Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964)

Figure 1.--Here Herbert (center) is at about age 7. He is with his sister and brother in 1881. Their farther had died a year earlier. Their mother, a school teacher, died 2 years later leaving the children orophans.

Herbert C. Hoover was the 30th President of the United States. His was a failed presidency. Hoover has to be ranked as perhaps the greatest failure as an American president. Surely there were several less than competent presidents. Hoover was, however, higly competent. HJis failure was that he was locked in by his ideological view on the proper role of the government. So often in American history, presidents have risen to the occasion in times of national crises. Hoover did not. It was not because of lack of competence or effort. It was not that he was a mean-spirited man, in fact Hoover's record of service abroad and at home spanned half a century. Hoover brought to the Presidency an unparalleled reputation for public service as an engineer, administrator, and humanitarian. And he oversaw the greatest Federal opeace time intervention in the economy than any other president. The problem was that economics was a still not fully developed discipline. And neither he or the Congress understood the cause of the economuc down turn or the impact of the policies that they were putting in place to deal with it. Lives were ruined, and people went hungry. Americans asked why a man who had saved so many European children was now allowing American children go hungary. Strident voves from the left and right were beginning to attract increasing appeal. Many dispaired and the very survival of the republic was in question when President Hoover turned over the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt.


Herbert was the son of a Quaker blacksmith, Herbert Clark Hoover was died at age 34 in 1880, leaving his wife with three young children. His mother ??? was an activist in the sufferagette movement. Hoover was to say that his earliest memory was beng taken by his mother to a polling place to protest the fact that women could not vote. (When he ran for president in 1928, he became known as the woman's candidate. He won 65 percent of the women's vote in the 1928 election.) His mother was a school teacher and taught Sunday school as well. She took in sewing to support herself, but she died 2 years later, also at the age of 34, leaving the children oephans.


Herbert was born in an Iowa village during 1874. After their mother's death, Herbert was sent west to Oregon. He had 20 cents for the trip. In oregon he was raised my his mother's brother. He was a strict Quaker and a country doctor.


Herbert was never able to finish highschhol. His uncle insisted that he laeve school and work in his land office. (His favorite book was Dickens' David Copperfield, another orphan who had to go to work as a boy.) He continued his education by studyoing at night by klearming to type and keep books at a night school. A visit to a mine got him interested in engineering. He was illprepared for college and failed most of the entrance tests, but a Quaker professor managed to get him. He was part of the Stanford 1891 class--the fitst year of operations. A tutor helped bring him up to the level of the other students. At Stanford, Hoover was a dynamo earning money not only for his tuition, but for school activities as well. There was even a campus battle with the elitist franternaties. He graduated a mining engineer.


Hoover had quite an impressive career before he became president, although it was not a political career. He was the only president to win the office with out apolitical background, with the exception of military figures. His greatest achievement was his humnitarian work which save millions of European children from starving following World War I.


Hoover married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry, and they went to China, where he worked for a private corporation as China's leading engineer. In June 1900 the Boxer Rebellion caught the Hoovers in Tientsin. For almost a month the settlement was under heavy fire. While his wife worked in the hospitals, Hoover directed the building of barricades, and once risked his life rescuing Chinese children. Lou was later to say that her husband took her to the Boxer Rebellion for their honeymoon. Of course that was not his intention, but that is precisely what he did. Lou was an amazing oman and learned Chinese while there.

World War I: The Great Engineer

It is said of Herbert Hoover that no one in history saved the lives of more European children. Some Americans might have added during the 1930s that few people did less to save the lives of American children during the Depression. One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France (1914). The American Consul General in London asked Hoover to help get stranded tourists home. Hoover's committee in 6 weeks helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Then Hoover turned to a far more daunting task, how to feed Belgium, which had attacked France through neutral Belgium and overrun most of the country. When the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration (1917). Hoover succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed. Europe had been devestated by the War. The desestation and the battlefield losses significantly affected agricultural production. After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia (1921). When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" This was the greatest exercise in international relief in world history. Had it not been for American food aid after the War, millions mostly children would have starved throughout Europe.

