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Herbert Hoover, America’s forgotten conservative

By John Hendrickson

President Herbert Hoover led a remarkable life that was based upon public service, humanitarianism, and a belief that America is an exceptional nation. Nevertheless, many conservatives today are often critical of Hoover. Some have even described President Joe Biden as the next “Herbert Hoover” because of the current state of the economy. President Hoover’s policies during the Great Depression can be debated, and they deserve more consideration, more than just the standard knee-jerk reaction often provided by many conservative and libertarian commentators. Nevertheless, Hoover deserves better from conservatives. Herbert Hoover is a forgotten conservative statesman, whose philosophy and ideas can still serve as a guide for conservatives. In reflecting on Hoover’s conservatism, Richard Norton Smith, a Hoover biographer and presidential historian, wrote that “none has more relevance to our own time than Hoover’s role as a philosopher of modern conservative thought.”

Hoover’s conservatism is often overshadowed because he is seen as a progressive, especially in comparison to his predecessors Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover served as Secretary of the Commerce in both the Harding and Coolidge administrations, and he was viewed as an activist, especially in comparison to other cabinet officials, especially Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport, who co-authored "The New Deal & Modern American Conservativism: A Defining Rivalry," argue that Hoover’s philosophy was to balance progressivism, while still defending the Constitution.

From a philosophical standpoint, Hoover rejected laissez-faire and he outlined his political philosophy in his 1921 book "American Individualism." In American Individualism, Hoover defended what he described as the “American System” and the principle of equality of opportunity. Lloyd and Davenport wrote that Hoover’s “American System” was centered on “individual freedom and equality of opportunity,” which leads to “a sense of responsibility which inspires Americans to take care of each other while pursuing their own and their communities best interests, unhindered by government bureaucracy or central planning.”

This was the philosophy that governed Hoover’s humanitarianism and when President Coolidge tasked him with the responsibility of organizing relief efforts for the 1927 Mississippi River flood. “I suppose I could have called in the whole of the army, but what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself,” stated Hoover in response to the call of Americans that helped provide relief to those who were suffering because of the flood. This is also the spirit that many Iowans took during the COVID-19 pandemic as neighbors and businesses helped one another in numerous acts of goodwill across the state.

In the 1928 presidential campaign, Hoover won in a landslide and his philosophy of the “American System” would guide his administration. The onset of the Great Depression would not just be a turning point for Hoover, but for the nation. During the 1932 presidential campaign Hoover would defend his administration, but because of the severity of the Depression he was defeated in a landslide by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who during the campaign promised the nation a New Deal.

At the close of the 1932 campaign, Hoover stated “this campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government.” Hoover was prophetic as Roosevelt’s New Deal would radically transform not only the federal government, but constitutionalism. Lloyd and Davenport argue that “we can now see more clearly that the New Deal was America’s French Revolution, and the post-presidential Herbert Hoover, if not our Edmund Burke, was at least a prophetic voice crying in the progressive wilderness of the 1930s, pointing the way toward what has become modern American conservatism.”

Hoover would become the leading conservative voice against the New Deal and its centralization of federal power and thwarting the Constitution. In 1934, he wrote "The Challenge to Liberty," which was a philosophical defense of both the Constitution and the “American System,” and he warned about the ideologies, including New Deal liberalism, which were attacking constitutionalism.

As a result of the New Deal, Lloyd and Davenport wrote that “Hoover became a full-throated constitutional conservative, horrified by what he called the challenge to liberty from Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Hoover’s opposition to New Deal liberalism would influence future conservatives, including Senators Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater.

Hoover also supported numerous conservative causes and organizations. As an example, he was an early supporter of William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine. Most important was his creating and funding of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, a project begun during World War I. Today, the Hoover Institution is a prominent public policy think tank and archive.

Conservatives, especially national conservatives, who wish to see a restoration of limited government and foreign policy based upon the national interest should consider Hoover’s response to the New Deal liberalism. During the 1930s, Hoover was a voice of one calling in the wilderness pleading for the nation to repent from its embrace of New Deal liberalism. He attempted to remind Americans about the Constitution, federalism, and the importance of a limited government. Hoover’s campaign against the New Deal was an example of conservative statesmanship, which can serve as a guide for today’s conservative movement.

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