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Commerce Department

Sources of Hoover’s Conservative Thought

President Hoover at the rededication of Lincoln's tomb, June 17, 1931.

President Hoover at the rededication of Lincoln's tomb, June 17, 1931.

George N. Nash, the foremost biographer of Herbert Hoover and historian of American conservative thought, wrote: "Often is seems that Herbert Hoover is the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: He gets no respect." This is especially true of Hoover contribution to the development of modern conservative thought. A recent study contrasting the political views of Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt indicated Hoover’s indebtedness to the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln without clearly identifying its inspiration. A careful examination of Hoover’s American Individualism to Lincoln’s writings clearly establishes the direct link. Hoover’s main argument in the seminal 1922 publication is that a unique American individualism separates the United States from the rest of the world. “Individualism cannot be maintained as the foundation of a society if it looks to only legalistic justice based upon contracts, property, and political equality. Such legalistic safeguard are themselves not enough. In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century - the notion that it is ‘everyman for himself and the devil take the hindmost.' We abandoned that when we adopted the ideal of equality of opportunity - the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln.”

What is Lincoln’s idea of the fair chance? Lincoln clearly delineates it in his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861: “This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Lincoln expands upon the idea in an address to the 166th Ohio Regiment on August 22, 1864: “It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright - not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

If Hoover’s idea of American individualism was rooted in Lincoln’s notion of the “fair chance,” it embodied both the distinctive self-governance of the American republic along with the implied responsibilities of the individual in maintaining that form of government and preserving individual liberty. Such beliefs would not abide the slavery of blacks in Lincoln’s day or constraints to individual freedom that Hoover saw in governments espousing communism, socialism, fascism, and collectivism. Russell Kirk, the influential conservative writer and theorist of the late 20th Century, critical of the power of centralized government and how it erodes individual thought and reflection of political leaders, still found Hoover unique. “The last American president to do his own thinking, “ wrote Kirk in his classic study, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, “was Herbert Hoover; the last British prime minister of intellectual distinction was Arthur Balfour.” Kirk’s comment hints at Hoover’s greater influence on conservative thought than is usually recognized.

The Wreck of the Carroll A. Deering

The Carroll A. Deering, January 28, 1921. The Carroll A. Deering, photographed by the U. S. Coast Guard on January 28, 1921.

On January 31, 1921, a five-masted schooner was spotted aground on Diamond Shoal, off the coast of North Carolina, with sails set but no sign of the crew. Due to high seas, the Coast Guard was unable to identify or board the ship until February 4. When finally boarded, the ship was determined to be the Carroll A. Deering, owned by the G.G. Deering Company of Bath, Maine, which had been returning in ballast having recently delivered a load of coal to Rio de Janeiro. Other than three half-starved cats no one was found on board, and it was unclear what had happened to the crew. The ship's log and navigation equipment were gone, the crew's personal effects, the two main anchors and the ship's motor boat and dory were missing as well. In the ship's galley food was found as if in preparation for the next day's meal.

What little of value aboard was salvaged and sold, and the wreck was dynamited to prevent it from becoming a hazard to other ships. The mystery took a bizarre turn several weeks later when a local resident, Christopher Columbus Gray, found a bottle on the shore with a note in it that seemed to indicate the Deering had been attacked by pirates. The daughter of the missing captain, accompanied by her pastor and another former captain of the ship, approached Sen. Frederick Hale of Maine to request a concerted Federal investigation into the incident.

Five government departments looked into the case. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, (whose department included the Bureau of Lighthouses) was concerned that several other vessels had also disappeared in the same area. Though most of the missing ships were later found to have sailed in the vicinity of a series of strong hurricanes, the Deering had been sailing away from the storms at the time. Hoover's assistant, Lawrence Ritchey, was placed in charge of the investigation.

Various theories were proposed, including piracy, mutiny, or an attempted hijacking by Soviet agents. Evidence was scant and expert witnesses disagreed on the likelihood of the different scenarios. Handwriting experts drew wildly divergent conclusions about the "bottle note," but eventually Larry Richey made Gray confess to having forged the note himself. Richey and Hoover concluded that a mutiny was the most likely scenario, but kept the case open in case additional evidence was found. The mystery is unsolved to this day.

Richey's files on the investigation, including one-of-a-kind correspondence, reports and photographs, are preserved in the Lawrence Richey Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum. The story of the Carroll A. Deering will be featured on an episode of "Mysteries at the Museum," which airs on the Travel Channel on Thursday, August 15th.

Captain W. B. Wormell Captain W. B. Wormell, who went missing with his crew. This is the only known existing photo of Captain Wormell.

A Letter from a King

One of the most interesting documents at the Hoover Library is a handwritten, five-page personal letter from King Albert of Belgium to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. A transcript of the entire letter can be found at http://www.ecommcode.com/hoover/hooveronline/HooverCRB/transcripts/A3_kingalbert.html

King Albert wrote to ask Hoover to intervene with the U.S. Shipping Board on behalf of a private Belgian shipping company, Lloyd Royal Belge. At the end of World War I, Lloyd Royal Belge had purchased 22 merchant ships from the U.S. Shipping Board in a risky gamble to rebuild Belgium's merchant fleet. Due to the economic downturn in 1920 and 1921, Lloyd Royal Belge struggled to stay in business; the company, and the king, were hoping that the U.S. Shipping Board would restructure the payments or even forgive part of the debt.

