Herbert Hoover is a true American success story. Orphaned at a young age in Iowa, Herbert was sent to live with family in Oregon. Young Herbert dropped out of school at the age of 13 and never attended high school. His only formal education came in the form of tutoring in the evening. However, his true education came working as a clerk in his uncle's real estate office. Eventually, Hoover was accepted into Stanford University where he studied Geology. After college he traveled the world, from Australia to China working in mining operations. By the early 1900s, Hoover had founded his own successful mining business and become a multimillionaire. The poor orphan kid from Iowa, was now an international capitalist.
When World War I began, Hoover helped to organize the a relief effort to send food to war-torn Belgium. Given the scale of the suffering in Europe during WWI, it would not be an overstatement to say that Herbert Hoover's efforts help to save the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians. His efforts did not go unnoticed. Upon America's entrance into the war, Hoover was quickly selected by President Woodrow Wilson to oversee the U.S. Food Administration. The organization oversaw the process of feeding our troops overseas, while still meeting he needs of families at home. After the war, Hoover made sure that desperate Europeans, including America's former enemies, received food. In this role, Hoover, yet again, excelled.
During both the Harding and Coolidge administrations, Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce; far from the most prestigious cabinet post. However, Hoover, reluctant to enter public service, approached the job with the same Quaker work ethic that had served him so well in business. As Commerce Secretary Hoover was known for his administrative skills and efficiency. A true big business conservative, Herbert Hoover seemed an obvious choice for the GOP nomination in 1928. Hoover was not a dynamic speaker. He was a man lacking charisma with none of the polish of a professional politician. After all, he'd never been elected to any office before in his life. However, he did have a reputation for hard work, integrity, and administrative skill. These qualities, coupled with a booming economy, the appearance of peace in the world, and a hopelessly divided Democratic Party, Herbert Hoover was easily elected President of the United States.
During the 1928 campaign, Herbert Hoover proclaimed "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." Despite these claims, within months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed and the economy fell into the depths of the Great Depression. As the months passed the economy suffered in ways that few Americans alive today could ever imagine. Banks were closing at a staggering place causing the loss of millions of dollars of savings and freezing the flow of credit. Without access to credit, thousands of businesses failed causing millions to lose their jobs. The staggering unemployment rate (25% at its highest point), and the evaporation of income caused a domino effect that led once healthy small businesses to fail due to a lack of customers. Without any semblance of a social safety net, desperate people turned to any form of assistance that was available. Within months, churches and private charities were overwhelmed. To their credit, I suppose, gangsters like Al Capone offered temporary relief to the desperate masses in the form of soup kitchens. Where was the government? Where was the President? To many Americans, it appeared that Hoover wasn't willing to do anything to help. After all, this was a man who once claimed that government assistance, of any kind, would destroy work ethic, the "rugged individualism" that had made America great. Thousands of Americans simply wandered from town to town looking for any kind of work. None was to be found.
In the meantime, Hoover's name became a pseudonym for economic misery. The unemployed who had lost their homes would often times construct a "Hoover Hotel": a cardboard shack. An entire community of shacks was known as a "Hooverville." Fair or unfair, President Hoover became the symbol of the Great Depression.
Herbert Hoover does not deserve blame for causing the Great Depression. No president could have caused such a catastrophe even if they tried. It is not the Depression itself that lands Hoover so far down on my list, it is his reaction to the crisis. One of Hoover's ideas was a scheme known as "Voluntarism." Hoover asked business owners and leaders of industry to voluntary keep wages high and resist laying off employees. To Hoover it seemed like a logical idea. As a businessman himself, Hoover believed in treating people with respect and valuing employees. Perhaps, if he were still in the private sector, he would have done the sort of voluntary sacrifice he was asking of the business community. However, industry leaders had to deal with the economic realities of the day and were not about to jeopardize their already suffering businesses anymore than was necessary for the sake of the nation's economic health. Voluntarism didn't work.
Hoover did propose some government spending to try to stimulate the economy. In fact, the iconic Hoover Dam which bares his name was an example of such an infrastructure project that paid dividends economically in the years to come. That be said, Hoover, ever the cautious businessman avoided aggressive government action for fear that the budget might be negatively impacted. Government spending under Hoover, no matter how effective, always fell woefully short of what was necessary to have any real impact on the economy.
In 1932, after some debate, the Republicans renominated Hoover for another term as President. Hoover's chances of being reelected in the middle of the Depression were already dismal before he made the greatest mistake of his presidency. An army of unemployed WWI veterans descended on Washington in the summer of 1932. The "Bonus Army" was in Washington to lobby Congress for advance payment of a bonus that was due veterans in 1945. Given the scale of the economic downturn, it is understandable why desperate people would try to get immediate access to cash that was owed them, even if it was 13 years early. After all, when there is a chance to help veterans and their families, the politically wise (not to mention moral) thing to do is listen. Hoover disagreed.
