The Oldest Inhabitants
When J. Edgar Hoover told the story of his life, he began with a childhood parable. Even as a little boy, he sought out lessons and morals: "1. Eat slowly. 2. Eat regularly. 3. Do not eat between meals," he wrote in a childhood newspaper, composed at age eleven. As an adult, he tended to describe his early years as a series of edifying adventures, each building upon the last to make him a decent, God-fearing man. He particularly liked the story of his first job, delivering groceries at Washington's Eastern Market, when he discovered that running faster and working harder than all the other boys meant bigger tips.
Hoover did work hard as a boy, earning near-perfect grades and a spotless record as a Sunday school teacher. All the same, his childhood-even more than most-was messy and uncertain, shaped by family tragedies that began well before his birth. In 1880, fifteen years before Hoover was born, his maternal grandfather drowned himself in the Anacostia River, leaving behind a note despairing of the "hypocritical and false-swearing people" who had driven him to the act. Four decades later, Hoover's own father died of "melancholia" and "inanition" (what we today might describe as severe depression), disappearing first into sadness and rage and, later, losing the desire to eat or live. In between, there were other births and deaths, and even a murder scandalous enough to make the front page.
As an adult, Hoover never spoke publicly of these difficulties. It would have been anathema for him to do so, a confession of pain and weakness from a man who valued certitude and control. There are connections nonetheless: between the emotional chaos of childhood and the emotional challenges of adulthood; between the teenager forced to keep secrets about his father and the government servant for whom secrets became a way of life. As a young man, Hoover was driven to succeed, first as high school valedictorian, then as a law-school standout, and finally in the Justice Department, where he went to work at the age of twenty-two. Some of these early accomplishments flowed from genuine talent and ambition. Even in high school, students knew him as a boy on his way up. But fear and necessity drove him during those years as well, a pressure to earn money and to do all that his father (and his grandfathers before that) had failed to do. By the time he reached his late twenties, he had acquired the two essential elements of his professional outlook: first, a passionate commitment to the idea of nonpartisan, expert-driven career government service; second, a deep-seated conservatism on matters of race, religion, and left-wing threats to the political status quo. These themes would define his career, but as a boy he was still learning, absorbing stern lessons and cautionary tales from his family, schools, and hometown.
The closest Hoover ever came to acknowledging a less than perfect childhood was in 1938, a few months after his mother's death, when he published an unusually personal article speculating about what might happen "If I Had a Son." In that article, he noted that boys want to worship their fathers "as head of the house, a repository of all knowledge, the universal provider, the righteous Judge." Such admiration became impossible when parents relied on "half-truths" to lull their children into a false sense of security. "If I had a son, I'd swear to do one thing: I'd tell him the truth," Hoover wrote. "No matter how difficult it might be, I'd tell my boy the truth." The advice is surprising, coming from a man who spent his adult life avoiding the exposure of uncomfortable truths about himself and the institution he created. As a guiding principle for telling his story, though, it seems like a fine place to begin.
From his grandparents and great-grandparents, men and women he mostly never knew, Hoover inherited two important legacies. The first was a set of roots in the federal city of Washington, D.C., where traditions of government service and social hierarchy existed side by side. The second was a history of violence and breakdown among the family's men, including the premature deaths of his grandfathers more than a decade before his birth. From his Washington roots he gained both his professional mission and his political worldview. From his family's difficulties he took a merciless anxiety about the world, and a desire to control what happened around him.
As a clan, the Hoovers seem to have hailed from German stock, but so far back that it hardly mattered. During the eighteenth century, the family lived in Pennsylvania before migrating south to Washington in the early nineteenth century. The city was brand-new in those years, an artificial creation carved from muck and swamp after the states failed to settle on Philadelphia or New York for their national capital. The initial vision had been grandiose: wide avenues and breathtaking public buildings testifying to the promise of the American republic. It lost something in the execution. When the federal government arrived to set up shop in 1800, one congressman pronounced Washington "a city in ruins," its grand avenues thick with mud and its public buildings little more than clapboard planks nailed up against the cold. Fourteen years later, the British burned the city and local residents started over again. Hoover's ancestors arrived in the midst of this rebuilding, forever linking the Hoover family to the ups and downs of the federal government.
