The idea of American exceptionalism is a strong cord within our history. This is true especially within the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatives from the Puritans to Alexander Hamilton and President Ronald Reagan have championed the philosophy that the United States was divinely created and was a literal “shining city upon a hill,” and a beacon of liberty. As Herbert Hoover wrote “the Founding Fathers consecrated a new republic ‘under the protection of Divine Providence.’” Hoover’s philosophy was deeply shaped by American exceptionalism and the civic religion of the nation, which was defined by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He also believed that America’s uniqueness was shaped by its religious heritage and its economic system which encouraged “equality of opportunity.”
Hoover’s belief in American exceptionalism was shaped by his life experience of not only growing up in the small Iowa village of West Branch, but also his successful mining engineer career that took him to several continents. George H. Nash, a Hoover historian and biographer, wrote that “more than any other man who held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World.” As Hoover stated:
I have seen America in contrast with many nations and races. My profession took me into many foreign lands under many kinds of government. I have worked with their great spiritual leaders and their great statesmen. I have worked in governments of free men, of tyrannies, of Socialists and of Communists. I have met with princes, kings, despots, and desperadoes. I have seen the squalor of Asia, the frozen class barriers of Europe. And I was not a tourist. I was associated in their working lives and problems. I had to deal with their governments. And outstanding everywhere to these great masses of people there was a hallowed word-America. To them, it was the hope of the world.
“My every frequent homecoming has been a re-affirmation of the glory of America,” noted Hoover.
The Great War (World War I) was a major factor in shaping Hoover’s worldview. The outbreak of World War I not only placed Hoover on the road of public service when he organized the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) which prevented starvation to millions, but also led him to serve in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration as head of the Food Administration. The result of the war left him very aware of the various dark ideologies of the 20th century. These ideologies included communism, socialism, and eventually include fascism and Nazism.
Politically, Hoover identified as a Republican, but he was as a progressive. He had supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign in 1912 over President William Howard Taft and with his service in the Wilson administration resulted in conservative Republicans viewing him with suspicion. Nevertheless, Hoover was popular and appealed to many including President Warren G. Harding, who won the presidency in a landslide in the 1920 election. President Harding selected Hoover to serve as Secretary of Commerce.
Although Hoover was a progressive Republican, especially in comparison to President Harding, Vice President and later President Calvin Coolidge, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, they were all in agreement on the viewing America as an exceptional nation. The Republicans of this era had a reverence for the Constitution and the values and history of the nation. They also saw the need to defend what they considered to be traditional constitutional government.
It was in this defense and to explain why the United States was an exceptional nation that Hoover wrote American Individualism, which was published in 1922. Hoover also understood the threat the “social philosophies” or ideologies that were arising in the aftermath of World War I were not only radical, but dangerous. He was also concerned with radicalism within the United States. “Now, as the storm of war, revolution and of emotion subsides there is left even with us in the United States much unrest, much discontent with the surer forces of human advancement,” wrote Hoover.
The objective of American Individualism was to “review the political, economic, and spiritual principles through which our country has steadily grown in usefulness and greatness, not only to preserve them from being fueled by false notions, but more importantly that we may guide ourselves in the road to progress.” Ideologies such as communism, socialism, and even capitalism were discussed by Hoover. These “collectivist ideologies alien to America were competing for the minds of men and women.” American Individualism was Hoover’s statement and defense of American principles against these ideologies. “To Hoover the need for a definition of the American alternative was urgent. He called it American Individualism,” wrote George H. Nash.
In American Individualism Hoover explained the philosophic, spiritual, economic, and political grounds of American Individualism. He defined American Individualism “as the source of human progress — that each individual shall be given the chance and stimulation for development of the best which he has been endowed in the heart and mind; it is the sole source of progress…” Hoover described this “ideal of equality of opportunity — the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln.” The values that made up the “American System” allowed both Lincoln and Hoover to grow up in humble means and through hard work and self-initiative to become successful. It was this Individualism, which applied to all Americans.
Hoover’s worldview as outlined in American Individualism was a cornerstone of his philosophy and it was his belief in American exceptionalism which helped him deal with the two major issues that confronted the United States. On the domestic side the Great Depression and the emerging New Deal liberalism of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a significant concern for Hoover. In addition, it was not just New Deal liberalism at the home-front which alarmed Hoover, but also the foreign policy of President Roosevelt and later President Harry S. Truman during World War II and the Cold War which followed.
