William Gibbs McAdoo, a leading figure in American politics in the early twentieth century, began his political career in Chattanooga in the 1880s. He was born in Marietta, Georgia, in 1863, but later moved with his family to Knoxville, where his father taught at the University of Tennessee. McAdoo attended that institution for three years, then went to Chattanooga where he practiced law, participated in Democratic politics, and invested in local development. While there he also developed a lifelong interest in public transportation. In 1889 he undertook an ambitious plan to electrify Knoxville’s streetcar system. The scheme failed, however, and left McAdoo virtually penniless.
Broke and embarrassed, McAdoo moved to New York City and soon established himself as a successful corporate attorney. He remained interested in transportation and in 1901 led a bold venture to construct a series of railroad tunnels under the Hudson River. The successful completion of the Hudson Tubes brought McAdoo considerable notoriety, and he soon became a trusted advisor to New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. McAdoo enthusiastically backed Wilson’s bid for the presidency in 1914 and served as vice-chairman of his national election committee. In return, the victorious Wilson named McAdoo his secretary of the Treasury.
As Treasury secretary, McAdoo oversaw the formation of the Federal Reserve system and pushed innovative programs designed to help farmers and revitalize the nation’s merchant marine. He also helped finance America’s participation in World War I and served as director general of railways during the conflict. In 1919 McAdoo left Wilson’s administration, but he remained active in national politics and was a leading candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1920 and 1924. In 1933 he was elected United States senator from California and served until 1938. He died in 1941, after a life devoted to public service.