|19th President of Liberia|
3 January 1944 – 23 July 1971
|Vice President||Clarence Simpson (1944-1952)
William R. Tolbert, Jr. (1952-1971)
|Preceded by||Edwin Barclay|
|Succeeded by||William R. Tolbert, Jr.|
|Born||William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman
29 November 1895
|Died||23 July 1971
|Political party||True Whig|
Tubman is regarded as the "father of modern Liberia"; his presidency was marked by attracting sufficient foreign investment to modernize the economy and infrastructure. During his tenure, Liberia experienced a period of prosperity. He also led a policy of national unity in order to reduce the social and political differences between his fellow Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians. However, during his tenure, he became increasingly authoritarian in his exercise of power.
Early life and education
William Tubman was born November 29, 1895, in Harper, Liberia. Tubman's father, the Reverend Alexander Tubman, was a stonemason, general in the Liberian army, and a former Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, as well as a Methodist preacher. A strict disciplinarian, he required his five children to attend daily family prayer services and sleep on the floor because he thought beds were too soft and "degrading to character development." Tubman's mother, Elizabeth Rebecca (née Barnes) Tubman, was from Atlanta, Georgia. Alexander's parents, Sylvia and William Shadrach Tubman, were freedmen, part of a group of 69 freed slaves whose transportation to Liberia in 1844 was paid by their former mistress Emily Tubman, a widow and philanthropist in Augusta, Georgia.
Emily Tubman was instrumental in the manumission of enslaved African Americans and paying for their transportation to Liberia for "repatriation." Initially, she had great difficulty freeing her slaves in ante-bellum Georgia. Despite appeals to the Georgia State Legislature and financial donations to the University of Georgia, her efforts to manumit numerous slaves were disapproved. Since the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion in 1831, the state legislature had greatly restricted manumissions, requiring a legislative act for each, and posting of expensive bonds by the owner to guarantee the free black would leave the state within a short period of time.
Tubman sought the help of her friend and mentor, Henry Clay of Kentucky, president of the American Colonization Society. This organization, made up of both abolitionists and slaveholders, had proposed colonization in Africa as a solution for freedmen, rather than allowing them to remain in the United States. Their presence was considered to unsettle slaves in the South, and in both the North and South, lower-class whites resented competing with them for jobs. Clay assured her that sending her former slaves to Liberia would be a safe and suitable option. After arriving in Liberia, this group of freedmen took "Tubman" as their surname and settled together. They named their community Tubman Hill after their benefactress.
Tubman, the second son, went to primary school in Harper, followed by the Methodist Cape Palmas Seminary, and Harper County High School. Beginning at age 15 in 1910, he participated in several military operations within the country through 1917, being promoted from private to officer.
Tubman was soon appointed as a recorder in the Maryland County Monthly and Probate Court a tax collector, teacher, and as colonel in a militia. He joined Freemason lodges of the Prince Hall Freemasonry, a fraternal organization established by African Americans after being excluded from the Freemasons.
Having joined the True Whig Party (TWP), the dominant party of Liberia since 1878, Tubman began his career in politics. In 1923, aged 28, he was elected to the Senate of Liberia from Maryland County, holding the record as the youngest senator in the history of Liberia. Identifying as the "Convivial Cannibal from the Downcoast Hinterlands," he fought for constitutional rights for the members of indigenous tribal groups, who comprised the overwhelming number of Liberians.
Re-elected as senator in 1929, Tubman became the legal adviser to vice president Allen Yancy. He resigned from the Senate in 1931 to defend Liberia before the League of Nations amid allegations that his country was using slave labor. Tubman was reelected to the national legislature in 1934; he resigned in 1937 after being appointed by President Edwin Barclay as associate justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, where he served until 1943. An official biography speculates that Barclay appointed Tubman to the Liberian Supreme Court to remove him as a competitor for the presidency.
