John Gilbert Winant

John WinantWinant has been profiled in the Concord Historical Society’s Crosscurrents of Change: Concord, N.H., in the 20th Century.

Winant, born in 1889, first encountered Concord as a student and later as a teacher at St. Paul’s School.  A decorated pilot during World War I, Winant married a wealthy New York socialite, Constance Rivington; they lived in a grand white house on Pleasant Street (the Unitarian-Universalist Church now stands on the site). Despite this elite background, Winant charmed the poor as well as the rich. Campaigning as a Republican with a rumpled, shy, tongue-tied demeanor, Winant won election as New Hampshire’s governor – the nation’s youngest – in  1924. He was elected again in 1930 and re-elected in 1932. America at that time slumped into the Great Depression of the 1930s, with one resident out of every five out of work.

Winant’s service as governor was praised as one of the most progressive in the land as he expanded social programs, spent relief funds and helped New Hampshire towns escape bankruptcy.  His generosity was personal as well as professional. When he was approached by men who were down and out, Winant handed them 50-cent pieces, giving away money until he, too, was broke. When those desperate men ended up in jail for such minor offenses as loitering and vagrancy, Winant anonymously paid for them to get a good, hot breakfast.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Winant “Utopian John” and assigned him to administer the most enduring New Deal program, Social Security. This is why people born in New Hampshire are assigned Social Security numbers beginning in 001 and 002.

History-making as these accomplishments were, Winant achieved greatness as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, playing a key role in forging World War II’s Atlantic Alliance. At the same time Winant established a warm friendship with Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and his family. The ambassador became the American everyman in 1940, pacing the streets of London during the Battle of Britain, ignoring the dangers of German bombs, comforting the injured, just trying to help.

Winant’s wartime accomplishments have been overshadowed by the forceful personalities of Roosevelt and Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Edward R. Murrow. More Americans are aware of Winant’s predecessor, the Boston financier Joseph P. Kennedy, who was replaced after he publicly endorsed appeasing Adolph Hitler, Germany’s military dictator. But the people of London, high and low, knew and loved Gil Winant. One evening, when the ambassador went to the theater, the performance got the applause but Winant received the ovation. After the war, Winant returned to Concord, where he died by suicide on Nov. 3, 1947. He was just 58 years old.

For more information about Winant, see Crosscurrents of Change, Concord, N.H., in the 20th Century, from the Concord Historical Society. The Society has offered assistance to the joint legislative committee studying a permanent Winant memorial. Co-chairs are Rep. Steve Shurtleff of Concord and Sen. Louis D’Allesandro of Manchester. Both are Democrats, and Shurtleff also serves as a Concord city councilor.

Learn about Winant Park and Walking Tours