Revisiting Herbert Hoover

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September 27, 2009 by D Stack

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States

The time when the employer could ride roughshod over his labor is disappearing with the doctrine of ‘laissez-faire’ on which it is founded.

-Herbert Hoover, 1909

When ranking presidents of the United States, Herbert Hoover tends to fare poorly – almost always being in the bottom half and often in the bottom 25%. He usually doesn’t end up dead last. Warren G. Harding and James Buchanan tend to rule that position, something I’m inclined to agree with. Harding, though possibly oblivious to what was going on around him, had one of the most corrupt administrations ever. James Buchanan spent his lame duck session doing absolutely nothing as states seceded prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Herbert Hoover is often linked with his two Republican predecessors of the 1920s, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He tends to be viewed as a laissez-faire Republican, as were Harding and Coolidge, sitting in the White House doing nothing as the Great Depression began. However, that assessment would not be accurate. He was certainly a small-government president, but prior to Franklin Roosevelt members of both parties were advocates of small government. Indeed, Hoover expanded the federal government at a pace unprecedented in peacetime.

Hoover is a classic example of the self-made American. An orphan at the age of nine, he was passed on from one family member to the next. He managed to get into Stanford University’s first graduating class tuition-free (which was tuition-free), graduating with a geology degree. He was unable to get a job as a mining engineer so he started work as a miner. He eventually did become a mining engineer, traveling the globe for a London-based mining corporation, finding the best location for mines. (He and his wife, also a mining engineer, wound up caught in the middle of China’s Boxer Rebellion.) He was very successful at this endeavor and was heavily rewarded. He eventually founded his own consulting firm and became quite wealthy.

As World War I broke out in 1914, his Quaker faith led him to moving from the world of business to politics, seeking a way to give back to society. In August of 1914 he helped arrange for the return of over a hundred thousand Americans from Europe as the war began, arranging travel and making certain people had accommodations until they could return home, paying for much of it out of his own pocket. After completing this task, he spent over two years dealing with a food crisis in German-occupied Belgium. President Wilson put Hoover in charge of the U.S. Food Administration upon his return to the United States in 1917. After the war Hoover helped get food to starving Germany and parts of communist Russia. In the latter he ran into opposition from home for helping Bolsheviks. He replied “”Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.” He further caused trouble with the Republican party, of which he was a member, in his support of the League of Nations, the right of labor to engage in collective bargaining, and increases in government regulation. Hoover was a member of the Progressive wing of the party, having supported Theodore Roosevelt’s third party Bull Moose candidacy of 1912. Before Hoover revealed his party affiliation the Democrats considered the possibility of nominating Hoover in 1920.

After an unsuccessful attempt at the Republican nomination in 1920, Hoover served in Harding and Coolidge’s cabinets as Secretary of Commerce. He continued his humanitarian works in this role, successfully arranging relief for the 1927 Mississippi flood. In this and his previous efforts Hoover used a combination of reaching consensus with business with the government having a supporting role.

Hoover is obviously best remembered for his role as president at the start of the Great Depression. How did he do? History judges him fairly poorly. That is probably a reasonably fair assessment, although with some caveats. It must be noted that the while stock market crash of 1929 can be considered the start of the Depression, it is not quite that simple. It took time for the Depression to settle in. There were numerous other factors in many times in 1930 and 1931 it looked like the worst had passed and things were improving. This included various bank collapses, the United Kingdom going off the gold standard, and various other local and international events.

During all of this Hoover was attempting to offset the Depression. He attempted to  stimulate the economy with public works projects and tried to get agreements from businesses to preserve payroll. He attempted to boost the worldwide economy by delaying payment of war debts for a year. But he also made missteps. such as his insistence on a balanced budget which included raising taxes. And he took political hits for his war debt policy from both Republicans and Democrats. His defeat in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt was a foregone conclusion.

Hoover went on to be a vocal critic of the New Deal, viewing it as one step removed from fascism, putting him in the camp of the most conservative Republicans.

I certainly wouldn’t put Hoover as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. But I tend to think that he is sometimes over-criticized. He did far more than sit passively by while the nation entered the Great Depression. He certainly must be judged in his failures, but they were at least failures of attempting to do something, unlike failures of corruption or inaction. I don’t think the American people were capable of electing a president like Franklin Roosevelt in 1928. There’s probably no one who was electable in 1928 who could have fought the Depression successfully. I think Hoover falls in with presidents like John Adams and John Quincy Adams – great men who might have been better remembered had they never reached the presidency.


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