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.
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.
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.
Some recent presidential historians have given Harding new life, highlighting his economic and foreign policy achievements, some of which are credited with laying the foundation for the decade's remarkable economic boom. Revisionist historians also stress that he was a hardworking president who played a much larger role than previously assumed in shepherding legislation through Congress.
Coolidge in Charge
Vice President Calvin Coolidge would become president following Harding's death. Coolidge came across as rustic and unassuming, the opposite of Harding's corruption. Coolidge had the Gilded Age approach to government, in that he let Congress do most of the work of government. People liked Coolidge, and his quiet demeanor led him to be referred to as 'Silent Cal.' In turn, he was the Republican choice for president in 1924. The Democrats had kind of self-destructed at this point of the decade, and the party chose conservative democrat John Davis of Virginia. The nation followed the campaign slogan for the Republicans and 'kept cool with Coolidge.'
Coolidge was a pro-business president that mirrored the sentiment of the decade. Big business ruled and prosperity followed. The middle class of the decade, at one time the backbone of the progressive movement, now turned to the conservatism of Coolidge and the Republican Party. As annual incomes rose under his presidency, more Americans had a little extra money, and with innovations in technology, more leisure time to spend it. Politics of the decade quickly became associated with a robust culture of business, advertising and consumerism, making it truly the 'roaring '20s'.
Upon finishing this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Describe William Harding's election, including the reason for his campaign slogan
- Summarize the Teapot Dome and other scandals of Harding's administration
- Discuss Calvin Coolidge's presidency