Few men elected as president have seemed destined for a more successful term in office than Herbert Hoover. Born in Iowa in 1874, the son of a blacksmith and his schoolteacher wife, Hoover accumulated a fortune as a mining engineer working for firms in Asia, Africa, and Europe. During and immediately after World War I, he gained international fame by coordinating overseas food relief. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, a severe critic of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, called Hoover “the only man” to emerge from the peace conference “with an enhanced reputation.” He “had never known failure,” wrote the novelist Sherwood Anderson. Hoover seemed to exemplify what was widely called the “new era” of American capitahsm. In 1922, while serving as secretary of commerce, he pubhshed American Individualism, which condemned government regulation as an interference with the economic opportunities of ordinary Americans, but also insisted that self-interest should be subordinated to public service. Hoover considered himself a Progressive, although he preferred what he called “associational action,” in which private agencies directed regulatory and welfare policies, to government intervention in the economy.
A 1928 campaign poster for the Republican ticket of Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis.
After “silent Cal” Coolidge in 1927 handed a piece of paper to a group of reporters that stated, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928,” Hoover quickly emerged as his successor. Accepting the Republican nomination, Hoover celebrated the decade’s prosperity and promised that poverty would “soon be banished from this earth.” His Democratic opponent was Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party. Born into poverty on New York’s Lower East Side, Smith had become a fixture in Tammany Hall politics. Although he had no family connection with the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland), Smith emerged as their symbolic spokesman. The Triangle fire of 1911 made him an advocate of Progressive social legislation. He served three terms as governor of New York, securing passage of laws limiting the hours of working women and children and establishing widows’ pensions. Smith denounced the Red Scare and called for the repeal of Prohibition. His bid for the Democratic nomination in 1924 had been blocked by delegates beholden to nativists and Klansmen, but he secured the nod four years later.
Given the prevailing prosperity and his own sterling reputation, Hoover’s victory was inevitable. Other than on Prohibition, moreover, the Democratic platform did not differ much from the Republican one, leaving little to discuss except the candidates’ personalities and religions. Smith’s Catholicism became the focus of the race. Many Protestant ministers and religious publications denounced him for his faith. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans carried several southern states, reflecting the strength of anti-Catholicism and nativism among religious fundamentalists. “Hoover,” wrote one previously Democratic southern newspaper editor, “is sprung from American soil and stock,” while Smith represented “the aliens.” On the other hand, Smith carried the nation’s twelve largest cities and won significant support in economically struggling farm areas. With more than 58 percent of the vote, Hoover was elected by a landslide. But Smith’s campaign helped to lay the foundation for the triumphant Democratic coalition of the 1930s, based on urban ethnic voters, farmers, and the South.
Three months before the stock market crash The Magazine of Wall Street was avidly encouraging readers to purchase stocks.