Revisionist History: The Legacy of Herbert Hoover

Has Herbert Hoover been judged too harshly for his response to the aftermath of the 1929 crash and the subsequent onset of economic depression?

Written for MO3422: The United States in Depression and War, 1929-1945, at the University of St Andrews

President Herbert Hoover is one of the most infamous American leaders in the nation’s short history. A promising candidate who won the presidential election by a landslide, Hoover was expected to lead the American people to a continued age of prosperity as his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, had been lucky enough to do. While few could have predicted the Stock Market Crash of 1929, only seven months after Hoover’s inauguration, the opinion of the general public shifted tremendously. Americans at the time became disenchanted with the federal response to the the economic downturn, and Hoover’s apparent ‘laissez-faire’ politics provided the perfect scapegoat. In recent years however, scholars and historians alike have begun to debate the validity of these claims and notions. To call Hoover’s politics laissez-faire is inherently false, and the way his successor dealt with the crisis does not serve to negate his efforts. President Hoover passed several acts of legislation in order to combat the issues facing his nation, and overall arguably found as much success as any other man serving in the executive office 

 could have at the time.  With Hoover’s only recent precedent for moving the nation out of financial crisis being Grover Cleveland’s response to the Panic of 1893, he should perhaps be given more credit for the federal and economic intervention that he implemented in the face of the Great Depression.

Born in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, Herbert Hoover had a modest upbringing. His Quaker faith, that stayed with him throughout his adolescence, would influence the remainder of his life informing his campaign platform, his foreign and domestic policies, and his humanitarian work. After becoming orphaned at the age of nine, hard work became a major theme of his life. Hoover worked as a bookkeeper instead of attending high school, yet successfully applied to Stanford University’s inaugural class. Hoover studied to become a mining engineer and used his knowledge and work ethic to begin his own multimillion dollar mining business in 1908. First glimpses of Hoover’s more progressive views on labor are seen in his business practices and his lectures on mining at Columbia and his alma mater, Stanford, before the start of the war. A proponent of an eight-hour work day and of unions for mine workers, these values would become staples of his depression-era legislation.

World War I provided a clear stage for the selfless humanitarian work Hoover would later become known for. In the first year of the war alone, Hoover launched and spearheaded the Commision for Relief in Belgium (CRB). The CRB was feeding 9 million people a day at its peak, on a budget of 11 million dollars per month. Hoover was uninhibited by the government in his efforts to aid in foreign relief. Without any political credentials to his name, and hailing from a nation that was not yet officially involved in the war, Hoover negotiated with German authorities dozens of times to feed the people of occupied-Belgium who were facing the serious threat of starvation. As his extensive efforts were ultimately successful, Hoover gained notoriety and had both Republican and Democratic party leaders expressing interest in his potential presidential candidacy. While he was not nominated for the 1920 election, he was appointed Secretary of Commerce for the entirety of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Following his appointment, Hoover took initiative in his new role, and made what had been an often-overlooked cabinet position into a primary seat for promoting growth and stability in the states. As his first political position, the role of Commerce Secretary was formative  – many of the lessons Hoover learned in his initial eight years of cabinet service were ideas he would later bring to the office of president. His emphasis on the relationship between government and business would profoundly affect the legislation he would later pass in the face of the Depression, with its specific ties to business efficiency and fairness to both industry and workers.

Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign was a landslide victory. The nation was counting on President Hoover to lead them into the continued stability that the twenties had provided for so many. When he entered office, Hoover’s ‘vision’ was in support of his notion that the government could help people, but that they were also to help themselves. Hoover’s campaign was run on his self-proclaimed ideals of ‘equality of opportunity, humanitarianism, personal responsibility, and the importance of family, public education, volunteerism, hard work, and religious faith.’ While many of Hoover’s peers had suffered blows to their reputations in World War I and through the scandalous presidency of Warren G. Harding, the Quaker’s humanitarian work had not been forgotten and helped to secure his stronghold as the GOP nominee in the General Election of 1928. In his campaign Hoover declared that ‘government must be a constructive force’ demonstrating just how greatly he intended to utilize the government to support the nation. When the Depression did take hold following the 1929 Stock Market Crash, it was easy to see how a lack of immediate solutions could have swayed the public to become less enchanted with the president they had only recently supported so adamantly. This ‘fall from grace’ was all the more dramatic, following his 58 percent win in the popular vote.

To be elected with the persona of a man who can do anything, and then to be faced with the greatest Depression the nation had ever seen was a recipe for disaster. These absurdly high expectations were impossible to meet, and were ultimately the cause of Hoover’s low approval ratings. Despite the little faith the American public suddenly had in him, President Hoover was determined to implement his plan for recovery, which included ‘fiscal and monetary, as well as psychological components.’ The legislation he did pass was focused and effective, but it was not enough. Hoover was hesitant to utilize federal funds to support the economy directly until late in his term which, in the opinion of many critics and former supporters, was too late. 

