“He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor.” —Proverbs 22:9

The Death of Herbert Hoover, 1964

Herbert Hoover strode the world stage as a colossus of business, enterprise, and philanthropy before being humiliated and hounded for almost two decades by a ruthless and unprincipled political enemy, and then by historians who took up the cause of his opponents. It is unlikely any single human in history is responsible for saving more lives than the man who would become the “Quaker President.” Recent biographies have returned him to his proper standing in history, but he has become the special target of libertarians, the very ones that his life exemplified before his political ascendancy. Who was this man who excited such passions?

Herbert Hoover was born into a devout Quaker family in Iowa in 1874. His parents died before he was eight years old; at the age of eleven he travelled to Oregon to live with his Uncle, John Minthorn, a physician. Herbert dropped out of school at thirteen to work for his uncle, not uncommon among Quakers of his day. A voracious reader and hungry for knowledge, Herbert was allowed to attend night school and studied mathematics, typing and other courses he deemed necessary for his education. Hoover entered Stanford University with the first class, and graduated first in his class in four years, with an engineering degree. And At Stanford, he met and married the love of his life, Lou Henry, who bore him two children and proved his perfect match through their forty-six years of marriage.


Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) in 1877 at age 3

When the First World War began, Hoover and his family were at one of his international offices in England. In the previous seventeen or so years he had become one of the best known and respected mining engineers, mining consultants, and financiers in the world. He had rationalized and developed gold, coal, bauxite, silver, lead, and zinc mines in many countries and had amassed a personal fortune of more than five hundred million dollars by today’s standards. He was a master at identifying men who could run that economic empire, and as an organizer and leader, through hard work, genius, and personal integrity, few could question the decisions of “The Chief.”


Herbert Hoover in his 30s in 1917 while a mining engineer

With the sudden cataclysm of war upon them, thousands of Americans were trapped in Europe. The British banks would not honor checks and ships were unavailable for transport home. The American legation turned to Hoover for help. He organized a relief effort for stranded Americans, loaning them cash for a signed IOU (he got most of it back eventually) and providing ships to transport them home. He later said from that moment on his public life began and his business life ended.


1917 poster for Belgian relief


Poster requesting clothing for occupied France and Belgium

The civilian tragedy that enveloped Europe brought a plea for Hoover to establish relief efforts to prevent mass starvation. In conjunction with Congress and Belgian and French relief workers, he fed nine million people for almost four years of war. He worked fourteen hours a day from London and was the only man on earth that had no national boundaries in his travels to negotiate with the warring countries. When the United States entered the war, the Wilson administration appointed him “food czar” to insure American production and distribution. He mobilized hundreds of thousands of women to help in the enterprise.


The Committee for Relief in Belgium in Lille, France, 1916

When the war ended, he continued his relief efforts for the starving millions of Germans, having to overcome the resistance of England, France and the United States to those efforts. Hoover supported the winning Republican candidate for President in 1920, Warren Harding, and was rewarded with the little known and minor post of Secretary of Commerce, a post he would also hold under Calvin Coolidge. The mining engineer’s politics followed the soft progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt. He supported women’s suffrage, government/private business cooperation, minimum wage, child labor laws, etc.


Hoover listens to a radio receiver, 1925

The American electorate put Hoover in the Presidency in 1938, just in time for the crash of the stock market seven months later. He received 100 percent of the blame for the Great Depression from the other Party, who “rode to the rescue” of the nation in 1942 with Franklin Roosevelt. Attacked from all sides during his four-year presidency, and vilified by FDR until 1945, Hoover nonetheless became the elder statesman of the Republican Party, offering advice to those who would listen, and writing thirty books in his lifetime, including an autobiography and multi-volume account of the relief efforts of the First World War. President Eisenhower sought his counsel; his books on mining engineering are still used today.


Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, en route to the Capitol for Roosevelt’s inauguration, March 4, 1933


Hoover’s inauguration as 31st U.S. President at the Capitol, March 4, 1929

One man, willing to spend his fortune and sacrifice his businesses for a greater cause, fed millions of people in Europe during the great tragedy of the First World War. The virtues and values of his youth never left him, though he exited that nurturing environment to take his place in the world. Hoover never dreamed the directions that Providence would lead him, nor that his name would become synonymous with homelessness and reckless economic policies—demonized by the unscrupulous termagants that characterize American politics. He kept his poise and his faith and left a record worth examining and a character rare in the annals of our history. He outlived all his opponents, dying at the age of ninety on October 20, 1964.