The Man

As America tumbled into the Great Depression, John Gilbert Winant was New Hampshire’s governor. Times were hard, the economy was shrinking, and jobless men had begun sitting on the low wall around the State House.

The sun was warm, and they had no place to go. Winant stopped to listen to these men’s stories as he arrived for work, typically giving each one a 50-cent piece, enough to get a good meal and a bed for the night. In those days the Concord police let unemployed men spend the night in empty jail cells. In the morning they were given a hot breakfast. Few people knew that Winant paid the bill.

Born in New York City, Feb. 23, 1889, Gil Winant came to Concord to study at St. Paul’s School. Afterward he attended Princeton University but left before graduating to return to Concord, where he became a beloved history teacher at St. Paul’s. When America entered World War I, Winant signed on as a pilot, volunteering for dangerous missions in his single-engine Salmson biplane.

With a devotion to his adopted state, Winant led the Republican ticket to win a place in the N.H. Senate in 1920, the first year that women were allowed to vote. He next ran for the state House of Representatives from Concord’s Ward 7, home not just to St. Paul’s elite but also to hundreds of farmers and railroad workers. In the House Winant fought to reduce working hours, particularly those of women and children.

In a successful run for governor in 1924, the tall, rumpled candidate campaigned in a quiet, halting manner that won voters’ affections. He won re-election in 1926, lost his bid for a third term, returned to the corner office in 1930, and was re-elected in the face of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 landslide.

Winant won the support of legislative Democrats as he reorganized relief programs, established a minimum wage for women and children, set aside land for 90 state forests, and created many jobs in building necessary infrastructure. While other New England states debated public relief, Winant spent $6.5 million in federal and state funds to help residents.

These efforts captured the notice of Frances Perkins, secretary of labor and an architect of the New Deal. She persuaded FDR to appoint Winant to help create the Social Security system of old-age insurance. This is why Social Security numbers issued in New Hampshire begin with 000, 001, and 002.

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, urged the United States to appease dictator Adolf Hitler in the belief that Germany would win. Knowing the importance of a different outcome, FDR replaced Kennedy with Winant, who promised American support for Britain.

He walked the streets of London as German bombs fell during the Blitz, comforting residents. He helped negotiate the Lend-Lease agreements that sent American materiel to help England survive.

Winant was with Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill when they learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant the U.S. military would join the Allies. During the war, Winant played a key role in ensuring an Allied victory.

After the war, Winant returned to Concord, where he died on Nov. 3, 1947.