William Edward Dodd, educator, historian, and diplomat, was born in 1869 near Clayton. The oldest of seven children, Dodd helped his parents on the family farm until he left to attend Oak Ridge Military Academy. Unsuccessful in his efforts to gain admission to the University of North Carolina and the United States Military Academy, Dodd enrolled in the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical School at Blacksburg where he studied history.
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Following graduation, Dodd remained in Blacksburg teaching history and attending graduate school. He received a master’s degree in 1897 and, shortly thereafter, having borrowed nearly $2,500, sailed for Germany, where he entered the University of Leipzig in pursuit of a Ph.D. in history. At Leipzig he studied under German political historian Erich Marcks and returned to the United States in 1899 with a doctoral degree in hand.
From 1900 until 1907, Dodd taught history at Randolph-Macon College. In 1903 he won national recognition with his biography, Life of Nathaniel Macon. Five years later he took a position at the University of Chicago, where he became a nationally renowned expert on the history of the Old South, publishing works Jefferson Davis and Statesmen of the Old South.
An ardent Democrat, Dodd campaigned for and wrote widely on behalf of Woodrow Wilson and the president’s idea for the League of Nations during the First World War. In the 1920s he pushed for more progressive political positions through his writings. In 1932 Dodd resigned from his teaching position to take a position within the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The following year Roosevelt offered him the ambassadorship to Germany, which Dodd promptly accepted.
Dodd’s tenure lasted nearly four years, a term that coincided with the rise of the Nazi Party. Having run afoul of the State Department in 1937 for writing materials negative to the Nazi-controlled government, Dodd was recalled the following year. He returned to his farm in Loudon County, Virginia, where he died of pneumonia in 1940.
Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 89-91—sketch by W. Conard Gass
Robert Dallek, Democrat and Diplomat: The Life of William E. Dodd (1968)
Fred A. Bailey, William Edward Dodd: The South’s Yeoman Scholar (1997)
William E. Dodd Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.