William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman


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(b. Maryland, Liberia, Nov. 1895; d. London, 23 July 1971)

Liberian; President 1944–71 Born into a well-connected Americo-Liberian family in south-eastern Liberia, Tubman studied law and was elected in 1922 as the youngest ever member of the country's Senate. He was deputy president of the supreme court from 1937 to 1943, when he was chosen as the ruling True Whig Party candidate for the presidency; his election was a formality, and he took office in 1944.

He was an energetic and enterprising President, whose charm, folksy manner, and mastery of the intricacies of Liberian dynastic politics enabled him to gain a position of dominance. His declaration of war on Germany qualified Liberia for lend-lease aid from the United States, and his open-door policy for foreign investment, coupled with the adoption of the US dollar as domestic currency, brought investment especially in iron ore mining which led to rapid (if precarious) economic growth and swelled the government budget. Domestically, he sought to broaden the base of Liberian politics beyond the tiny coastal élite which had monopolized it since independence in 1847. He co-opted up-country people into positions of responsibility and expanded rural education, eventually extending full representation to the hinterland areas, though his government was still dominated by the old élite. He also amended the constitution, which had restricted presidential terms to eight years, to enable him to hold office indefinitely.

He adapted adroitly to the anti-colonial upsurge in neighbouring territories, holding a meeting with Touré and Nkrumah in 1959 and hosting a summit of independent African states in 1961, without allowing any radicalization of politics in Liberia itself. An inveterate drinker and womanizer, he ran Liberia in a highly personalized and generally easy-going fashion, while reacting sharply against any challenge to his authority. By the time of his death in office in 1971, the pressures of change which he had skilfully managed were undermining the élitist system of government which he had modernized and adapted but did not fundamentally alter.

Subjects: Politics.

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