J. Edgar Hoover is best known as the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who led the agency from 1935 until his death in 1972, and who authorized the FBI to track and spy upon thousands of American citizens who Hoover believed harbored “subversive” beliefs. But before he was the powerful leader of the FBI, Hoover was an 18-year-old law student, attending night classes and working his way through GW. The recently released film, “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has generated new interest in Hoover’s life and work.
Andrew Simpson, a historian at History Associates Inc., and a 2009 GW graduate with a master’s degree in history, is the author of “Schooling J. Edgar: The Shaping of Hoover’s Legal Philosophy at The George Washington University,” an article published in Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies in fall 2009. Mr. Simpson spoke to George Washington Today about Hoover’s time as a GW student, including how he fared in his Constitutional Law course, his social life on campus and how his GW years may have helped shape his worldview.
Q: Give us a short summary of Hoover’s time at GW. Why was it an important period in his life?
A: He started at GW as a law student in fall 1913, after graduating from Central High School, in Washington, D.C., as valedictorian. Hoover went to GW so he could help support his family by working as a clerk at the Library of Congress, and he took his classes at night. That wasn’t unusual—but he went right to law school, without going to college first.
Technically, GW required a college education for law school admission starting in 1909, but they didn’t enforce it until 1920. Hoover earned an L.L.B., which is a bachelor of laws degree, in 1916, and then did one extra year, earning an L.L.M.—equivalent to a master’s in law—in 1917. He passed the bar exam on July 25, 1917, and began his job at the Justice Department the next day. And he never left—he was there for next 55 years, with 48 as director (first of the Bureau of Investigation and later of the Federal Bureau of Investigation).
It was a significant time for Hoover. He was 18 years old, a time of personal transformation. It was also a tumultuous time—Hoover was in law school when World War I started in Europe in 1914, when the Lusitania sank, and when German saboteurs were suspected of engineering a huge explosion in New York Harbor in 1916. There was lots of suspicion and anti-immigrant and anti-subversive sentiment, particularly after the U.S. entered the war in 1917. It’s very interesting, in light of what we know he turned out to be.
His early career was sort of shaped around these ideas that there were people out there whose political ideas and sometimes actions were a threat to the United States. And Hoover was investigating them, and became an authority. In 1917, at only age 22, he was head of the [Department of Justice’s] Alien Enemy Bureau.
None of this can be considered causal, of course, but it’s still interesting. That’s why I was so surprised that so many Hoover biographers jump over this part of his life with only a paragraph or two.
Q: Did Hoover participate in any sort of social scene at GW?
A: He was a member of Kappa Alpha fraternity. A Kappa Alpha Journal from 1919 said he was treasurer of the D.C. chapter. That would have been two years after his graduation, so he stayed involved with it. In my research, I did find that a former classmate had described him as “slim, dark and intense,” someone who “always had the answers.” “None of us got to know him well,” the former classmate wrote. So it’s really tough to say what he was like socially.
Q: What do you think people might be most surprised to know about Hoover during his student years?
A: I can tell you what surprised me: his grades. I got ahold of his transcript. Hoover got low B’s in Criminal Law and Procedure and in Constitutional Law—particularly interesting since he spent his life at Justice and was involved in what many would say were significant civil liberty infringements. He didn’t get any A’s the first year.
He was a smart guy—he’d been valedictorian in high school. Was he just tired, exhausted from working long hours at the Library of Congress before taking classes and then studying at night? Maybe it was just a different type of work from what he was used to? His highest grade was in Bankruptcy, where he earned something like 98 percent in his final semester at GW.
Of course, you can’t just look at a transcript and say, “This is what mattered to him,” but it was the time when he was absorbing the legal foundation for what he would work with for the rest of his life.
Q: Is anything known about Hoover's feelings about his education—whether he valued or enjoyed his time at GW, or just looked at it as means to reach his goals?
A: I didn’t find anything specifically about that. I’d say that even if his grades weren’t great, looking at his law school notebooks shows that he was very meticulous and took school very seriously. If he didn’t get everything about a certain case on a page, it bothered him, and he would paste in extra paper strips so everything was all in one place.
Q: Do you know anything about Hoover’s time as a member of GW’s Board of Trustees, from 1935 until his death?
A: My guess is that he probably didn’t have time to be very involved with the university. Maybe it was an honorary position. The date when he started as a trustee—1935—doesn’t surprise me. The 1930s were when the Bureau of Investigation became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was transformed from an investigative agency to one that could go out and make arrests, when the agents began to carry weapons. This was the age of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and other very famous criminals. Hoover was a master at public relations. So the fact that GW would choose that time to recognize him to be on the board doesn’t surprise me at all.