Hoover's great-grandfather William, a butcher, became a true Washington patriarch, fathering eleven children. By the middle of the nineteenth century, those children, and their children's children, occupied a dusty stretch of Sixth Street between M and N Streets, near what was then the outer perimeter of habitation. The Hoovers were a close-knit, well-established Washington family, if just outside the downtown corridors of power.
Some of the early family men were slave owners, though of a distinctly Washington sort. To the north and south, Maryland and Virginia maintained flourishing plantation economies, and thus large concentrations of men and women held in bondage. In Washington, a political and commercial city, even prominent slaveholders claimed at best a handful of enslaved persons. One early Hoover claimed ownership over two human beings: a boy under fourteen and a slightly older woman, who presumably provided household help. Hoover's paternal great-grandfather, Dickerson Naylor, owned at least one enslaved person, freed only with the abolition of slavery in the district in 1862. Antebellum Washington was a Southern town, committed to the practice of slavery and to the racial order it entailed.
This Southern legacy would become an important part of Hoover's upbringing and worldview. And yet there was another side to Washington's racial history and this, too, shaped Hoover's family inheritance. As a federal city in the midst of the plantation South, antebellum Washington often served as a refuge for Black men and women. Long-standing rumors suggest that at least one of Hoover's ancestors hailed from this population. For decades after his appointment as FBI director, there were rumors that Hoover came from a "passing" family-that he was, under the one-drop rule governing racial classifications, actually Black. Circumstantial evidence makes the idea plausible: Hoover's family lived in a multiracial city and engaged in the sorts of work often performed by Black men and women. Still, census and genealogical documents suggest that the Hoovers were mostly what they said they were: a tight-knit clan of small shopkeepers and tradesmen, among the oldest white families in the city.
From the outside, visiting writers often mocked nineteenth-century Washington as a backwater-a "City of Magnificent Intentions" dismally lacking in worthwhile "houses, roads, and inhabitants," in the words of Charles Dickens. Families like the Hoovers thought differently, and they organized a distinct local culture to prove it. The most committed of them joined the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, open only to families present long before Washington became a center of national power. But for all the insistence upon the distinction between locals and politicians, between residents and government transients, nobody lived in Washington for long without being drawn into the federal orbit. The Hoovers were no exception. Around 1853, Hoover's great-grandfather took a job as a messenger for the post office, among the lowest rungs of the federal hierarchy. That same year, his grandfather, John Thomas Hoover, signed on as a clerk with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the first scientific agency to be endorsed and funded by the federal government. Between them, they began a family tradition of government service that would continue almost unbroken for the next 120 years.
Of all his paternal ancestors, including his own father, Hoover turned out most like his grandfather John Thomas, the man who introduced the family to professional government work. They shared a name: John Edgar was, in part, a tribute to John Thomas. But the affinity seems to have gone much deeper, a commonality of ideas, ambition, and temperament that reached across generations. As a young man, John Thomas was relentlessly driven and efficient, determined to secure a foothold in the emerging federal bureaucracy. He was the first family member to show how diligence, organization, and a knack for file keeping could yield a successful government career. Socially, too, he set the template that his grandson would later follow: membership in the Presbyterian Church, along with active participation in the Masonic order and its fraternal Washington networks.
As a boy, John Thomas grew up fast, the oldest of his parents' eleven children. According to family lore, at age fifteen he turned down offers to attend West Point and the Naval Academy in order to remain in Washington and seek his fortune. Whether or not the story was true, it pointed to something important about Hoover family tradition: staying in Washington was the expected thing. In 1853, at the age of eighteen, John Thomas accepted a clerkship at the Coast Survey, a turning point that brought the Hoover clan into white-collar government employment. Two years later, he married Cecilia Naylor, the daughter of a prosperous grocer and small slaveholder. And two years after that, Cecilia gave birth to Hoover's father, Dickerson, a thin, gentle boy who would grow up surrounded by boisterous aunts, uncles, and cousins, and who would eventually follow his father into the Coast Survey.
