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.”
In the 1928 election, one of the slogans most strongly associated with Republican nominee Herbert Hoover was, “A chicken in every pot.” In reality, this was not one of his official campaign slogans. According to his presidential archives, “The Hoover campaign used a variety of slogans in 1928 including ‘Vote for Prosperity,’ ‘Lest We Forget’ (referring to Hoover’s World War I relief work), and ‘Who but Hoover?’” “A chicken in every pot” was used in ads by the Republican National Committee in newspapers, supporting their nominee. Since I could not find a picture with high enough resolution to read the text, we will have to trust the Hoover archives on the content: “The ad described in detail how the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge had ‘reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial ‘chicken in every pot.’ And a car in every backyard, to boot.’ The ad concluded that a vote for Hoover would be a vote for continued prosperity.” The Republicans used the image to say that they had been providing for families the last eight years under two straight Republican administrations, and they would continue to ensure prosperity.
The slogan is very fitting for the time it was used. The 1928 election came just before the stock market crash of 1929, and at the end of a decade known for its economic prosperity. According to Dan Amoss of whiskeyandgunpowder.com, the slogan “epitomizes the mass psychology characteristic of the Roaring ’20s. In a country that had long enjoyed a remarkable period of prosperity, it was felt that the trajectory of the boom’s trend would eventually lead to an eradication of poverty.” This statement would suggest that the slogan was not just aimed at middle-class families, but rather at the lower class as well. It is easy to see this slogan as a statement that the middle class will thrive, and always have plenty of food on their table. But seeing it as a call for the eradication of poverty makes it seem nobler. While today the idea of completely erasing poverty might seem Pollyannaish, the situation at the end of the 1920’s would have made it seem plausible. America was on a winning streak—with Republican presidents occupying the White House for all but a year—and there was no reason to think that success would come to an end. Of course when it did come to an end, the Democrats were quick to remind voters in 1932 that not every pot had a chicken in it.
Another interesting angle to consider with this slogan was the prevalence of chickens in pots at that time. They were very scarce. Thelittleroundtable.com puts the slogan in an interesting context. The website says that the sentiment was first voiced by Henry IV of France, who said, “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” This statement is a more direct plea for the eradication of poverty. Four hundred years later, chicken was a rare meat to eat in America. Although the country had invented “industrial poultry production,” chickens were used more for display than for eating. They were showpieces. The website notes, “When Herbert Hoover promised ‘a chicken in every pot’ in 1928, America’s entire annual per-capita consumption could fit in a pot. Americans were eating an average of only a half-pound of chicken a year.” Chicken was more expensive than steak and lobster. Therefore, if Hoover was running in 2012, would the Republican National Committee promise veal on every table? Today, Americans eat over 90 pounds of poultry per year—almost 200 times the 1928 average. Looking at the historical context from a food perspective, the Republican National Committee’s promise to Americans looks even bolder.
The last interesting factor about this ad is the look of it. In 2012, most likely no nominees or their parties will run an ad that is so text-heavy. Although there is large text at the top and bottom, headlined by “A chicken in every pot,” most of the ad is several paragraphs of small print text. I am not sure that the fact that this ad would never run today is a testament to improvements in advertising or a result of declining patience levels over the past century. Regardless of explanations for the trend, this ad is a symbol of a bygone era. Although its call for more poultry eating has never been so fully realized as it is today.
The ad itself: http://history.searchbeat.com/herberthoover.htm
The controversy of a Catholic becoming president is currently mostly strongly identified with President John F. Kennedy, but he was not the first to try. In 1928, Al Smith, the Irish-Catholic anti-prohibition New Yorker, was strongly scorned for his religion. This hatred was most evident from the Ku Klux Klan.
This flyer from the KKK is a good representation of the battle they waged against Smith. The largest text, “Why Desert?,” tells readers that they would betray their duties as American citizens if they voted for Smith. Americans are “Duty Bound” to reject Catholicism. The quote from the “New York Herald Tribune of Wednesday, June 6, 1928” is then used to evoke fear that Smith would “take his orders from Rome” if elected president. This was a very ripe fear in 1928, just as it was when Kennedy was elected in 1960. In The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History, Michael Newton notes that a KKK pamphlet said Smith would “no doubt fill every key position in the Republic with Roman Catholics… and no doubt leave the Army and the Navy in the hands of Rome” (95). This type of hyperbole is likely characteristic of attacks ads in all eras, but it was especially prevalent in this election.
Below the newspaper quote, the pamphlet advertises for a rally on “The Unfitness of the Al Smith” at fairgrounds in Kewanee, Illinois. These anti-Smith KKK rallies were not rare in the 1928 campaign. They were not only common but frequent, as evidenced by this description of one in Birmingham, Alabama in Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush by Paul F. Boller, Jr.: “They began by dragging in an effigy of Al Smith. ‘What shall we do with him?’ asked the presiding officer. ‘Lynch him!’ yelled the citizens. A man with a knife at once fell on the dummy’s throat, gashed it open, and spattered a red fluid (mercurochrome) around the wound. Then, with howls of joy, people began firing revolver shots into the ‘corpse,’ kicking it and spitting at it” (229). Maybe this should not be surprising in light of the fact that the KKK is infamous for real lynchings.
These rallies were part of a very heated effort by the KKK to make sure that Smith did not become president. According to thestrangedeathofliberalamerica.com, they issued a “Klarion Kall for a Krusade” against him. They started their push when he was running for the Democratic nomination. When they failed to stop him from being nominated, they turned their attention to stopping his running mate, Joseph Robinson, from being nominated. Robinson, from Arkansas, represented everything the KKK valued in a candidate—he was a southern, Protestant, prohibitionist. And that was why he was such a threat to them—because he could help balance the ticket and get Smith elected. This effort failed as well, so the Klan shifted their focus to ensuring the ticket’s defeat in the general election.
Representative of the mood of the KKK in general, Amos G. Duncan, the Grand Dragon of the Realm of North Carolina, drummed up a fund of $8,000 to defeat Smith in his state. He said that his office would be solely dedicated to his defeat around the clock until election day. Although ostensibly the KKK was angry that Smith was running, his candidacy ended up helping the Klan by galvanizing their supporters around a common enemy. According to history-world.org, “Stressing white Protestant supremacy, the Klan enjoyed a spurt of growth in 1928 as a reaction to the Democrats’ nomination for president of Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic.”
While the KKK was very overt about their anti-Catholic prejudices against Smith, that forthrightness was not common throughout American society. According to Time Magazine, “Since American traditions tended to inhibit direct assaults on religion, hostility to Smith’s Catholicism was often expressed in denunciations of him as a servant of the Demon Rum.” This veil gave Americans an excuse to implicitly hate his religious beliefs while casting their feelings as moral leanings. This might be similar to a racist voter in the 2008 election saying that he or she would not vote for Senator Obama because he is pro-choice.
Whether they were expressed implicitly or explicitly aside, Al Smith was of course not happy with the emphasis on his religion. According to Time he said, “Let the people of this country decide this election upon the great and real issues of the campaign and upon nothing else.” His dream probably did not come true, as he lost the Electoral College vote 444 to 87.
The flyer itself: http://www.authentichistory.com/1921-1929/01-historical/4-
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: from George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Newton, Michael. The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: a History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010. Print.