American Individualism: Herbert Hoover’s American Social Philosophy
Remarks by Margaret Hoover
Presented to Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association August 4, 2002.
It is a great honor to be here today to eulogize my great-grandfather, a man whose life has personally inspired me for many years. I am grateful to Pat Forsythe and David Eisenhower for this opportunity to tell you about the wonderful great-grandfather who I discovered when I conducted research here at the Hoover Library last year.
If I could choose any great figure from history to sit and chat with for an hour, it would be my great-grandfather. Perhaps it is not surprising that I feel such awe over his extraordinary list of life achievements, or that I remain intrigued by the stories told to me throughout the years by my dad and grandmother.
One of my favorite stories my dad often told was about a time when he lived with my great-grandfather at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. My great-grandfather loved children and often allowed my dad to play in his study, even when his most prominent visitors were present. One day when my great-grandfather and dad were playing with army figurines, a guest called on my great-grandfather. When the guest entered the room and noticed the game the two were playing, he shook his head. “No son, you’re doing it all wrong,” the mysterious guest boomed at my dad. Perhaps as a pacifist Quaker my great-grandfather was unaware of military strategy, so the guest sat down and instructed the two of them on the best location for the troops, in relation to the accompanying tanks. As a boy of nine, my dad was probably too young to understand the five stars on either of the guest's shoulders, but realized years later, that none other than General McArthur had taught him how to win a war.
Stories such as this one illustrate the kind heart of my great-grandfather who took time for children even when legendary American leaders dropped in on business. Such stories have left me thirsting to know more about my great-grandfather. To learn more, I have always sought academic opportunities to enhance my understanding of Herbert Hoover. Naturally, when I heard about David Eisenhower’s course, entitled Communication and the American Presidency, I knew that I would have another opportunity to learn about the man who touched my dad, and who touched the world’s history in such a unique way.
The idea of David Eisenhower’s course, was to give students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the presidential library system, but also to allow them the opportunity to conduct primary research, a chance afforded to few undergraduates. To achieve this end, the University of Pennsylvania generously granted David’s students enough money to travel to the presidential library of their choice to sift through volumes of presidential papers. There was only one assignment for the course: to write a paper about a speech that the president of our choice delivered.
While I could have picked any of my great-grandfather’s speeches to write about, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to research a book he wrote entitled American Individualism. My dilemma however was that American Individualism is a book, not a speech. I learned the beauty of primary research when sifting through the boxes of materials on the book, realized that American Individualism was originally written as a convocation address, and for some reason it was never delivered. My dad cleverly proposed a paper on American Individualism, Herbert Hoover’s “undelivered speech”. In this way, I was able to satisfy the requirement of writing about a speech, and satiate my desire to study American Individualism.
What is American Individualism? It is two things: first, it is the title of the book that I studied, which presents the most succinct explanation of how and why our American system is the best social, political, spiritual, and economic system in the world. American Individualism is also the name that my great-grandfather gave to America’s social philosophy.
“Individualism”, in and of itself, is the system whereby a society builds on the accomplishments of individual people who have the chance to contribute their innate talents to the betterment of the whole community. My great-grandfather believed that all people are endowed with a certain capacity for intelligence, character, ability, and ambition. It was his theory is that through the natural human instinct toward self-expression and production, individuals apply their resourcefulness and ingenuity to create products for the marketplace and generate ideas to build their communities that eventually lead to progress. Hoover knew that progress could be impeded (as easily as it could be advanced) by large aggregates of people working in bureaucracies and syndicates, corporate as well as governmental. To my great-grandfather, progress was rather like building blocks, an edifice constructed from the sum of individual efforts over centuries.
My great-grandfather believed that forms of Individualism existed in both Europe and the United States, which is why he felt inclined to define America’s special brand of Individualism. American Individualism, he believed, had a unique characteristic owing to the unique circumstances encountered in the New World that the foundations of America were laid without an entrenched class system, affording Americans something resembling equal opportunity at birth. While living in Europe, Hoover observed the effect of millennia of social inequalities and immobile social castes, the extreme differences between rich and poor, which shaped the outlook of most Europeans, making slightly fanciful the idea of equal opportunity. American Individualism is better than its European counterpart because in America, a person can rise to whatever heights of success their innate talents will allow. Hoover explains that, "equal opportunity, the demand for a fair chance, became the formula of American individualism because it is the method of American achievement".
There is no better example of the ideal of equal opportunity than Herbert Hoover himself. Only in America, could a poor nine-year-old orphan, from a humble frontier town resembling the one on the other side of this park, rise to the greatest heights of accomplishment, service, wealth and leadership becoming the president of the United States of America.
Hoover’s meaty little book as it was called by the distinguished historian Frederick Jackson Turner, contains the New and the Old Testament of the American gospel. Although it is only twenty-nine pages long, it is not a light read. It is divided into six chapters, in which Hoover explores the philosophical grounds of individualism, the spiritual, economic and political phases of this distinctly American political theory. It is riddled with complicated ideas and challenging metaphors, mostly relating to engineering, although thank goodness, you do not have to be an engineer to understand them! His literary style draws on the readers cool intellect, not eliciting emotion but in the spirit of individualism, relying on the individual readers ability to intelligently consider his ideas.