When a bill to help the Bonus Marchers was defeated in Congress. The marchers, who had set up a camp of shacks, a "Hooverville", just outside of town, refused to leave. After police intervention failed to remove the marchers, Hoover ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to remove the veterans, the trespassers, with federal troops. MacArthur no doubt exceeded his orders when he had soldiers charge at the veterans with bayonets fixed. The troops threw tear gas into the encampment. As the marchers and their families fled, many were injured, others arrested, and their camp burned to the ground. Hoover's days in office were numbered.
Hoover's failed presidency, on the surface, doesn't seem like it ever should have happened. The biggest challenge of the day was the economy. Who better to solve economic problems than a successful businessman? As it turns out, success in business, is far from a guarantee of success in politics. Leadership is more than head knowledge and the American people are more than numbers on a spreadsheet. Herbert Hoover, for all of his business acumen and work ethic, lacked perhaps the greatest quality needed in a President: the ability to inspire hope.
Herbert Hoover is a great American. A true success story that proves what is possible through hard work, intelligence, and a self-determination. He should be honored for his many successes, service to his country, and indeed the people of Europe. However, his presidency was a victim of the times. The only way to be a truly great President is to be faced with a crisis and successfully lead the nation through. Very few individuals possess such abilities. Sadly, Herbert Hoover did not.
There isn't much to say about Martin Van Buren. The 8th President is known more for his unique facial hair than any of his accomplishments in office. There are two reasons for this. #1 Look at those sideburns! #2. There aren't many accomplishments for which Van Buren can take credit. It is this lack of achievement that lands The Notorious MVB at number 36 on my list.
Van Buren was a big city politician through and through. His keen understanding of machine politics and the "spoils system" in which government jobs were exchanged for votes and loyalty earned him the nickname the "Little Magician." His ability to make deals, win votes, and earn the support of influential New York politicians and businessmen allowed him to become the chief architect of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party was the first political organization to seek national rather than regional political influence. It is this party structure, created by Martin Van Buren, that allowed Andrew Jackson and others to gain national popularity.
Van Buren served as Andrew Jackson's Vice President during his second term. After 4 years as America's number two man, Van Buren received the popular President's blessing and was awarded the Democrat's nomination for President in the election of 1836. Facing opposition from multiple members of the new Whig Party, Van Buren easily won the Presidency. Then everything went downhill.
Within weeks of Van Buren's inauguration, the Panic of 1837 shocked the American economy. The collapse of the cotton market and reckless speculative investments in western lands led to a series of bank failures, resulting in high unemployment and foreclosures. Partisan arguments between the Democrats and the Whigs regarding the proper course to take did nothing to solve the economic catastrophe or alleviate the suffering of thousands. Of course, there wasn't much the President could do. He was hampered fiscal and monetary polices of the Jackson administration, an administration in which he served. With no clear path forward and no centralized bank (thanks to Jackson) to stabalize the economy, the recession lasted for several years. The Panic of 1837 was the most devastating economic downturn to that point in American history. Van Buren does not deserve blame for the recession, but he did nothing to inspire confidence in the public that the government was working to address the crisis.
On the issue of slavery, Martin Van Buren was personally opposed to the institution. However, while President he did little to stop its expansion or challenge its existence. A famous example of this occurred in 1839 when the Spanish ship Amistad was transporting slaves throughout the Caribbean. A group of enslaved Africans escaped from their chains and took control of the ship. The slaves successfully navigated the ship to the coast of New York seeking freedom. The ship and passengers were captured by a United States vessel and the rebellious slaves suddenly found themselves in the middle of a custody battle between American abolitionists and the Spanish government. Throughout the entire legal proceedings, from the District Court to the Circuit Court of Appeals, the Van Buren administration sided with Spain, hoping to see the escaped slaves returned to bondage. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court where the slaves, represented by former President John Q. Adams, were granted their freedom. Van Buren, although probably driven by a desire to maintain good relations with Spain and with the southern wing of his party, was on the wrong side of history.
However, no issue better exemplifies Martin Van Buren's tone deafness to the long arch of justice than his treatment of Native Americans. As will be discussed in future entries into this blog, President Andrew Jackson successfully pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act which authorized the President to forcefully remove all tribes still living east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s. One tribe, the Cherokee sued the government and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a surprising decision, the High Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee and declared that they had the right to stay on their land. President Jackson famously remarked that Chief Justice John Marshall had made his decision, "now let him enforce it." In violation of the court order, Jackson began the process of forcefully removing the remaining tribes to clear the land for white settlement. The most infamous part of this removal was the forced march of the Cherokee along the Trial of Tears in which thousands died. However, this forced march took place during Van Buren's administration, not Jackson's. Martin Van Buren had the chance to uphold the court order, allow the Cherokee to stay in their homes, and do what was both morally and legally right. Instead, Van Buren chose to follow in the tyrannical footsteps of his political ally, Andrew Jackson.