With his landslide defeat in the presidential election of 1932 to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hoover was very concerned about the advance of New Deal liberalism at the expense of constitutional government. Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of a variety of “alphabet soup” programs to fight the Depression and in the process redefining the social contract of government by moving away from constitutional limited-government. As Hoover stated, “They [FDR and the Democrats] are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of our American system.” Hoover argued that the American System — the values he defined in American Individualism as well as the Constitution, were sufficient to handle the Depression without having to change the nature of government and society. The American system as Hoover saw it “has demonstrated its validity and superiority over any system yet invented by human mind.”
In 1934 Hoover’s defense of what he called “true liberalism” or conservatism today against the philosophy of the New Deal appeared with the publication of The Challenge to Liberty. The Challenge to Liberty was a conservative defense of constitutional government and a warning against what he described as New Deal regimentation along with the various poisonous ideologies of socialism, communism, fascism, and Nazism. Hoover’s work was a conservative statement in response to the New Deal and the rising radical ideologies that were growing during the 1930s.
The Challenge to Liberty, just as with American Individualism, was also a statement and defense of American exceptionalism. Hoover argued that “not only in the United States, but throughout the world, the whole philosophy of individual liberty is under attack.” He described the American System as unique in the world:
Out of our philosophy grew the American Constitutional system where the obligation to promote the common welfare was mandatory and could be made effective; wherein was embodied in its very framework the denial of the right of the government itself or of any group, any business, or any class to infringe upon essential liberties; wherein the majority was to rule; wherein government was to be ‘of laws and not of men;’ whereby the individual was guaranteed the just protection of these rights by its tribunals — the structure of American Democracy. Out of these ideals, under this philosophy, and through this structure we have developed the principles and forms of our social, economic, and governmental life — the American System.
He argued that “the rise of our race under it [American System] marks the high tide of a thousand years of human struggle.” It was out of the American System that “our country has grown to greatness and has led the world in the emancipation of men.” Hoover argued that it was the values and principles that America stood for that made it “stand in brilliant contrast with the drab failure of the socialist system…” The Challenge to Liberty stood as a fundamental defense of Americanism and a strong explanation of conservative philosophy rooted in American exceptionalism.
Hoover’s campaign against New Deal liberalism became a long-term defense of constitutional limited government and this did not just apply to domestic policy alone, but also foreign policy. The foreign policy of Herbert Hoover was based upon American exceptionalism in the non-interventionist philosophy. Hoover was not an isolationist, but belonged to the conservative foreign policy school associated with Republican Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and General Douglas MacArthur. Hoover’s critique of the Roosevelt foreign policy was based upon a traditional foreign policy as explained in his recently published Magnum Opus Freedom Betrayed. In Freedom Betrayed Hoover offered a significant critique of Roosevelt’s foreign policy not just during the War, but also his decisions prior to the nation declaring war. In 1941 Hoover recommended that the United States “should provide aid to Britain and China” while not involving American soldiers in the conflict.
Hoover also argued that the United States should “arm to the teeth for the defense of the Western Hemisphere…” He also opposed imperialism and nation building and argued that the United States should serve as an example of liberty and freedom. “We can thus make a demonstration on this continent that true liberalism is not dead. We can hold a light to a crumbling world the lamp of liberty as the guide to regeneration,” argued Hoover. The Soviet Union and global communism represented a serious threat to freedom, but Hoover argued that defense of the nation came first which also meant implementing sound domestic conservative policies rather than a continuation of New Deal liberalism.
American exceptionalism was at the heart of Hoover’s political philosophy. Whether it was his defense of constitutional limited-government against New Deal liberalism or opposing the Roosevelt and Truman foreign policies, his arguments were based on preserving the American system. As Hoover stated:
The mightiest assurance of our future are the intangible spiritual and intellectual forces in our people, which we express, not by words The United States, but by the word America. That word America carries meanings which lie deep in the soul of our people. It reaches far beyond the size of cities and factories. It springs from our religious faith, our ideals of individual freedom and equal opportunity, which have come in the centuries since we have landed on these shores. It rises from our pride in great accomplishments of our nation and from the sacrifices and devotion of those who have passed on…And from these forces, solutions will come again.
A version of this article originally was published by Law and Liberty.