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Written by John R. Vile, published on November 29, 2023 , last updated on June 5, 2024

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, the nation's 31st president, became president in 1929 and was most associated with the Great Depression that followed. He appointed three consequential justices to the Supreme Court who would later rule on major First Amendment cases. During his presidency, the court began to apply First Amendment protections to states. For example, it struck down a Minnesota law that had enjoined publication of newspaper that had criticized Minneapolis city officials, likening such government action as censorship and unconstitutional under the First Amendment. (Image, public domain, Library of Congress)

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was born in Iowa — becoming the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River — and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology at Stanford University in California.

A gifted engineer, Hoover earned a reputation and a formidable income in mining in Australia, Burma and elsewhere. He was tapped during the Wilson Administration to head the Commission for Relief in Belgium and the U.S. Food Administration, in which capacities he efficiently funneled relief to victims of World War I. He subsequently served as Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928 during the Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations and spearheaded efforts to provide relief during the great Mississippi flood of 1927. He was often referred to as “The Secretary of Commerce . . . and Under-Secretary of Everything Else” (Morris 2017, 178).

Hoover was a logical choice for the Republican nomination of 1928 where, running on a ticket with Charles Curtis and on the promise of “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage,” he overwhelmingly defeated Democrat Al Smith. He was the nation's 31st president, serving from 1929 to 1933, which marked the opening years of the Great Depression, and increasingly flagrant violations of the 18th Amendment, which had provided for national alcoholic prohibition. Hoover’s inauguration was the first to be recorded on a newsreel.

Hoover was a strong believer in the free enterprise system. In a speech delivered in October of 1918, Hoover observed that the American system “is founded upon the conception that self-government can be preserved only by decentralization of Government in the State and by fixing local responsibility, but further than this, it is founded upon the social conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise drive the march of progress.”

 Hoover did take some federal initiatives to combat the Great Depression. The nation’s adoption of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930, however, is generally considered to have contributed to declining international trade that helped perpetuate the worldwide depression.

Hoover became associated with Great Depression

Despite a capacious mind and a strong work ethic, Hoover lacked charisma and had difficulty relating to common citizens. In 1932, soldiers that Hoover sent under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur beat up so-called Bonus Marchers who had come to Washington, D.C., seeking advance payments on their pensions.

Scholar Seymour Morris observed that, in time, “The very name Hoover was a plague: shantytowns filled with the homeless were called Hoovervilles; horses pulled Hoovercarts because their owners couldn’t afford gas; the newspapers under which homeless people slept in parks were Hoover blankets; empty pockets turned inside out were Hoover flags” (Morris 1947, 203). 

Hoover’s defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1932 brought an end to 12 years of Republican rule and ushered in a series of ambitious new federal programs designed to constitute a New Deal for the American people, but which Hoover feared would threaten individual liberties. 

Even before he became president, Hoover had a role as Secretary of Commerce in helping to create the Radio Act of 1927, which created the Federal Radio Commission. The law contained a provision similar to the equal time rule, which has since been abandoned. It also forbade the use of “obscene, indecent, or profane language.” 

First Amendment cases

Courts begin to apply First Amendment protections to states

The decision in Gitlow v. New York (1925) marked the first time that the U.S. Supreme court specifically acknowledged that First Amendment free speech and free press limitations applied not only to the national government but also to the states, via the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

There were at least two cases during Hoover's presidency in which the Supreme Court applied such protections to the states. Its decision in Stromberg v. California (1931) interpreted freedom of speech to include symbolic speech and overturned a conviction of a member of the Young Communist League who had raised a red flag (the symbol of Russia) at a summer camp.

The date may be coincidental, but 1931 also marks the year that Hoover signed a bill officially designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.

In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the Supreme Court, led by Charles Evans Hughes, further interpreted the First and 14th Amendment protections of freedom of the press to affirm that it would apply a strong presumption against any laws that imposed “prior restraint,” which it considered to be the essence of censorship, on publications. In this case, the court struck down a court order using the Minnesota Public Nuisance Law to enjoin further publication by The Saturday Press, which had attacked Minneapolis city officials for alleged wrongdoing,

Raised as a Quaker, Hoover attempted to lend moral support to religious causes while maintaining separation between church and state, but his 1928 victory over Al Smith, who was a Roman Catholic, hurt him with members of that church. (Gustafson 2016). Hoover’s continuing support for national alcoholic prohibition also hurt him among Catholic voters (Gustafson 2016, 96). 

Hoover appointed consequential justices to Supreme Court

Hoover made three nominations to the Supreme Court, all of which were consequential. He appointed Charles Evans Hughes, a former justice and one-time presidential candidate, as chief justice when William Howard Taft retired. 

After his nomination of John J. Parker was rejected after Justice Edward Sanford died, Hoover appointed Owen Roberts to the court, who would later become a key justice in moving the Supreme Court from opposition to embrace of most of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. resigned, Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to his seat, yielding to the contemporary consensus of the legal community that he was the most qualified for the job. In 1932, Hoover further attended the groundbreaking for the Supreme Court Building, which was completed in 1935. 

Unsuccessful in achieving future Republican nominations for the presidency, Hoover was later sent by President Harry S. Truman on a trip to 38 countries to survey conditions after World War II. Hoover also continued in government by heading two commissions that later proposed plans for governmental organization.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Nov. 29, 2023.

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