How did the Depression challenge the traditional belief of Hoover and other Americans in “rugged individualism”?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Herbert Hoover first coined the expression "rugged individualism" in a speech on the campaign trail in the 1928 presidential election. With this phrase, he articulated a long-standing American tradition, almost a civic religion, based upon a passionate belief in the value of hard work and self-reliance in which people looked to themselves to get ahead in life, instead of relying on the state to support them.

Rugged individualism certainly caught the attitude of the times. With the American economy booming and the good times seemingly set to stay, Hoover's classic statement of conservative moral and economic philosophy attained dominance in the marketplace of ideas.

However, with the onset of the Great Depression, all that changed. There had been economic depressions before, but none quite like this. In the face of this unprecedented downturn in the American economy, the whole concept of rugged individualism seemed woefully inadequate. At best, it was widely perceived as naive and unrealistic; at worst, it appeared to display a heartlessness toward the millions of impoverished Americans now struggling to eke out an existence against the backdrop of an economy in free fall. In the minds of many people, rugged individualism was now exposed as a sham; simply a nice way of describing greed and rampant self-interest.

Yet, despite all this, Hoover still clung stubbornly to the old faith. There is little evidence to suggest that he ever once felt rugged individualism to be mistaken or in any way out of date. This is not altogether surprising. For Hoover, rugged individualism was not some abstract idea; it was an abiding creed by which he had lived his whole life.

At the same time, Hoover, though undoubtedly committed to his guiding principle, did not display a narrow, ideological commitment. In his famous speech, he openly acknowledged that there was sometimes a need for increased government involvement in the economy. It all depended on the circumstances. However, Hoover also made it clear that those circumstances must be truly exceptional, such as those arising during the First World War.

The Great Depression, however, was a different matter entirely. There was no need, thought Hoover, for a fundamental shift in American economic policy and its underlying values. However, as the country plunged further into economic catastrophe, Hoover finally heeded a growing chorus of disapproval with the prevailing approach and agreed to sanction increased federal aid for the hard-pressed states.

Even so, the sums made available proved totally inadequate for the sheer scale of the task. Ironically, the problem was made worse by the actions of Republican state governors and state legislatures. Many of them refused to spend the sums they had been granted, true believers in the faith of rugged individualism.