William Tubman

From New World Encyclopedia

William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman

19th President of Liberia
In office
January 3, 1944 – July 23, 1971
Vice President(s)   Clarence Simpson
William R. Tolbert, Jr. (1952-1971)
Preceded by Edwin Barclay
Succeeded by William R. Tolbert, Jr.

Born November 25, 1895(1895-11-25,)
Harper, Liberia
Died July 23, 1971
Monrovia, Liberia
Political party True Whig
Religion Methodist

William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman (November 29, 1895 – July 23, 1971) was President of Liberia for more than 26 years from 1944 until his death in 1971. His administration lasted longer than any other to date. He sought to unify the country by attempting to bridge the wide economic, political, and social gaps between the descendants of the original American ex-slaves and the tribal peoples of the interior. For the first time, Liberia's elite built ties with leaders in the region and throughout the continent, and the government expanded economic and diplomatic links with Europe. At home, rising revenue from iron, timber and rubber enabled Tubman to widen his power base beyond the traditional constituency of the ruling True Whig Party.

Early Life

Tubman was born in Harper, Liberia to the Reverend Alexander Tubman and Elizabeth Tubman. He was an Americo-Liberian, a descendant of former American slaves who had been returned to Africa under the auspices of the Maryland State Colonization Society, a group favoring the manumission of slaves on Christian grounds. His father was a general in the Liberian army and a Speaker of Liberia's House of Representatives, as well as a Methodist preacher. William Tubman became a lay preacher in his own right and represented Liberia at the Quadrennial Conference of the Methodist Church at Kansas City in 1928. His mother, Elizabeth Tubman, came from Atlanta, Georgia. William attended primary school in Harper, then the Methodist Cape Palmas Seminary, and finally Harper County High School.

Military and Political career

He enlisted in the Liberian army at the age of 15. Between 1910 and 1917 he took part in several punitive military expeditions, rising in the ranks from private to officer status. He studied law under private tutors, served as a recorder in the Maryland County Monthly and Probate Court and as a collector of internal revenue, and in 1917 was appointed county attorney. He was a member of the True Whig Party, which was for over a century the nation's sole legal political party.

His career began when President Charles D.B. King heard him speak at a Masonic gathering and openly praised Tubman's intelligence. King's influence led to Tubman's election in 1921 as the youngest senator in Liberia's history. He resigned from the Senate to defend Liberia before the League of Nations after allegations that the country was using slave labor surfaced. He was reelected to the Senate for the Monrovia district in 1934. He resigned in 1937 to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia. He was elected president of Liberia in 1943 and took office in 1944. He was reelected many times, with the help of constitutional amendments, serving until his death in 1971.

Presidency of Liberia

Strategic role during the Cold War

As World War II gave way to the Cold War, the United States viewed Liberia as an ideal post from which to fight the spread of communism through Africa. Under Tubman, Liberia voted with the U.S. on most key matters at the United Nations, although it sometimes sided with other African states, particularly on decolonization and anti-apartheid issues. Tubman gradually extended ties to the Soviet bloc, but he supported the United States on the Vietnam War, as did his successor, William R. Tolbert.

From 1962 to 1980, Liberia received $280 million in aid from the U.S., the greatest level of U.S. aid to any African country on a per capita basis at the time. In exchange for this aid, Liberia offered its land free of rent for U.S. facilities.

The United States set up a permanent mission to train the Liberian military and began bringing Liberian officers to American institutions for further training. In 1959, Liberia concluded a mutual defense pact with the United States.

Over the next decade, the U.S. government built two sophisticated communications facilities (known as R-site and T-site) to handle diplomatic and intelligence traffic to and from Africa, to monitor radio and other broadcasts in the region, and to relay a powerful Voice of America signal throughout the continent. In 1976, the United States Coast Guard erected an Omega navigational station—one of eight around the world—to guide shipping traffic in the eastern Atlantic and up and down Africa's west coast.

Foreign investment

Tubman was known as the "Maker of Modern Liberia" for his Open Door policy of unrestricted foreign investment and his Unification Policy. The "Open Door" policy attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment facilitated by Tubman's eagerness to hand out concessions to foreign companies.

Tubman raised the country's world profile by traveling abroad and allowing additional international investment in Liberia. With this investment and the income from the newly discovered mineral deposits, he modernized parts of Liberia (mostly along the coast) and built schools, roads, and hospitals. Tubman also expanded the incorporation of indigenous populations into the social and economic mainstream, granting them, for example, the right to vote. Under Tubman, Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations as well as of the Organization of African Unity, and he strongly championed the independence of other African states.

A large increase in revenue resulted when Liberia began ship registrations. Sometime called the "flag of convenience," many ships on the open seas began registering under the Liberian flag. The fees were far lower than those of most other countries, but the resulting revenue enabled Liberia to be solvent for the first time in its history in 1951.

Assessment of Tubman's presidency

Tubman was criticized for being too influenced by the United States and its interests in the area (i.e., the fight against communism), and for repressing political opposition. Tubman's rule became gradually more authoritarian; for example, he changed the constitution to allow himself to remain in office for seven consecutive terms, gagged the press, and introduced a system of government spies to report on all political activity. When Tubman died in 1971, frustration and discontent in Liberia were running high.

A gunman attempted to assassinate Tubman in 1955 at the hire of his political opponents, after which he cracked down brutally on any known opposition politicians.


Liberia changed dramatically during his presidency. Tubman initiated National Unification Policy and the economic reforms encouraged by the Open Door Policy. 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. These policies led to the crowning achievement of the Liberian economy during the 1950s, when it had the second largest rate of economic growth in the world. At his death in 1971 in a London clinic, Liberia had the largest mercantile fleet in the world, the world's largest rubber industry, the third largest exporter of iron ore in the world and had attracted more than US$1 billion in foreign investment. He was succeeded as President by his long-time vice president William Tolbert. The economic prosperity of Liberia at this time would unleash political dissent with the autocratic rule of Tubman and the True Whig Party, leading to the overthrow of the True Whig oligarchy in 1980 by Samuel Doe. This would also destroy the economic prosperity of Liberia's golden age.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Litwack, Leon F., and August Meier. Black leaders of the nineteenth century. Blacks in the New World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. ISBN 9780252015069
  • Mullane, Deirdre. Crossing the danger water three hundred years of African-American writing. New York: Anchor Books, 1993. ISBN 9780385422437
  • Wreh, Tuan. The love of liberty the rule of President William V. S. Tubman in Liberia, 1944-1971. London: C. Hurst, 1976. ISBN 9780876632758

Preceded by:
Edwin Barclay
President of Liberia
Succeeded by:
William R. Tolbert, Jr.


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