By Thomas F. Schwartz, PhD
Often overlooked in most biographies of Herbert Hoover is his affinity for children and their affection for him. His tireless advocacy of feeding and caring for children in times of war and famine abroad as well as his efforts to support the domestic welfare of children through legislation and organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America is testament to his commitment. Children responded in kind sending him letters seeking advice. A representative sampling are in the 1962 book edited by Hoover, On Growing Up. A 1930 biography, Our President Herbert Clark Hoover, written by a ten-year-old boy, William J. Marsh, Jr. and his younger brother Charles offers a unique insight into why Hoover appealed to these young boys.
As William Marsh explained: “My father, who is an Antique dealer, bought this press which I am printing this book on for fifty cents, but you must remember that was only the first cost, as we have already spent over fifty dollars in getting it into shape.” Sixty copies were printed and offered for sale. With an eye for self-promotion, Marsh sent a copy to the New York Herald Tribune indicating he printed a special copy to present to President Hoover. The editors at the Herald Tribune recognized the public appeal of Marsh’s publication and printed a story about Marsh and his book on June 29, 1930. It caught the eye of the White House and an invitation was issued to William and Charles to present a copy of the book to President Hoover on July 11, 1930. The human-interest story also sparked interest among New York publishing houses as several reached out to William with offers to reprint and distribute his book to a mass market audience. Doubleday and Doran obtained the rights to reprint the book. Copies were available nationwide the same day as the boys’ White House visit.
The White House visit drew national attention with a picture of the Marsh brothers presenting a copy of their book to President Hoover. The inscribed presentation copy to President Hoover now resides in the collections at his presidential library in West Branch. Much of what charmed the President and the American public by the book was an expression of traditional American values of personal responsibility and discipline, individual initiative, wise adult guidance and role models, and respect for God, flag, and country. Aspects of Hoover’s childhood especially resonated with the young Marsh boys. Accounts of winter sledding, outdoor sports, fishing and swimming described in vivid detail populated the early pages. “The old swimming hole which I have read so much about,” wrote Marsh, “must be a great place, I sure would love to see it, and some day, if I make good as a writer, I intend to go and see his old home and the swimming hole, and then I am going to write a book on it.” A lively description of Hoover’s summer with his Uncle Laban on an Oklahoma Indian Reservation provides details of Hoover fishing beside his Indian playmates and cooking their catch over an open fire. Marsh also emphasizes Hoover’s humble beginnings but rapid rise to become a world humanitarian and President of the United States.
Marsh is also an avid supporter of Prohibition, a policy that Hoover indicated Congress passed and was ratified by the states. It was Hoover’s obligation as President to enforce the law of the land. Any attempts to overturn Prohibition needed to begin with Congress. Marsh confuses Hoover’s enforcement of Prohibition as reflecting the President’s personal view. The youthful moralist ends his study of Hoover with the admonition: “Shame on you parents who want to feed your boys and girls, wine and beer. An let me tell you mothers, if you didn’t smoke so many cigarettes, it would be more to your credit. It is bad enough for a man, but when it comes to a mother and daughter smoking, that is awful.”
The unusual publication and White House visit made the Marsh brothers a minor media sensation. When they tried to continue their success in 1932 with a second book, Why You Should Vote for President Hoover, the reception was less positive. Repeating many of the same arguments of Hoover’s strong character and worldly accomplishments, they also used an argument made by Abraham Lincoln for his re-election in 1864 about swapping horses in midstream. “If you owned a good, reliable, safe horse,” William Marsh wrote, “and were riding him across a very dangerous and deep river, would you change while you were in the middle of the dangerous part, for one that you knew nothing about? You bet you wouldn’t, for you’d be taking an awful chance.” Marsh claimed to have nothing against Franklin Roosevelt stating: “Gov. Roosevelt is a very fine man, he is from a fine family, and so is his wife.” Herbert Hoover remained Marsh’s hero and worth endorsing for re-election even though he was years away from being old enough to vote. He did the next best thing by urging others to do so with his writings.