Congress had created the survey to map the coastline of the Louisiana Purchase. By the time John Thomas went to work there in the 1850s, it had acquired a reputation as one of the few well-established professional agencies in Washington, an early progenitor of the modern civil service. Its chief was Alexander Dallas Bache, a dashing West Point graduate (and great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin) who viewed the survey as a means to promote scientific enterprise using the purse strings of the federal government. Bache was both a visionary and a bureaucrat, an early example of the sort of independent administrator Hoover himself would later become.
Hoover's grandfather was unusually close to Bache, something between a personal assistant and surrogate son. John Thomas originally signed on to work in the survey's computing division, which calculated map coordinates and double-checked the work of human "computers" in the field. Several years into his work, he was promoted to the post of field secretary. In that role, he began to write Bache's correspondence, plan his schedule, and accompany his boss on official expeditions. This swift rise suggests that John Thomas shared another of his future grandson's talents: the ability to please older men in positions of power. Bache praised John Thomas for his "zeal and fidelity."
Coast Survey men shared a distinctive approach. Though they worked for the government, survey employees considered themselves scientific professionals, set apart from the Sturm und Drang of electoral politics. As such, they were among the first bona fide members of the modern administrative state, men who believed that their value lay in expertise and bureaucratic skill rather than in partisan loyalty. But politics had a way of intruding in Washington. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the survey was put to work building fortifications on League Island near Philadelphia in preparation for a Southern attack that never came. While working on the project, John Thomas contracted tuberculosis, the beginning of a long, slow decline that altered the family's plans for the future.
He returned home to Washington to find the city transformed, its slave system shattered, its population doubled, its oldest residents bewildered by the change. He, too, had changed, no longer the energetic, forward-looking man he had once been. After a brief convalescence, he returned to survey work as head of its Division of Charts and Instruments. He survived more than a decade in the post and even recruited his oldest son, Dickerson-Hoover's father-to join him. The son brought little of the "zeal" and vision that had been the father's trademark. An early photo of Dickerson shows a sallow man with a receding chin and wide-set eyes, gazing distantly off-camera, hardly the heir to his father's once-robust energies.
Dickerson joined the survey in 1876, at the age of twenty. Over the next few years, his father entered a final decline, slowly giving up on church and charitable activities as his lung infection returned. The end came suddenly on May 25, 1878. "Within the fortnight preceding that date he was at the office as usual, efficiently discharging duties to which he had been long accustomed," recalled a Coast Survey publication. Then his lungs gave out.
His government obituary mourned the loss of "one of the most useful members of the Coast Survey" at the age of forty-three. It made no mention of his eldest son, Dickerson, just twenty years old and now the head of the family.
John Thomas's premature death was one major rupture in Hoover's family past-a jarring moment of loss that forever altered his father's prospects and put the family under deep financial constraints. Another came from his mother's side and was the more dramatic of the two, not a protracted, helpless decline but a concentrated few years of devastation and betrayal.
Hoover's mother, Annie, descended from the Hitz line-the most prominent family of nineteenth-century Swiss Washington, several rungs up from the Hoovers on the city's class ladder. Its local patriarch was John, or Hans, Hitz (another inspiration for Hoover's first name). Raised as a mining engineer in the meticulous Swiss tradition, Hans had arrived in Washington during the 1830s with his wife, parents, and several children. He worked closely with the Coast Survey but made his real money off of private ventures, managing gold and zinc mines while helping to run an odd assortment of local businesses. In recognition of this success, he earned an appointment as the first Swiss consul general to the United States, the highest post available for a Swiss citizen living in America.
Copyright © 2022 by Beverly Gage. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.