by Thomas Schwartz
George N. Nash, the foremost biographer of Herbert Hoover and historian of American conservative thought, wrote: “Often is seems that Herbert Hoover is the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: He gets no respect.” This is especially true of Hoover contribution to the development of modern conservative thought. A recent study contrasting the political views of Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt indicated Hoover’s indebtedness to the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln without clearly identifying its inspiration. A careful examination of Hoover’s American Individualism to Lincoln’s writings clearly establishes the direct link. Hoover’s main argument in the seminal 1922 publication is that a unique American individualism separates the United States from the rest of the world. “Individualism cannot be maintained as the foundation of a society if it looks to only legalistic justice based upon contracts, property, and political equality. Such legalistic safeguard are themselves not enough. In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century – the notion that it is ‘everyman for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ We abandoned that when we adopted the ideal of equality of opportunity – the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln.”
What is Lincoln’s idea of the fair chance? Lincoln clearly delineates it in his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861: “This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Lincoln expands upon the idea in an address to the 166th Ohio Regiment on August 22, 1864: “It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright – not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
If Hoover’s idea of American individualism was rooted in Lincoln’s notion of the “fair chance,” it embodied both the distinctive self-governance of the American republic along with the implied responsibilities of the individual in maintaining that form of government and preserving individual liberty. Such beliefs would not abide the slavery of blacks in Lincoln’s day or constraints to individual freedom that Hoover saw in governments espousing communism, socialism, fascism, and collectivism. Russell Kirk, the influential conservative writer and theorist of the late 20th Century, critical of the power of centralized government and how it erodes individual thought and reflection of political leaders, still found Hoover unique. “The last American president to do his own thinking, “ wrote Kirk in his classic study, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, “was Herbert Hoover; the last British prime minister of intellectual distinction was Arthur Balfour.” Kirk’s comment hints at Hoover’s greater influence on conservative thought than is usually recognized.