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February 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 6

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Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932


by John Hendrickson



It is often stated that ideas have consequences, and the same can be true for elections. Elections often transform the political landscape of the nation. This is especially true for the presidential election of 1932. President Herbert Hoover, who in 1928 was elected President in a landslide, was soundly defeated for reelection by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Hoover and the Republican Party were blamed for causing the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, ushered in by the promise of a “New Deal,” brought a fundamental transformation to American politics.


The New Deal not only created a political realignment in favor of the Democrats, but it also changed the constitutional structure of government. President Roosevelt’s progressive philosophy contained in the New Deal expanded the role of the federal government through the economy and through social welfare programs. The regulatory or administrative state, which previously had begun under the progressive presidential administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, expanded at great pace. Roosevelt also launched the modern entitlement or welfare state through programs such as Social Security. Roosevelt even called for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union message, which called for new rights to be guaranteed by the federal government. One of those “rights” was health care — a recent progressive achievement with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).


The modern liberalism that emerged as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal was challenged by conservatives, who were led by former President Hoover. Even before his defeat in the 1932 election, Hoover warned the American people that Roosevelt’s New Deal was intended not only for a temporary Depression relief measure, but to radically change the American political system. Hoover’s campaign against the New Deal was based on a defense of constitutional limited government and the free enterprise system.


In order to understand the major political and economic debates occurring today over the ACA, President Barack Obama’s economic policies, or the debt crisis, it is vital to understand the origins of this debate and to revisit the election of 1932 and the great debate between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a noted economist, wrote that the progressive welfare and regulatory state expanded greatly as a result of the New Deal. Sowell wrote that “the first giant steps in this direction were taken in the 1930s, when the Great Depression provided rationale for a radically expanded role of government that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his followers had believed in before the Great Depression.”[1]


Hoover’s defense of constitutional limited government against New Deal liberalism, even if he was a voice crying in the wilderness, is an example of his wisdom and leadership. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport recently wrote The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, which addresses the often complex relationship between conservatism and the New Deal. It also elevates the importance of the Hoover-Roosevelt political debate to American politics. As Lloyd and Davenport wrote:


Indeed, Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s writings and speeches, beginning with their presidential campaign in 1932, but especially after the New Deal began to be implemented in 1933, frame the progressive-conservative debate that has dominated the American political and policy landscape for the last eighty years and is still going strong.[2]


Hoover, along with other conservatives of the 1930s, understood that not only did Roosevelt confiscate the traditional meaning of the term “liberal” with his New Deal, but also the Republican Party was the only alternative to defend conservative principles against a growing progressive Democratic Party. Ogden Mills, who served as Secretary of Treasury under Hoover, shared his disdain for the New Deal and understood the importance of defending principles. He summarized the values of the American system:


1. Limitations of the powers of the federal government to those specifically granted.
2. Distribution of those powers thus granted among the three divisions of government — legislative, executive and judicial — with strict differentiation of their respective spheres of activity.
3. A broad measure of home rule, guaranteed by the provision that all powers not delegated to the United States are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.
4. Individual liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.[3]


These were the constitutional principles that Hoover fought to defend against New Deal liberalism.
In summarizing Hoover’s career, Richard Norton Smith wrote:


In his long, productive life, Herbert Hoover played many parts. While his various careers as mining engineer, relief organizer, Cabinet officer, President, and elder statesman have attracted renewed interest in recent years, none has more relevance to our own time than Hoover’s role as philosopher of modern conservative thought.[4]


In the close of the presidential campaign of 1936, Hoover told the nation that “we shall battle it out until the soul of America is saved.”[5] Hoover’s crusade against New Deal liberalism continued long after the discouraging defeat in 1936, and it marked his career as a statesman who defended constitutional principles. The battle continues 81 years after the election of 1932, and who wins this philosophical debate will decide the future of the Republic.



[1] Thomas Sowell, “Throw the rascals out?” Creators Syndicate, October 29, 2013, <> accessed on November 13, 2013.
[2] Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport, The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 2013, p. 2.
[3] Ogden L. Mills, Liberalism Fights On, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1936, p. 14.
[4] Richard Norton Smith, “Preface,” in American Individualism and the Challenge to Liberty, Herbert Hoover Presidential Association, West Branch, Iowa, 1989.
[5] Herbert Hoover, “This challenge to liberty, Denver, Colorado, October 30, 1936,” in Addresses Upon the American Road, 1933-1938, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1938, p. 227.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at


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