Schlesinger certainly was a well-intentioned liberal, but he shared the flaw held by elite New Frontiersmen: black people, brown people, women and radicals rarely captured his attention, except as a sideshow to the more crucial ideological battles waged between wealthy Anglo liberals and conservatives. Schlesinger essentially embraced a Whiggish, triumphant view of American history, seeing the national narrative of the United States as a march towards greater and greater liberty and freedom with only an occasional detour, such as McCarthyism, along the way. Victims of that alleged American progress didn’t fit into that storyline, so Schlesinger ignored them.
For instance, in the 523 pages of text in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (published in 1945), Schlesinger doesn’t discuss even in passing one of the most striking and consequential aspects of Andrew Jackson’s presidency: the initiation of Indian removal in Georgia culminating in the “Trail of Tears,” a policy that led President Jackson to commit an impeachable offense by defying two Supreme Court decisions (see below.)
Even if we accept the right-wing argument that concern over “minority” history is only a symptom of modern-day political correctness, the political world thought Jackson’s Indian policies were important in Jackson’s time, so Schlesinger’s disinterest in an American act of genocide 100 years later is hard to excuse. Unfortunately, in the Schlesinger era of scholarship, people of color functioned as the exception that proved the rule. The suffering of Indians, African American slaves, etc, only highlighted how free the rest of us were. Any achievement of the civil rights movement was taken not as a sign of how courageous or determined blacks, browns and others were, but of the greatness and generosity of this country. But Schlesinger couldn’t reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn’t happen.
Schlesinger’s polls rating the presidents had a similar pernicious effect. The scholars he consulted condemned or praised presidents based on their competence, not on whether they used their office to promote justice. Actions that extended American power were taken by these scholars as a good in and of themselves, regardless of the suffering such policies might cause other peoples and other lands. In Schlesinger’s polls, American presidents “fail” but they don’t consciously pursue evil. I hope my humble response to the Schlesinger poll in some small way corrects that.
7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837.) Here’s another president loved by the scholars included in the Schlesinger poll for his effective use of the office regardless of the moral use to which he put his presidential powers. Rated as “near great” in the Schlesinger poll, Jackson nevertheless aggressively pursued policies that harmed the American economy.
Jackson also became the first imperial president, ruling with an arrogance and blatant disregard for the constitutional authority of the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government that led his Whig opponents to deride him as “King Andrew.” Furthermore, he committed an impeachable offense in refusing to abide by a Supreme Court ruling. Worst of all, Jackson committed one of the most shameful episodes of genocide in American history, setting in motion the chain of events that came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.”
Jackson’s refusal to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States led directly to the Panic of 1837. Among its many functions, the Bank helped stabilize currency supply, provided loans to promote economic growth and held U.S. government deposits. The Bank loaned money too freely during the period just after the War of 1812, however, which led to fraud and land speculation, thus causing an economic bust in 1819.
Jackson suffered in that economic downturn and, as always, nursed a titanic grudge that erupted during his presidency more than a decade later. Like Thomas Jefferson, Jackson was a slave owner quick to condemn others as enemies of liberty. With characteristic hyperbole, Jackson blasted the bank as a “monster” and a threat to American liberties, claiming the Second Bank ruled the American economy without accountability, enriching a small circle of elite investors while impoverishing the common man.
Jackson opposed the Bank in part because he selectively shared the belief in limited government held by many of his Southern slave-owning peers. Men like Jackson wanted a federal government constrained in power because he feared that the White House and Congress might one day act to limit or abolish slavery. The Bank, not specifically authorized by the United States Constitution, represented to Jackson a dangerous precedent of growing federal authority.
This belief in limited government, however, would not prevent Jackson from using his executive authority in 1832 to threaten South Carolina with military invasion when that state moved to “nullify” a federal tax it opposed. Nor was Jackson shy about using presidential power in the so-called “Bank War.” Defying the will of Congress, Jackson withdrew the federal government’s deposits from the Bank of the United States, dooming the institution even if he had not vetoed the bill renewing the bank’s charter. Rhetoric aside, expanded federal authority posed no problem for Jackson if it enhanced his personal power. This president rarely wrestled with the hobgoblin of foolish consistency.
