Herbert Hoover on “The Constructive Side of Government”

During a campaign speech in St. Louis, Missouri, Herbert Hoover underscored what he believed to be the most significant attributes of a constructive American government. Citing the uniquely American political, social, and economic structures, Hoover said government is most constructive when it is invested in the country’s infrastructure, fostering the nation’s education, trade, and natural resource management programs, and providing services that help the country’s neediest citizens.

Summary Overview

During a campaign speech in St. Louis, Missouri, Herbert Hoover underscored what he believed to be the most significant attributes of a constructive American government. Citing the uniquely American political, social, and economic structures, Hoover said government is most constructive when it is invested in the country’s infrastructure, fostering the nation’s education, trade, and natural resource management programs, and providing services that help the country’s neediest citizens.

Defining Moment

In the eyes of many historians, the 1920s were aptly dubbed “The Roaring 20s.” Since the turn of the century, the country had been experiencing a major economic boom. Virtually every sector of the economy saw growth, aided by the prevalence of electricity and other energy sources as well as a vast railway system and even the widespread use of automobiles. Labor productivity grew at a rate of 3.8 percent per year between 1917 and 1927–a much higher rate than in the previous decades. World War I, which ended in 1918, had completely devastated Europe, but left the United States largely unaffected.

With prosperity the common theme during the 1920s, Americans began to spend and invest more. Consumers started investing heavily (and often at great risk) in the stock markets. Capital flowed between financial institutions and businesses. The “bull market” during this period appeared unsustainable and headed for an eventual slowdown, but Americans were, at the time, unconcerned with such possibilities.

Politically, it was the Republican Party’s country. The Progressive Era–exemplified by Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to bolster organized labor and create an international network of nations–had fallen into history. By the 1920s, Americans wanted less government involvement, and the platforms of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge reflected this desire. Presidents Harding and Coolidge were aided by a general fear of liberal ideals stoked by the first “Red Scare,” in which Americans were being increasingly mindful of the rise of Bolshevism and Communism in Eastern Europe.

The fear of radicalism and the desire for continued economic growth also contributed to the demise of the labor unions. Organized labor was finding itself under attack from government, business, and the general public. Flush with profits from the strong economy, businesses were increasingly able to negotiate higher wages with their employees without involving the unions.

With fear of Bolshevism and distrust of progressivism prevalent in America, citizens grew disillusioned with the role of the federal government. Warren Harding, who was known to resist confrontation and controversy, was elected on the notion of a “return to normalcy.” Despite his eventual ineffectiveness as president, the “Republican Era” would continue with his successor. Calvin Coolidge, who moved into the White House after Harding’s death, continued to focus on ensuring the moral and social stability of the nation by drawing from his own Christian upbringing.

In 1928, when Coolidge declined to run for a second term, the Secretary of Commerce for both Coolidge and Harding, Herbert Hoover, opted to take up the mantle. Hoover was something of an anomaly among Republicans, showing a moderate, “progressive” temperament that distinguished him from other members of his party. However, his reputation as a humanitarian and a political outsider (he had never held elected office) endeared him to voters. As he continued his 1928 campaign against New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, he offered to a St. Louis crowd his views of how the federal government should operate in the new era.

Author Biography

Herbert Clark Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa, on August 10, 1874. Orphaned at age nine, Hoover attended the newly opened Stanford University, graduating with a degree in mining engineering. During World War I, Hoover established the Commission for Relief in Belgium to provide food for civilians trapped in war zones. For his work, President Woodrow Wilson tapped him to be his US Food Administrator. Hoover later became Warren Harding’s Secretary of Commerce, a post he would continue to hold during Calvin Coolidge’s administration. In 1928, he successfully won the Republican nomination for President of the United States and easily won the election. Victimized politically by the onset of the Great Depression, Hoover lost the 1932 election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He remained active in public service after his presidency, including helping President Harry Truman with the post-World War II reconstruction effort. He died on October 20, 1964.

Document Analysis

In a November presidential campaign speech delivered in St. Louis, candidate Herbert Hoover carefully identifies a number of areas in which the American government could be most constructive. Hoover says that the American government is less effective when it engages in heavy regulation and otherwise injects itself into private matters. Instead, he says, government is best suited to acting as steward over the country’s infrastructure, agency operations, and programs that help the nation’s neediest citizens.

