When I was a student at Kosciusko High School, I had a small part in a production of Annie. The play is, of course, set in the Depression era, and the scene I was in was one which a group of homeless men and women sing a song titled, “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover.”
The chorus says: “We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover, for really showing us the way. We’d like to thank you Herbert Hoover; you made us what we are today.”
This sentiment among homeless men and women in the early 1930s is historically accurate. Impromptu communities for homeless people were often even nicknamed “Hoovervilles." In history books, Hoover is today largely remembered for being the president who was in office when the stock market crashed, and he is blamed for not doing more to help Americans whose lives were shattered by the depression.
Whereas Hoover’s successor, Franklin Roosevelt, instituted the “New Deal," which greatly expanded the scope of the government’s role in stimulating the economy, Hoover as a free market capitalist believed the market would, with time, “fix itself."
Hoover is sometimes caricatured as cold-hearted, someone who had no compassion for the destitute. A closer look at his life, though, shows this is very unfair.
Hoover was born this day in history, August 10, 1874. He was orphaned at a young age, raised by his uncle, and by age 30 he’d become a self-made millionaire through his engineering work in the mining industry.
During World War I, he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to be America’s food administrator, distributing food to soldiers and America’s allies in Europe. He later served as Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. By 1928 when he was elected the 31st president, the American economy was booming. This made the crash of 1929 all the more jolting.
Compared to Roosevelt, Hoover’s action to deal with the Depression seem modest. In 1932, Hoover asked Congress to organize the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which loaned money to banks and other businesses to prevent bankruptcy. The RFC also was authorized to distribute as much as $300 million to states to bolster local economies.
Insofar as these actions didn’t fix the Depression, and it continued to last throughout the 1930s, one could look back and say Hoover was wrong in his modest approach. Historians generally give Roosevelt the lion’s share of the credit for getting America out of the Depression, remembering his vast Public Works program and instituting Social Security, among other things. It would, however, be overly simplistic to say that this illustrates that the big-government-minded Roosevelt was more compassionate or generous than the limited-government-minded Hoover.
Defying the stereotype of the cold, heartless millionaire capitalist (think Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life), Hoover devoted most of his life after leaving the White House to humanitarian works. In 1940, Hoover led a committee that provided relief to the citizens of Finland during the Russo-Finnish War. So great was Hoover’s impact there that the slang term in Finland for the word charity became the word “Hoover."
Under Harry Truman, Hoover served as chairman of the Famine Emergency Commission, which involved him traveling to Europe to help meet the needs of nations impoverished by World War II.
It is true that Roosevelt used much more federal money to combat the Depression, but Hoover used far more of his own money. In fact, according to the World Book Encyclopedia, “Hoover gave all of his income from government employment, including his pension, to charity and to public service projects.”
In a very real sense, this is the litmus test of generosity—not how much of the government’s money you want to give to charity, but how much of your own you are willing to give. Politically speaking, being “fiscally conservative” ought never to mean “personally stingy.” Hoover is a great example of that.