Jackson’s supposedly principled stand against the Bank perhaps masked a more cynical, self-serving agenda. The president moved the federal government’s deposits to smaller state banks that had helped bankroll his political career. His bank bill veto backfired badly for the country, however. The death of the bank and Jackson’s deliberate contraction of paper currency supply caused a deep six year recession beginning in 1837 that destroyed the administration of Jackson’s hand-picked successor Martin Van Buren. Unemployment in New York City in the winter of 1837-38 hit a staggering 33 percent. The wealthy supposed champion of the common man triggered an economic crisis that primarily hurt the working class and the poor.
Jackson’s Indian policies, however, represent the grimmest aspect of his presidency. A veteran of genocidal Indian wars before his presidency, Jackson nursed a pathological hatred of Native Americans his entire life. Once in the White House, Jackson implemented a wholesale pogrom against the native populations east of the Mississippi.
Anglos like Jackson had always told Native Americans that their communities could not share the land with Anglos because they were “savages.” Anglos made an implied promise that if Indians “civilized,” that is if they abandoned their culture and strictly conformed to white norms regarding land ownership, political organization, family structure and religion, they might be assimilated as a distinct but welcome people in the American nation.
Most Indians tried to maintain their political independence and their cultural integrity, but the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” — the Choctaw, the Creek, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Seminole Indians — took white America at its word. The Cherokees in particular represented assimilation in the extreme and they certainly met any artificial white standard of civilization.
The Cherokees invented an alphabet for their native language and mastered English. They converted to Christianity and married white women, to the extent that traditionalists in the Indian nation believed that the younger generation was no Cherokee. They published a bilingual newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, and explicitly mirrored the larger Anglo world as they enmeshed in the web of global trade. For the first time, a widening gap between rich and poor plagued Cherokee society, with the wealthiest Cherokees buying and selling large numbers of black slaves.
The 2,600 Cherokees residing in Georgia’s Coosewaytee District created a modern, capitalist society, owning 1 powder mill, 2 tan yards, 13 saw mills, 33 grist mills, 69 blacksmith shops, 113 looms, 397 spinning wheels, 461 plows, and 295 slaves. The community exceeded most white Southern communities in technology and economic energy. Yet, the Cherokee attempt to accommodate white expectations reminds me of the sad joke Malcolm X used to tell. “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?” Malcolm would derisively ask. “Nigger.”
No matter how far Cherokees attempted to appease ethnocentric whites, their dark skin would always represent a mark of incomplete humanity in Anglo eyes and their presence among whites would only be tolerated as long as the Indians did not happen to possess anything, such as land or gold, that white people wanted.
The expansion of cotton growing in Georgia led white residents to resent the Cherokee presence in the state and to lust after their land. By 1829, Jackson’s first year in the White House, the president, and many white Georgians, called for the forced removal of Indians from the Southeast. The real impetus came with the discovery of gold in Cherokee territory, which brought 10,000 white miners to the Georgia hills.
Jackson, suspicious of Cherokee claims of sovereignty as a nation within a nation, a status conferred by treaty with the United States government, raged that the Indian presence threatened white prosperity. He declared that Georgia should rid itself “a few thousand savages” in order for “towns and prosperous farms to develop there.” Of course, towns and prosperous farms already existed there, but they happened to be occupied by Cherokees. At Jackson’s urging, Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act which called for an involuntary “exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states and territories, and for their removal west of the river of Mississippi.”
The state of Georgia began to force Indians from their lands even as the Cherokee Nation rejected the removal treaty thrust at them by Congress. Citing previous agreements signed by the United States government recognizing their sovereignty and control of the Georgia land, Cherokee leaders filed a pair of cases eventually heard by the United States Supreme Court, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).
The Cherokees prevailed, the Supreme Court ruling that the federal government alone held Constitutional authority to make treaties with the Cherokees and other “domestic, dependent nations.” By removing Indians at the point of a gun barrel, the state of Georgia exceeded its authority and illegally violated a treaty signed by the federal government guaranteeing Cherokee territory.
Three years earlier at his inauguration, Jackson raised his right hand and swore to faithfully execute the laws of the United States. Now he refused to honor that oath. “(Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision,” Jackson reportedly said. “Now let him enforce it.” In a just world, refusing to enforce a Supreme Court ruling should have resulted in Jackson’s impeachment. But Jackson stayed in office and went way beyond merely violating his oath of office and ignoring the Constitutionally-mandated separation of powers. He actually sent troops to assist that Georgia’s militia’s illegal Indian removal in 1832.