Although Hoover illustrates several brilliant points in American Individualism, I want to focus on what is to me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book, which is that it is a solid argument against socialism. Significantly, years before the socialist experiments of the 20th century had been launched in Europe and elsewhere, Hoover in American Individualism anticipated the likely failure of socialism and the ideas behind it, which he contrasted with the idea and ideals of the American system.
The beauty of the argument is that it is based on Hoover’s personal experience witnessing socialisms uncensored realization. You see, my great-grandfather’s life was a hands-on comparative study of political ideologies. Because of his diplomatic status as an international food administrator during World War I, which allowed him to witness destruction from behind both enemies lines, Hoover saw that socialism impoverished millions and failed to offer lasting solutions to suffering. He wrote, "Socialism in a nation-wide application has now proved itself with rivers of blood and inconceivable misery to be an economic and spiritual fallacy and has wrecked itself finally upon the rocks of destroyed production and moral degeneracy. Socialism was a theory spun by dreamers to remedy the pressing human ills" but Hoover saw that no society could sustain itself if it was based upon altruism alone and throttled the basic human instinct to produce.
When my great-grandfather returned to the United States after World War I, he was disturbed to discover that socialism was beginning to gain standing in American political discourse. It was clear to my great-grandfather that socialism challenged the political and spiritual forces of America. As Professor Eisenhower pointed out to me, often times a person fine-tunes their thoughts on an issue by writing a speech or a book. I think my great-grandfather wrote American Individualism to formalize his own thinking on the subject, which preyed on him after his experiences during the Great War and the advent of political-isms on the continent of Europe. By writing the book, he hoped to define the permanent and persistent motivation driving American civilization, which he thought was the key to its preservation, and critical in countering socialism’s gaining momentum. He also hoped that enhancing our understanding of the American system’s strengths would help us along the road to progress.
However, my great-grandfather was far ahead of his time in political understanding. The clarity of Hoover’s political thought is striking in that in 1922 he believed socialism to have been a necessary social experiment for the world to learn from. But, the world did not learn from socialism’s early failures, as my great-grandfather did. Instead, the world carried on experimenting with socialism until average thinkers were convinced of its failure at the historic fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire, seventy years after American Individualism’s publication.
Ironically, Hoover also mention leadership in this book. He states that leaders "cannot, no matter how brilliant, carry progress far ahead of the average of the mass of individual units." Ironically, I think one of the reasons my great-grandfather's ideas were not widely internalized at the time they were published is because his political understanding was seventy years ahead of the average mass of individual units.
In defining the elements of American Individualism early in the 20th century a century of great wars punctuated by global depression my great-grandfather acknowledged the building of internal and external threats to the basic idea of American Individualism. He intended that his American readership have a clearer understanding of the significance of American Individualism and its importance to the world. My great grandfather understood that Americans were certain to be influenced by the growing ties between Europe and the United States, likely to be impacted by Europe's trials, and face unprecedented challenges under conditions in which America’s strengths might seem less self-evident. American Individualism made explicit what had been implicit in two centuries of development at the outset of a third century likely to present American Individualism with its sternest tests. The ideas that he developed and articulated in his book influenced not only his Presidency, but his long public career that followed, in which his confidence in socialism's ultimate failure was undiminished.
Aside from socialism, my great-grandfather prophesied many of the social and political ills that would plague the twentieth century, not only in American Individualism, but also throughout his political career. Another irony is that my great-grandfather didn’t think he was predicting anything, he was just telling what he had seen with his own eyes, that he knew to be true. Sometimes I wonder if my great-grandfather had a bit of Cassandra's curse. Cassandra was the legendary Trojan woman endowed with the divine power to predict the future and who prophesied Troy's fall. Cassandra’s curse was that no one ever believed her prophecies. I do not know whether people chose not to believe my great-grandfather’s warning about socialism, but it is clear that his words were often unheeded.
The great-grandfather I discovered in those boxes at the Hoover Library was a man that very few people understand and appreciate. My great-grandfather was a modern conservative, a political visionary, and a philosopher-observer of political theory. It surprises me how few contemporary conservatives know that Hoover wrote American Individualism or that he was one of the great conservative thinkers of the twentieth century and it seems to me that this “meaty little book” should be read by all who call themselves conservative. In fact, I think that Rush Limbaugh or Peggy Noonan, two of my favorite conservative spokespeople today, would be enriched by reading this book. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the circumstances of Hoover's Presidency, coinciding with the Great Depression have obscured his well-earned place as a statesman and in the history of American political thought. But it is fortunate that America has the benefit of my great-grandfather’s life and career, of his public spiritedness, of his willingness to advocate an imperiled ideal in the decades American Individualism was most endangered.
At its publication, the New York Times Book Review declared that American Individualism would ranks among the few great formulations of American political theory. Helping to put my great-grandfather in his appropriate historical place in American conservative theory has become one of my missions.
Today, the time is right for American’s to understand what American Individualism is all about. I encourage you to pick up a copy of American Individualism in the bookstore and take it home and read it, in remembrance of a great American. Read it also for the future preservation of the ideals that make America great, so that we may continue along the road of progress.