With the end of World War I, America was ready to “return to normalcy” with President Warren G. Harding. That also meant the end of the Progressive Era and a resurgence of conservatism. Let’s see how the Roaring ’20s got their start!
The Last Four Years
America’s role in ending World War I proved to be more divisive than Wilson had planned. The Senate rejected the League of Nations, and consequently, the Treaty of Versailles. This meant that Harding and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (also the 1916 Republican presidential candidate) still had to form treaties with the Central Powers. To the thrill of isolationists, the new treaties were ratified without granting admission to the League in 1921. To prevent further international conflict, Harding’s administration helped re-negotiate European debt owed from the war. Thanks to the Dawes Plan, created by US banker Charles G. Dawes, Germany was allowed to stagger its reparation payments. A circular payment system resulted as Germany borrowed money from American banks to pay reparations to Western Europe, who used the money to pay back their wartime loans to the US, who lent more money to Germany. These loans linked German industry to American banks. For his work on the plan, Dawes won the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize. Lastly, with the Washington Naval Conference, Harding’s administration successfully led a naval disarmament between the US, Britain, and Japan.
When it came to economic recovery, Harding relied on his conservative beliefs. As a true Republican, he cut income tax and increased tariffs. But Harding separated himself from the progressive faction of his party by being pro-big-business. He also cut taxes for corporations. He instructed the Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, and Interstate Commerce Commission to cooperate with businesses, rather than regulate or trust-bust. Thankfully, the economy slowly improved.
Although segregation continued, President Harding was more willing to address African American issues than Wilson had been. In a speech to a crowd of Southerners, he advocated for equality and condemned lynching. Despite this awareness of racial issues, Harding was tough on immigration. Under the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, the annual immigration for a given nationality could not exceed 3% of the number of immigrants of that nationality residing in the US in 1910. This primarily targeted Eastern and Southern Europeans, who were still recovering from the war and more likely to be Democrats. One area where Harding was more forgiving was with antiwar protesters. Wilson had passed harsh laws restricting speech against the US. Although Harding did not offer a blanket pardon, he did instruct his Justice Department to review cases individually. The most notable beneficiary of the pardon was Socialist Eugene Debs, who ran for president in 1920 from prison.
So far, Harding was perceived as a relatively successful president, but there were many secrets beneath the surface. In opposition to the conservative values he espoused, Harding smoked, drank, and gambled in the White House. He was a bad judge of character and was known for his inability to say no. Many of his closest advisors, the dastardly “ohio gang,” took advantage of this. Never trust an ohioan! The three most notable scandals came from the Justice Department, the Veterans Bureau, and the Department of the Interior. Harding’s Attorney General, and former campaign manager, Harry Daugherty received a personal payout while confiscating a company owned by German nationals. The Director of the Veterans Bureau, Charles Forbes, took money from construction contractors and illegally sold hospital supplies. Finally, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall allowed private companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming in exchange for bribes.
Hoping to escape the stress and corruption of Washington, DC, Harding and his wife took a tour of the Western US in 1923. The trip also offered a head start on the upcoming election. While traveling, however, the president started feeling ill. He was rushed to San Francisco by train. On August 2nd, he died from a heart attack.
Vice President Calvin Coolidge was subsequently sworn in as the new president. Coolidge had earned the moniker “Silent Cal” by being a man of few words. Per White House lore, a dinner guest once exclaimed, “I bet I could get you to say more than two words!” Coolidge simply responded, “You lose.” Coolidge’s subdued lifestyle was in stark contrast to the scandalous Harding administration. Coolidge kept the same cabinet, but fully cooperated with Senate investigations on the recently-revealed corruption. He oversaw the resignation of Harding’s worst advisors.
Laddie Boy Pause!
President Harding’s terrier, Laddie Boy, was the first famous presidential pet! He was a regular guest at White House functions and was adored by the press. His comings and goings were often the subject of news headlines. Laddie Boy joined the president on golf trips, had birthday parties, and even had his own seat in cabinet meetings! When Harding died, Laddie Boy was given to his favorite Secret Service agent and lived out the rest of his life with a nice family in Boston.
Scandals aside, Harding’s economic conservatism had put the American economy back on the right track. Most Americans hoped the next president would continue the job he started.
