Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Herbert Hoover (American Presidents Series)

Herbert Hoover (American Presidents Series)

3.4 7
by William E. Leuchtenburg, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz

See All Formats & Editions

The Republican efficiency expert whose economic boosterism met its match in the Great Depression

Catapulted into national politics by his heroic campaigns to feed Europe during and after World War I, Herbert Hoover—an engineer by training—exemplified the economic optimism of the 1920s. As president, however, Hoover was sorely tested by


The Republican efficiency expert whose economic boosterism met its match in the Great Depression

Catapulted into national politics by his heroic campaigns to feed Europe during and after World War I, Herbert Hoover—an engineer by training—exemplified the economic optimism of the 1920s. As president, however, Hoover was sorely tested by America's first crisis of the twentieth century: the Great Depression.

Renowned New Deal historian William E. Leuchtenburg demonstrates how Hoover was blinkered by his distrust of government and his belief that volunteerism would solve all social ills. As Leuchtenburg shows, Hoover's attempts to enlist the aid of private- sector leaders did little to mitigate the Depression, and he was routed from office by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. From his retirement at Stanford University, Hoover remained a vocal critic of the New Deal and big government until the end of his long life.

Leuchtenburg offers a frank, thoughtful portrait of this lifelong public servant, and shrewdly assesses Hoover's policies and legacy in the face of one of the darkest periods of American history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) would have satisfied anyone who believed a businessman would make an ideal president. In this outstanding addition to the American President series, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Leuchtenburg (The FDR Years) points out that while writers describe Hoover as a mining engineer, he was really a promoter and financier who traveled the world and made a fortune. He vaulted to fame after brilliantly organizing relief for the Belgian famine during WWI. Appointed secretary of commerce in 1920, he operated with a dictatorial manner that infuriated colleagues, but his dynamism and popularity made him a shoo-in for the Republican nomination in 1928. As president, his political ineptitude offended Congress and discouraged supporters even before the 1929 crash. Afterward, he backed imaginative programs to stimulate the economy but insisted that direct relief was socialistic and that local governments and charities were doing fine. In fact, they weren't, and this insistence combined with a dour personality made him a widely hated figure. A veteran historian of this period, Leuchtenburg brings vivid prose and strong opinions to this richly insightful biography of a president whose impressive business acumen served him poorly. (Jan. 6)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Slim, thoroughly satisfying account of the president overwhelmed by the Great Depression. Veteran historian Leuchtenburg (The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, 2005, etc.) makes no attempt to rehabilitate Hoover (1874-1964), though he acknowledges that the brilliantly successful entrepreneur quickly became a worldwide celebrity after turning to public service at age 40. In London at the outbreak of World War I, Hoover agreed to organize relief for the famine that followed the German advance into Belgium and performed superbly. Widely touted as a 1920 presidential candidate, he offended Republican leaders with a self-serving statement announcing that he would join their party only if it fulfilled certain conditions. Newly elected Warren G. Harding appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce even though colleagues resented his dictatorial manner, and his nonstop energy made him a media icon. When Coolidge declined to run in 1928, the fact that he and his cabinet detested Hoover did not prevent him from easily winning the nomination. Leuchtenburg disagrees with historians who feel that Hoover would rank among our better presidents if it were not for the Depression. Even before the 1929 crash, his lack of political acumen and terrible relations with Congress had soured most supporters. He made genuine attempts to alleviate the Depression but opposed federal relief programs, insisting that this was the responsibility of local government and private charities, which were doing a good job. (In fact, they were bankrupt.) Leaving office, he was so widely hated that Republicans considered him political poison and kept him away from conventions untilafter WWI. A brilliantly written cautionary tale for those who believe a hard-nosed businessman would bring a breath of fresh air to the American presidency.
From the Publisher

“Powerful… [Herbert Hoover] is a superb example of the vitality and importance of political history… Mr. Leuchtenburg's biography reminds us that the personalities, actions and beliefs of political leaders have a profound effect on the rest of us.” —The New York Observer