In the nation’s short history, an economic crisis of this magnitude was uncharted territory. The closest equivalent, the Panic of 1893, had been dealt with in a manner that Hoover could not replicate. President Grover Cleveland essentially ‘solved’ that financial crisis by borrowing 65 million dollars in gold from Wall Street banker J.P. Morgan, an option that was not tenable to someone of Hoover’s integrity. If Hoover were to have looked to the past to inform his potential solutions for the depression, it likely would have been a mistake. In 1893, concern for the nation’s economy was growing due to dropping wheat prices and railroad expansion. As a result, Americans rushed to the banks to withdraw their money and ‘hundreds of foreign lenders cashed in U.S. state, federal, and railroad bonds, leading to a run on the U.S. dollar,’ which we see again in 1929. Consequently, a two-year depression began, at the beginning of Grover Cleveland’s presidency. The Depression would undoubtedly lead to layoffs, employment disputes, and civil unrest. Stock prices declined, hundreds of banks closed, and unemployment skyrocketed. Perhaps the greatest predictor for the potential reactions of both employers and laborers was that of George Pullman, and the strikes that occurred as a result. George Pullman was a prominent engineer of the era, who had established a town for employees of his company, and was incredibly committed to growing his industry and fortune. Pullman’s reaction towards the panic, which consisted of his refusal to speak to unions or grievance committees and the subsequent termination of their employments, was indicative of what could happen in the face of another financial crisis. President Cleveland did not have a solution, until J.P. Morgan led a bond offering that essentially bailed the nation out of its two-year economic downturn. This quick fix served to undermine the authority of the president and did not express his legislative power at all, therefore failing to provide a replicable example for future leaders to follow under similar circumstances.

Throughout his term, Hoover passed several significant pieces of legislation in an attempt to rescue the nation from its misfortune. While many considered the President to be a ‘laissez-faire’ chief executive, the various public works projects he proposed and the influential acts and committees he established tell a different story. According to Margaret Hoover, the President’s great-granddaughter and American political commentator, ‘[Hoover] spent more money than any other president before him on massive public works projects that were meant to jumpstart the economy.’  Knowing this, Hoover could be considered interventionist more so than passive. Among Hoover’s plans were important commissions like the Agricultural Marketing Act and subsequent Farm Board. Hoover was primarily focused on agricultural reform, as he could see the ways farm workers were beginning to suffer after the first World War. Hoover considered farming to be ‘a molder of American Character’ The extreme overproduction in the first few years of his presidency were combatted by the creation of the Farm Board, even before the Stock Market crash. The board was adapted after Black Tuesday to become an even greater support system for farmers in even worse conditions than before. The Farm Board, established by the Agricultural Marketing Act, was intended to artificially stabilize prices and therefore promote product sales. To do so, the board would hold the significant amounts of surplus grain and cotton in storage, and would have a budget of $500 million.

The overarching theme of Hoover’s plan can be described as ‘countercyclical economic planning,’ which is seen through his dedication to increased public works expenditure. These large-scale public works projects were intended to stimulate the economy and provide jobs in all sectors. Hoover’s particular attention to the relationship between businesses and their employees showed in his implementation of the Davis-Bacon Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act. Once the Depression began, Hoover was eager to avoid layoffs and wage cuts, as he believed the crisis to be short-lived. He also had the best interest of the laborers at heart in these choices, and believed that putting the unemployed and impoverished on welfare would contribute to the financial panic further. The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 mandated an eight-hour work day for all employees working on federally-funded projects. The Norris-Laguardia Act of 1932 banned yellow-dog contracts, which were agreements between workers and employers stating that laborers would not join unions. This act allowed workers to organize and gave them agency and voice. High unemployment rates had initially dissuaded employees from demanding representation and labor reform, but the Norris-Laguardia Act protected the rights of workers and would go on to influence legislation like the Wagner Act as part of the New Deal. 

Herbert Hoover was of course a flawed man and president, and this was evident in his views on civil rights issues, and his inability to listen to the reasoning of economists in regards to the Hawley-Smoot tariff. Hoover refused to pass anti-lynching laws throughout his presidency and even spoke of a ‘lily-white south’ for the Republican party, which essentially consisted of ‘purging black Republicans from leadership positions in the southern wing of the G.O.P. and replacing them with respectable, business-oriented southern whites.’ The humanitarian philosophy he so proudly embodied in his campaign and daily life was not so evident in his opinions on African-Americans and applied as well to his views on Mexican-Americans as contributors to the nation’s economic difficulties throughout the Depression. One of the most heavily criticised choices of Hoover’s career was the signing of the Hawley-Smoot tariff. This tariff would bring import taxes to the highest rate they had ever been. Hoover did not seem to regard the consequences of this legislation fully, and supported tariff revision in an attempt to support American agriculture by taxing similar foreign goods. In addition, he felt that a strengthened Tariff Commission, of up to 50% increase or decrease, would take the power out of congress. Hoover was implored by trusted economists and advisors against supporting the tariff, but signed it anyway, failing ‘the first great test of his capacity for political leadership.’ Hoover’s reputation was irreversibly damaged by the choice to sign, and the tariff ultimately projected the notion of America as an isolationist, self-interested nation, when the rest of the world was entering difficult financial times as well.

The image of Herbert Hoover as an uncaring and unambitious president has persisted from its widespread acceptance in the 1930’s to popular consciousness now.  While he is not completely undeserving of his reputation, as he did make several mistakes that negatively impacted the nation, Hoover did more to alleviate the suffering of his constituents than any president before him had. From acts relating to labor reform, major public works expenditures, and economic stimulus, Hoover was prolific in his efforts to save the United States from the Great Depression. It is the responsibility of contemporary scholars to decipher whether or not the extremely unfortunate reputation Hoover earned throughout his term can ultimately be reversed to depict a more holistic view of the President, and both the positive and negative aspects of his career.


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