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Politics During the 1920s Previous Next
Digital History ID 3392


The expansion of government activities during World War I was reversed during the 1920s. Government efforts to break-up trusts and regulate business practices gave way to a new emphasis on partnerships between government and business.

In 1920, an Ohio political operator named Harry Daugherty offered a prediction about what would happen at that year's Republican presidential nominating convention:

The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some 12 or 15 men, worn out and bleary eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about 2 o'clock in the morning around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination. When the time comes, [Warren] Harding will be nominated.

Daugherty was right. In 1920, a divided Republican convention selected Harding, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, as its presidential nominee.

Harding's presidency is best known for a series of scandals that marred his time in office. But he also had some genuine accomplishments. He pardoned the imprisoned Socialist party leader, Eugene Debs, and persuaded the steel industry to end the 12-hour day and replace it with an 8-hour day. Harding also called an international disarmament conference in Washington that slowed down the arms race. At the end of the conference, a treaty was signed. The treaty provided that, for every five battleships that the United States and Britain were each allowed to build, the Japanese could build three ships, and the Italians and the French could each build one-and-three-quarters ships.

The son of a poor Ohio farmer, Harding spent two years at a rural academy, Ohio Central College, and received a diploma at the age of 16. He taught school and sold insurance for several years before he bought a local newspaper. He guaranteed the newspaper’s success by mentioning every town resident in the paper at least twice a year. Harding described his editorial policy as "inoffensivism." He later entered Republican politics, rising from lieutenant governor to U.S. Senator before being nominated for the presidency.

Harding made few major pronouncements during the campaign. The Republican Party followed an associate's advice: "Keep Warren at home. If he goes out on tour, somebody's sure to ask him questions, and Warren's just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them." Harding largely confined his speeches to uncontroversial platitudes about the need to avoid moral crusades and return to "normalcy":

America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity....

Harding had few illusions about his qualifications for the presidency. "I am a man of limited talents from a small town," he said. He appointed a number of sleazy and corrupt officials to office. His administration was marred by scandals involving bribes and kickbacks at the Justice Department and the Veterans Bureau. After his sudden death from a stroke in 1923, his administration's biggest scandal, known as the Teapot Dome, was revealed. His Interior Secretary, Albert B. Fall, was sent to prison for accepting $360,000 in bribes for transferring U.S. naval oil reserves in Wyoming to oil operators in exchange for above ground petroleum storage. Private oil companies were also draining oil from federal lands.

Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president after Harding's death. Coolidge had come to national attention in 1919, when, as governor of Massachusetts, he broke the Boston police strike after declaring: "there is no right to strike against the public interest, anytime, anywhere."

Coolidge’s well-deserved nickname was "Silent Cal." Some acquaintances wagered whether they could make him say more than two words. His answer: "You lose." During the 1924 presidential race, reporters asked him whether he had any statement about the campaign. "No," he replied. He was then asked whether he had anything to say about the world situation. "No," he answered. Did he have anything to say about Prohibition? "No." Then he told the reporters, "Now remember, don't quote me." At the end of his presidency, he was asked whether he had a farewell message for the American people, he paused and said, "Good-bye."

Coolidge slept ten hours a night, napped every afternoon, and seldom worked more than four hours a day. He spoke out ardently on behalf of the nation's business culture. "The man who builds a factory builds a temple," said Coolidge. "The man who works there, worships there." The president was convinced that the formula for economic prosperity was simple: "The chief business of the American people is business. If government kept its hands off the economy, business would prosper.”

Among the most notable acts of his presidency were vetoes of bills to assist farmers in developing government power plants along the Tennessee River. The best known accomplishment of his presidency was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international agreement outlawing the use of force to settle international disputes. Embodying the anti-war sentiment of the 1920s, this agreement lacked any methods of enforcement.

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