As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover had no authority over the U.S. Shipping Board. Hoover's response to the king indicates that he did take the matter up with the Board, but that they were busy with bigger problems. Apparently, the Board made no concessions to the Belgians, and Lloyd Royal Belge suffered considerable financial losses in 1921. The Belgian government and a consortium of banks propped up the company, enabling them to make the final payments on 20 of the 22 ships, however, Lloyd Royal Belge refused to pay for two of the ships that had been received in very poor condition - in fact, one sank before it ever arrived in Belgium! The outcome of the dispute is unknown, but Lloyd Royal Belge continued to struggle, and was taken over in 1930 by its competitor, Compagnie Maritime Belge.

Child Health Day

1928  Child Health Day festival book.

The 1928 Child Health Day festival book -- 80 pages of suggestions for planning a local Child Health Day event.

During and after World War I, Herbert Hoover led two great humanitarian organizations, the Commission for Relief in Belgium and the American Relief Administration. Of special concern to both organizations was the plight of children in war-ravaged Europe, and under Hoover's direction over 15 million children received food, clothing, and other assistance. Hoover realized that the needs of children, both in Europe and America, were not being met, but more importantly, were not well understood. Most aspects of nutrition, child development and infant mortality were poorly documented and inadequately publicized.

Back in the United States health care reformers were coming to similar conclusions. In 1920, Hoover was asked to lead the American Child Hygiene Association, one of numerous small charitable organizations throughout the country dedicated to child health issues. Dismayed by the fragmented efforts, Hoover orchestrated the merger of the American Child Hygiene Association with another group, the Child Health Organization of America. The combined organization was called the American Child Health Association, and under Hoover's leadership it undertook a nationwide campaign to improve child health.

One of the first major programs of the ACHA was a widely-publicized national survey of health conditions in 86 mid-sized cities. (Larger cities had already been surveyed by the Department of Labor.) The survey revealed that 41 cities had no full-time health official, that half of the cities had no reliable child birth/mortality records, that vaccinations were not required in 37 cities, that pasteurization of the milk supply was required in only 8 cities, and that there was no health instruction in 21 cities. The publication of these results shocked the nation and stirred up demand for improvements. Hoover later proudly recalled that "our published plan for ideal community organization became a bible for many a belligerent mother's society."

To generate more publicity, the ACHA sought to transform May Day into Child Health Day. Beginning in 1924, newspapers and magazines were deluged with articles about child health to be published on May Day. Health officials at the state and local level used the heightened publicity to bring attention to the ongoing problems and recent successes in their local communities. Schools, churches and other civic organizations held pageants, parades, plays and other events to raise awareness and to educate parents and children about good health.

Child Health Day activities, 1927

Child Health Day activities around the country, 1927.

Three years later, Child Health Day was celebrated in every state and the territory of Hawaii. One reporter insisted that "The publicity given to [Child Health Day] was second only to...such events as the Dempsey-Tunney fight, the Lindberg flight, and the World Series." Child Health Day became a permanent Federal holiday in 1929, though it was moved to the first Monday in October beginning in 1959. To this day, the President makes an annual proclamation of Child Health Day.


The President's Conference on Unemployment - 1921

When President Harding was inaugurated in 1921, a sharp recession was underway that had begun the year before. By mid-1921, some five million people were out of work - perhaps 12% of the workforce. Concerns arose about the possibility of widespread hardship through the coming winter, and it was Harding's Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, who suggested that a national conference was necessary to address the problem.

On August 12, 1921, Hoover sent a letter to President Harding proposing a national conference on the unemployment crisis. After Harding endorsed the idea, Hoover assembled an Economic Advisory Committee that prepared a preliminary report and recommendations for the conference. The President's Conference on Unemployment convened September 26, 1921. After opening speeches by Harding and Hoover urging voluntary, cooperative solutions and warning that Federal funds were off limits, the Conference divided into ten subcommittees and began their work.

Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, the subcommittees essentially rubber-stamped Hoover's recommendations. The final report of the Conference called for local Emergency Committees that would encourage and coordinate hiring by private businesses, and asked private businesses, and state and local governments to move forward any planned construction projects in order to generate short term jobs. The long-term recommendation of the Conference was to use public works projects to dampen the extremes of unemployment: during good times, state and local governments (the Federal government spent very little on public works at that time) could stockpile projects for implementation during economic downturns to reduce unemployment.

At the end of the Conference, Hoover created a Bureau of Unemployment in the Department of Commerce, which sent forth a deluge of reports, publications and press releases promoting the recommendations of the Conference. Local committees sprang up around the country, and businesses and government authorities dutifully scraped together funds to start new construction projects. As the winter approached, unemployment began to decline, rather than increase as would have been expected due to seasonal layoffs. Local charities were able to assist those who remained in need. The next spring, the economy was on the rebound, and Hoover declared the Unemployment Conference a complete success. Eight years later, after the 1929 stock market crash, President Hoover's economic policies were based on the lessons learned in 1921.

William Morris cartoon, November 1921

Cartoon by William Morris, November 1921.

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