President Herbert Hoover led a remarkable life that was based upon public service, humanitarianism, and a belief that America is an exceptional nation. Hoover is often remembered for both his exceptional career as a mining engineer, his humanitarianism, and countless acts of charity. From a political perspective, Hoover’s legacy is dominated by the Great Depression, and he is often viewed, however incorrectly, as a failed president. Nevertheless, what is forgotten is Hoover’s contribution to political philosophy as a defender of American constitutionalism and conservatism.
Herbert Hoover first outlined his political philosophy in 1922 in American Individualism. Hoover wrote American Individualism not only to explain the principles that made the United States an exceptional nation, but also as a defense against totalitarian ideologies such as socialism. Based upon his experiences during the Great War and his extensive travels as a mining engineer, Hoover witnessed firsthand various political and economic systems across the world. American Individualism defined what made the United States so different from Europe or other nations. Hoover also understood the threat posed by “social philosophies” or ideologies that were arising in the aftermath of the Great War.
In American Individualism Hoover explained the philosophic, spiritual, economic, and political grounds, which made up what he labeled the “American System” of liberty. At the heart of this was the principle of American individualism, which he defined “as the source of human progress — that each individual shall be given the chance and stimulation for development of the best which he has been endowed in the heart and mind; it is the sole source of progress…”
At the center of American individualism was the idea of equality of opportunity. Hoover’s notion of equality of opportunity was central because it meant that Americans, as a result of our liberty and the Constitution, would allow people to develop their own abilities. Hoover’s ideas were influenced by the philosophy of President Abraham Lincoln, and it also reflected his own life as an orphaned boy who worked hard and became a successful engineer and public servant.
In response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Hoover became the principal voice of conservatism. Hoover believed that New Deal liberalism was a threat to constitutionalism. In 1934, Hoover published The Challenge to Liberty, whichwas a conservative defense of constitutional government and a warning against what he described as New Deal regimentation along with the various poisonous ideologies of socialism, communism, fascism, and Nazism.
Hoover argued that New Deal liberalism was undermining American constitutionalism and liberty. Further, the New Deal was a radical departure from constitutional government, which led directly to the growth in the size and scope of the federal government at the expense of the states and the people. Hoover argued that constitutional government did not need to be jettisoned as a result of the Great Depression.
Ohio’s Senator Robert A. Taft described The Challenge to Liberty as a thorough expression of the “essential principles of American government.” In reviewing Hoover’s book one columnist wrote that “Mr. Hoover defends the old order,” and described him as the “high priest” of the conservative tradition.
Hoover stated that a conservative “is one who desires to retain the wisdom and experience of the past and who is prepared to apply the best of that wisdom and experience to meet the changes which are inevitable in every new generation.”
Herbert Hoover is a forgotten conservative statesman, whose philosophy and ideas can still serve as a guide for the nation today. Hoover was often a “voice in the wilderness,” especially during the New Deal era as the nation embraced progressivism. Hoover never tired of defending the “American System” and the Constitution, which he described as the “Ark of the Covenant” of our liberty.
In reflecting on Hoover’s conservatism presidential historian Richard Norton Smith wrote that “none has more relevance to our own time than Hoover’s role as a philosopher of modern conservative thought.”