America: self-made, but more

This diorama of Herbert Hoover during his years as a mining engineer stands at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. (PHOTO: Phil Roeder, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

No U.S. president knew mining better than Herbert Hoover.

The man made a generational fortune as a mining engineer using his remarkable ability to assess and improve the productivity of mines all over the world. Presidential historian Feather Schwartz Foster writes that Hoover bragged he could smell a successful mine the moment he entered it.

Hoover wasn’t some Wall Street dandy in a suit. For one thing he was an Iowa farm boy, orphaned at 10. Raised by Quaker relatives in Oregon, Hoover barely squeaked into the inaugural class at Stanford University despite not attending high school. (He flunked every entrance exam but math. His math was that good).

After graduation Hoover took work loading push carts in a California underground mine. Hoover hungrily devoured hard-earned mining knowledge from Cornish mine captains, men who took a liking to his plucky spirit and work ethic. After a few months, Hoover left a laborer’s life behind, swept into the engineer’s office by his impressed bosses.

Before our mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, had even paved its streets, a driven young Hoover opened mines all over the world for a British mining company. He would later own several mining interests himself. By 1914, Hoover retired a young multi-millionaire, turning his efforts to philanthropy and politics.

In philanthropy, Hoover performed great deeds around the world — always, as author Bill Bryson pointed out in his book “Delancey Place,” accompanied by a press release. Despite his self-promotion, however, few could find fault with his work evacuating Americans from war zones and feeding refuges in Europe after World War I.

As most know, Hoover’s political career lacked the success of his business ventures and humanitarian efforts. Riding his tremendous popularity, Hoover defeated New York Gov. Al Smith in a 1928 presidential landslide. His politics could roughly be equated to this: Be like me, and you will be prosperous like me. Self-reliance and efficiency would bring America and Americans to new heights.

Nevertheless, eight months after taking office the stock market collapsed, kicking off the Great Depression. Hoover might not have caused the Great Depression. (Far less scrupulous investors and a natural correction to an inflated market were to blame). But Hoover’s aloof response to the crisis sealed his fate as an unpopular one-term president.

That’s because not everyone can do what Hoover did to get ahead. That doesn’t diminish his accomplishments; but puts them in context. Capital requires labor to grow, or at least it should. At some point, a shared crisis requires a shared response.

Though the U.S. economy seems strong right now, other analysis shows that inequality is rising faster than it was before the Great Crash that doomed Hoover’s presidency. Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports in a fascinating Jan. 4 article that the return on wealth now far outstrips the gross domestic product. In other words, it’s far easier for the wealthy to get wealthier than it is for anyone else to become wealthy, no matter how Hoover-esq their work ethic.

Trust in the markets was a hallmark of Hoover’s political philosophy, and one that dominated his Republican Party for decades to come. However, today’s markets tilt toward the hoarding of capital. Instead of making money by investing in people, communities, and innovation, people now play games with paper millions to reap untold fortune.

It’s all around us. From the inability of developers to finance new mining projects here on the Iron Range, to the fact that more of us live paycheck to paycheck than at any time since World War II. Getting ahead by your own grit is harder than ever. Meantime, the community spirit it takes to help people help themselves seems dashed.

Dashed, but not snuffed.

The times produce presidents, not the other way around. Industrialization gave us President Hoover. Deindustrialization gave us President Trump.

America is always more than its politics and even its economy. America at its best invests in its people and its progress. At its worst, it sits back and watches the world burn. Not surprisingly, I’d argue for the prior, not the latter.

Another prominent Republican president had this to say:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

That was Abraham Lincoln. And no U.S. president knew more about overcoming division than him.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. I want to share two thoughts:

    First, I once heard someone make the distinction between “anyone can” and “everyone can”, a distinction that Hoover failed to make. Which is to say that perhaps given the right opportunities “anyone” could become a successful mining engineer, but not “everyone” can be the engineer: one way or another, there will always be a guy holding the shovel, and our policies need to recognize that.

    The other is that capitalism has a positive feedback problem, which is to say that having money makes it easier to make more money, an unstable configuration that drives inequality (somehow Thomas Pikkety gets 600 pages out of this thesis). It’s on us to recognize that markets are useful things (they have the advantages of feedback, efficiency, and a tried and true history of wealth creation) that need some amount of wrangling to reign in their worst excesses, and to recognize when they’re the wrong solution entirely.

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