In the mid-1830s, the United States Army plunged into Florida to capture the followers of one Seminole leader, Osceola, who waged a guerilla war to resist forced removal. This Jacksonian exercise in genocide, the Second Seminole War proved costly to the United States, lasting seven years, running a price tab of $20 million and resulting in the deaths of 1,500 American soldiers. Eventually, the Army forced 3,000 Seminoles to flee West of the Mississippi. Army removal of the Creeks at about the same time resulted in the deaths of about a fifth of the refugees.
Meanwhile John Ross, the leader of the Cherokees, refused to surrender his people’s traditional lands. Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, now occupied the White House. But Jackson’s bloody handprints were all over the Trail of Tears, which began in 1838. Van Buren enforced Jackson’s Indian policies, sending a 7,000-man force under General Winfield Scott, later a hero in the American invasion of Mexico, to round up the Cherokees and prod them at bayonet point out of Georgia. Soldiers arrived and gave Cherokees mere minutes to gather their families and possessions before they were forced to march westwardt. As the almost 100-year-old Rebecca Neugin recalled in 1932:
“When the soldiers came to our house my father wanted to fight, but my mother told him that the soldiers would kill him if he did and we surrendered without a fight. They drove us out of our house to join other prisoners in a stockade. After they took us away, my mother begged them to let her go back and get some bedding. So they let her go back and she brought . . . bedding and a few cooking utensils she could carry and had to leave behind all of our other household possessions.”
The chaos of the removal tore families apart. As one soldier who served as an interpreter, John G. Burnett, later remembered:
“Men working in the field were arrested and driven in stockades. Soldiers whose language they could not understand dragged women from their homes. Children were often separated from parents and driven into the stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow.”
Soldiers forced one family, according to Burnett, to leave the body of a child who had just died while another mother died, perhaps of heart failure, as soldiers ejected her and her three children. White scavengers lurked on the edge of Indian villages, swooping in after soldiers removed the Cherokees, stealing what they could and burning the rest. Cherokees later recalled seeing the billowing smoke from their homes as they marched.
Indians had to walk painful distances at a ferocious pace. Captain L.B. Webster later told his wife in a letter how he and his fellows had removed eight hundred Cherokee from North Carolina to a concentration camp in Tennessee. “We were eight days in making the journey (80 miles),” Webster wrote,” and it was pitiful to behold the women & children, who suffered exceedingly — as they were all obliged to walk, with the exception of the sick.”
While some Indians froze during cold weather, government agents stole blankets meant for the Indians. Some American soldiers forced Indian women to drink alcohol and raped them. Pregnant women in labor were forced to continue the march and a witness, Daniel Butrick saw one soldier stab a pregnant Cherokee woman in the stomach.
The stockades where soldiers imprisoned the Cherokees became hot and odorous maelstroms of hunger, thirst and disease, with many struck by diarrhea and dysentery as the removal campaign stretched into the summer. Of the 15,000 participating in this American Death March, about a quarter succumbed to exposure, exhaustion and disease.
Andrew Jackson, through his henchmen, committed mass murder against Native Americans. Rather than reviling him, modern Americans honor him by placing his portrait on the $20 bill. The Jackson years, however, held one other poisonous legacy for race relations in the future.
It was during his tenure in the White House that the modern Democratic Party congealed and began holding national presidential nominating conventions. It was under Jackson that the Democrats, at that point a strongly pro-Southern party, adopted the 2/3rds rule, requiring a presidential candidate to win that percentage of the convention delegates in order to win the nomination. This meant, until the rule was changed under Franklin Roosevelt in time for the 1936 Democratic convention, that Democratic presidential candidates had to win the support of most Southern delegates to win the party’s nomination.
Southern political power, already grossly inflated by the 3/5ths rule in the Constitution, which allowed 60 percent of the South’s slave population to be counted in federal censuses for the purpose of allotting seats in the U.S. House, further magnified with the 2/3rds rule which gave Southerners a stranglehold on the only consistently competitive national party between 1832 and 1856.
The 2/3rds rule meant that before the Civil War, Democratic presidential candidate had to embrace slavery and, after the Civil War, defend or ignore Jim Crow, lynching and the trashing of African American voting rights. Jackson’s toxic legacy made the Democratic party a reactionary, racist institution for more than 100 years.
6. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881.) A presidential election ends ambiguously. The Electoral College vote hangs in the balance as both major candidates claim to have won Florida. A federal body is asked to revolve the election and by a one-vote margin awards the election to the Republican nominee who won fewer popular votes. After this, many believe the “winner” stole the election through rigged vote counting and shady backroom deals.
No, we’re not talking about how George W. Bush crept into the White House. This is the inglorious way the man dubbed ‘Rutherfraud B. Hayes” after the 1876 election captured the presidency. Hayes is not on this list because of what he did in the White House, because he accomplished very little outside of his oppressive policies towards labor in a series of strikes in 1877. Hayes represented one of the greatest mediocrities in a 19th century that saw scores of those labeled in a President’s Day musical number featured in a Simpsons episode as the “always forgettable, sometimes regrettable, caretaker presidents.” Hayes mediocrity only makes him par for the course in a century in which consequential presidents like Jackson and Lincoln were far outnumbered by nobodies like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Perce and Chester Arthur.
Nor is Hayes mentioned here because his “election” represented an assault on the idea of democracy. Republicans and Democrats both gleefully stole elections in the 1870s and the partisans of both Hayes and his Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden stuffed ballot boxes and intimidated voters. Democracy would have been no better served if Tilden had been handed the presidency in 1877.
Hayes makes the worst presidents list for one reason alone: the specific bargain he made in order to seal his capture of the White House and the consequences that deal had for millions of black Americans in the post-Civil War South.
A conservative on racial issues opposing the agenda of so-called “Radical Republicans.” The Radicals believed that enforced black voting rights in the South represented the only chance the party had to prevent ex-Confederates from regaining political power in Dixie, threatening the national Republican majority and possibly leading the country back on the course to Civil War. In contrast, Hayes advocated what Republicans in the Nixon era would call the “Southern Strategy,” seeking to make peace with Southern racists and sacrificing African Americans in exchange for national power.
Under federal army protection since General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the North in 1865, Southern African Americans in the late 1860s had been allowed to vote for the first time and had flocked to the banner of Abraham Lincoln and a Republican Party that had promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation, and passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution that had abolished slavery and granted citizenship rights to African American men.
The Republicans had been a regional party from 1856 to the outbreak of the Civil War, active only in the North, the Midwest and on the West coast. After the war, African Americans, along with Northerners who immigrated South after the Civil War, joined Southerners who remained loyal to the Union during the war, to form a viable Southern Republican Party. With the Union army protecting Republican voters from terrorism, Southern Republicans took over state houses across the old Confederacy and inaugurated the most progressive political era the region had ever experienced.
Attempting to lead a debt-ridden, poverty-wracked, technologically backwards society recovering from the damage of war that lacked industrial development, infrastructure or even public school systems, and coping with a mostly illiterate black and white population horribly divided by race, the Southern Republican state governments that arose during Reconstruction accomplished near miracles.
As the pre-eminent historian of Reconstruction, Eric Foner, notes in his masterful Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, “[p]ublic schools, hospitals, penitentiaries, and asylums for orphans, and the insane were established for the first time or received increased funding. South Carolina funded medical care for poor citizens, and Alabama afforded free legal counsel for indigent defendants.”
These Southern Republican governments during Reconstruction also rewrote undemocratic state constitutions that imposed property ownership requirements for voting, and greatly expanded voting rights not just to blacks but to previously disenfranchised whites as well. The South saw a rise in literacy during Reconstruction, as well as a rapid expansion of railroads that connected a previously isolated region to first the national and then the world economy.
In spite of the social revolution blooming in Dixie, Ohio native Rutherford B. Hayes, a close friend with many Southerners, didn’t want his Republican Party allied with the blacks or working class whites who made up much of party’s Southern wing. Hayes and his allies called for reducing the political strength of so-called carpetbaggers and blacks in the Southern Party in order to let it be run by an allegedly “better class” of whites.
A smug elitist, Hayes declared, “I believe, and have always believed, that the intelligent of any country ought to govern it.” By the mid-1870s, white voters north of the Mason-Dixon line had tired of Reconstruction and 12 years of Northern military involvement in the South. Hayes exploited this backlash in his successful gubernatorial campaign in Ohio in 1875, running on a “let it alone” platform regarding Reconstruction, meaning that Hayes was willing to leave the South’s “race problems” in the hands of the region’s whites.