Secretary of Commerce

Hoover capably served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

Presidential Election (1928)

President Coolidge was very popular and could have easily secured the Republican nomination. He decided, however, not to run. This threw the Republican nomination wide open. The Republicas at Kansas City nominated Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The Democrats with little optimism nominated long-time candidate Governor Al Smith of New York. He was the first Catholic nominated by a major party and this became a major issue in the Democratic stringhold of the South. The Republicans in the early 20th century were the majority party. Ands short of a split in the Party or a major scandal, the Republicans were the odds on favorite. Economic prosperity made a Republican victory a virtual foregone conclussion. Secretary Hoover set the tone of the campaign in his acceptance speech, "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of this land. We shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this land." In the end it was the economic properity that led to Hoover's victory. Protestant attitudes toward Catholics made it a landslide. Secretary Hoover received 21.4 million (58 percent) popular votes and a commanding 444 electoral votes. Governor Smith received only 15 million popular votes (41 percent) and 87 electoral votes. Smith managed to carry only Rhode Island and Massachsetts and the Deep South. Several Southern states like Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina for the first time since Reconstruction went Republican. Here Smith's Catholcism hurt him badly. And his home state of New York went Republican. Desguised in the landslide was the fact that the Democrats carried most large northern industrial cities. One of the few Democratic bright spots was the election of Franklin Roosevelt to replace Govenor Smith in New York.

President Elect (November 1928-March 1929)

There was still a considerable delaybetween the November election and the new president's inguration in March. But there was at the time no pressing crisis as when Hoover would leave office. We do not yet have details about the Presiden't-Slct's activities. We know that he went to Miami to relax after the strenosh campaign. He traveled to Nicaragua, although we do not yet know about the curcumstances. There were many publicity events to provide photo opportunities. There was time to consider some of his early policy initiatives on both regilations and the expanding the civil service.

The Depression (1929)

Hoover's presidency will for ever be associated with the Great Depression. Hoover did not cause the Stock Market Crash. The stock market crash that brought on the Depression had been the immediate result of a decade of building speculation. The Depression that followed was deepened by a range of inequities and mismanagement in the American economy. Hoover's actions helped to turn a serious recession into theGreat Depression. In fairness to President Hoover, Democrats in Congress promoted many of the same policies such as raising tariffs and cutting Government spending. Hoover worked diligently on the problem, but seemed unable to grasp the extent of the crisis or the need for bold Federal action. The public's reaction was all the more severe because of statements he made during the campaign about ending poverty. By the time Hoover left office a string of new words had enteredcthe American lexicon such as Hoovervilles--hobo shacks.


President Hoover assumed office abot 7 months before the Wall Street Crash. Rightly or wrongly he and the Reoublicans became blamed for the ensuing Depression. While only president for a few months, he was a member of both the Harding and Cooldige Administatiobs, serving as Secretary of Commerce. He was deemed resonsible in the public imagination. Shantytpwns of unemployed men became know as Hoovervilles. He was depicted as both uncarrying and ineffectual. Actually, Hoover did a great deal. It is a myth that he did not take enough governmental action. Both he and Congress did a great deal. It should rembered that the Congress, which included many Democrats were active during first 3 years of the Depression. There is a growing body of opinion among economists that both President Hoover and the Congress turned an ordinary recession into the Great Depression by the governmental actions taken. In turn, President Roosevelt after important initial steps, probably lengthened the Depression with the New Deal. [Shales] A reader writes, "Presidents Hoover and President Roosevelt after him were largely ignorant of the economics that they were putting into play, in large part because the economists of the day did not understand what was happening. It was not until the post World War II era that Milton and Ana Friedman did their statistical studies that the world learned that the quantity of money decreased by one-third during the depression, making agricultural price supports and wage laws destructive to economic recovery. That knowledge is being misused today to temporarily sustain a misguided economy, but at least the knowledge exists if we choose to correct our current path." [Kerschner]