Party Watch & The Candidates
In classic Coolidge-style, Republican convention was infamously boring. Actor Will Rogers joked that Cleveland, the host city, should open up its churches to liven things up. Luckily, President Coolidge was not implicated in the scandals of his predecessor. He had a reputation for honesty and remained popular, thanks to the improved economy. Although he did receive challenges from progressive Senators Hiram Johnson and Robert La Follette, Coolidge was re-nominated on the first ballot. His running mate was Dawes Plan planner Charles Dawes. Unlike Coolidge, Dawes was known to be hot-headed. His nickname was “Hell ‘n Maria,” thanks to a war expenditures hearing where he yelled out, “Hell and Maria, we weren’t trying to keep a set of books over there, we were trying to win a war!” The Republican platform focused on the economy, reducing the national debt, and restricting immigration.
While the Republican convention went smoothly, the Democratic convention was one of the most contested of all time. The party was split between urban Easterners and rural Westerners and Southerners. After four days of intense debate, the platform committee recommended NOT to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, which had been gaining popularity. This move was seconded by an aging William Jennings Bryan, so as to not magnify the group’s importance and to not scare away Southerners. He was booed by Eastern delegates. After several more hours, the KKK mention was defeated by one vote and replaced with a more general condemnation of attempts to limit the constitutional liberties of others. Choosing a nominee did not prove to be any easier. Easterners favored the Catholic Governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith. Rural delegates supported Wilson’s Secretary of Treasury, and son-in-law, William G. McAdoo. The convention saw the most ballots, the most committee meetings, and the most fist fight of all time! On the ninth day, Smith and McAdoo finally released their delegates. After 103(!) ballots, the party settled on John W. Davis, a New York lawyer from West Virginia. Davis was Wilson’s Solicitor General and served as Ambassador to Britain. He was a conservative with connections to Wall Street, but Democrats hoped that his Wet Virginian roots could appeal to Southerners, too. The ticket was balanced with William Jennings Bryan’s brother, Charles, the progressive Governor of Nebraska.
Unhappy with the choice between two conservative candidates, dissenters from both parties joined to form a new Progressive Party. Although they shared many policies, and even some members, they were technically not a continuation of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose Party of 1912. The Progressives appealed to poor farmers and union laborers. Their nominee was popular Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. At almost 70 years old, La Follette had been a strong, progressive force in local and national politics for decades. In 1912, he challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, but controversially, did not endorse Roosevelt’s third party run. Under Wilson, La Follette became one of the president’s harshest critics, particularly on foreign policy. Throughout his career, and as a candidate, he called for government ownership of large industries, utilities, and railroads. The Progressive Party did not intend for La Follette to win the presidency outright, but instead aimed to prevent an electoral college victory for Coolidge or Davis, which would allow the House of Representatives to make the final decision. La Follette hoped to “break the power of the private monopolistic system over the economic and political life of the American people.” For vice president, the Progressives nominated a Democrat, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler. The ticket also earned the endorsement of Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party.
Democrats faced a tough battle against Coolidge’s booming economy. Since Davis was also a conservative, they did not offer any significantly different policies. Most people believed Coolidge would win. As the sitting president, Coolidge did not actively campaign. The most popular slogan of the year was “Stay cool with Coolidge.” Republicans simply had to stay the course.
One joke from the campaign trail described a reporter who asked, “Mr. President, what to you think about Prohibition?” Coolidge replied, “No comment.” The reporter went on, “Will you say something about unemployment?” “No.” “Will you tell us your views about the world situation?” “No.” “About your message to Congress?” “No.” The reporter started to leave, but as he reached for the door, Coolidge called out, “Wait.” Hopefully, he turned around to hear Coolidge say, “Now remember, don’t quote me!”
Much like the election four years earlier, this one was a blowout win for the Republicans. Davis only won the Solid South, and even failed to capture the border states. La Follette mostly took votes from Davis. He won his home state of Wisconsin and took second in many Western states.
Calvin Coolidge won a full term as president! The electoral results were 382-136-13. Despite the presence of a third party, Coolidge’s 15.7 million votes were greater than Davis’ and La Follette’s combined. In fact, Davis only won 28% of the popular vote, the lowest percentage of any Democrat, outside of the four-way race of 1860.
What Did It Say About America?
Put simply, Davis didn’t offer anything new and voters did not have a reason to turn their backs on Coolidge. It was the golden age of conservative politics. Progressives in both parties struggled to maintain relevancy.
Was It The Right Decision?
Another no! Both candidates were infamously boring. Although that sounded good at the time, thanks to the good economy, the decisions made throughout the next few years would have serious consequences.
Sadly, Fighting Bob died in 1925, shortly after this election.