Hayes could not have been oblivious to the dangers this abandonment would pose not only to African Americans in the former Confederacy, but to the region’s white Republicans as well. Even with the presence of federal troops, the South had turned into a hotbed of anti-Republican, anti-black terrorism.
“The better element” in the South so loved by Hayes frequently targeted for assassination Northern white schoolteachers who taught at Freedmen’s Bureau schools. As James Loewen notes, in Hinds County, Mississippi, whites killed one African American a day from 1865 to 1867. Union soldiers frequently numbered among the victims. In the bloody summer and fall of 1868, whites in Louisiana murdered 1,081 people, most of the victims white and black Republicans. A white assailant fatally shot African American state Senator, Charles Caldwell, in Clinton, Mississippi where just two months earlier whites had rioted over a four days period and murdered 40 Republicans for daring to hold a political meeting.
That incident marked just part of the “Mississippi Plan” in which the state’s Democrats used murder, whippings or the threat of death to prevent blacks and white Republicans from voting. Such bloody bullying kept as many as 60,000 Republicans from casting ballots in 1875 elections that allowed Democrats to, in their words, “redeem” the state by recapturing the state government in a virtual coup detat. Similar terrorism gripped North and South Carolina in the presidential election year of 1876. A South Carolina Democrat pledged to take the coming elections even “if we have to wade in blood knee-deep.”
Hayes and his Republican allies, however, signaled their willingness to ignore Southern violence in order to accommodate Northern voters impatient with Reconstruction and reeling from a depression that had devastated the economy since 1873. With a pledge to abandon Reconstruction that proved popular with Northern workers, Hayes emerged as the Republican nominee in the 1876 presidential race, but he still lost the popular vote in the general election by 250,000 votes.
The presidency still hung in the balance, however, because both parties claimed they had won the electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, the only three states still in Republican hands. The Democratic nominee and popular vote winner, Samuel Tilden, needed only one electoral vote to claim the White House, but Hayes needed to sweep the three undecided states. In order to settle the dispute over the remaining electoral votes, Congress established a 15-member commission consisting of five members from the House, five from the Senate, and five from the Supreme Court. The commission voted down straight party lines, the eight Republicans giving the disputed votes to Hayes, the seven Democrats giving them to Tilden.
Democrats threatened to filibuster the joint session of Congress that would officially count the Electoral College results to prevent the tally from being certified. Much of the talk was bluff because white Southern Democrats knew they had little to fear from Hayes. As one Republican in Kansas put it, “I think the policy of the new administration will be to conciliate the white men of the South. Carpetbaggers to the rear, and niggers take care of yourself.”
Behind the scenes, however, in order to ensure an orderly transition to a Hayes administration, top Republicans meeting Southern Democrats at Washington’s Wormley House hammered out the Compromise of 1877. Hayes agreed to pull Southern troops from Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana and not question the legitimacy of Southern governments that achieved power through criminal violence while Democrats pledged to not contest Hayes’ Electoral College victory and made an unconvincing promise to respect African American civil rights.
The troops were withdrawn after Hayes took his oath of office and, without physical protection, South Carolina and Louisiana’s Republican governments immediately collapsed. Ironically, the Northern white workers who had most grown impatient with Reconstruction and supported Hayes because some of the chief victims of the new president’s exercise of power. The new president used the federal troops freed up from the abandonment of Reconstruction to crush the Great Strike of 1877 that engulfed cities across the industrial centers of the Northeastern United States. As brutal to union workers as he was indifferent to black suffering, Hayes dispatched soldiers to Pittsburgh where they fired on striking workers who demanded an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. The volley of bullets killed twenty strikers.
Under Hayes, the Republican Party moved in a considerably more conservative economic direction than under Lincoln, with Republican judges using the enhanced powers they acquired during Reconstruction not to protect black voting rights but to shield large corporations from local regulations. Republican-dominated courts legally defined corporations as persons, ironically protected by the Reconstruction-era 14th Amendment requirement that no citizen shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” With this logic, under this reign of reactionary judicial activism courts thwarted laws setting reasonable work hours, requiring more livable wages, establishing workplace safety standards and abolishing exploitation of children as workers.
