Today’s blog post was written by Tammy Kelly, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library.
When future President Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, his parents decided to name him Harry, after his mother’s brother Harrison Young. But what about a middle name? Harry’s parents could not come to a decision—should Harry’s middle name be Shipp, in honor of his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shipp Truman? Or should it be Solomon, in honor of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young?
In the end, they entered his middle name as simply S, which led to a never-ending controversy and questions about Harry S. Truman’s middle name.
Many people tried to give Truman a middle name. When Truman took the oath of office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone delivered the oath as “I, Harry Shipp Truman.” When Truman repeated it back, he made the subtle correction, “I, Harry S. Truman.”
Truman often received mail addressed to “Harry Solomon Truman,” “Harry Simpson Truman” and “Harry Shippe Truman.” In 1955, on a visit to Eugene, Oregon, to raise money for the construction of the Truman Library, the Swinomish Indian tribe gave Truman the ceremonial middle name of Swinomish.
But if Truman’s middle name is just S, and does not stand for anything else, why does the Truman Library use a period after the S? The reason is simple: Harry Truman did.
The Truman Library is filled with numerous examples, from Truman’s boyhood through his old age, where the period after the S is very clear. Other times, especially while he served as President, Truman ran his signature into a single stroke of the pen and the period can be difficult to decipher. Other times it is quite emphatic.
Another reason the Truman Library also uses “S.” is that the library follows the guidance of the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, which states that the period should be used as part of Truman’s middle name, partly for the sake of consistency.
This leads to another question that Truman asked his friend and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson: what does one call Truman’s middle name? In a letter to Acheson in 1957, Truman writes “…do you know the word meaning an initial standing in a name but signifying no name itself, as the ‘S’ in Harry S. Truman?”
This leads to an entertaining response from Acheson, who contacts several librarians and reports back on his search:
The essence of the matter is that we are blind men, searching in a dark room for a black hat which isn’t there. The “S” in Harry S Truman (no period after the “S”) does not “stand for anything.” Therefore, it cannot have a descriptive noun—“vacuum,” “nothing,” etc., are already pre-empted. But, more positively, it is something—not representatively, but absolutely. You are “S” (without a period) because it is your name.
One of the librarians stated in her report that she understood Truman’s parents gave him S as a middle name. “Parents can name their child anything they please, and if they choose to name him X, then X is his name,” she wrote. “On the other hand it seems a pity to offer nothing to an ex-President. Why not make up a word? I suggest sic, meaning ‘so in christening.’”