Today, the Hearst family conjure up an image of success, wealth and opulence. Most well known for the vast media empire they built (and that still bears their name!) the Hearst family are arguably also the most powerful family in American politics!
Their media empire is how they’ve gained there political clout – and arguably helped to make the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes the political dynasties they are today!
Origins of The Family
Due to the lack of surviving historical records, the exact origins of the modern-day Hearst family aren’t known. With what limited records remain, there are two main theories about the family’s origins.
The first is that the family were originally of Ulster Protestant origin, who migrated to the New World during the Cahans Exodus of the mid-1760’s.
According to this theory, the Hearsts were a part of the Presbyterian movement in Ballybay, County Monaghan, Ireland who migrated westward under the leadership of Reverend Doctor Thomas Clark, who believed the New World was the land promised in the Bible.
Prior to their departure, Reverend Doctor Clark had secured each of the followers that followed him a parcel of land from the British Crown in either New York or South Carolina (depending on where they went).
If historical records are to then be believed, the family’s earliest ancestor, John Hearst, arrived in South Carolina and became farmers.
The other major theory is that the Hearst family are actually an offshoot of a “Hurst” family from Virginia (originally from Plymouth Colony) that moved to South Carolina in the mid-1760’s.
Arriving in South Carolina, the family began going by “Hearst” to distinguish themselves from their Virginian cousins. Here, the Hearst family similarly became farmers.
Despite compelling evidence for both, most genealogists tend to agree that the Hearst family’s origins are those of the first theory.
Enter Senator George Hearst
Regardless of their origins, the family eventually moved to the Missouri Territory sometime before 1820. On September 3rd that year, George Hearst was born to William G. Hearst and his wife, Elizabeth Hearst (née Collins).
Likely the eldest of three children (records differ), George became interested in mining at a young age after reading mining books owned by the family’s doctor, Silas Reed.
When William G. Hearst died in 1846, George became the man of the house, running the general store previously owned by his father and doing mining in his downtime. Hearing of the discovery of gold in California in 1849, George soon relocated the family.
Arriving in California in 1850, George spent his first few years in the state (California became a state that year) struggling to make ends meet, before making a series of strategic moves that made him a fortune as a rancher, mine owner and general store owner.
Due to his prosperity, George Hearst soon became an important figure in his local area. Hoping to capitalize on this, George ran for, and was elected to, the California State Assembly in 1864, serving from 1865 to 1866 following, the end of the Civil War.
Leaving the State Assembly to focus on his business, George eventually ran for the governorship of California in 1882, albeit unsuccessfully.
Despite this, Hearst raised his notoriety across the state, which allowed him to become a temporary Senator in 1886 after the surprise death of John F. Miller on March 23 1886. George served as the temporary Senator from March 23 to August 4 1886.
Running for Miller’s seat, George lost to fellow businessman, Abram P. Williams. Undeterred, Hearst ran again in 1887 and was elected to the US Senate representing California, serving from 1887 until 1891.
Enter William Randolph Hearst
Remaining unmarried for much of his business career, a 39 year-old George Hearst met and fell in love with his neighbor, 16 year-old Phoebe Apperson, in 1860. The couple married two years later, on June 15 1862.
Following the wedding, the Hearst couple moved to San Francisco so George could further his political (be elected to the California State Assembly).
On April 29 1863, Phoebe gave birth to the couple’s first (and only) child, who they named William Randolph Hearst, named in honor of both his grandfathers.
At the age of 24, in 1887 William Randolph Hearst was given control of the San Francisco Examiner, the local newspaper his father had acquired seven years earlier, in 1880, to settle a gambling debt owed to him.
Being given control of the San Francisco Examiner proved to be the beginning of the Hearst family’s media empire, today known as Hearst Communications.
Having grown his newspaper empire considerably over the late 1880’s and 1890’s, William Randolph Hearst begun a decades-long rivalry with fellow newspaper magnate, Joseph Pulitzer (the namesake of the Pulitzer Prize).
