In 1923, the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding became embroiled in the Teapot Dome Scandal, one of many examples of corruption during his tenure. Learn about the scandal and test your knowledge with a quiz.
The Harding Presidency
Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States from 1921 to 1923 is one of America's most colorful presidents. He wrote amorous love letters to his mistress, drank and gambled in the White House and, as his Secretary of Commerce and future president Herbert Hoover admitted, he was not 'a man with either the experience or the intellectual quality that the position needed.' Nor could the President, the Secretary continued, control the 'terrible corruption by his playmates.' The Teapot Dome Scandal of 1923 was the worst of many political scandals of Harding's tenure and of the 1920s in general.
Elected in 1920, Harding, a congressman from Ohio, was one of the three Republican presidents of the decade, and each touted limited government and conservative policies on tariffs, taxes, immigration restriction, and labor. Harding and his successors also promoted American business. Harding called for a 'return to normalcy,' which meant support for the pursuit of private profit, and his vice president proclaimed, 'The chief business of the American people is business.' The U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted, 'Never before, here or anywhere else, has a government been so completely fused with business.'
The Teapot Dome Scandal
Unfortunately, this emphasis on unregulated business activity merged with Harding's propensity for handing out government jobs to his friends, which were referred to as the 'Ohio gang.' One of these men, Harding's Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, used Teapot Dome, a government-owned oil field in Wyoming, to enrich himself. Teapot Dome was supposed to be set aside to ensure warships always had a predictable supply of fuel. But then in the early 1920s the Department of the Interior took control of the oil field from the Department of the Navy. Secretary Fall was deeply in debt and years overdue in paying taxes, and so he concocted a scheme. He handed out and approved generous federal contracts to his close friends who were also head executives of powerful oil companies. So, instead of Teapot Dome being used as a backup source of fuel for the U.S. Navy, Fall used his connections to illegally sell access to the oil field. These bribes brought Secretary Fall over $400,000, which is equal to several million dollars today.
The Teapot Dome Scandal came to light soon after Harding died in office, in 1923. Secretary Albert Fall was convicted of conspiracy and bribery and sentenced to year in prison. He became the first cabinet official to serve time as result of misconduct in office. Harding's successor, his vice president Calvin Coolidge, was determined to restore a semblance of honesty and integrity to the White House, so he appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate corruption in the Harding administration.
This commission found that Teapot Dome wasn't the only scandal to mar Harding's tenure. The investigation showed that Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty accepted bribes and the head of the Veterans Bureau looted medical and hospital supplies. Ultimately, three of Harding's appointees went to jail.
The Teapot Dome Scandal came to symbolize the close relations between big business and the government that characterized the 1920s. The economy during the decade, though, was so prosperous that Teapot Dome was less a setback than it might have been under different circumstances. Though it isn't all that clear how much President Harding knew of Teapot Dome, he certainly recognized corruption existed in his administration. He told a journalist, 'My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies; I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends. . . They're the ones that keep me walking the floor at nights!'
The 1920s was a decade focused on American business and the pursuit of profit. A corrupt cabinet official in the administration of President Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, used his connections to oil companies to sell access to government land, or the Teapot Dome, which was a government-owned oil field in Wyoming. For these bribes in the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall went to jail. Teapot Dome became synonymous with political corruption, and later spurred investigators to uncover even more government wrongdoing during Harding's term as president. It also came to symbolize the potentially problematic closeness of government and big business during the tumultuous decade of the 1920s.