A Reviewer's Notebook - 1976/10

Herbert Hoover:  President of the United States

The Democrats, not content with defeating Herbert Hoover in 1932, campaigned more or less successfully against him for a generation. Well, as Chesterton once said, any stigma will do to beat a dogma. Hoover, through the "smear" campaign instituted by Charles Michelson, the publicity director for a victory-hungry Democratic National Committee, had been identified in the public mind with what was then being trumpeted as the outmoded doctrine of Rugged Individualism, which made him Mr. Dogma personified.

But if Hoover had not been a handy devil to beat about the ears (or horns), the "liberals" would have found someone else. The point is that the counter-dogma of Let-the-State-Do-It was riding high. The Fabian campaign to put collectivism over on a one-bite-at-a-time basis had done its work in the schools and the opinion magazines (The Nation, the New Republic), and, in the post-1929 atmosphere, no proponent of classical liberalism could have stayed for long in the White House.

Indeed, no less a person than Murray Rothbard, a shrewd analyst, has indicated that Herbert Hoover himself was so well aware of the power of the Fabian drift that he was intimidated by it. In his uncompromising way Rothbard has condemned Hoover for "anticipating" the New Deal. Hoover created the Farm Board to help circumvent the workings of the free market in agriculture. He also allowed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to come into being. I remember Isabel Paterson’s response to the creation of the RFC. "If J. P. Morgan can have his dole," she said, "then nobody can keep the voters out of the trough. What’s fair for one is fair for all."

And so it turned out after March of 1933. But Hoover, even though he had temporized with his own basic philosophy as the social pressures mounted, fought a rather gallant battle to save a traditional America. Edgar Eugene Robinson and Vaughn Bornet, in a comprehensive account of a single four-year White House term, Herbert Hoover: President of the United States (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University), present a purposeful individual doing the best he could under a snowballing succession of terrifying handicaps.

This is a most lucid book, though its very fairness makes it unexciting. Hoover took office in 1929 with some clear-cut ideas of what a President should do. He wanted to take the tariff out of politics. He wanted to keep the government out of business. At the same time he proposed to be a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist in handling the wealth in the public domain. He hoped that farmers could be brought to solve their own problems with the help, but not the subsidy, of the government. And he had ideas of international cooperation that were calculated to keep the peace without running the risk of entrapment through ill-considered economic embargoes or "sanctions."

A Party Divided

Hoover believed in party government, but the joker in the deck was that Republican "unity" was a mirage even in the Coolidge years. The western insurgents—"sons of the wild jackass"— were always ready to follow Fighting Bob La Follette of Wisconsin or George Norris of Nebraska off the reservation. Hoover, a Californian, should have been able to get along with the westerners, but Senator Borah of Idaho had stereotyped Hoover as an "easterner" at heart. This was a travesty, for Hoover did not agree with the Pennsylvania Grundys on the tariff. And Hoover was sympathetic with Borah’s rural America when it came to supporting Prohibition as long as it was the law of the land.

Where Hoover disagreed with the Norrises and the Borahs was on the subject of compromising rural individualism by invoking State subsidies of all kinds. Hoover was willing to dam a river (as part of the public domain), but he was against using the State to market electric power. And he wanted no truck with export debentures to help farmers get rid of surplus crops.

In 1931 Hoover wrote to a friend that "if you could sit in the middle of the Government and see the tools with which we have to work and the disasters which confront us at all times in the use of these tools, you would not want us to extend the area of government but rather to keep the government as nearly as we can in its greatest function—the safeguarding of human rights." These were brave words. In 1931 they seemed anachronistic to a growing majority, and nothing that Hoover could do had the slightest effect on the political impasse that followed the mid-term 1930 elections. The Democrats had a majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Republicans still had a margin—but the sons of the wild jackass might just as well have been Democrats.

From Bad to Worse

Everything broke badly for Hoover. To get his theory of a "flexible" tariff considered he felt he had to temporize with the high Smoot-Hawley rates, which meant that flexibility would have to start from impossible peaks. He could have vetoed the final Smoot-Hawley, or "Grundy," tariff bill, as hundreds of economists urged him to do. But he thought the times required a settlement of the issue. Robinson and Bornet let him off charitably by remarking that "henceforth, tariff policy was numbed by economic uncertainty and would inevitably come to be blamed for contributing to that uncertainty."

