Saturday, June 12, 2010

Much ado about McAdoo

Most Americans today will not recognize the name William Gibbs McAdoo Jr. But his career made him very popular during his life. Born in 1863 in Georgia, his family moved to Knoxville when he was 14 years old where his father took a job as a professor at East Tennessee University, the forerunner of the University of Tennessee.

In 1882 William graduated from the school his father worked at. In 1885 he moved to Chattanooga where he practiced Law and then in 1892 to New York where he led the project to complete the first rail tunnels under the Hudson river. His success made him popular in New York, and the tunnels are still in use today. Sadly though, his wife passed away in 1912.

Later that year he was made the vice chairman of the Democratic National Congress, and worked on Woodrow Wilson's campaign and was rewarded with the post of Secretary of the Treasury. Eventually he  married Woodrow Wilson's daughter, Eleanor.

At the onset of the first World War, European countries planned on selling their US assets, converting them into gold and taking the gold back to Europe. This would have depleted the US Gold reserve sending the economy into recession. To prevent this William closed the stock exchange for four months. This forced the European nations to buy American goods using IOUs against their assets in America, allowing the gold to stay put. With a single act he set in motion events that led to placing the US at the top of the world economic stage for at least the next century.

His later career was not as spectacular. He made two failed attempts to secure the Democratic nomination for President of the US, in 1920 and 1924. In the 1924 election he received an endorsement from the KKK, which he did not denounce. He also narrowly escaped being dragged into the Teapot Dome Scandal. He did get elected Senator from California in 1933, but he only served one term, during which Eleanor divorced him. Soon it became evident why. Two months after the divorce was final and at the age of 71 he married his 26-year-old private nurse.

So what is McAdoo's connection to Tennessee Mormonism? Well, in the spring of 1881, while a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, William and his cousin Charles F. Humes, were both on the debating team for the Chi Delta Society. The topic that day was "Resolved, That Mormonism in the United States Should be Abolished." And William and Charles were assigned to defend Mormonism! They wrote to an unnamed Utah "Congressman" (probably Utah delegate George Q. Cannon) asking for help, which they apparently received.

On the evening of the debate the sentiment of the crowd was against them. McAdoo recalled that "the nice respectable people of Knoxville came to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with us, or we would not argue in favor of plural wives." But using quotes from the Book of Mormon, the US Constitution, and arguments provided by the congressman, the two made quite an impression on those present. "The judges retired for consultation and when they returned they announced that Humes and I had won the debate." I have no evidence how this experience colored his opinion of the LDS Church during his political career.

[Charles F. Humes does not follow his cousin's illustrious career, but did make a name for himself at the center of quarrel between the faculty and the board of the University of Tennessee.]

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