In the 1920s, Republicans won three elections in a row. The economy was great and postwar conflict had been avoided! The good times would last forever! Right??
The Last Four Years
President Herbert Hoover took office during one of the most peaceful times in American history. At his inauguration, he proclaimed, “In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure.” Hoover intended to keep America on the same track that Presidents Harding and Coolidge laid. Andrew Mellon, first appointed by Harding, stayed on as Hoover’s Secretary of Treasury. Mellon believed in what we now call trickle-down economics, that is, keep taxes low for the rich and the entire economy will benefit. But Hoover was more progressive than his predecessors in some areas. He ordered the Department of the Interior to improve conditions on Native American reservations, he appointed conservationists to the National Park Service, and he passed legislation to build a new hydroelectric dam in Nevada (name TBD). Hoover also brought his unique administration skills to the presidency. He ordered a variety of commissions to study social issues, ranging from child welfare to prohibition corruption, and to collect data on social trends. But soon, Hoover’s term would be consumed by one major crisis.
The cracks in America’s economic foundation were most evident in the agriculture industry. Farmers did not get to enjoy the prosperity of the Roaring ’20s. Demand was high during World War I, prompting many farmers to take on debt in order to buy expensive new equipment. When the war was over, demand fell sharply and supply stayed high. The resulting low prices meant that farmers had no way to pay back their loans. Like Coolidge, Hoover rejected plans to provide subsidies to farmers. Instead, he proposed the Federal Farm Board to loan money and support cooperatives. Hoover’s struggle to get Congressional support for the Board highlighted his biggest weaknesses. Although he had a great resume before his presidency, Hoover had never actually held an elected position before. He did not know how to work with Congress and he did not actively lobby for his plans, meaning he lost support from many politicians who would have otherwise taken his side. On top of this, he simply did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility to provide direct support to the people. Hoover was great at creating commissions. He was not great at actually getting stuff done, and that would be a big problem.
Like farmers, manufacturing workers were not seeing all the benefits of the economic boom. Many business owners spent their extra money on speculative, or high-risk, investments instead of using it for commercial ventures, like new factories. Although the ’20s saw an increase in consumption, it was built on credit, and wealthy consumers weren’t buying enough goods to satisfy the supply. In the fall of 1929, just a few months after Hoover’s inauguration, stock prices began their decline. As the country’s economic weaknesses became more apparent, traders continued to sell. On October 24th, Black Thursday, the stock market lost 11% of its value. Despite some improvements over the following weekend, it fell another 13% on Black Monday. Finally, on October 29th (you guessed it, Black Tuesday), it lost 12% more. While the Stock Market Crash was not the beginning or the sole cause of the Great Depression, it made the weak economy undeniable.
At first, the effects of the Crash were really only felt by investors. But the ensuing mass unemployment, which reached as high as 25%, is truly what defined the Great Depression. Even though the Federal Reserve had been created in 1913 to help control economic panics, its role was still unclear. Its failure to protect banks from massive withdrawals led to a series of bank closures and credit freezing in 1930. Hoover blamed the Depression on the international web of debt that followed WWI. While that wasn’t entirely correct, it was partly the reason the crisis went global. As credit froze worldwide, trade slowed, and US manufacturing was hurt even more. Hoover responded with one of the his party’s favorite strategies, a protective tariff. But increasing the cost of imported goods only made things worse. Predictably, European nations responded with tariffs of their own, and American production suffered again. The crisis was also exacerbated when Britain ditched the gold standard to make their economic system more flexible, but no other countries followed their lead.
It took a long time for Hoover to grasp the severity of the situation. He met with industrial leaders to seek pledges to not cut jobs or wages. He increased infrastructure spending and called for bail-outs of struggling industries. But it was too little, too late. Hoover’s imagination for solutions was limited by his conservative opinions on government intervention.
During WWI, Hoover’s effectiveness as a relief organizer inspired the term “Hooverize,” to conserve food or water for the war effort. By 1932, he was instead the namesake of the collections of shacks for poor families sprouting up across the county – “Hoovervilles.” Some joked that Hoover, an engineer before his public fame, was the best in the world, “He had drained, ditched, and damned the United States in three years!” Times were so tough, Americans were moving on from their flirt with the temperance movement. Prohibition was losing popularity. Americans needed a drink.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Despite Hoover’s unpopularity, the Republican Party felt that they couldn’t deny his nomination without admitting failure. Hoover himself felt obligated to seek vindication. Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis were re-nominated on the first ballots. The 1932 GOP convention was infamously dull. Unlike most years, there was little celebration of the winning candidate. Hoover’s image was notably absent from party posters and banners. In any case, the Republican platform praised Hoover’s economic policies, called for a balanced budget, and, or course, backed a protective tariff.