Hayes theological reverence for the property rights of the wealthy was despicable in an epoch marked by horrifying gaps in wealth. Yet, it is Hayes’ abandonment of Southern blacks that marks his most despicable act of political cowardice. This policy of malignant neglect guaranteed a bleak period from the 1880s to the 1930s historians have dubbed the “Nadir of Race Relations” an age that saw the rise of Jim Crow segregation, the evaporations of black voting rights and the lynching of more than 4,000 men, women and children. If Hayes could not have foreseen all of these developments, he had to have known that Southerners regarded black life cheaply and that Southern assurances that black rights would be protected during his presidency would be hollow. Hayes’ accomplishment-free one term in the White House was bought at a terrible price paid for in black blood.
5. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933.) Until the sad, failed reign of George W. Bush, America suffered under no more ideologically blinkered president until Herbert Hoover. Like many disastrous chief executives on this list, Hoover was not without positive attributes. Hoover rose from a poverty-marred childhood as an orphan and climbed to the presidency through immense talent and smarts. Highly intelligent, Hoover also showed both a high degree of competence and heart after Woodrow Wilson appointed the Stanford-trained engineer the head of the Food Administration that prevented starvation in Allied countries during World War I.
After the war, Hoover ably led the American Relief Administration, which provided relief to millions on the edge of famine in war-scarred Europe. In spite of his extremely conservative politics, Hoover even saw to it that the agency extended famine relief to the newly-formed Soviet Union, answering critics who accused him of throwing a lifeline to Bolsheviks by retorting, “Twenty-million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.”
Hoover unfortunately shared one trait of highly ineffective people. He took his own life as a universal model, not recognizing that randomness in life that allows one ambitious, gifted person to find opportunities and another to meet only frustration. Like almost all Anglos of his era, Hoover had an absolute blind spot regarding racism and cynically implemented his own version of the ‘Southern strategy” Richard Nixon more famously pursued in the 1960s and 1970s. Desiring to make the Republican Party a power in the South, where it suffered from an image problem with white voters because of the GOP’s association with Abraham Lincoln, Hoover as president broke Republican tradition by refusing to appoint blacks to federal positions, such as postmaster, in an attempt to appease Dixie Negrophobes.
In spite of his poor beginnings, Hoover also suffered from class prejudices. After a highly successful career in the mining industry, he once commented self-righteously that anyone who didn’t make a million dollars by age 40 didn’t amount to much. (This quote reminds men of our current president, who, describing himself as a “white, Republican guy who doesn’t get it, but I’d like to,” once remarked, “I don’t understand how poor people think.”) Hoover’s smugness would blind him during the Great Depression, which began his first year in the White House and consumed his entire presidency.
As Secretary of Commerce throughout the 1920s, Hoover adhered to a hypocritical laissez faire model of economics that believed government power should promote business growth but not directly aid those on the bottom of the social ladder. A key shaper of the nation’s economic policies in that decade, Hoover at least shared some of the blame for the Great Depression.
Along with President Coolidge, Hoover insisted that European nations repay their war debt to the United States even though those countries teetered on the edge of financial collapse. In the Commerce Department, Hoover presided over an economy featuring a grotesquely unequal distribution of income in which the top one percent of the population held wealth equal to the bottom 42 percent and in which 2/3rds of all families failed to earn the $2,000 annually needed to meet all basic necessities. Men like Hoover promoted a consumer culture in which status derived from conspicuous consumption leading the middle class sank into unprecedented debt.
The conservative, supply-side economics embraced by Hoover, Republicans, and most Democrats of the era, eventually led to a crisis of under-consumption as those middle class costumers could no longer afford sailing along on credit. It was once the Depression fully blindsided the United States in October 1929, however, that Hoover’s worst defects as a president and an economist surfaced.
The Great Depression was a human catastrophe. By 1932, 25 percent of the workforce (about 12 million men and women) was unemployed. There were no federal relief programs and state agencies and private charities were overwhelmed. Hoover resisted calls to create welfare programs, believing such efforts would weaken the moral fiber of the poor. Instead, he asked the Red Cross to distribute agricultural surplus.
Claiming that direct aid to the poor only enabled their shiftless and inefficient lifestyles, Hoover's approach was to help industrialists with loans in the hope that an infusion of federal cash would get the factories humming again and result in an increase in employment, an approach he called "trickle down" economics.