Competing with each other for readers (as they owned many newspapers that directly competed with each other), both Hearst and Pulitzer began to employ what’s now called “yellow journalism” – extreme sensationalism and blatant lies used to sell papers.
Needing newsworthy events to sensationalize and blow completely out of proportion, both Pulitzer and Hearst began provoking outrage at Spain, who still controlled places like Puerto Rico and Cuba as a part of their colonia empire.
Provoking outrage at how American tourists were being treated in Havana (with one cartoon depicting male Spanish soldiers strip searching a female American tourist) and the Spanish handling of the 1895 Cuban War of Independence, Hearst made Spain seem like a threat to democracy.
With all the major working-class papers in New York (those owned by both Pulitzer and Hearst) covering these so-called Spanish atrocities, it wasn’t long before the American public was calling for a war against Spain.
The sinking of the USS Maine at Havana Harbor on February 14 1898 served as the catalyst for war with Spain. Angered at what they saw as a declaration of war, the US declared war on Spain on April 21 that year, thus starting the Spanish-American War.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Spanish-American resulted in a resounding American victory, with record numbers of men enlisting in the war, mostly due to being angered after reading about Spanish atrocities in one of Hearst’s papers.
As a result of the war, Puerto Rico became a territory US and Cuba became independent, but remained close politically and economically to the US (something that continued until Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959).
Having run several unsuccessful political campaigns from the mid-1900’s to the late 1900’s, Hearst abstained from politics throughout the 1910’s, hoping to focus on his ever-expanding media empire instead.
As the 1920 Presidential Election drew near, Hearst forbade his newspapers from endorsing either candidate, disliking both the Harding-Coolidge and Cox-Roosevelt tickets. This was also repeated in 1924 with the Coolidge-Dawes and Davis-Bryan tickets too.
In 1922, backed by the leaders of Tammany Hall and the Hearst media empire, William Randolph Hearst ran for the US Senate nomination in New York. Gearing up for his campaign, former Governor of New York, Al Smith, vetoed Heart’s nomination.
Understandably annoyed, William returned to head his media empire with the intention to ruin Al Smith’s career.
Due to timings, Hearst was unable to affect the outcome of the 1922 Gubernatorial Election in New York, which resulted in Smith’s re-election that year (he’d previously served as Governor from 1919 to 1920 before losing to Nathan L. Miller during the 1922 election).
Smith proved to be popular, repealing New York’s prohibition laws (a cause Hearst actually supported) and being re-elected in both 1924 and 1926, much to Hearst’s frustration. 1928, however, would prove to be a big year for Al Smith.
That year, he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, facing off against the Republican’s candidate, Herbert Hoover. Hearst, saw his chance to get revenge.
Although his politics were closer to Smith than Hoover, Hearst’s hatred of Smith far outweighed anything political.
Every single Hearst-owned newspaper, radio station and magazine covered the election. Presenting Hoover in a glowing light, Hearst’s empire presented Smith, a half-Irish, half-Italian Catholic in an extremely bad light, attacking his ancestry, his policies and just about everything else!
Not surprisingly, Smith struggled to gain votes and only carried eight states out of 48, earning only 87 votes in the electoral college.
Having helped Hoover become president in 1928, Hearst was one of Hoover’s biggest allies in the first part of his presidency, even as effects of the 1929 Stock Market Crash intensified, and the US entered a recession.
However, this recession soon became so worse it became a depression. Whilst Hearst’s businesses had been mostly unaffected by the recession, the depression wrought havoc on his company’s finances.
Not surprisingly, Hearst soon turned on Hoover, who was extremely laissez-faire about the depression as a whole.
Coming to the 1932 Presidential Election, Hearst threw his full support behind the Democrats, after the Republicans announced that Hoover would be their candidate.
