Republican ascendancy: politics in the 1920s

With the waning of the Progressive Era, the political landscape of Republican presidents like Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge emphasized business interests.

Overview

  • After World War I, Americans were ready for “a return to normalcy." Republican President Warren Harding offered them just that.
  • Under the guidance of his big-business backers, Harding’s policies supported businesses at home and isolation from foreign affairs.
  • After Harding's death in 1923, Calvin Coolidge continued his policy legacy in much the same vein.
  • The Teapot Dome scandal was the bribery scandal involving Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall in 1923.

Politics in the 1920s

The election of 1920 saw the weakening of the Democratic Party. The death of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’s ill health meant the passing of a generation of Progressive leaders. The waning of the Red Scare took with it the last vestiges of Progressive zeal, and Wilson’s support of the League of Nations turned Irish and German immigrants against the Democrats. Americans were tired of reform, tired of witch hunts, and were more than ready for a return to “normalcy.”
Above all, the 1920s signaled a return to a pro-business government—almost a return to the laissez-faire economic policy of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
Laissez-faire economics, from the French "Let them do [what they want]," is an economic theory that government should regulate financial markets as little as possible.
Calvin Coolidge’s statement that “the chief business of the American people is business” became the dominant attitude.

Warren Harding and the return to normalcy

In the election of 1920, professional Republicans were eager to nominate a man whom they could manage and control. Warren G. Harding, a senator from Ohio, was just such a man. Before his nomination, Harding stated, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.”
Harding was genial and affable, but not everyone appreciated his speeches. Democratic presidential-hopeful William Gibbs McAdoo described Harding’s speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea." H. L. Mencken, the great social critic of the 1920s, wrote of Harding’s speaking, “It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the top-most pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
Harding was known for enjoying golf, alcohol, and poker—not necessarily in that order. Although his critics depicted him as weak, lazy, or incompetent, he was actually quite shrewd and politically astute. Together with his running mate—Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts—they attracted the votes of many Americans who sought Harding’s promised return to normalcy. In the election, Harding defeated Governor James Cox of Ohio by the greatest majority in the history of two-party politics: 61% of the popular vote.
Photograph of Warren Harding in 1919.
Warren G. Harding in 1919. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Harding’s cabinet reflected his pro-business agenda. Herbert Hoover, a millionaire mechanical engineer and miner, became his Secretary of Commerce. Hoover had served as head of the relief effort for Belgium during World War I and had helped to feed those in Russia and Germany after the war ended. He was a very effective administrator, seeking to limit inefficiency in the government and promoting partnerships between government and businesses.
Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, was also a pro-business multimillionaire with a fortune built in banking and aluminum. Even more so than Hoover, Mellon entered public service with a strong sense that government should run as efficiently as any business, famously writing that “the Government is just a business, and can and should be run on business principles.”
Consistent with his principles of running government with business-like efficiency, Harding proposed and signed into law tax rate cuts as well as the country’s first formal budgeting process, which created a presidential budget director and required that the president submit an annual budget to Congress. These policies helped to reduce the debt that the United States had incurred during World War I. However, as Europe began to recover, US exports to the continent dwindled. In an effort to protect US agriculture and other businesses threatened by lower-priced imports, Harding pushed through the Emergency Tariff of 1921. This defensive tariff had the effect of increasing American purchasing power, although it also inflated the prices of many goods.
In the area of foreign policy, Harding worked to preserve the peace through international cooperation and the reduction of armaments around the world. Despite the refusal of the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Harding was able to work with Germany and Austria to secure a formal peace. He convened a conference in Washington that brought world leaders together to agree on reducing the threat of future wars by reducing armaments. Out of these negotiations came a number of treaties designed to foster cooperation in the Far East, reduce the size of navies around the world, and establish guidelines for submarine usage.
These agreements ultimately fell apart in the 1930s, as the world descended into war again. But, at the time, they were seen as a promising path to maintaining the peace.

Scandal in the Harding administration

Despite these developments, the Harding administration has gone down in history as one that was especially ridden with scandal. While Harding was personally honest, he surrounded himself with politicians who weren’t. Harding made the mistake of often turning to unscrupulous advisors or even his “Ohio Gang” of drinking and poker buddies for advice and guidance. As he himself recognized, this group tended to cause him grief. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” he once commented. “I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends . . . they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
The scandals mounted quickly. From 1920 to 1923, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was involved in a scam that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall had leased navy reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and two other sites in California to private oil companies without opening the bidding to other companies. In exchange, the companies gave him $300,000 in cash and bonds as well as a herd of cattle for his ranch. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies; he was fined $100,000 and sentenced to a year in prison. It was the first time that a cabinet official had received such a sentence.
Photograph of Teapot Rock, near the Teapot Dome oil fields.
Teapot Rock in Wyoming, near the oil fields at the heart of the Teapot Dome scandal. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 1923, Harding also learned that the head of the Veterans’ Bureau, Colonel Charles Forbes, had absconded with most of the $250 million set aside for extravagant bureau functions. Harding allowed Forbes to resign and leave the country; however, after the president died, Forbes returned and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.
Although the Harding presidency had a number of large successes and variety of dark scandals, it ended before the first term was up. In July 1923, while traveling in Seattle, the president suffered a heart attack. On August 2, in his weakened condition, he suffered a stroke and died in San Francisco, leaving the presidency to his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. As for Harding, few presidents were so deeply mourned by the populace. His kindly nature and ability to poke fun at himself had endeared him to the public.

What do you think?

Do you think laissez-faire policies ultimately helped or harmed the American economy? Why?
Explain in your own words what Harding's campaign slogan "a return to normalcy" meant. Why do you think it was effective?
Do you think Harding was a good president? Why or why not?

Attribution

This article is a modified derivative of "Republican Ascendancy: Politics in the 1920s" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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