Hoover argues that the country’s political, economic, and social systems reflect the unique interests of the American mission. The government, therefore, should also be reflective of this particularity. Government, he says, was designed to be decentralized, protecting and not infringing upon the individual rights and liberties of the people and their business and personal pursuits. Furthermore, the federal government would only be relevant in areas in which state and local governments were limited by their resources and/or geographic jurisdictions.

Hoover next cites three major areas in which the federal government would play a useful–if not vital–role. The first of these areas is infrastructure. The country’s waterways, highways, public buildings, and natural resources would fall under this category. Hoover says that his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, had advocated for the construction of modern highways and public buildings. As a part of that administration, Hoover advocates for the continuation of this effort, as its successful completion would address the needs of a modern America.

Hoover also stresses usefulness of centralized government in managing national programs, such as education, trade, and agriculture. In this vein, he advocates for the creation of a Federal Farm Bureau, which would work to address the issues facing the country’s entire agricultural sector. The Bureau’s role would be to establish an environment in which farms could thrive absent a level of regulatory oversight that would remove control from the farmers.

In the third arena, Hoover says that, over the previous twenty-five years, citizens had established thousands of trade associations, civic organizations, labor unions, and other interest groups. These groups played an integral role in fostering cooperation among private citizens and industries. Hoover says that it is his hope that his administration would build strong relationships with these groups, particularly in matters of public interest, without intruding upon their private activities.

Government, Hoover argues, should play a role in promoting and protecting American interests. Instead of applying heavy regulations, it should create opportunities for commerce, he says. Hoover adds that government should avoid intervening in private matters, but foster environments for interparty issues to be addressed. Such opportunities, he states, must be equally attainable by all interested parties. Every American, he says, should enjoy the same ability to take advantage of every opportunity the country has to offer.

Essential Themes

The 1920s was a time in which Americans sought less of a presence from their federal government. The social reform movements (including the passage and repeal of Prohibition) were matters of the past, as were the progressive leanings of Woodrow Wilson. The country was now entering a “Republican Era”–one that was marked by unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Americans, bolstered by this growth and success, looked for less government oversight, intervention, and regulation than was prevalent during the Progressive Era. Herbert Hoover, the third Republican presidential candidate to succeed the Progressive Era, offered a view that satisfied this desire.

Hoover states that government’s role was to be constructive rather than overly involved. It should serve as a steward of the country’s infrastructure, assisting only where state and local governments lacked sufficient resources. Additionally, Hoover says, government should only offer intercession in matters in which an impasse would threaten the common good. His example of the Farm Bureau supports this idea–the government, as a partner to the farmers, landowners, and other interested parties, would serve as an intermediary in addressing pivotal issues facing one of the country’s most vital industries.

Additionally, he says, government should be focused on ensuring that every American has equal access to opportunity. Prosperity, security, happiness, and peace, he says, are all concepts to which every American has a right. According to Hoover, these concepts are reliant on the even hand of government. Government should be willing to assist its poorest citizens (especially in terms of education), but it should also be willing to stand aside so that citizens can pursue these goals without unnecessary hindrance.

Hoover says that the United States is unlike any other nation or society. Because of this uniqueness, American political and social institutions were designed in a fashion particular to the American way of life. Americans desired a government whose presence was minimal and positive, Hoover says. Government, he says, should be cognizant of this fact, willing to assist in matters in which its involvement will avail opportunities, and willing to stand back when its involvement would only present hindrances.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Allen, Frederick Lewis.Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. Marblehead: Wiley, 1931. Print.
  • Goldberg, David J.Discontented America: The United States of the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Hansen, Bradley A. The National Economy. Westport: Greenwood, 2006. Print
  • “Herbert Clark Hoover.” Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. National Archives and Records Administration, 2014. Web. 20 May 2014.
  • “Herbert Clark Hoover.” Miller Center. University of Virginia, 2013. Web. 20 May 2014.
  • Himmelberg, Robert F., ed. Antitrust and Regulation During World War I and the Republican Era, 1917–1932. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  • Lowi, Theodore J.The End of the Republican Era. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996. Print.
  • Whisenhunt, Donald W. President Herbert Hoover. Hauppauge: Nova, 2007. Print.