Politics in the 1920s

With the end of World War I and the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, Americans entered the distinctive 1920s — an era of Republican leadership, nationalistic and fundamentalist movements, and changing social conventions. Electing Republican presidents who favored business expansion rather than regulation, the American public enjoyed apparently unlimited prosperity, while fear of radicals and foreigners combined to almost completely close off America to immigration and contributed to the resurgence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Religious fundamentalism revived as new moral and social attitudes came into vogue. Additionally, the first radio broadcasts and motion pictures expanded Americans' access to news and entertainment.

During the 1920s, three Republicans occupied the White House: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Harding was inept, Coolidge was mediocre, and Hoover was overcome by circumstances he neither understood nor could control. Harding's campaign slogan, “A return to normalcy,” aptly described American politics for the entire period. The nation turned away from the reforming zeal of the Progressive Era and the moral vision of Wilson's wartime leadership toward a government whose domestic economic policies opposed federal regulation and encouraged business expansion.

The Harding administration. Although he was affable and popular, Harding's naivete made him a disaster as president. Mindful of his own weaknesses, he tried to select the best men possible for his cabinet, with Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Henry C. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, and Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. These men were responsible for the accomplishments of Harding's brief administration, which included stimulating business growth, cutting taxes, and negotiating disarmament treaties.

Several of Harding's other appointments left much to be desired, however, and resulted in major scandals that rocked the government. Charles Forbes, for example, headed the newly formed Veteran's Bureau, even though he had carefully avoided the draft. He was convicted of fraud and related felonies involving the agency's hospital construction funds. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was at the center of the Teapot Dome scandal, in which he secretly leased naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to private companies headed by Edward Doheny and Harry F. Sinclair in return for no‐interest, noncollateral “loans.” After resigning his office, Fall was convicted of bribery, and the government canceled the leases. The administration was further disgraced when Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty was implicated in a bribery case involving an official in the Alien Property Office and indicted but acquitted for taking money from liquor dealers evading Prohibition. Harding was not directly involved with the corruption, and he died in office (August 2, 1923) before the charges against his appointees became public.

Coolidge and the election of 1924. Harding's vice president, Calvin Coolidge, came to national attention in 1919 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he ended the Boston police strike. Coolidge did not believe the president should take an activist role in government, and he was as opposed to the regulation of business as Harding had been. His famous quip “The business of America is business” summed up the Republican creed of the 1920s. An honest if taciturn man who had no connection with the scandals of his predecessor's cronies, Coolidge was the Republican choice for president in 1924. The Democrats found it harder to choose a candidate.

The two main Democratic contenders mirrored the split in American society that existed during the '20s. William Gibbs McAdoo represented the rural, Protestant, and “dry” (pro‐Prohibition) parts of the country, while the urban, immigrant, and “wet” (anti‐Prohibition) population supported Alfred E. Smith, the Irish‐American, Roman Catholic governor of New York. With neither candidate able to sway enough votes, the Democratic convention compromised on the conservative Wall Street lawyer, John W. Davis on the 103rd ballot. The election picture was complicated somewhat by Robert LaFollette's revival of the Progressive party, which organized a coalition of farm groups and unions, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Davis was strong only in the South and LaFollette took his own state of Wisconsin; Coolidge won decisively in both the popular and electoral vote.

The election of Hoover. When Coolidge decided not to run for a second term in 1928, the Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Even though he had never held elective office, Secretary of Commerce Hoover had a distinguished career in public service and was well regarded for his work with the Food Administration and in relief efforts after the war. The Democrats, operating with a stronger urban wing than in the previous election, nominated Governor Al Smith for a second time. With the country still riding the high tide of prosperity that the Republicans took full credit for, Hoover was nearly impossible to beat, especially with Smith's serious drawbacks as a candidate. The Democratic Party's platform supported Prohibition, but Smith favored the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Additionally, anti‐Catholicism remained a factor in American politics. Many Protestant churches, both fundamentalist and mainstream denominations, urged their parishioners to vote their faith. The combination of Prohibition and religion cost Smith several states in the Deep South and contributed to Hoover's landslide victory.

A closer look at the election results gave the Democrats some hope for the future. Although they did not add any electoral votes to his column, Western farmers abandoned their traditional home in the Republic party and supported Smith. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the nation's 12 largest cities that voted Republican in 1924 also switched allegiance four years later. This trend suggested that with a candidate who did not have Smith's obvious weaknesses, the Democrats might be able to forge a winning coalition by holding on to the Deep South and building a stronger base in the urban Northeast and Midwest.