As president, Hoover had a far from perfect record on civil liberties, yet in response to Jane Addams' complaints in 1929 that the government held political prisoners from the Red Scare of 1919, he could investigate and reply that all such prisoners had been released years before, during Harding's administration. He also pleased Addams—who voted for him in both 1928 and 1932—by ordering that a passport be granted the executive secretary of her organization, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, with the word defend omitted from the oath of allegiance. Hoover asked Attorney General William D. Mitchell to look into the case of the labor martyr, Thomas J. Mooney of California, to see whether his rights had been violated. The president also secured the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the flamboyant Prohibitionist whose methods included espionage. Secretary of Labor William Doak had deported aliens to totalitarian countries; years later Hoover would protest to Attorney General Mitchell, "I cannot imagine our Administration violating the very spirit of the Bill of Rights." Unaccountably, he did not protest at the time.
Hoover as secretary of commerce had taken some steps toward desegregating the department after the southern policies of the Wilson years. As chief executive, Hoover acquitted himself quite well on matters of race in contrast to other early-twentieth-century presidents. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover invited a prominent black, Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, to public ceremonies at the White House. Hoover preferred representatives of the Tuskegee philosophy to the less tractable W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The wife of a black congressman, Mrs. Oscar de Priest of Chicago, came to a congressional tea, albeit with a carefully pruned guest list that included three cabinet members' wives. Addams' Women's International League for Peace and Freedom formally congratulated Mrs. Hoover on the occasion. Congressman de Priest later ostentatiously used the incident to bait racists. The first sentence Hoover commuted under his presidential pardoning power was that of a black convicted of murdering a white woman. No eyewitness to the crime had appeared, and the verdict had depended on what seemed to be a forced confession.
Hoover sharply increased appropriations for Howard University. He was also sensitive to the need for appointing blacks to government management and to boards such as those guiding federal paroles. The president proposed to foundations that they give tenants and sharecroppers of both races the opportunity to buy the land they worked.
On the subject of lynching, Hoover suggested to an assistant, "With the modern expedition, through aerial and motor forces of Federal troops located at all important centers throughout the country it is possible to bring them almost instantly to the assistance of local authorities if a system were authorized by Congress that would make such action swift and possible." Advised by Mitchell that constitutional restraints prevented the use of federal troops without a request from state government, the president condemned lynching publicly but offered no legislation against it. Evidently he relied on the force of an enlightened public opinion.
Yet under Hoover the Republicans ousted blacks from the party in the South, and Secretary of War Patrick Hurley segregated black gold-star mothers and widows of the World War I dead en route to Europe on ocean liners. Hoover also failed to accomplish much to end discrimination in hiring for government projects.
Hoover's work in prison reform, a field long of interest to Quakers, led to the passage of eight bills. Under the direction of his appointee Sanford Bates, the Bureau of Prisons alleviated prison overcrowding by establishing work camps and building new penitentiaries and reformatories. A federal school for prison guards was founded, and all prison employees came under the Civil Service Administration. Educational opportunities and health benefits were improved, and the number of prisoners on parole multiplied during the Hoover administration.
Again spurred by his Quaker heritage, Hoover sought the reform of Indian policy. He made good appointments when he chose Charles J. Rhoads and J. Henry Scattergood, Philadelphia Quakers, to run the Indian Bureau (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Rhoads was appalled by the corruption and insensitivity he found in Washington, but his administration was a transitional one and at odds with itself in many respects. The debate about reform centered on the degree to which Indians should be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural, social, economic, and religious identity. Although the Hoover administration opposed government welfare that "coddled" Indians, expenditures by the bureau almost doubled under Rhoads. The money went chiefly for better schools and health care. John Collier, the New Deal head of the bureau, later acknowledged that the "real shift" toward recognition of Indian rights began under Hoover.
In fulfillment of a campaign pledge, President Hoover, after a special session of Congress in the spring of 1929, signed the Agricultural Marketing Act, which included a $500 million revolving fund to buy surpluses that might be resold in better economic times. The Federal Farm Board speculated in agricultural commodities to hold up farm prices, but to no avail. Farm prices plunged soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, and the board became merely a relief agency. With farmers unwilling voluntarily to reduce crop acreage and the government unwilling to coerce them to do so, the board's funds simply ran out before the Great Depression reached bottom in 1932–1933.
Hoover had made an impressive record while commerce secretary by persuading states through which the Colorado River flowed to agree on a plan to harness its electrical energy, control its flood potential, and distribute its waters fairly. Hoover (formerly Boulder) Dam is a monument to this work. During his presidency Hoover finally managed to negotiate a treaty with Canada for the development of a St. Lawrence waterway. Other projects—the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and various public works—also marked his tenure.
The conservation movement advanced under Hoover. Some 2 million additional acres of forest-land became national preserves, and the area of national parks increased by 40 percent. But some of the recommendations of Hoover's Commission on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain had an ambiguous character. It suggested, for example, that the surface rights to lands useful only for grazing should be returned to the states. Hoover liked the notion of shrinking federal controls and had a naïve idea of state conservation goals. He made plans for building Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River but vetoed a proposal by Senator George Norris of Nebraska to develop the Tennessee River valley, objecting to its socialist character and labeling it "degeneration."
Hoover's appointments to the Supreme Court reflected a liberal rather than conservative bias. Charles Evans Hughes, appointed chief justice in 1930, was a judicial moderate who would side with the liberals on most of the critical decisions on New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Justice Owen Roberts was to become known in the 1930s as the "swing vote" on the Court. Hoover's final appointment was perhaps his best. Benjamin Cardozo, known for his integrity and his intellect, had aligned himself with the liberal constitutional philosophy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Louis D. Brandeis—who, like Cardozo, was Jewish—was sitting on the Court, and antiSemites protested the nomination of a second Jew. The famous progressive journalist and Prohibitionist William Allen White wrote to Senator George Norris, I have not had a good drink since I left Kansas City to come to Emporia [Kansas] nearly 40 years ago.. . . Hunt up . . . a good long brown drink of nose-choking, hair-raising, gullet-giggling, hard corn liquor and then and there . . . take one happy untrammeled drink for me in celebration of Justice Cardozo."