History’s Fickle Judgment

herbert hoover

Why is Herbert Hoover so reviled?

How should history rate Herbert Hoover, the nation’s 31st President? By today’s standards, Hoover was an anomaly. He rose, in Horatio Alger fashion, from being orphaned at age nine to the pinnacle of self-made success in business and finance. Although he was a Quaker, Hoover’s martial adventures in China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900—at one point leading a detachment of U.S. Marines against Chinese rebels—rival the fictional exploits of Indiana Jones. In an era before ghost writers, Hoover was an accomplished author; his 1922 book, American Individualism, cemented the fame he had earned as a global mining engineer and international humanitarian relief administrator.

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Hoover’s Forgotten Manifesto

Challenge_To_Liberty

Eighty years ago this week, Herbert Hoover published a book of political philosophy entitled The Challenge to Liberty. Although little remembered today, it deserves scrutiny, especially by those interested in the history and theory of classical liberalism in its American context.

When President Hoover left the White House in 1933, he and his wife returned to Palo Alto, California to live. At first he maintained a public silence about the new chief executive and his shimmering New Deal. He did not wish, by any premature, partisan outburst, to jeopardize or appear to jeopardize economic recovery during a national emergency. At any rate he doubted that comments of his would have an effect in the current public atmosphere, poisoned as he considered it to be by the incessant “smearing” of his record by the opposition. He hoped also that, as New Deal measures failed (which he expected them to do), the American people would learn from disillusioning experience and return to their traditional values.

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Herbert Hoover’s American Exceptionalism

The idea of American exceptionalism is a strong cord within our history. This is true especially within the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatives from the Puritans to Alexander Hamilton and President Ronald Reagan have championed the philosophy that the United States was divinely created and was a literal “shining city upon a hill,” and a beacon of liberty. As Herbert Hoover wrote “the Founding Fathers consecrated a new republic ‘under the protection of Divine Providence.’”[1] Hoover’s philosophy was deeply shaped by American exceptionalism and the civic religion of the nation, which was defined by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He also believed that America’s uniqueness was shaped by its religious heritage and its economic system which encouraged “equality of opportunity.”[2]

Hoover’s belief in American exceptionalism was shaped by his life experience of not only growing up in the small Iowa village of West Branch, but also his successful mining engineer career that took him to several continents. George H. Nash, a Hoover historian and biographer, wrote that “more than any other man who held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World.”[3]

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