William Edward Dodd (21 October 1869–9 February 1940), historian and diplomat, was born in Clayton, North Carolina, and was the son of John Daniel Dodd, a farmer, and his first wife, Evaline Creech Dodd. He attended private academies and briefly supervised two schools before matriculating at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in 1891. He received a B.S. in 1895 and an M.S. two years later, while teaching history at the college. Encouraged by a professor who had studied in Germany, Dodd attended the University of Leipzig, where in 1899 he completed a dissertation on Thomas Jefferson's return to politics in 1796. After receiving his doctorate the following year, Dodd returned to the United States and became a history professor at Randolph-Macon College, a small Methodist school in Ashland, Virginia. He married Martha Johns on 24 December 1901 in Wake County, North Carolina. They had one son and one daughter.
Dodd's critical analysis of the antebellum South, in which he described a class struggle between aristocratic slaveholders and yeoman farmers, rankled many Virginians who venerated the Confederacy. Weary of repeated calls for his removal and seeking a more fertile intellectual environment, in 1908 he accepted a position as professor of American history at the University of Chicago. Expanding on themes he had developed in Virginia, Dodd wrote extensively about Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson and became a leading scholar of the Old South. He argued that Jefferson, possessing confidence in the common man, was the true embodiment of democratic ideals and that Wilson was his intellectual heir. Dodd also maintained that Old South planter elites had weakened the democratic principles that Jefferson had established, and he criticized Lost Cause histories that asserted the South had seceded to protect states' rights, rather than to preserve slavery. Dodd's most prominent works included The Life of Nathaniel Macon (1903), Jefferson Davis (1907), Statesmen of the Old South (1911), Expansion and Conflict (1915), The Cotton Kingdom: A Chronicle of the Old South (1919), Woodrow Wilson and His Work (1920), and The Old South: Struggles for Democracy (1937). With Ray Stannard Baker he edited the six volumes of The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson (1925–1927).
Elevated to department chair in 1927, Dodd remained at the University of Chicago until 10 June 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated him as the country's ambassador to Germany. Despite confirmation by the United States Senate later that day, Dodd was a surprise choice and did not fit in with the aristocratic diplomatic establishment. Resolved to transform the culture of embassy life, he staunchly avoided the lavish lifestyles common in embassy circles and urged regimented work hours for staff accustomed to nightly parties and late-morning arrivals.
Although initially optimistic about the new German government, Dodd became increasingly concerned as Adolf Hitler's nationalism became more strident and the Nazis steadily restricted civil rights. Unlike most other American officials, he warned Roosevelt that Germany's war machine was expanding and neighboring countries might be targets. Although Dodd struggled to contain personal opinions not conducive to diplomacy, his criticisms were clear to the Nazi government. In May 1937 he created controversy when he publicly supported Roosevelt's plan to pack the Supreme Court of the United States and further asserted that an unnamed American billionaire was plotting to overthrow the United States government and replace it with a dictatorship. The final blow to Dodd's tumultuous diplomatic career came in September when he protested American attendance at the Nazi Party rally in Nürnberg. Disregarded by the German government, undermined by embassy and State Department staff, and dogged by fading political support, Dodd was removed as ambassador in December.
Dodd returned to the United States early in January 1938 and went to live at Stoneleigh, his summer estate in Loudoun County that he had purchased during the winter of 1912–1913. He joined the faculty at American University, in Washington, D.C., but focused his attention on speaking out about foreign affairs. As a private citizen, unburdened by government restrictions, Dodd traveled the country publicly condemning the Germans for abolition of religious and intellectual freedoms and persecution of Jews. He also accused international business interests of having deliberately scuttled Wilson's efforts to achieve peace after World War I and argued that American isolationism and high tariffs had contributed to the rise of dictatorships in Germany, Italy, and Japan.
While driving to a speaking engagement early in December 1938, Dodd struck with his car and critically injured a four-year-old child in Hanover County. His arrest on felony hit-and-run charges several days later drew national attention. He pleaded guilty but incurred only a $250 fine because of his age and declining health. Devastating for Dodd, however, was the loss of his voting rights because of the conviction. The child's family filed a lawsuit seeking $25,000 but settled for $3,500. In July 1939 the governor of Virginia restored Dodd's voting rights.
Dodd received many accolades during his career, including honorary doctorates from Emory University (1920), the University of Alabama (1923), and the University of Cincinnati (1929). In 1932 he declined an invitation to speak with the committee charged with selecting a president of the University of Virginia, and in June 1934 some alumni touted him as a possible successor to the president of the College of William and Mary. In the latter year he served as president of the American Historical Association. To mark the occasion, several noted historians, including Frank Lawrence Owsley and Maude Howlett Woodfin, contributed to a festschrift Essays in Honor of William E. Dodd, By His Former Students at the University of Chicago (1935), edited by Avery Odelle Craven.
Martha Dodd died following a heart attack on 28 May 1938. William Edward Dodd, suffering from pneumonia, died on 9 February 1940 at his Stoneleigh estate, where he was buried. In December 1946, his daughter had the remains of both of her parents reinterred at Rock Creek Cemetery, of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, in Washington, D.C.
Biographies in Elizabeth F. Morgan, "William E. Dodd" (typescript dated 20 Sept. 1937), in Works Progress Administration, Virginia Historical Inventory, Library of Virginia (LVA), in Robert Dallek, Democrat and Diplomat: The Life of William E. Dodd (1968), with frontispiece portrait, and in Fred Arthur Bailey, William Edward Dodd: The South's Yeoman Scholar (1997), including bibliography of published works; William E. Dodd Jr. and Martha Dodd (children), eds., Ambassador Dodd's Diary, 1933–1938 (1941); W. Alexander Mabry, ed., "Professor William E. Dodd's Diary, 1916–1920," and J. Claybrook Lewis, "William E. Dodd, Democratic Diplomat," The John P. Branch Historical Papers of Randolph-Macon College, new ser., 2 (1953): 7–86, 87–140; literary critique by Wayne Mixon in Clyde N. Wilson, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 17: Twentieth-Century American Historians (1983), 135–141; feature article in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 24 Feb. 1993; Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011); correspondence, manuscripts, and speeches in William Edward Dodd Papers at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C., at Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., at McGraw-Page Library, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va., at Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, and at Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C., in Andrew Jackson Montague Papers (Accession 22001), LVA, in Fairfax Harrison Papers and Lee Family Papers, both Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., and printed in Aubrey Lee Brooks and Hugh Talmage Lefler, eds., The Papers of Walter Clark (1950), vol. 2; obituaries in New York Times, Richmond News Leader, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Washington Post, all 10 Feb. 1940.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John G. Deal.
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