Robbins: William Gibbs McAdoo kept his Southern roots

Robbins: William Gibbs McAdoo kept his Southern roots

May 15th, 2016 by Frank (Mickey) Robbins in Opinion Columns

This home at 829 Vine St., built in 1888, was once home to William Gibbs McAdoo.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Second of two parts. Read part one here.

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asked his trusted Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo to be also director general of the railroads, where he oversaw movement of supplies to the American Expeditionary Force. Meanwhile McAdoo organized the Liberty Loan Drives, which raised $21 billion for the merchant marine.

By Armistice Day 1918, McAdoo, a former Chattanoogan, was exhausted physically and financially. He announced his resignation the next day and returned shortly afterward to New York City to found McAdoo, Cotton & Franklin, among whose law clients were the founders of United Artists. He then moved to California to concentrate on his political career.

McAdoo ran twice for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, losing to Alfred E. Smith allies, James M. Cox in 1920 and John W. Davis in 1924. When Smith was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, McAdoo swung the convention tide to Franklin D. Roosevelt with California's 44 votes. He had hoped to be on the ticket with FDR, but William Randolph Hearst opposed his inclusion. In 1933, he was elected U.S. senator for California, supporting injury compensation, unemployment insurance and compensation, the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage. Defeated by attorney Sherman Downey in the 1938 Democratic primary, he retired from public life and became president of American Shipping Lines, reflecting his life-long interest in public transportation.

McAdoo's first wife, Sarah, whom he married in Chattanooga in 1885, died in 1912. They had four children. He married Woodrow Wilson's daughter Eleanor at the White House in 1914. They had two children. After "20 years of happiness," her health was such that she could not tolerate the Washington climate. He offered to resign, but Eleanor did not think that wise. The court in Los Angeles granted an uncontested decree for divorce in 1935. Two months later McAdoo, 71, married Deborah Isabel Cross, 26, a U.S. Health Service nurse.

McAdoo never slowed down. When he was considering a run for the presidency in 1920, the New York World headlined "McAdoo Most in Public Eye of All Democratic Possibilities, Declared to Be Best Politician in Wilson's Cabinet: He Has Not Seriously Antagonized Business or Labor." He is an "aggressive personality, tall, angular, positive, keen of eye, voluble like of speech and extremely pronounced in his opinions . His 56 years of life have been characterized by many ups and downs [he] can swing a golf club, ride horseback, 'two-step' and 'hesitate' for three or four hours a night, make a dinner interesting and sit through the opera without being bored, all in the same day, sandwiching a political speech or public address in between."

McAdoo kept his Southern roots (Georgia and Tennessee). While living in Washington, D.C., and New York City, he helped found and lead the Southern Society. When a memorial to Confederate leaders was proposed for Stone Mountain, Ga., he was an outspoken supporter. The former citizen visited Chattanooga in 1923 and was met by a crowd of 3,000 at Union Station. He spoke of spending "so many happy days," dancing with many charming girls, marrying his first wife, and being admitted to the bar here. Two days later, he traveled to Georgia, where he won the presidential primary of that state's Democratic Party, pointing out that he was a "Simonpure 'blown in the bottle' Prohibitionist and refusing to disapprove of the KKK."

In 1932 the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce honored him at a Read House banquet on the 50th anniversary of his coming to the city to start a career "that led him to a foremost place in American and business life." One of his old friends, George Fort Milton, publisher of the Chattanooga News, introduced McAdoo. Also at the speaker's table were Mrs. W.E. Brock, Col R.B. Cooke, Mrs. Milton B. Ochs, Mark Senter, and McAdoo's daughter, Ellen Wilson McAdoo. Justice Alexander Chambliss and Frank Spurlock attended. After dinner, McAdoo visited old friend and office mate John T. Lupton at his Riverview home. The former Chattanoogan said he might some day come back to live. His stately home at 829 Vine St., Fort Wood, built in 1888 and since restored, belongs to Barbara and Steve Derthick.

McAdoo, 77, died of a heart attack in February 1941 in Washington, D.C., after attending the third inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery, as was the custom with cabinet secretaries serving in the war cabinet of Woodrow Wilson.

Frank (Mickey) Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. For more visit

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