The tariff, which encouraged the world drift to economic nationalism, was a premonition of things to come. Hoover was right when he saw things getting better in the U.S. But after the stormy local American financial waters had been calmed by his declaration of an international debt moratorium, things kept breaking badly abroad. The "post-war" period ended when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

In spite of everything, the economic indices in the Summer of 1932 foretold the breaking of depression. But the voters, bemused by a dreadful three years, couldn’t catch up with reality in time for November of 1932. They wanted a different man with a more pragmatic way of doing things, and they found him in Franklin D. Roosevelt. The joker here is that FDR found such Hoover-created or Hoover-tolerated mechanisms as the Farm Board and the RFC made to his hand.

In All Fairness

In being fair to Hoover as a President, Robinson and Bornet are playing fair with the present. Hoover’s central philosophy is no longer the laughable thing it was when John Dewey was proclaiming that "President Hoover’s constant appeal to self-reliance, enterprise, private initiative, is simply puerile; it is a voice from the grave in which human hopes and happiness are buried." Today, with inflation strangling a dozen economies around the world, it is the constant appeal to socialism that is burying our hopes and happiness.

So, Hoover is justified when our present Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon says, in a notable essay contributed to a book titled The Ethical Basis of Economic Freedom (American Viewpoint, Chapel Hill, N.C., $12.50), that our home-grown enemies of a free society "have never asked themselves why a country like the Soviet Union, with some of the largest, richest tracts of grainland in the world, but with a government-owned-and-run agricultural system, cannot even feed its own people without turning to American farmers who own their own land, make their own economic decisions, and feed not only their own people, but millions of others as well."

Incidentally, Mr. Simon echoes Herbert Hoover when he says that a successful free enterprise requires a sound ethical base. Simon has a lovely quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "If the rascals knew the advantages of virtue, they would become honest men out of rascality." This would have pleased the Hoover who, in 1931, spoke of "the wrongs and cruelties that take place through greed and selfishness."

After forty years of government-promoted greed and selfishness that has outdone any recorded capitalistic iniquity, we are ready for Hoover’s ideas of an ethical free market. It is good that Robinson and Bornet have brought the thirty-first President of the U.S. out of limbo.


PHILIP MAZZEI: Jefferson’s "Zealous Whig" by Sister Margherita Marchione. (New York: American Institute of Italian Studies, 1975, 8 East 69th St., New York City 10021) 352 pp.

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow.

One of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution was Philip Mazzei, whose writings provided moral and intellectual sustenance to the colonists in their struggle for independence. Mazzei was born in Italy in 1730, received a degree in surgery, but decided to move to London, where he organized a firm devoted to the importation of cheese, wine, and olive oil. Here he met Thomas Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who pleaded with him to come to America.

Mazzei headed for Virginia in 1773, and it was in Virginia that Mazzei, during 1774-1775, one year before the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, wrote a series of newspaper articles under the pseudonym "Furioso" for The Virginia Gazette. "All men are by nature equally free and independent," wrote Mazzei. "Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law."

Like Jefferson, Mazzei was an ardent admirer of the French "philosophes," and shared their commitment to equality. He was a firm advocate of the belief that every citizen has an equal right to the benefits and honors of his society, and should not be deprived of these benefits and privileges except for some crime. To deprive a citizen of his equal right to the privileges and honors of his society, contends Mazzei, is "an obvious injustice" that should "horrify anyone convinced that all men are born equally free and independent." Here he makes the pernicious and common error of confusing "born" and "created."

According to Mazzei, the Declaration was based on the "great truth" that "all men are horn equally free and independent"; but Mazzei’s contention, it seems to me, is wide of the mark. For the Declaration does not say that "all men are born equally free and independent"; it affirms that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." One hesitates to criticize so well-intentioned a person as Mazzei, but one would like to ask him what he means by "equality" and by "equally"? What does he mean by "free and independent"? Are men "equally free and independent" because they share a common nature? Or because they are "equal in the eyes of God"? And it is obviously untrue to say of people living under a dictator that they are all "born equally free and independent."

Mazzei worked to eliminate every barrier that might prevent any person from participating fully in the life of his society. He opposed slavery, championed the rights of women, and contended against those who would limit voting to the rich. He argued, for example, that we often find good parents, who though owning no property, have acquired, through hard work and self-sacrifice, the means of educating their children, thus making them capable of holding leadership roles in society. Would it not be unjust, asks Mazzei, to deprive such persons of the right to vote? Would it not be unjust to exclude such persons from leadership positions in society? Indeed, observes Mazzei, riches and property often "dazzle and hide defects in those who possess them, while poverty encumbers him whose extraordinary merit is not publicized."

America is deeply indebted to the intellectual contributions made by men of other nations, one of whom was Philip Mazzei, whose life and work is worthy of further study. Sister Margherita Marchione deserves thanks for bringing to our attention an unsung hero of the young Republic.

Further Reading


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