President of Liberia
In December 1942, Liberia had to elect a successor to President Edwin Barclay. Six candidates ran for office; the two favorites were Tubman and Foreign Minister Clarence L. Simpson. Tubman was elected president on May 4, 1943, at the age of 48, and was inaugurated January 3, 1944.
While the United States, its ally, began to base military operations in the country after it entered World War II, Liberia did not declare war on Germany and Japan until January 27, 1944. In April 1944, Liberia signed the Declaration by United Nations.
Choosing to sever diplomatic relations with Germany and expel German citizens from Liberia was a difficult decision for Tubman for economic and social reasons: (1) German merchants were integral to the Liberian economy; (2) Germany was Liberia's major trading partner; and (3), most of the doctors in Liberia were Germans. Under the above declaration, Tubman agreed to expel all German residents and oppose the Axis powers.
In foreign policy, Tubman aligned his country with the US. (In June 1944, he and Edwin Barclay of Liberia traveled to the White House as guests of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first African heads of state to be received there. Following the war, which resulted in an anti-colonial movement on the African continent, Tubman strengthened ties among fellow Africans by participating in the Asian-African Conference of 1955 and the First Conference of Independent African States in Accra, organized in 1958 by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. In 1959, Tubman organized the Second Conference of African States.
In 1961, following a Pan-African conference held in Monrovia, Tubman helped to found the African Union. This association of "moderate" African leaders worked for gradual unification of Africa, unlike the "revolutionary" group based at Casablanca.
The "father of modern Liberia"
When Tubman was appointed to the Supreme Court in the 1930s, Liberia was seriously underdeveloped, lacking basic infrastructure of roads, railways, and sanitation systems. Tubman said that Liberia had never received the "benefits of colonization," which he meant to be the investment by a wealthy major power to develop the infrastructure of the country. He established an economic policy, known as the "porte ouverte" ("open door"), to attract foreign business investment. Working to facilitate and encourage foreign businesses to locate in Liberia, he encouraged development. Between 1944 and 1970, the value of foreign investments, mainly from the United States, increased two hundredfold. From 1950-1960, Liberia experienced an average annual growth of 11.5%.
With the expansion of the economy, Tubman gained revenues for the government to construct and modernize infrastructure: the streets of Monrovia were paved, a public sanitation system was installed, hospitals were built, and a literacy program was launched in 1948. During Tubman's administration, several thousand kilometers of roads were built, as was a railway line to connect the iron mines to the coast for transport of this commodity for export. During this period, he transformed the Port of Monrovia into a free port to encourage trade.
By early 1960, Liberia began to enjoy its first era of prosperity, thanks in part to Tubman's policies and implementation of development. Regarded as a pro-Western, stabilizing influence in West Africa at a period when other countries were achieving independence, often amid violence, during the 1960s Tubman was courted by many Western politicians, notably U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
After a gunman attempted to assassinate Tubman in 1955, he brutally repressed the political opposition. His administration was considered increasingly authoritarian. The nation's constitution did not have term limits, and Tubman did not volunteer to leave office. He controlled the dominant political party and had created a wide network of obligations through patronage appointments.
Tubman is best known for his policies of National Unification and the economic Open Door. He tried to reconcile the interests of the native tribes with those of the Americo-Liberian elite, and increased foreign investment in Liberia to stimulate economic growth.
During the 1950s, Liberia had the second-highest rate of economic growth in the world. By the time of his death in 1971 Liberia had the largest mercantile fleet in the world, the world's largest rubber industry, was the third-largest exporter of iron ore in the world, and had attracted more than US$1 billion in foreign investment.
Tubman died at a clinic in London following post-operative complications from prostate gland surgery at the age of 75. He was succeeded by his long-time vice president William Tolbert. Political dissent increased following Tubman's autocratic rule, and new groups wanted a share of the nation's success. The True Whig oligarchy was overthrown in 1980 by Samuel Doe. The ensuing civil wars and violence destroyed the economic prosperity of Liberia's golden age.
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