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  • Writer's pictureJoyce Slater

Story of the Month: The Buck Stops Here

In his mail on October 2, 1945, Harry S (or S.) Truman received a sign for his desk. Fred A. Canfil, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and Truman’s friend, had seen a similar sign on a visit to a reformatory and asked the warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign is 2.5”x13”, mounted on a walnut base. Made of painted glass, it has “The Buck Stops Here” on one side and “I’m From Missouri” on the reverse side.

The saying “The buck stops here” derives from the expression “Pass the buck,” which means passing the responsibility on to another person. “Pass the buck” originates from the game of poker, in which the marker or counter, often in frontier days a knife, most likely a buckhorn-handled knife, was used to tell the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal, they could pass the responsibility on by passing the “buck” to the next player.

President Truman referred to the desk sign on more than one occasion when making public statements. In an address at the National War College he said, “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you—and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here—the decision has to be made.” In his farewell address of January 1953, Truman said, “The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody...”

The sign has been displayed at the Truman Library in Independence, MO since 1957. The museum is open to the public and has recently finished a massive renovation.

Thanks to the National Archives and to Mitford M. Mathews, ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles for the information!

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