“Memorable… Hoover's chronicler, William E. Leuchtenburg… writes like an angel and spices his narrative with trenchant judgments about a president who seemed like Superman when he took office in 1929 but who quickly lost his magical powers in the face of the Great Depression… Readers will quite likely delight in discovering more for themselves.” —The Dallas Morning News

“In this meaty little book, [Leuchtenburg] brings to the life of Hoover his own lifetime of study of this watershed moment in the American past… He is one of the foremost authorities on the 1930s, the New Deal, and FDR.” —Slate.com

“[A] frank, thoughtful literary portrait… This is a fair and balanced reassessment of Herbert Hoover and his legacy that is long overdue.” —Tucson Citizen

“William E. Leuchtenburg's… Herbert Hoover [is] a wonderful and instructive biography.” —Richard Cohen, The Washington Post

“Timely.” —The Bloomsbury Review

“A brilliantly written cautionary tale for those who believe a hard-nosed businessman would bring a breath of fresh air to the American presidency.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In this outstanding addition to the American Presidents series, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Leuchtenburg… brings vivid prose and strong opinions to this richly insightful biography of a president whose impressive business acumen served him poorly.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
American Presidents Series
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
259 KB

Read an Excerpt

Herbert Hoover

By William E. Leuchtenburg, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2009 William E. Leuchtenburg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3349-0


The Great Engineer

Little wonder that David Copperfield was Herbert Hoover's favorite tale. Like Charles Dickens's hero, Hoover was orphaned at an early age, and, like David too, he had a harsh youth. If none of the men to whom his care was entrusted after his parents' deaths was quite so mean as Mr. Murdstone, his kin were a mirthless lot. His boyhood experiences left Hoover permanently scarred — reclusive and wary to a degree that not even decades of success could erase, and they would have unfortunate political consequences when he sought to lead the nation. Yet Hoover was also a survivor, a young man of grit and pluck determined to make his way in the world.

Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, a Quaker settlement in Cedar County, Iowa. "Herbert was a sweet baby that first day, round and plump," an aunt later remembered, "and looked about very cordial." His birth took place in a tiny room in a small but immaculate whitewashed gabled cottage on the bank of Wapsinonoc Creek, across an alley from his father Jesse's blacksmith shop.

Descendant of a Swiss family that a century before still went by the name of Huber, Jesse had migrated with his folks by riverboat and covered wagon to the prairie as a child two decades earlier. Though West Branch was not quite a pioneer community, the railroad had reached it only three years before Herbert was born. One uncle drove a stage between two Iowa towns, and another was a U.S. Indian agent to the Osage. Not until Herbert Hoover was twenty-two would he see the country east of the Mississippi. West Branch was churchgoing, sober, Republican. The sole Democrat was the village drunk.

Bertie spent his first years in modest but comfortable circumstances. His father — a clever tinkerer — sold his forge, set up a profitable farm-implements business, moved his family to a larger house, and got elected to the town council. His mother, Huldah Randall Minthorn, born of English stock in a Quaker colony in Ontario, won high regard for her piety, her solicitude for ill neighbors, and her eloquence when she spoke out at Friends meetings. "The spirit," it was said, "moved her beautifully." Bertie also had the companionship of an older brother, Theodore ("Tad"), and a younger sister, Mary ("May").

In retrospect, Hoover sometimes portrayed his childhood as a rural idyll: the "glories of snowy winter, ... the gathering of apples, the pilgrimage to the river woods." He recollected swimming in the creek, coasting on sleds down Cook's Hill, fishing for sunnies (using "willow poles with a butcher-string line and hooks ten for a dime"), and combing the glacial gravel along the Burlington track for "gems of agate and fossil coral." An Indian boy taught him to shoot prairie chickens with bow and arrow. Christmas treats were walnuts, hickory nuts, "and popcorn balls cemented with sorghum molasses."

