Herbert Hoover and Martin Van Buren: Pairing Presidents X

History hasn't been kind to Herbert Hoover or Martin Van Buren, as both men presided over bad recessions they failed to alleviate, Hoover the Great Depression and Van Buren the Panic of 1837. History suggests there might be cause to reconsider the total vilification of Hoover, but Van Buren might be getting more of a break than he deserves.

How they are similar:

Neither man caused the economic disaster over which they presided. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce from 1921-1929, before becoming president in March of 1929.  This means he was in the Cabinet during the go-go 1920s, a time in which the economy was supercharged, but which historians now look upon as a whirlwind of reckless speculation that contributed to the Stock Market Collapse of October, 1929. The Great Depression was destined to linger into 1941. Hoover, however, cautioned more restraint on the market, and President Calvin Coolidge complained that Hoover constantly gave him "bad advice." In truth, it was Coolidge's own aggressive laissez-faire policies that played a big role, though Hoover must bear some blame for bringing the federal government and the business community into a symbiotic relationship that may have mitigated against more aggressive action when the economy soured. Hoover also bears blame for promoting the ruinous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 that raised import excise levels to such a high level that other governments levied harsh retaliatory import taxes on U.S. goods. This was especially bad for farmers, who were already reeling from plummeting commodity prices in the Coolidge administration. Scholars continue to debate what exactly caused the Great Depression–the consensus is that it was a global financial "perfect storm"–but few place the blame on Hoover.

In like fashion, Van Buren inherited his mess from Andrew Jackson, whom he served as vice president from 1833-37, before succeeding Jackson in March of 1837. A bank panic roiled the economy in 1833, when Jackson infamously took down the Second Bank of the United States and moved government assets into regional banks. Jackson also insisted upon hard specie, which precipitated a money flow problem. Both of these problems resurfaced for a century, until the Federal Reserve Act (1913) stabilized the money supply and President Franklin Roosevelt insured bank deposits in 1933. Van Buren had been critical of Jackson's bank plan, but he did not reverse it. This made the economy vulnerable. To simplify, it was possible for speculators trying to corner hard specie or manipulate stock values to cause a bank run in which nervous investors tried to remove their deposits; many lost their life savings. Rising interest rates and the calling in of risky loans associated with Western expansion led to bank panics that ripped through the economy, leading to falling wages, lost jobs, and steep rises in valuable commodities such as slaves, land, and cotton.

Neither president did a good job of restoring confidence. Hoover was not the do-nothing president of which he was accused of being. He enacted measures aimed at farmers, banks, stocks, and industry, but his actions were largely directed at those he felt directed the course of the economy. Hoover's aversion to direct aid for workers contributed to unpopularity that led to parody that came to pass as reality: shanty towns were dubbed Hoovervilles, hungry street dwellers consumed rats and called then Hoover hogs, and those sleeping on benches huddled under cast-off newspapers they called Hoover blankets. Especially disastrous from a PR standpoint was Hoover's refusal to approve early bonuses for World War One vets. When vets of the so-called Bonus Marchers were routed (and some were killed) by the existing US military in 1932, the nation was shocked and Hoover's hopes for reelection were dashed. Ordinary Americans felt that Hoover offered them little more than platitudes and vague promises that conditions would improve. It should be noted, though, that Hoover actually set in motion the Glass-Steagall Act that walled off commercial banks from investment banks. This became the basis of FDR's Banking Act of 1933.  

For his part, Van Buren often spoke of problems associated with Jackson's decision to end the Second B.U.S. and he contemplated specie reform, but he never moved from rhetoric to action. He was especially inactive in doing much of anything specific about slavery. He claimed to have moral reservations, but slaves were viewed primarily as economic commodities at the time and he was loath to touch upon the explosive issue in any form—even though high slave prices contributed the 1837 panic. He did try to lower tariffs, but Congress pared back his efforts. In like fashion, he tried to make the Treasury Department completely independent, but Congress refused to give up its oversight. It is doubtful either action fully activated would have made much difference. His only significant economic action was granting a ten-hour workday to federal employees. Van Buren actually fits a do-nothing profile better than Hoover.

Neither was very good on race relations; in fact, Van Buren was awful. As noted, he claimed to be troubled by slavery, but he refused even to consider banning the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Like many moral cowards of his day, Van Buren hid behind the Constitution and argued that he could nothing about slavery, failing to mention that as Jackson's vice president he had supported the gag rule that prevented slavery from being debated. His one positive action was to oppose the annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state, but even that decision had less to do with moral qualms than the fact it would destabilize the 1820 Missouri Compromise. He sided with Spain on 1839 Amistad incident and would have returned mutinous slaves to Cuba, had not U.S. courts stayed his hand. Van Buren also proved to be Jackson's henchman in Indian policy. He was the president who implemented the vile and infamous Indian Removal Act that led, among other things, to the tragic Trail of Tears forced march of Cherokees and four other tribes from ancestral homelands in the Western Appalachians to Oklahoma. He also conducted a war against the Seminoles.

Hoover simply did little to advance African American or Native American rights, the latter surprising as recognizing the citizenship rights of Indians was one of the few good things Calvin Coolidge actually did. Hoover basically wanted Indians to acculturate and live as individuals rather than as members of sovereign tribes. His worst racism, though, was aimed at Chicanos. Once the Depression descended, the Hoover administration engaged in underhanded methods to get Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to "voluntarily" go to Mexico by paying for one-way tickets and by inferring they would otherwise soon be deported. In truth, there was no existing US law that would have allowed Hoover to expel them, nor would there be until 1965.

How they were different:

Hoover was a better human being than Van Buren. In fact, had not the Depression occurred, Hoover would have been seen as a late Progressive Era president. He was an ardent conservationist, expanded the number of civil service jobs, supported health care reform, wanted to develop at St Lawrence Seaway treaty with Canada, and pictured himself as a trustbuster in the Theodore Roosevelt mold. He was also tough on organized crime and threw government investigative power behind the pursuit of Al Capone. 

It is odd that history has so vilified Hoover as heartless. As noted, he often behaved in racist ways typical of white of his period, but before becoming president, Hoover had been viewed as a great humanitarian. It was he who coordinated the feeding and housing of Europeans displaced by World War One. He also won kudos for his work in getting aid to victims of a 1927 flood along the Mississippi River. Despite his chicanery regarding Chicanos, in the White House Hoover so dramatically improved relations with Latin American nations that his efforts are now viewed as forerunner of FDR's Good Neighbor policy in the region. He also tried to press Japan on its 1931 invasion of Manchuria, though this didn't pan out.

There simply isn't much in Van Buren's record to see him as much more than a conniving career politician more interested in self advancement than in moral cause, national interest, or idealism. His racial views were loathsome, even by the debased standards of his day.


Because the Great Depression proved to be so horrific, Hoover takes the blame for it. He was ineffective, but he was neither heartless nor culpable. His current rating is #32, but he has already climbed in the estimation of scholars and should continue to do so. Van Buren, inexplicably, is #24. This is completely out of whack with the historical record; he deserves to be ranked in the lower tier, not the middle of the pack.

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