Presidency (1929-33)

Herbert Hoover told Americans, "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." His election to many Americans seemed to ensure prosperity. Hoover was the only non-military president who gained the office without previously seeking public office. Yet within months the stock market crashed, and the Nation spiraled downward the most severe depression in its history. After the crash Hoover announced that while he would keep the Federal budget balanced, he would cut taxes and expand public works spending. In 1931 repercussions from Europe deepened the crisis, even though the President presented to Congress a program asking for creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid business, additional help for farmers facing mortgage foreclosures, banking reform, a loan to states for feeding the unemployed, expansion of public works, and drastic governmental economy. At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility. Hoover's opponents in Congress, who he felt were sabotaging his program for their own political gain, unfairly painted him as a callous and cruel President. He was neither. He was, however, unwilling to use government to address the people's needs. Hoover became the scapegoat for the depression and he and the Republican Party were badly defeated in 1932. He left the White House a bitter man.

Vice-President Curtis

Charles Curtis was the 31st vice-president of the United States. He was born in North Topeka, Kansas (1860). At the time Kansas was aerritory and fighting there was at of the developments leading to the Civil War. He had aocky childhood. His mother died (1865) and his father deserted him. As aesult he went to live with his mother's Indian relatives on the Kaw Reservation in Morris county (Council Grove, Kansas). When he was a little older he was taken in by his father's parents (1868). There he attended school and worked in a livery stable to earn some spare change and because he liked horses. He started racing as jockey on Kansas racetracks (1876). Some consider him to be the greatest jockey of his time. He also began working as a reporter for the North Topeka Times. He becme interested in the law. He begn studying law on his own while working as a hack (horse carriage) driver. As his studies advance he got a job in an attorney's office and studdied there as well. He worked for a time as a Notary Public. He was admitted to the Kansas Bar (1881). He developed more of an interest in politics than practicing law. He was elected Prosecuting Attorney of Shawnee County (1884). He married Annie Elizabeth Baird (1884). They had three children: Permelia, Harry, and Leona. He was re-elected to Office of Prosecuting Attorney (1886). He was elected to House of Representatives as aepublican (1992). He failed in his first Senate race (1904). He won his next Senate race (1906), but was defeated in hiosx re-election effort (1912), but won reelection (1914). He became the Republican Floor Leader (now called the majority leader) of the United States Senate (1924). This made him a national figure and was won the Republican nomination for vice-president on the ticket with Hrbert Hoover (1928). Herbert Hoover and Curtis won in a landslide. Curtis is noticeable as the first Native American of proven ancestry to serve as both senator and vice-president. Both Hoover and Curtlis were renominated by the Republicans, but as aesult of the Depression, were defeated by Govenor Franklin Roosevelt (1932). Curtis retired from politics. He died in Washington D.C. (1936).


It is an irony of history that Hoover, a pennyless orphan as a boy was seen as not vigorously address the needs of those impoverished by the Depression. Actually this is unfair. The Federal Government took greater effiorts to address an economic crisis than ever before in history. The problem ws that neither the President canf his administration nor the Congress had a firm grasp on economics because eccomic theory was still very primitive. And even more ironic was that the needs of those impoversished were addressed by Roosevelt, a member of the elite class raised in luxury. Further adding to the confusion is the increasing realization that the programs and policies put in place by these two good men to provide relief probably intensified and prolonged the Depression. The difference between the two men was not compasion. Hoover was a compasionate man with a record of humanitarianism. Hoover despite his early poverty was aself-made man and like many self-made men was convinved that the American economy and society was essentially sound and was thus opposed to major experimentation or a significant expansion of the role of government. Here Roosevely was prepared to make major changes and experiment with major social reforms. Some of which were beneficial and others were not. Fortunately for Roosevelt, the Supreme Court struck down some of his worst ideas.

