1928–Hoover on “Rugged Individualism”–Teddy Powers
The 1928 election is not known for its rousing speeches. But in reality, the Democratic contender, Al Smith, was a powerful speaker. And his Republican counterpart, Herbert Hoover, gave an impassioned speech now known as the “Rugged Individualism Speech.” As it was one of the major communication events of the 1928 election, we will take a close look at this speech.
Hoover gave this speech in New York City on October 22, 1928, shortly before the election he would win. According to samuelbrenner.com, it is a “classic example of American conservative philosophy.” The title of the speech comes from a line towards the beginning of the speech. Hoover says, “We were challenged with a… choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines of paternalism and state socialism.” “Rugged individualism” is cast throughout the speech as the American tradition of self-reliance, enabled by a hands-off approach by the government to business. He says that an enlargement of government responsibilities was necessary during World War I, because the war effort had consumed the energies of the American citizens. He says, “To a large degree we regimented our whole people temporarily into a socialistic state. However justified in time of war, if continued in peace-time it would destroy not only our American system but with it our progress and freedom as well.” Calling wartime America a “socialistic state” is an extreme measure, but it matches his passionate plea for free enterprise that pervades the speech.
In this speech, Hoover appeals primarily to citizens’ fears and their patriotism. He uses scare tactics in telling Americans what would happen if economic freedom was limited. Tightening government’s grip on business would “extinguish equality and opportunity. It would dry up the spirit of liberty and progress.” Hoover casts Liberal economic principles as putting America on a slippery slope toward full-out governmental tyranny. He also sees Liberal policies as a pathway to America’s doomsday. He says, “I have witnessed not only at home but abroad the many failures of government in business…I have witnessed the lack of advance, the lowered standards of living, the depressed spirits of people working under such a system.” Hoover paints an image of squalor in listeners’ heads that he hopes will make it hard to vote for the opposition. Besides using scare tactics, he also relies strongly on his audience’s patriotism. He extols free enterprise as “the American system… It is founded upon the conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress.” In other words, a vote against Hoover would be a vote against 150 years of American progress.
His patriotic pleas also seem to be partly autobiographical. For instance, he says, “Our country has become the land of opportunity to those born without inheritance, not merely because of the wealth of its resources and industry but because of this freedom of initiative and enterprise.” He stands before the New York audience as an enactment of this idea. According to Digital History’s profile of President Hoover, he was born to a “hardworking Quaker family in Iowa,” and was orphaned before his tenth birthday. After attending Stanford, “He rose quickly from mine worker to engineer and entrepreneur. He was worth $4 million by the age of 40.” Now running for president at the age of 54 as a “self-made millionaire,” he had the extrinsic ethos to espouse the value of “rugged individualism.”
Aside from his upbringing, there are a few other contextual factors to note regarding the speech. While the President was enamored with the idea of capitalism, he was not as sold on the way it was then practiced. According to Digital History, he said, “‘The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.’” And when the Depression hit, his reliance on “rugged individualism” made him seem uncaring about the biggest financial catastrophe in American history. Although he did launch some public works projects, “he continued to believe that problems of poverty and unemployment were best left to ‘voluntary organization and community service.’… He did not recognize that the sheer size of the nation’s economic problems had made the concept of ‘rugged individualism’ meaningless.”