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American Politics in the 1920s: Transition, Corruption & the Teapot Dome Scandal

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  • 0:05 New President, New Decade
  • 1:46 Normalcy
  • 2:43 Teapot Dome
  • 4:12 Coolidge in Charge
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
Americans looked forward to the start of a new decade in 1920. They also looked for a president that would ease their fears and return the nation to 'normal,' but big business and corruption would come to symbolize politics of the decade.

New President, New Decade

The year 1920 not only marked the start of a new and promising decade for America, it was a year Americans would choose a new president. President Woodrow Wilson had been elected four years earlier largely with the help of reform-minded progressives who promised just that - progress. By the time of the 1920 election, most of the progressive reform initiatives had been realized. The 18th Amendment had been passed, outlawing alcohol, and the 19th Amendment, passed early that year, gave the vote to all citizens. World War I and the anxiety created in its aftermath by flu epidemics and leftist radical violence left Americans focused on everything but further progressive reforms.

The Republican candidate for president in 1920, Warren Harding, would put the feelings of America into one simple slogan. He promised a 'return to normalcy.' Harding really caught the mood of the times with this mantra as Americans, desperate to feel normal again after the turmoil of the previous years, turned away from activism. Harding was not an enthusiastic man, but he had no real political enemies. He was the perfect candidate for the party. His running mate would be Calvin Coolidge, who had won popular attention as Governor of Massachusetts for his opposition to the Boston Police Strike a year earlier.

Wilson had already served two terms, and while no laws prevented him from running again, he had neither the will nor good health to challenge the two-term tradition. The Democrats chose Ohio Governor James Cox and a young New Yorker named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the vice presidential candidate. Harding easily won the election, taking 404 electoral votes to just 127 for Cox.

Normalcy?

Many presidential historians compare Harding's presidency to that of Ulysses S. Grant. Harding's cabinet, like Grant's, had some of the best minds and some of the worst. Harding quickly established a pro-business tone and called for a 'new era of prosperity for America.' Tax cuts were made to bring the nation out of the brief, but impacting, post-war slump and a more lenient attitude towards government oversight of corporations was adopted. Regulatory agencies created during the Progressive Era remained but were rendered ineffective.

Like Grant, Harding is remembered for scandal more than any of his policies. Three years after being elected, Harding learned that an official in the Veterans Bureau was stealing medical and hospital supplies and selling them for profit. The official fled to Europe and resigned. Harding's General Counsel committed suicide, and a close friend of the Attorney General shot himself. The Attorney General himself was accused of mishandling German assets that were seized during World War I.

Teapot Dome

The most notable scandal of Harding's administration was the Teapot Dome scandal. Like other presidential scandals, such as Watergate during the 1970s, Teapot Dome became a catchword of the day, synonymous with wide-reaching corruption. Teapot Dome was an oil deposit in Wyoming put aside as a natural reserve and administered by the Department of the Interior, controlled by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.

Rather than look after it, Fall allowed oil companies to drill at Teapot Dome. Fall would later comment that he did what was in the best interest of the government, but he had done all of this in secret. Fall was suspected of wrongdoing when his standard of living began to rise. It was later learned Fall was desperate for money after losing his mining interests in Mexico during the revolution there.

President Harding himself was able to largely avoid public humiliation, but the stress of the corruption being uncovered in his administration took its toll. In 1923 he suffered a massive heart attack and did not survive. After his death, scandal associated with his administration was paraded through the press, from Teapot Dome to his affair in which he and his lover were discovered in a White House closet.

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