replace the lost revenue, the bill proposed a graduated income tax, which the Constitution’s Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, provided.

McAdoo also served as a leader in the creation of a Federal Reserve Board. Working with congressional leaders, he wanted a government bank that would diminish the power of Wall Street banking interests. At the same time, he believed government involvement should encourage individual initiative. McAdoo’s ideas and actions raised his popularity and the trust of the public. Shook compared McAdoo’s role to that of an assistant president in charge of both the creation of policy and the administration of nonpolitical affairs.

During World War I, McAdoo remained active in supporting the nation’s efforts. In his speech “American Rights,” he argued, “God has called us as a champion of freedom and democracy.” In addressing economic needs, he contended that accepting Germany’s attempt to create a zone of about 500 miles in which Americans could not sail their ships would bring disaster to America’s farms, factories, mining interests, and labor interests.

McAdoo ran unsuccessfully for president in 1920 and 1924. When he and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deadlocked at the 1920 Democratic convention, the delegates selected Governor James Cox of Ohio. When McAdoo and Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York deadlocked in 1924, the convention chose John W. Davis, former solicitor general of the United States under President Woodrow Wilson. McAdoo served as U.S. senator from California from 1933 to 1938. He is best remembered for having said, “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument.” McAdoo died in Washington, D.C., February 1, 1941, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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