Failure: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Great Depression

Many history textbooks condemn Herbert Hoover for twiddling his thumbs while the United States suffered from a Great Depression. Then, a hero emerges: suddenly, behind the strong leadership, active approach, and brilliance of Franklin Roosevelt, the United States began to slowly but surely bring itself out of the depression. Some books will admit that the depression did not end until World War II, but almost always he is given credit for alleviating it with his new approach.

History textbooks will not tell you the truth. Both Hoover and FDR took an active approach to ending the depression, and both of them failed.

It’s a well known story. On October 24, 1929, people began to sell their stocks in large numbers. On October 29, 1929, the bottom fell out: people were only interested in selling stock, not buying, and prices tumbled. The Great Depression was under way.

Most people realize that Hoover did not start the depression. It’s a misconception, however, that he did nothing to try and help it. Rather, he signed a lot of legislation in an attempt to alleviate the situation. He signed the first Federal unemployment assistance in history into law with the Emergency Relief and Construction Act. According to Wikipedia, he “[established] the Federal Home Loan Bank system to assist citizens in obtaining financing to purchase a home.” Wikipedia also states that he “increased public works spending.” He signed the Agricultural Marketing Act and the Reconstruction Finance Act. This all occurred over the course of four years. Unfortunately for Hoover, the depression continued to worsen. By 1933, about one out of four Americans were without a job. This can probably be attributed to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, a bill signed (“reluctantly” says Wikipedia) by Hoover in 1930. This was Hoover’s huge mistake, one not made by Roosevelt. Clearly, however, it is absurd to suggest that Hoover sat by idly during his presidency while the nation suffered.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to replace Hoover. During the campaign he had promised a very vague “new deal.” It became clear soon after the election what he meant. It is pointless to go through every act FDR created: everyone knows he was active in trying out his plan to help the economy. What is important is the details. (For Hoover, it was important to state the multitude of legislation he passed; for FDR, it’s well known he signed a multitude of legislation.)

Between 1933 and 1940, Franklin Roosevelt tripled taxes – all types of taxes – when people needed money. He also demanded that crops and farm animals destroyed and killed – when people needed products to sell. The Cato Institute, a libertarian organization, asks ten “Tough Questions for Defenders of the New Deal” in this article. And in this article, the New Deal is revealed to have harmed the poorest Americans. A few things here are quite amusing. FDR raised taxes on almost everything, among them tires (“including tires on wheelchairs”), electricity, and radios. FDR had polio, which confined him to a wheelchair, yet he taxed tires on wheelchairs. And those famed Fireside Chats? As the article points out, “Yes, to hear FDR’s ‘Fireside Chats,’ one had to pay FDR excise taxes for a radio and electricity!”

Read the two articles above carefully. FDR’s economic policies did far more harm than good.

Why then, you might ask, is FDR renowned for his responses to the Depression, while Hoover is condemned? The answer is simple: political skill. Herbert Hoover was best known as a Stanford engineer. He was not a politician. The only political office that he ever held prior to being president was Secretary of Commerce, a position to which one gets appointed. Franklin Roosevelt, however, served as Governor of New York prior to becoming president. His political skill was recognized as early as 1920, when he was the Democratic vice president nominee. He never won a presidential election by less than 333 electoral votes. Roosevelt was also a far better speaker. Fireside Chats, inaugural speeches, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” “a day that will live in infamy.” Hoover has, well, nothing. FDR skillfully used his abilities to make people think that his programs were working. Hoover was not able to do so. But if you read the work and numbers provided by Cato, it’s clear that FDR harmed more people than he helped. But they thought they were doing better thanks to FDR.

Many people admire FDR today for the same reasons. They learn from their parents and grandparents. Students learn from history textbooks, written by professors who, for the most part, are liberal and admire another legacy FDR left: that of a government that tries to use its power to help its citizens. Of course, this legacy would not have been possible without his political skill. They use FDR and his high status to support their liberal views of today.