The Democratic convention had all the excitement that the Republicans lacked. Many assumed that victory was guaranteed, pending any serious errors. The front runner was New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Along with his popularity with progressives in his state, Roosevelt came with name recognition as Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin. Following in Teddy’s footsteps, he served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during WWI. He spent most of the Democratic Party’s losing stretch in the ‘20s recovering from Polio, a rare condition for adults. Though he hid his physical limitations effectively, he could not walk or stand without assistance. His competitors were 1928 nominee Al Smith, also a former New Yorker governor, and Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, from Texas. When the convention convened on the first day, Roosevelt had the lead, but he lacked the necessary two-thirds majority. Smith was in second and Garner was in third. To seal the win, Roosevelt’s campaign offered Garner the VP spot, in exchange for releasing his delegates. Garner’s team knew their win was unlikely, so they accepted the offer. William McAdoo, Al Smith’s opponent in the notoriously contentious 1924 convention, gleefully announced the California delegation’s commitment to Roosevelt. Smith, who had recently fallen out with his fellow New Yorker, Roosevelt, stubbornly refused to release his delegates so the nomination could be unanimous. Roosevelt won the nomination anyways on the fourth ballot and Garner followed as his running mate.
At the time, it was taboo for candidates to attend conventions in person, relying solely on their fellow politicians to campaign on their behalf. When he heard the news of his victory, Roosevelt flew to the convention anyways. He hoped to prove his vitality and his willingness to act. He told the crowd, “I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd tradition that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event many weeks later… You have nominated me and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor… [Let it] be symbolic that in so doing I broke tradition. Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions.” Roosevelt went on to pledge a “New Deal” for the American people. The slogan stuck.
Roosevelt loved campaigning and used it to demonstrate his physical health. He ignored advice to not push his limitations by going on a national tour. He was surprisingly energetic and was known for his optimism, a welcome break from the dreariness of the Hoover years. On the trip, he won over both the party establishment and progressives, even earning the endorsement of some Republicans, like Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Jr. Roosevelt’s campaign team included several academics and professors. Consequently, the press referred to them as his “brains trust,” later shortened to “brain trust.” The phrase grew in popularity as it was used to refer to Roosevelt’s advisors for the rest of his political career. Surprisingly, Roosevelt’s positions were fairly moderate. Even though he called for an increase in federal relief, the specifics of the New Deal were intentionally vague. In fact, Roosevelt called for a balanced budget and often criticized Hoover’s spending. For his contribution, VP candidate John Nance Garner was so sure their ticket would win, he only gave one speech, and it was over the radio.
Hoover intended to stick to tradition and not actively campaign as the sitting president, but, by the fall, he was compelled to respond to the Democrats’ criticisms. He continued to insist that the Great Depression was a result of postwar debt and reiterated his belief in individual initiative and free enterprise. He accused Democrats of blocking his efforts to fix the economy and called Roosevelt’s policies radical and Socialistic. He summarized his position best when he said, “We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal. It is not the change that comes from normal development of national life to which I object, but the proposal to alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been builded (sic) through generations of testing and struggle, and of the principles upon which we have builded the nation.” Notably, Hoover was the last president to write his own speeches.
The outlook for Hoover worsened when a group of WWI veterans, known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, marched to the Capital to demand early payment of a bonus due to them in 1945. When Hoover refused to meet with them, they set up a make-shift collection of shacks nearby. Hoover responded by sending General Douglas MacArthur to break them up with troops, tanks, and tear gas. Hoover proudly announced, “A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.” But, as you might imagine, chasing veterans out of town with the military was not a good look. Adding fuel to the fire, Vice President Curtis lost his cool when faced with questions about the veterans’ demands at a campaign event in Las Vegas. The crowd responded with cheers for Roosevelt.
Believe it or not, it’s a Democratic landslide! Roosevelt swept every region except the Northeast. It was the first time that Minnesota voted Democratic, leaving Vermont as the only state never to do so. With his “New Deal Coalition,” Roosevelt won over Southerners and Northerners. Unlike is progressive predecessor, William Jennings Bryan, he was able to unite the rural and urban factions of the Democratic Party. One-third of Republican voters switched parties, included a large portion of African Americans. His coalition was so strong, it would be nearly unbeatable for the next 36 years.
Franklin D. Roosevelt easily won, becoming America’s 32nd president! Roosevelt won 472 electoral votes, against Hoover’s 59. With 57%, it was the first time a Democrat had won a majority of the popular vote since Samuel Tilden’s controversial 1876 electoral college loss. Hoover’s popular vote fell drastically, from 58% in 1928, to 39%. Additionally, Democrats won both houses of congress
What Did It Say About America?
The 1932 election was a complete rejection of President Herbert Hoover. It was not necessarily a referendum on the (still vague) New Deal, but rather, a vote for Franklin Roosevelt’s optimism and active approach to the presidency. America needed a new strategy for facing the Great Depression.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Not to spoil the next few posts, but Roosevelt would prove to be a very popular president. That being said, Hoover’s poor reputation is somewhat unfair when judged from today’s perspective. Roosevelt changed our understanding of what the federal government could and should do. At the time, Hoover felt like he was already doing a lot, partly because large scale government intervention hadn’t been invented yet! Today, the Great Depression serves as a marker to measure all other crises by. Later in life, Hoover was able to joke about his disastrous presidency, noting, “I am the only person of distinction who’s ever had a depression named after him.” He died in 1964, at the age of 90. At the time, he was the second longest-lived-president to John Adams, and the president with the longest retirement.
After the election, FDR told a friend that if he succeeds, he would go down as one of the greatest presidents in history, but “If I fail, I shall be the last one.” We can judge that for ourselves, since we’ll be talking about FDR for the entirety of June! Welcome to the Month of Roosevelt!