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Good Times Under Harding

The 1920 Elections

A muted debate about the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations continued into 1920 – an election year. People were turning from the emotional intensities of wartime and from the troubles of 1919 to nostalgia for the calm of "the good old days" before the war. The public felt threatened by the politics of Leftists. In May, 1920, two shoe salesmen, Sacco and Vanzetti, admitted anarchists, were arrested, imprisoned, and accused of robbing a shoe company and murdering the paymaster and his guard. And in September, a bomb exploded in front of the J.P. Morgan offices on Wall Street, killing thirty and wounding twenty.

In 1920, states were ratifying the 19th Amendment to the Constitution -- which stated that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."  And it became law in August in time for the presidential elections – the first elections in which women nationwide would be voting.

An early front-runner for the Republican nomination was Leonard Wood, former Army Chief of Staff and former governor-general to Cuba and the Philippines. Wood had criticized Wilson for being weak. Against isolationists he had argued for help for starving Europeans. He stood tough against striking labor unions, Communists and Soviet Russia, declaring that Bolshevism should be killed "as you would a rattlesnake." He was endorsed by his good friend Theodore Roosevelt, and he attracted party conservatives and much in campaign contributions. But Wood was not a man who understood politics well. He lost support by refusing to blend in agreement with Republican senators with whom he should have allied himself. To these senators he appeared too independent, leaving them afraid that if he were elected they would be without much influence. At the Republican convention, Wood was ahead after the first ballot, with the majority of delegates divided among others. But Wood's backers would desert him on following ballots.

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding

The Republican convention united behind the senator from Ohio, Warren G. Harding, an intelligent man who was friendly and had a reputation for party loyalty and moderation. Harding's running mate was Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, of police strike fame. The Democrats ran James Cox, the governor of Ohio – a man with a greater intellect than Harding's, which accounted for little in American politics. Davis' running mate was Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore's nephew and Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson. The Socialist Party again ran Eugene Debs for president, and with Debs still in prison his running mate did all of the campaigning.

In the political campaigns, Cox and most Democrats spoke in favor of the United States ratifying the Versailles Treaty, siding with their bed-ridden president, Wilson. Harding spoke against the treaty, and other Republicans attacked the treaty in part at least to discredit the Democrats. Republicans spoke in favor of a return to normalcy and against the kind of government intervention in industry that had taken place during the war. But the Republicans favored continued government intervention on behalf of farmers, who were angry with Wilson for withdrawing farm supports after the war. Agriculture was benefiting from advances in mechanization, and farmers were troubled by the increase in abundance producing lower prices. Prices for their products were falling. The Republics were promising the farmers help. The election was turning, it would be said, on the price of wheat and wool.

Harding won sixty-four percent of the popular vote and all but the southern states. Southern voters still had one foot in the Civil War and had been unwilling to vote for a Republican – except for voters in Tennessee, who voted for a Republican president for the first time in Tennessee's history. Eugene Debs won 920,000 or 5.4 percent of the votes. The Republicans captured ten more seats in the Senate and sixty-one additional seats in the House of Representatives, giving them a 59 to 37 majority in the Senate and a 301 to 131 majority in the House. The Republicans gained five governorships, giving them 27 against 21 for the Democrats. It was to be a Republican decade. In the eyes of many Americans, their country now had a president who exemplified small town friendliness and common sense.

President Harding

Harding had a different attitude toward blacks than had Wilson. In late October, Harding delivered an address in Birmingham Alabama in which he praised the new achievements in industrial growth in the South, and he also spoke of the need to eliminate limitations on opportunities for Negroes. He said:

We cannot go on, as we have gone for more than a half-century, with one great section of our population, numbering as many people as the entire population of some significant countries of Europe, set off from real contribution to solving our national issues, because of a division on race lines.

In October, 1921, the Senate finally had passed a bill officially ending the war with Germany, Austria and Hungary. Meanwhile, from the moment Harding took office, he faced the controversy surrounding amnesty for those who had been jailed for their opposition to the United States joining the World War. Britain had already amnestied all of its anti-war activists and conscientious objectors. President Wilson had adamantly opposed releasing such men, including Eugene Debs, whom he called a traitor. Many, including the American Legion, also opposed amnesty. Another veteran's organization, the World War Veterans, favored amnesty, noting that opponents of the war had been moved by ideals. And favoring amnesty for American political prisoners were international celebrities, among them George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Some amnesties were planned for Christmas, with President Harding's Attorney General, Harry Daugherty opposed, complaining that amnesty at Christmas would desecrate the holy festival. Seventy-six members of the I.W.W. (wobblies) were to remain in prison for having criticized the war effort and having tried to overthrow the government. But Harding commuted Debs' ten-year prison sentence and the prison terms of Victor Berger and numerous others. Harding disturbed some anti-Communists by inviting Debs to the White House, where he shook Debs' hand and said that he had always wanted to meet him.

The Economy

The Harding administration allied itself with the interests of business, which the Republicans spoke of as the interest of the nation. Harding and the Republicans encouraged business confidence by lowering taxes. They initiated a program of government savings, and they established a system of budgeting. They moved against the agricultural depression by supporting farm relief measures including a tariff on the importation of farm products from abroad, as well as catering to rural demands for lower freight rates.

Harding's Secretary of Commerce was Herbert Hoover, a popular, straight-laced Quaker who was well known for his efforts to distribute food to the hungry in Europe. Hoover annoyed some Republicans with his belief that employees had a right to form unions. And Hoover believed that no civilization could endure on a ground of "unrestrained and unintelligent self-interest" alone. He believed in controlling greed through a balanced regulation of industry. He was for people enjoying "the advantages of wealth" but a wealth that was "spread through the lives of all." He was for fair taxation, unfreezing inactive capital, and he was concerned about the neglected health and welfare of children in rural areas.

Hoover initiated a study that found a twenty-five percent inefficiency in production costs that could be eliminated without lowering wages or raising work loads, and he helped stimulate volunteer action toward greater efficiency in industry. When recession struck in the first year of Harding's administration, Hoover defied those Republicans who favored doing nothing and letting the recession run its course. Harding deferred to Hoover's opinions about the economy, and Hoover took action, calling a conference of the nation's leaders in industry, agriculture, labor, banking and finance, and the conference stimulated the creation of some relief for the unemployed, some job sharing and construction projects by local governments.

Times Square 1922

Times Square, New York, 1922. Times Square 1922, photo enlarged Click to enlarge.

By the spring of 1922 the recession was over. The nation was advancing in productivity, with machine power continuing to replace human power, with more electrification of industry and advances being made in the creation of moving assembly lines. Cars were now being assembled in 93 minutes (not considering the time it takes to deliver materials to the plant). The United States was the most productive and prosperous nation on earth. And the good times for American manufacturing was to help make a lean decade for organized labor.

The growth of unions that occurred during the war – with government support – was over, diminished in part by the red scare after the war. The labor movement was weakened by ethnic and racial divisions. Its leadership was conservative. But labor also benefited from the good times. Big business, pushed by Herbert Hoover and more mindful of the benefits of keeping their workers happy, moved toward concern for the morale of its work force. US Steel abandoned its twelve-hour day and put its plant in Gary, Indiana on eight-hour shifts.

The world needed leadership also in lowering trade barriers. For the sake of economic recovery, European nations needed to increase their exports. More exports to the United States would have created more income in Europe with which to buy US products. But the Harding administration joined Congress in creating the Fordney-McCumber tariff – the most protectionist US legislation to that time.

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