For the most part, though, his childhood was as monotone as the drab prairie schooner bonnet his mother habitually wore. "Mine was a Quaker family unwilling ... to have a youth corrupted with stronger reading than the Bible, the encyclopedia, or those great novels where the hero overcomes the demon rum," Hoover recalled. Pursuit of pleasure was the vice of sinners. An uncle once chided the boy for a grievous breach of decorum: giggling. Secretary of the local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Huldah enrolled Bertie in a children's prohibitionist association, the Band of Hope, as well as in the Young People's Prayer Meeting of West Branch, which she founded. She required him to study a chapter of the Bible every day and to record each penny he spent in a diminutive account ledger. Death was an insistent interloper. Bertie himself, when an infant, had been given up for dead. With more innuendo than he may have intended, Hoover was later to describe his early years as "a Montessori school in stark reality."

Quakerism accentuated this somberness: plain speech; plain dress; cold, hard benches. To a degree, the Society of Friends left lasting imprints on Hoover's character and temperament — his self-reliance, his disdain for show, and his capacity for toil — and on his view of the world: his dutiful commitment to good works, his trust in a community of neighbors to sustain the needy, his pursuit of peace, and his conception of "ordered freedom." He did not find it easy, however, to be the son of a woman who was an ordained minister. In his memoirs, Hoover wrote, "Those who are acquainted with the Quaker faith, and who know the primitive furnishing of the Quaker meeting-house, the solemnity of the long hours of meeting awaiting the spirit to move someone, will know the intense repression upon a ten-year-old boy who might not even count his toes." Later, he rebelled. He refused to go to Earlham, a Quaker college; was married by a Roman Catholic priest; served in a war government; and smoked, drank, swore, danced, patronized the theater, and profaned the Sabbath. Of Quakerism, he remarked, "I never worked very hard at it."

When Bertie was six, his universe began to crash around him. His father, only thirty-four, died, leaving, Tad said later, "a void unfillable and unfilled forever." Despite straitened circumstances, Huldah ordered a stone in her husband's memory, only to have the elders tell her it was too ostentatious and must be replaced. (Just once in later years did Hoover allude to those harrowing times. In 1928, when he was a candidate for president of the United States, he explained to an interviewer why he liked food so much: "You see, I was always hungry then.") For his mother, the struggle to survive was remorseless. "You will laugh at my poverty if I tell you I could not scratch up enough to pay my postage," she wrote her family on one occasion, and on another she said, "I will try to do what I can and not neglect the children." But, goodhearted though she was, neglect the children she did. Increasingly absorbed in her religious work, she shunted Bertie off to an uncle in a sod house in distant northwestern Iowa near the South Dakota border and, for a long stretch, to another uncle in Indian Territory. On one of her missions, Huldah became ill, and shortly thereafter the meeting recorded, "the Lord had mercy and gave her rest." She "had gone away," Tad later wrote, recalling feelings of "helplessness and despair, a dumb animal terror." The young mother's death, he said, left "three small children, adrift on the wreck of their little world," at the mercy of strangers.

Less than two years later, Bert found out just how coldhearted strangers can be when at an Oregon depot he first looked up into the flinty eyes of Uncle John Minthorn. After Huldah's death, relatives had parceled out the three orphans among themselves, then uprooted Bert yet again. "Thee is going to Oregon," an uncle informed him. They put the eleven-year-old on a westbound emigrant coach of the Union Pacific for a bare-bones seven-day journey across the Great Plains and the Rockies and then by river steamer on the Willamette to Newberg — his first view of the West, with which he ever after identified. Bereft of parents, catapulted toward a destination he could not imagine, he carried with him a prayer card reading, "Leave me not, neither forsake me, Oh God of my salvation."

Charles Dickens would have had no difficulty recognizing Uncle John — country doctor, Indian agent under Chester Arthur, and school official. Hard-bitten, ambitious, avaricious, he believed "idle hands were the work of the devil." He quickly determined that Bert, dispatched to take the place of his son who had died at seven, would not do. Bert returned the ill favor. For the next six years, they lived together in a sullen truce. Bert engaged in hard labor — felling trees, splitting logs, clearing stumps — six days a week, with all of each Sabbath given over to religious observance. In later years, a woman who ran a restaurant in the Oregon town commented, "I can recall him in so many different circumstances, and all of them are tinged with a bit of pathos, as if life had cheated him of his full share of youthful enjoyment."