A few years after leaving office, Martin Van Buren would become one of only a handful of ex-presidents to run for the nation's highest office again, but under a different party's banner. In 1848, Van Buren was nominated by the upstart Free Soil Party, a party opposed to the spread of slavery to the western territories. The campaign won no electoral votes and dissolved a few years later.
In the end, Martin Van Buren found more success as a deal maker and party builder than he ever did as President. Van Buren's time in office reminds us that the President must be far more than a skilled politician, he must be a leader. Martin Van Buren lacked leadership and was unable to correctly deal with rapidly changing political landscape. This, along with economic challenges beyond his control, doomed his presidency.
So, this one is tough. As I've been writing this blog series, "All the Presidents, Man!", I've struggled with where to put our 9th President. When it comes to presidential accomplishments, no leader has had fewer. That being said, William H. Harrison left office with zero scandals. By comparison to other leaders on this list, that's saying something. Some might argue that it isn't even fair to include Harrison on the list at all. The reason is simple: he died 31 days into his term! Nevertheless, I have decided to include Harrison in my list and rank him #37 to serve as a kind of bridge between the presidencies that were truly failures and those that were simply bad.
A bit of history: The Harrison family was one of a handful of politically powerful families in the early days of the American republic. William's father was a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Needless to say, Harrison had the kind of patriotic bonafides that would provide him with every opportunity for success in the future.
However, it was on the battlefield rather than the political arena that Harrison gained national fame. In 1811, Harrison serving as military governor of Indiana territory won the Battle of Tippecanoe, crushing an Indian confederation led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh. The confederation was the greatest threat ever posed by Native Americans against American westward expansion. Harrison neutralized that threat. This victory and his leadership during the War of 1812 made "Old Tippecanoe" a national hero.
In 1840, the United States was still reeling from the Panic of 1837, the greatest economic disaster to that point in American history. With Democrat Martin Van Buren in the White House, the Whigs knew they could win the presidency for the first time in their history, if only they chose the right candidate. But what makes a person the "right" candidate? The Election of 1840 was the first presidential election to feature large rallies, campaign songs, and slogans. In fact, the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" is one of the best known campaign slogans in American history. The reason for this change in campaign style was due to the fact that both parties were trying to win the votes of the average white male voter. Thanks to the expansion of voting rights over the past 2 decades, there was now universal white male suffrage and appealing to such men was essential. Playing of of the popularity of the former President Andrew Jackson, the Whigs sought a candidate who was could also claim to have helped vanquish the British and defeated the Indians on the battlefield. William Henry Harrison was that man.
The Whigs depicted Harrison as a down to earth, frontier general who understood the plight of the common man. Their campaign wanted to convince voters that "Old Tippecanoe", unlike the aristocrat Van Buren, was one of them. After all, they claimed that Harrison could "fight and drink hard cider!" The imagery worked and for the first time in American history, the Whigs had a man in the White House.
On Inauguration Day, Harrison, who despite his campaign image, was a well-educated and well-spoken man, decided to deliver an extremely long and learned address. The story goes that the new President was not dressed properly for the blustery day as he delivered the longest inaugural speech in history; nearly 2 hours. A few days later, Harrison began to complain that he was feeling ill. As time passed, the President became bedridden and his condition worsened. On April 4th, 31 days into his presidency, William Henry Harrison died of complications from pneumonia.
For years, Harrison's short presidency has served as a cautionary tale against lengthy speeches and in favor of wearing a jacket. After all, a cold can turn to pneumonia rather quickly. However, recent research suggests that perhaps it wasn't pneumonia at all that killed the President. Perhaps a more important lesson is "don't poop where you eat."
In 1841, there was no sewer system in the City of Washington. There was essentially no sanitary way of disposing of human waste in the White House. So, when the White House facilities would be cleaned, the "night soil" as it was known, would be taken to a field a few blocks away from the executive mansion. However, the field of human waste was slightly elevated, meaning that when it rained much of the bacteria growing in the field would wash back down into the city, right toward the White House, contaminating the water supply. It is possible that Harrison developed an ailment as a result of drinking contaminated water. In fact, researchers have found that the symptoms Harrison complained about were far more consistent with a gastrointestinal illnesses such as typhoid rather than pneumonia. Two other presidents (Taylor and Polk) would also die of similar causes just a few years later. You can read more about this discovery here.
So then, why has pneumonia always been cited as the cause of Harrison's death? The doctors treating the President were under a lot of public pressure to correctly diagnose the Commander-in-Chief while he was sick and under even more pressure to correctly identify the cause of death. Not fully understanding the nature of Harrison's illness or the causes of it, the doctors most likely simply gave their best guess as to what killed Harrison. Doctors didn't understand gastrointestinal issues, but they did understand, and the public was familiar with, pneumonia. When the public demands an answer, one must be given. Pneumonia worked will enough.
We will never know what kind of leader Harrison may have been. What we do know is that his death created a constitutional crisis discussed earlier in this series. His death also served as a dark omen for future Whig seeking the nation's highest office. You'll never guess what happens to the next guy. Cherries and milk, anyone?
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.