The Hoovers’ Early Years
John Milton Cooper, Jr.
Let me ask your indulgence for starting on a personal note. Believe me, this little anecdote does have some applicability to Herbert Hoover and the life he led during his first forty years. It was almost that same number of years ago, when I was in college, that I first encountered him in a serious way.
In my senior year I was taking a course on twentieth-century U.S. history in which the professor required alternative readings when we got to Hoover’s presidency and the onset of the Depression. He told us, “If you are a Republican by background, you have to read Arthur Schlesinger’s Crisis of the Old Order. If you’re a Democrat, you have to read Hoover’s Memoirs.”45
Being a specimen of that college’s endangered species, Democrats, I drew Hoover, but not after complaining to the professor. I had already read Schlesinger, and, like everybody else, I had savored his narrative virtuosity. I knew Hoover would not be nearly as much fun to read, and I am afraid that volume of his memoirs lived up, or down, to my expectations.
I mention this because I think much of Hoover’s historical reputation has been shaped by liberal, Democratic-leaning, pro-Franklin Roosevelt historians, and among them Schlesinger stands preeminent. In fact, I think that what he did to Hoover’s reputation can be likened to what John Greenleaf Whittier did to Daniel Webster’s in his scathing poem “Ichabod,” which he wrote after Webster came out for the Compromise of 1850. Someone commented after the poem appeared in print, “It is a terrible thing for a statesman to fall into the hands of a living poet.” I think that comment applies just as strongly to Hoover, with respect to Schlesinger.
My reason for mentioning this is that Schlesinger’s treatment of Hoover does not apply just to his presidency. The view that Schlesinger exemplified has also shaped the usual interpretations of Hoover’s early life. This