"I do not think he was very happy," Dr. Minthorn said. "Our home was not like the one he left with his own parents in it (indulgent) and with very little responsibility and almost no work.... He always seemed to me to resent ... being told to do anything." When Bert enrolled at Friends Pacific Academy (today evangelical George Fox University) in Newberg, ensconced in the superintendent's office was Uncle John — called by another nephew "the greatest disciplinarian I ever saw."

Their discord became more muted when, in 1888, Minthorn launched a new career as a real estate promoter in the state capital, Salem. Bert dropped out of school to become part-time office boy and full-time hustler. Not yet fourteen, he met prospects at the station, escorted them to boardinghouses, and then took them on tours of the Oregon Land Company's pear orchard plots in the Willamette Valley — all the while reciting Minthorn's spiels. Hardworking and a quick study, he picked up bookkeeping and typing during the day and attended business college in the evening. More than one night he slept in the office. Asked a generation later about his boyhood goal, he answered: "To be able to earn my own living without the help of anybody, anywhere." His uncle, who came to appreciate Bert's industriousness and ingenuity, put him in charge of national advertising (Lord and Thomas of Chicago ran one of their ads in a thousand papers) and of dealing with luminaries as important as the Speaker of the Oregon legislature. Still, with a rudimentary education and an unremarkable personality, Bert had no reason for great expectations.

A chance meeting with a mining engineer, though, fired Hoover's imagination. He heard that a new university, Leland Stanford, was being founded in California, and he set his cap on going there. His meager schooling nearly derailed that aspiration when he failed the entrance examination. The Stanford mathematics professor who administered the test was so impressed by his tenacity, however, that he admitted Bert conditionally. "A young Quaker ... none too well prepared," the examiner reported, "but showing remarkable keenness." A Quaker himself who would one day be president of Swarthmore, he noted that the slender, square-jawed applicant "put his teeth together with great decision, and his whole face and posture showed his determination to pass the examination at any cost." He instructed Bert to arrive in California well before the university opened in order to be tutored for a second test.

In late August 1891, Bert boarded a southbound train, and some weeks later Stanford welcomed him into its pioneer class — with the stipulation that he overcome his deficiency in English. That proved to be a lifetime challenge. His grasp of spelling remained precarious, and he never developed a felicitous style. "Reading Herbert Hoover's tries at political philosophy taxes the most dedicated powers of concentration," the political scientist James David Barber later wrote. "He seemed to have a positive instinct for ... a kind of thudding Latin threnody, like balls of glue dropped from a rooftop."

The youngest student on campus, Hoover had to get by, in the words of one writer, "on a shoestring of money and a thimbleful of preparatory education." He survived thanks to odd jobs — currying horses, becoming agent for a San Jose laundry, running a lecture and concert bureau — but at the cost of shortchanging study time. In his first semester, he flunked German and did so poorly in other courses that he earned no credit at all for the term. After repeatedly failing to satisfy an English requirement, he disposed of it only because a science professor mopped up his punctuation and grammar.

Ill-equipped for college though he was, Stanford became a haven for him. In years to come, the campus in the foothills — with its red-tiled Spanish cloisters and its aromatic eucalyptus — was the hearth to which he always yearned to return. He never ceased to believe his country was the greatest nation on earth; that Westerners, especially Californians, were the most gifted of Americans; and that finest of all were Stanford men. "Stanford," he later wrote, "is the best place in the world." On that campus he found acceptance, he found his métier, he found his future wife; he almost found himself.

After Christmas of his freshman year, Hoover had the good fortune to meet a man who was to change the trajectory of his life: John Casper Branner, chair of the department of geology and state geologist of Arkansas. Hoover, hired as his typist, made such a good impression that he earned a summer position charting outcrops in the rattlesnake-infested Ozarks. On returning to campus in the fall, Hoover, who had been largely clueless about a career, switched his major to geology. At the end of his sophomore year, he assisted Branner in creating a huge topographical relief map of Arkansas for display at the Chicago World's Fair, where it won a prize, and that summer he worked with Waldemar Lindgren of the U.S. Geological Survey in the Nevada desert and the High Sierra. He performed so well that when the USGS charts appeared, they carried the name not just of Lindgren but also of the Stanford undergraduate. His fieldwork imbued him with pride of craft. "Tomorrow we are going to make descent of the American River canyon, a thing people here say is impossible," he wrote a friend. "But they are not geologists."

