The Presidency of Herbert Hoover: A Progressive Presidency Mired by a Great Depression


Beginning in the very first year of his Presidency, the Great Depression became the most memorable feature of Herbert Hoover’s Presidency.

It is wrong to place the full blame for the Great Depression on the shoulders of newly-elected President Herbert Hoover. While it may have happened on his watch, surely one must conclude that it was precipitated by events which had been growing for some time, both in America and abroad. Hoover simply had the misfortune to have become President at the wrong time in history.

Initial Progressive Policies

Coming into office, Hoover, like the rest of America, was supremely confident in the nation’s economic situation. He proclaimed a “new dawn,” where everyone had the opportunity to achieve wealth.

With this in mind, Hoover’s first several months in office were dominated by Theodore Roosevelt-esque progressive policies, including granting further rights to Native Americans, preserving national forests, and developing massive construction projects (the Hoover Dam being the most famous relic).

Hoover set out to solve problems faced by farmers throughout the Midwest (who had been making less money thanks to over-production) and to study the many social welfare issues which he could see facing people throughout the country.

Hoover, like his predecessor Calvin Coolidge, understood the plight of farmers, but still refused to grant them government subsidies to ease their woes. He encouraged congress to pass a farm act (the Agricultural Marketing Act) which would help farmers to increase efficiency in selling their goods and grant them loans without having to give federal subsidies.

To give farmers some added protection from foreign competition, Hoover also supported raising the agricultural tariffs, though his poor political acumen was not able to convince congress of his plan, and his tariff ideas failed in congress.

The Nation’s Greatest Economic Woes

All of Herbert Hoover’s great plans for continuing to increase the nation’s economy were put on indefinite hold, however, with the arrival of “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929, the great stock market crash, which precipitated the greatest depression in American history.

The reasons for this crash and depression are a many, and still widely disputed to this day, but often the mistake is made to assumed the depression to have been limited to the United States alone. In reality, it existed throughout the world, due to the situation in American agriculture, manufacture and trading, as well as frail international economies, specifically those in central Europe who were still reeling from the war and the restrictive Treaty of Versailles.

Whatever its causes, Hoover was faced very suddenly with tremendous economic difficulties. His success in dealing with this remains a subject of great debate:

Much of Hoover’s reactions to the situation were based on studying the situation, of gathering together the leaders of industries and discussing the situation in detail.

As far as action goes, Hoover called on local and state governments to increase in several ways, initiating a large number of new programs which would help to scale back the crisis. After several months of this, some economists even thought they saw light at the end of the tunnel. Hoover was far too quick to declare an imminent end to the crisis, however, as it was truly only beginning.

By the end of 1931, Hoover had finally begun to realize that his optimism was unfounded. The depression continued getting worse, and his “wait and see” approach seemed to be doing little good.

A Change in Policy

1931 saw Hoover finally give in to the pressure of the economy and move forward on a path that would be expanded even further by his successor, Franklin Roosevelt. He instituted a massive increase in government spending that included direct relief programs and public works projects in order to provide jobs and security for the growing population of unemployed workers.

How to pay for these programs became a key problem, however, and Hoover – generally opposed to raising taxes – was forced to comprimise his principles by instituting newer and higher taxes (he even supported initiating a sales tax, but this measure failed).

As reelection approached in 1932 (with Hoover having been granted the nomination by his party once again), the President’s hopes for reelection grew even more dreary when a group of soldiers who had been promised a bonus to be paid in 1945 marched on Washington in order to demand early payment of these funds. When the President attempted to peaceably remove these marchers from the capital, the military leaders went above and beyond, using violence to push them from the city, resulting in violence which served to polarize the nation even further.

By this point, there was very little chance of Hoover achieving a second term as President (a fact for which he may have been grateful, as his first term had certainly not lived up to his own expectations), and indeed, when the votes were tallied on election day, he had been soundly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt (472 electoral votes to only 59).

After the White House

Herbert Hoover lived more than thirty more years after leaving the white house, and during this time he remained involved in many areas of public life, including playing a strong role in the Truman administration (he turned down several official government positions, however, including an offer to take over a seat in the Senate).

Outside the Presidency, Hoover found success once again as an administrator and capable leader of people. He worked on reports to streamline government efficiency, wrote several more books, and continued to support the Republican party.

By the time of his death in 1964, Hoover’s lack of success in dealing with the Great Depression had been momentarily set aside and his popularity had risen once again. He may not have been a great President, but he certainly lived a life of greatness.