Preidential Election (1932)

America less than a year after Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover's impressive victory was struck by the Wall Street Crash (1929). President Hoover's unwillingness to act decisevely meant that America lapsed into the Great Depression. The Republicans stuck with President Hoover, but withoyt enthusiam--in sharp contrast to 1928. The economic devestation virtusally preordained that the Democrats would win the 1932 election. The question was only who would win the Democratic nomination. Following his reelection as governor in 1930, Roosevelt began to campaign for the presidency. While the economic depression damaged Hoover and the Republicans, Roosevelt's bold efforts to combat it in New York enhanced his reputation. In Chicago in 1932, Roosevelt won the nomination as the Democratic Party candidate for president. He broke with tradition and flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. He then campaigned energetically calling for government intervention in the economy to provide relief, recovery and reform. His activist approach and personal charm helped to defeat Hoover in November 1932 by seven million votes. The land-slide Democratic election victory resulted in a major realignment of American politics,

After the Presidency

Hoover never changed his views. He was extreemly embittered with his electoral defeat in 1932. In the 1930s he became a vocal critic of FDR's New Deal, warning against tendencies toward statism. Even more disastorously for his reputation, he joined the isolationists and argued against President Roosevelt's efforts to aid the Allies against NAZI Germany, seeing it as drawing America into another World War. He seems to have not seen the danger that the mortal danger that NAZIs posed for America and the inevitability that America would have to eventually fight them. President Truman in 1947 appointed Hoover to a commission, which elected him chairman, to reorganize the Executive Departments. He was appointed chairman of a similar commission by President Eisenhower in 1953. Many economies resulted from both commissions' recommendations. Hoover published a ponderous three volume memoir (1951). Much of it was a critique of the New Deal. Even more difficult to explain, however, was his support of isolationsism when World war II broke out in Europe. Over the years, Hoover wrote many articles and books, one of which he was working on when he died at age 90 in New York City (October 20, 1964). Politically the Hoover Administration was a watershed in American politics. Since the Civil War the United States was an essentially Republican country. After the Hoover administration, America with the rise of organized labor would be a largely Democratic nation until the Regan Revolution of the 1980s.

Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944)

Lou Henry Hoover is not a First Ladt often mentioned, presumably because her husband was such a failed president. First Ladies rightly or wrongly are assessed in part as a part of their huband's presidency. And Hoover's efforts to deal with the Depression were wholely inadequate. Mrs. Hoover herself was quite an admirable person. She was in every way a partner to her husband. She worked with him in all his persuits, sharing his many interests. Lou Hoover had it not been for the Depression might have been considered one of the more notable First Ladies. She night be considered the first feminist First Lady for her work with the Girl Scouts and women's athletics. The Hoovers while acquiring the image as uncaring about the plight of the unemployed were in fact involved in charitable activities. What we do not understand about Mrs. Hoover is why she did not publically emerse herself in charitable work to help those adversely affected by the Depression. Was it that this work with the down trodden did not appeal to her or did her husband not want her to get involved. Of course this would have had little affect on the Depression, it might have affected the public perception of the Hoovers. It would have also incouraged more women to do the same. Here we just do not know. It seems particularly difficult to understand given their history of organizing relief progams diring and after World War I.


Two sons, Herbert and Allan, were born during their parents' adventurous life abroad.

Herbert Jr. (1903-69)

Hervert attended Stanford and for a time taught at the Harvard Business School. He married Margaret Watson and they had three children. He persued a career in geology. He was also an inventor and diplomat.

Allan Henry (1907-93)

Allan married Margaret Coberly. They had three children. He made a fortune ranching in California. As an older man he moved to Connecticut and devoted himself to reserecting his father's reputation which had been destroyed by his inadequate response to the Depression.


Kerschner, Karl. E-mail message, February 28, 2013.

Shales, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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