Definition: To accept responsibility for an action or decision.
Related phrase: “passing the buck” means passing or evading blame. The term is from the world of poker in which a marker (often a buckhorn knife in the mid to late 1800s) indicated which player would deal. If a player did not want to deal, he would pass the marker (“pass the buck”) to the next player.
Origin: Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S., is often credited with coining this well-know phrase; however it is certain that he did not coin it, but he (or more accurately, the White House Press Corps) did popularize it and it came to accurately reflect the president’s management style. In an interview in 1995, Clay Bauske, Curator of the Truman Library and Museum, aptly called the desk sign “an icon of the Truman administration.”
In April of 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, pushing a rather ordinary, uneducated, and obscure midwesterner, the son of a Missouri mule trader, into the Oval Office. Harry S. (incidentally, the S. didn’t stand for anything, it was added to placate his two grandfathers, Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young) Truman stepped into the shadow of a legend, FDR. Historian Kenneth Davis writes: “When Truman took office, most Americans were in a state of shock. FDR was the only president they could remember. Despite their enormous personal differences, however, Truman pledged to carry out FDR’s policies. He would just do it in his own style.” One month into his presidency, Truman met from July 16 to August 2, 1945 with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam (Federal Marshal Fred Arthur Canfil, a life-long friend accompanied him) and declared: “I am here to make decisions and whether they prove right or wrong, I am going to make them.” He could have easily said, “Gentlemen, the buck stops here.” In fact, Truman did use the phrase from time to time in future speeches. And in a case of putting your motto where your mouth is, it was at Potsdam that Truman made the difficult decision to use the Atomic Bomb on Japan, thus inaugurating the Atomic Age.
The expression was initially publicized in an article for the Reno Evening Gazette in 1942 that shows Colonel A. B. Warfield (commandant of the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment depot at Stockton, California) sitting behind a desk. On that desk was a small sign that read “THE BUCK STOPS HERE.” Nothing is known about who made that desk sign and the specific reason for why that phrase was used. One can surmise that the phrase was generally known and used in the early 1940s, having its roots in the world of poker. One could also speculate that Warfield might have been a poker player or familiar with the jargon of poker, and that specific phrase resonated with his particular management style. Warfield’s sign easily predate Truman’s association with the phrase.
Three years later, in late September of 1945, Fred Canfil, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Missouri delivered a prisoner to the Federal Reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma and was captivated by a desk sign with the phrase “The BUCK STOPS here!” on the desk of L. Clark Schilder who served as warden from November 5, 1940 to June 28, 1947. Since it captured Truman’s signature style, Canfil asked for a replica of the sign as a gift for the president. Thomas Hardwick, the son of William Harvey Hardwick, who was Associate Warden in 1945 and Warden in 1947 and who grew up at the reformatory, explained to Bookshelf: “Buford Earl Tressider Sr., a correctional officer in charge of the Vocational Paint Shop actually made the sign on the warden’s desk and the one given to President Truman.” He, also, made other signs including a “Mr. Schilder” and a “Mr. Hardwick” desk sign in the same design and size of the Truman sign. (David McCullough’s biography of Truman gives the impression that it was the fall of 1946.) The sign was sent to the president on October 2, 1945. According to an October 9, 1945 letter to Schilder from Rose Conway, Truman’s secretary, itwas put into a cabinet. No one knows how often it was on Truman’s desk. The most widely viewed sign on a desk, the Library No. 60-20-1 photo, was taken July 1959 years after Truman left office.
The desk sign is approximately 13 inches long, 2.5 inches tall, 1.75 inches wide made of gold leaf lettering on glass, mounted on a walnut base made by Mr. Morgan’s inmates in the Vocational Carpenter Shop. On the front it read “The BUCK STOPS Here!” on the other side (facing Truman) it read, “I’m from MISSOURI” implying the unofficial motto of Missouri “I am from Missouri. You have got to show me!” that indicates that natives of the state are generally skeptical. The phrase is attributed to Willard Vandiver, U.S. Congressman from Missouri from 1897 to 1903, who said at a naval banquet held in Philadelphia in 1899: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
Truman’s desk sign, created by a skilled artist, is on display at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. It, alone, sits in an impressive custom display case that stands in front of the replica of the Oval Office. There is no information about the current location or owner of Warfield’s sign, but Hardwick knows exactly where the original desk sign is, and who is the owner. Hardwick is currently doing research to uncover more details about the legendary phrase and desk signs. Specifically, Hardwick is interested in solving the mystery of how a phrase went from common usage to being etched on a desk sign which is part of Americana.
Special thanks to Thomas Hardwick and his extensive and detailed notes from his many years of dedicated research and more significantly, for his gift of friendship.
For further reading: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History by Jan Van Meter, Chicago University Press (2008). Truman by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster (1992)
Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents by Kenneth Davis, Hyperion (2012)
Common Phrases: And the Amazing Stories Behind Them by Max Cryer, Skyhorse Publishing (2010)