Discovering that Al Smith was once again running for the Democratic nomination, Hearst saw another opportunity to humiliate Smith. Learning that New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt was running against Smith, Hearst made sure that Roosevelt won the nomination.
Naturally, Roosevelt won the nomination in a landslide, winning 34 contests to Smith’s four.
Facing off against incumbent President Hoover in the election, Hearst personally penned several articles in favor of FDR (under pen names obviously), ordering the editors of his various papers to do the same.
By the time the election came in November, the Hearst papers had whipped the American public into such a frenzy that FDR won in a landslide, carrying 42 states compared to Hoover’s six, and winning 472 electoral votes compared to Hoover’s 59!
Much like he did with President Hoover, Hearst became FDR’s most prominent supporter. Covering FDR’s early presidency closely, the Hearst papers (at William Randolph Hearst’s direction) made it seem like FDR was singlehandedly stopping the depression.
Everything looked great for FDR. The people loved him, the depression seemed to be lifting, and he had one of the most powerful media moguls in history as his closest ally.
As they say, all good things must come to an end. And that end came in 1935.
That years previously, FDR enacted what he called the New Deal, a radical plan for government spending that FDR hoped would pull the US out of the Great Depression.
Initially believing it was necessary to help his now failing business (Hearst had borrowed lots of money over the 1920’s to expand his empire), Hearst broke with FDR in 1935 when the president raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, like himself, to fund the New Deal.
Using his newspapers as his weapon, Hearst ordered his papers to begin writing scathing articles on the New Deal and FDR himself, arguing that the tax increases on the richest Americans were a “tax on success” – an argument still used today!
Hearst even penned a few of these articles himself.
Ironically, Hearst had spent years telling the working classes in America that FDR was the only man in Washington who was fighting for them. When he began attacking FDR, many of his readers simply didn’t listen.
Despite this, Hearst continued to use his papers to oppose FDR during the 1936, 1940 and 1944 presidential elections, albeit unsuccessfully. Hearst was also one of the first to decry FDR as a dictator by breaking tradition and running a third and fourth time.
Unlike when he wrote tirades against the New Deal, many actually listened to what Hearst said about FDR being a dictator, eventually leading lawmakers to pass the Twenty-second Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, in 1947.
Marijuana Ban (1937)
In the early 1930’s, marijuana (and hemp as a whole) became a popular recreational drug among the country’s youth.
Whilst Hearst wasn’t opposed to the idea of people getting high per se (other drugs like cocaine and morphine had been used recreationally in the US for centuries before being made illegal in the 20th century), Hearst was alarmed at threat it posed to his business.
You see, in the 1930’s, the paper used to make marijuana cigarettes was the same as the paper used to make newsprint (what newspapers are printed on).
Realizing that if marijuana became more popular, it would cause demand for newsprint paper to skyrocket (and thus eat into his profits, as well as his market share in the paper milling industry), Hearst knew he needed to kill the hemp industry in the crib.
To do this, Hearst partnered with Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to turn public opinion against the consumption of marijuana, and ultimately, criminalize it.
Beginning their campaign in 1930, Hearst began running editorials about how young black men were consuming marijuana and committing crimes.
Using his yellow-journalism technique, Hearst often made these crimes sound much worse than they actually were.
Combined with his editorials, Hearst also used his various film production companies to insinuate that young white girls were going to consume marijuana and have sex with young black men (or that black men were going to take advantage of her).
Regardless, interracial relationships of any kind were a social taboo, and Hearst knew how to exploit it.
After seven years of work, the federal government finally managed to criminalize marijuana in 1937, with it staying illegal until 2018. This in turn, has led to a variety of sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues far too long to get into here…
As the head of one of the most prominent media empires history has ever seen, William Randolph Hearst was a prominent member of East Coast society, regularly rubbing arms with fellow businessmen, politicians and military elites.
Continued Political Influence
Hearst Family Today
How influential do you think the Hearst family truly are? More or less than the Kennedys? Tell me in the comments!