Hoover created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which loaned money to endangered banks, insurance companies and railroads. While the RFC refused to assist welfare relief for hungry workers in Chicago, it approved a $90 million loan to the city's Central Republic Bank, headed by a former RFC administrator. In spite of trickle-down theories, little money reached the consumer. With spending dramatically down, the economy continued to spiral and Hoover only offered rosy scenarios for the future and pursued the same dead-end policies.
The man who had shown so much compassion to the hungry in Europe turned rigid and judgmental about Americans sinking in hunger and despair, refusing to rethink his economic policies even as the Depression dragged on. About a million unemployed Americans became hoboes during the Depression, desperately leaping on moving trains praying a job awaited just over the horizon.
Scavengers plunged into garbage bins behind restaurants in search of leftover food. On Depression-era write, Edmund Wilson, later recalled seeing one woman who always took her glasses off so she couldn't see the maggots crawling on the garbage she ate. While some later writers tried to claim that tales of starvation deaths in America were urban legends, four New York City hospitals reported a total of 95 starvation deaths in 1931.
"This Depression has me licked," a Houston mechanic wrote in a farewell note to his wife and the country in the fall of 1930 before he committed suicide. "There is no work to be had. I can't accept charity, and I am too honest to steal. So I see no other course. A land flowing with milk and honey and a first-class mechanic can't make an honest living. I would rather take my chances with a just God than with unjust humanity."
In 1931, Detroit suicides hit a rate 30 percent above the previous five year average. In Minneapolis the same year, the suicides peaked at 26.1 instances per 100,000 population. So many people jumped off the Hanrahan Bridge into the Mississippi River that newspapers published the telephone numbers of clergymen willing to counsel would-be suicides. This offered no help for one man of the cloth whose death inspired a a newspaper headline, "Memphis Preacher Jumps Off."
In West Virginia’s coal mining region, an agent of the State Board of Children's Guardians encountered one farmer cremating his infant because he couldn't afford a funeral. A mother, driven insane from hunger and worry, drowned her two children. Authorities rescued one abandoned ten-year-old whose father had been arrested. The little girl had been alone for five days, except for the company of a brown dog and a black hen. They had a cataract in one eye and was almost blind in the other. Stumbling barefoot in the winter, one of the little girl’s toes had frozen.
None of this moved Hoover to change policy as the president fit the pop culture definition of insanity, continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting the results to turn out differently. In Hoover’s defense, some have argued that as of the late 1920s and early 1930s the federal government had never engaged in widespread social welfare programs, but such a claim would be inaccurate.
The direct relief efforts provided by the U.S government to displaced white Southerners and just-freed slaves through the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureau, and the activist federal programs pioneered by the Progressives under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson provided Hoover with historical models that could have freed him from the straight-jacket embrace of limited government and trickle-down theory. Yet, unlike his successor in the White House Franklin Roosevelt, who celebrated new approaches and bold, persistent experimentation, Hoover simply refused to consider he might be wrong and as a result millions of Americans suffered.
Hoover’s dogmatism and occasional callousness went on full display in July 1932 when a ragged band of 15,000 World War I veterans, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Army, marched into Washington to demand immediate payment of the combat bonus scheduled to be paid in 1945. Many of these impoverished veterans hopped freight trains for their ride to Washington and camped in unfinished federal buildings just three blocks from the Capitol.
Hoover, angered by the protest urged Congress to reject payment of the $2.4 billion in bonuses, saying the government could not afford such an expense (though Hoover could find funds for the RFC.). Hoover's men, meanwhile, inaccurately claimed most of the marchers were not veterans (in fact, 94 percent were) and, in an ugly and dishonest act of red-baiting, implied the participants were Communists.
Hoover refused to meet with the marchers and decided to use force to rid himself of a troublesome public relations problem. Late on the afternoon of July 28, one thousand soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur’s command lobbed tear gas into the buildings occupied by the marchers. The general, viewing men who had risked their lives for their country less than two decades earlier as public enemies) then ordered his men to charge into encampment holding some marchers and their families. In the assault, several marchers suffered bayonet wounds while a baby died of gas poisoning. Public revulsion at the attack on war veterans doomed Hoover's chance of re-election.
Hoover later blamed McArthur for exceeding his orders when the officer attacked the bonus marcher’s camp. But Hoover had set the tone by treating starving veterans as enemies of the people. There have been few more shameful displays of vindictiveness and insensitivity in the history of the American presidency.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.