While gaining this priceless experience, Hoover continued to live hand to mouth. When in the summer of his junior year a survey post he was expecting did not materialize, he was reduced to driving a team of horses from Palo Alto to Yosemite, painting signs, and posting advertisements for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. On learning that he did have a job after all — in the mountains near Lake Tahoe — Hoover, all but penniless, walked more than eighty miles in three days to catch a boat in Stockton. No one could doubt his fortitude, however they may have regarded his forbidding personality.

At first, Hoover's fellow students thought him beyond reach. They saw him trudging across the quad slightly hunched over, as though to apologize for his presence, his eyes staring fixedly at the ground. He looked younger than his years but seemed prematurely old — taciturn, unsmiling. He would not speak unless spoken to, and then, avoiding eye contact, was as likely to snort as to expel a few words, while nervously rattling keys in a trouser pocket. The wife of a professor remembered him as "always blunt, almost to the point of utter tactlessness." At gatherings in her home, he "usually sat back in the corner and listened. He rarely spoke and always seemed to be a little ill at ease."

Yet, against all odds, Hoover succeeded in becoming something of a big man on campus, largely by leaguing with other outsiders against the snobbish Greek-letter societies for which he developed an abiding hatred. (In later years, he would forbid his sons to join any Stanford fraternity.) Asked to run for class treasurer on an anti-frat slate, Hoover agreed on condition that, if elected, he would not be paid. He campaigned vigorously, and the "barbarian" ticket won. As treasurer, he put to good use the bookkeeping skills he had learned in Oregon. He also drafted a student constitution that was still in effect a half century later. Too ungainly to play shortstop, he became the baseball team's financial manager and served the same function for the football squad, even arranging one of the first "Big Games" in the school's storied rivalry with the University of California. "'Popularity' is not exactly the word for his ... influence on his fellows," his future biographer Will Irwin reflected. "A better word, probably, would be 'standing.' The bleachers never rose and cheered when he passed; but subtly he ... radiated leadership." By the end of his four years, Hoover had collected a number of lifelong buddies who would one day count themselves loyal followers of the Stanford alum they were to designate "the Chief."


Excerpted from Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2009 William E. Leuchtenburg. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a noted authority on twentieth-century American history. A winner of both the Bancroft and Parkman prizes, he is the author of numerous books on the New Deal. In 2008, he was chosen as the first recipient of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award for Distinguished Writing in American History of Enduring Public Significance.

William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a noted authority on twentieth-century American history. A winner of both the Bancroft and Parkman prizes, he is the author of numerous books on the New Deal, as well as the American President Series biography of Herbert Hoover. In 2008, he was chosen as the first recipient of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award for Distinguished Writing in American History of Enduring Public Significance.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he was a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He won two Pulitzer prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966), and in 1988 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.
Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author or editor of several books, including Chants Democratic and The Rise of American Democracy. He has also written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and other publications. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Herbert Hoover 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Johnny_Shin More than 1 year ago
The entire American Presidents Series could use the same review from me. These books are shorter than I would like (all are roughly 150 pages) but for that length they give a reasonably balanced history of the president under consideration, a decent view of the background that led the individual to the presidency, the issues during the presidency and their resolutions, and what happened to the subject after the end of the administration. There simply aren't as many biographies on many of our presidents as there should be, and I couldn't really pick and choose. I feel I did learn the essentials of what Hoover was about, and what led him to be considered one of our presidential failures. Oddly, there is no footnoting, though there is an extensive bibliography.
vjcf More than 1 year ago
lacking in substance. it does, however, provide a glimse into this complex person.
acTN More than 1 year ago
good information--author is hard to read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago