Table of Contents

I. Overview
II. Harding's Presidency
III. Coolidge's Presidency
IV. Hoover's Presidency
V. Foreign Policy and Politics
VI. Society and Politics


I. Overview
From a political standpoint, the 1920s marked the ended of the Progressive Era that had flourished under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the previous decade. The politics were similar to those that had existed during the Gilded Age, mirroring government corruption, laissez faire policies, and the pursuit of unfettered capitalism. Three Republican presidents governed America between 1921 and 1933: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. While American business thrived during the 1920s, it was a time of hardship for small farmers and labor unions.

II. Harding's Presidency

a. Election of 1920

In the election of 1920, the Republican Senator Warren Harding ran against the Demorat Governor of Ohio, James Cox, who had previously been in favor of the League of Nations. Harding won by a landslide, running on the platform that after World War I, he wanted American to “return to normalcy.”

b. Accomplishments during His Term

Harding was not a powerful leader, nor did he make many notable decisions during his term as President. He did appoint the former Food Administration leader Herbert Hoover as the new secretary of commerce. Harding also appointed William Howard Taft, the former President, as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also made the astonishing decision to pardon the Socialist leader Eugene Debs from federal prison after he violated the Espionage Act. Harding mainly was responsible for approving what the Republicans in Congress had proposed, including a lower income tax, and a higher tariff rate.

c. The Teapot Dome Scandal and Corruption under Harding

Harding made the mistake of appointing a handful of corrupt and dishonest politicians, including Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall and Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. Fall had accepted bribes for granting oil leases near Teapot Dome in Wyoming and Daugherty had not prosecuted some criminal suspects in exchange for bribes. These scandals, much like those that had occurred during the Gilded Age, marked political corruption in the 1920s; however these scandals came to light only in 1924, the year after Harding died.


III. Coolidge's Presidency

a. The Election of 1924

After Harding passed away in 1923, his Vice President Calvin Coolidge became President. Although he had only been in office less than a year, he was the popular choice for the Republican presidential nominee. The Democrats nominated the candidate John W. Davis from West Virginia, who was rather conservative despite the fact that he was a Democrat. Since both Davis and Coolidge were conservative, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin led a new Progressive Party which did relatively well for a third party on the ballot. Coolidge still won the election by a landslide.

b. “Silent Cal”

Coolidge embodied the traditional conservative ideas during the 1920s by living up to his motto: “The business of America is business.” He believed in limited government involvement and even more limited government spending. He refused to give bonuses to World War I veterans and vetoed the McNary-Haugen Bill of 1928 which was supposed to help farmers deal with the sharp decline in crop prices.

IV. Hoover's Presidency

a. The Election of 1928

After Coolidge declined to run for a second term as president, the Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover, who had served in administrative positions under Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge. He ran against the Democratic candidate from New York, Alfred E. Smith, who lost a lot of support from Protestants because he was a Roman Catholic. The economy and American business had thrived during Coolidge’s presidency, and so Hoover won the election, claiming that he could extend “Coolidge Prosperity” and possibly eradicate poverty.

b. The End of Hoover’s Popularity, the Depression, and the Twentieth Amendment

Under Hoover, the economy and the stock market continued to prosper until Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929). A whole series of problems at the end of the 1920s caused the entire stock market to plummet to an all-time historic low (i.e. banks were buying on the margin and making loans who could not pay them back, uneven distribution of income and low purchasing power, overproduction due to new and improved technology, etc.) Hoover, thinking that the depression would only be short-lived, avoided in allowing the government to help people because he did not want the nation to become dependent on government aid.
Towards the end of his presidency, Hoover attempted to provide relief, even though most of his ideas were ineffective. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was signed in 1930 to raise tariff rates and increase domestic productivity. Unfortunately, it backfired sine other countries placed tariffs on American goods, so the national and international economies only spiraled further into the depression. In 1931, Hoover proposed a debt moratorium which halted the payment of international debts that had been laid out in the Dawes Plan.
Hoover also created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in 1932 that would help railroads, banks, life insurance companies, etc. in hopes that the stabilization of key businesses would help stabilize smaller businesses and the rest of America, but this last attempt by Hoover also proved to be unsuccessful.
In 1932, Hoover was again nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, even though he had no real hope of winning, and the Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won the election. Between the election and Roosevelt’s inauguration, Hoover became known as the “lame-duck” president since he was unable to help with the Depression and it only got worse. the Twentieth Amendment was then passed and it moved the presidential inauguration date from March to January 20.

V. Foreign Policy and Politics

a. Isolationist v. Interventionist

Although the United States did not join the League of Nations, America was no longer strictly isolationist as it had been during the Gilded Age. While there was hesitation to become involved in “foreign entanglements,” America was emerging as a world superpower interested in expanding business and keeping all nations peaceful with one another.

b. Disarmament

Under President Harding in 1921, the United States held the Washington Conference were representatives came from Belgium, China, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Portugal.

They created the Five-Power Treaty. It established the ratio of large warships that the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy could have. There were no restrictions on smaller warships however. The Four-Power Treaty was established between the United States, France, Great Britain, and Japan where the nations agreed they would respect each other’s power in the Pacific. The Nine-Power Treaty was where all the nations represented at the Washington Conference agreed to respect China’s Open Door policy.

Almost all nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact which stated that no country would start or engage in war or aggression. However, this pact was ineffective because it permitted defensive wars and it neither gave consequences for countries which violated the agreement nor did it state how other countries should respond if the pact were broken

VI. Society and Politics

The 1920s was a decade full of conflict between more conservative, traditional thought and newer, more liberal thought, as well as between “modern” thinkers and religious fundamentalists.

a. The Scopes Trial
John Scopes was a teacher in Tennessee who went against the state’s law and taught Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in his classroom. This was a more “modern” way of thinking and it challenged traditional, religious fundamentalist beliefs. In 1925, he was arrested and put on trial. Clarence Darrow represented Scopes, while William Jennings Bryan testified against him, claiming that he interpreted each word of the Bible literally. Scopes was ultimately convicted and laws that forbid the teaching of evolution remained in most states.

b. Prohibition
The Eighteenth Amendment that banned the sale and consumption of alcohol had been ratified in 1919. During the 1920s however, Prohibition did not stop most from going to clubs called speakeasies and buying bootlegged (illegally produced) alcohol. Organized crime was everywhere during Prohibition and gang leaders like Al Capone made fortunes from selling bootlegged liquor. In 1933, as America sank even further into the Great Depression, the Twenty-first amendment (repealing the Eighteenth Amendment) was passed.
c. Nativism, Immigration Quota Acts, and the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

Between 1919 and 1921, more than a million immigrants entered the United States, most Roman Catholics and Jews from Eastern and Southern Europe. There was a strong nativist sentiment coming typically from the more traditional Protestants in America. They felt that new immigrants threatened to take away jobs or bring revolution and possibly communist thought with them to America.

The Immigration Quota Act of 1921 limited immigration to 3% of the number of foreign born people from a particular country counted in the 1910 census. In order to discriminate against “new” immigrants (Jews and Roman Catholics from Eastern Europe), Congress passed the Immigration Quota Act of 1924 which limited the number of immigrants to 2% from a country based on the census taken in 1890, when there were fewer of these new immigrants in America.

In 1921, two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were convicted of robbery and murder, and they both received the death penalty in 1927. However, liberals at the time claimed that the two men were innocent, but they were convicted because they were anarchists and part of the wave of “new” immigrants.