Hoover and FDR both took an active approach to government in order to get the U.S. out of the depression, and both failed.

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5 thoughts on “Failure: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Great Depression”

  1. I’m making an assumption here, but is Hampden-Sydney very skewed in terms of how it represents history? My U.S. History courses covered the Great Depression just a few weeks ago and had an exam on it (which I hit a two-run home run on). Nowhere during the lecture did my professor or my T.A. ever so much as imply that F.D.R. saved America from the Depression. In fact, they made it painfully clear that F.D.R. and the New Deal only helped matters, but did not resolve the issue; World War II did. So much for the “liberal elite” on our campuses.I do take issue with your statement below, as well as your critique of F.D.R. in general. Bear in mind that I am in no way a fan of F.D.R.“Between 1933 and 1940, Franklin Roosevelt tripled taxes – all types of taxes – when people needed money. He also demanded that crops and farm animals destroyed and killed – when people needed products to sell. The Cato Institute, a libertarian organization, asks ten “Tough Questions for Defenders of the New Deal” in this article. And in this article, the New Deal is revealed to have harmed the poorest Americans. A few things here are quite amusing. FDR raised taxes on almost everything, among them tires (“including tires on wheelchairs”), electricity, and radios. FDR had polio, which confined him to a wheelchair, yet he taxed tires on wheelchairs. And those famed Fireside Chats? As the article points out, “‘Yes, to hear FDR’s ‘Fireside Chats,’ one had to pay FDR excise taxes for a radio and electricity!'”First off, I think we can all agree on one point, and that was that the Great Depression was by far the worst economic disaster America had ever faced. Given that, I feel as if the critcisms (if they were indeed criticisms) are completely unwarranted. Especially the statement “when people needed money.” Yes, but where was the money then? If there is not enough money in circulation, then it makes little difference what the taxes are. This is not a hit on you, Nathan, but in order to understand fully, you must actually be poor for about a month to see how difficult, even during times of economic boom, it can be to live off low wages. One thing that hadn’t changed during the Depression was the need to earn money and as a result, it wasn’t as if the socio-economic system at the time had much to give, obviously. As we see in many Third World countries today that use a capitalistic-system, “turning them loose” does not mean the economy does well.Government has its limits and as a quasi-Libertarian, I understand that so well. But as we saw on 9/11, there comes a time when the government must take command of the situation. In a capitalistic-driven system such as ours, the only situation the people take command of is their own, at the expense of others.

  2. One, I am talking more along the lines of high school textbooks that make sweeping generalizations because they need to cover so much material. Everybody seems to I have yet to take a U.S. history course here, and besides, H-SC would probably dislike FDR.Two, my points regarding FDR are based on the articles I provided from the Cato Institute. The “Tough Questions” article states, “Consumers had less money to spend, and employers had less money for growth and jobs.” The other article to which I linked states, “Americans needed bargains, but FDR hammered consumers.” Much of this part of my post was a paraphrase of the two articles, hence why I provided links to them (and in the material you quoted).Three, I realize that the Great Depression was a great catastrophe to which no solution was obvious, and Roosevelt did what he thought he should. But as one of the articles I provided from the libertarian Cato Institute mentions, “We should evaluate government policies according to their actual consequences, not their good intentions.”

  3. “We should evaluate government policies according to their actual consequences, not their good intentions.”This is a statement I completely agree with. Too many people judge politicians based on intention, not what ended up happening.However, politicians should also be judged on what course of action, successful or failure, they took under the given circumstances. In other words, did the president know what he was doing or was this just a shot in the dark? I think F.D.R. did understand what he was doing and the risks he would be taking in his course of action.The Great Depression is a major point of fascination, as I see our current dependence on petroleum as a future cause of economic disaster.

  4. Cited under Herbert Hoover by George H. Nash in <>The Reader’s Companion to American History<> (Foner and Garraty, Eds.) is a 1974 quote by Roosevelt aide Rexford Tugwell:<>“We didn’t admit it at the time, but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.”<>

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