The New Era

The New Era

The 1920s marked a new era of postwar economic growth in the United States, fueled by electricity and oil but marred by controversies.

Learning Objectives

Describe how the 1920s ushered in an era of growth and prosperity after World War I

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Warren Harding, who won the 1920 presidential election with the promise of a “return to normalcy” after World War I, died in 1923 and was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge. Under Coolidge, entrepreneurship and technological efficiency  flourished. Like Harding’s administration, Coolidge’s administration differed from those of  Roosevelt and Wilson in its lack of activism and general aversion to government  regulation.
  • The widespread use of electricity as a power source reached cities and towns where factories saw productivity surges, while oil booms throughout the United States dominated world petroleum production.
  • Herbert Hoover, elected president in 1928, was a believer in the efficacy of individualism and business enterprise, with a little coordination by the government, and envisioned a future of unbounded plenty.
  • The new era came to an end with the stock market crash of 1929, which was the result of  credit  inflation, increased government spending, and excessive speculation in the stock market.

Key Terms

  • Herbert Hoover: (1874–1964) The 31st president of the United States, serving from 1929 to 1933.
  • Calvin Coolidge: (1872–1933) The 30th president of the United States, serving from 1923 to 1929.
  • Stock Market Crash of 1929: The most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States. It was the result of rampant speculation and increased credit extensions in the booming economy of the Hoover administration.
  • Warren Harding: (1865–1923) The 29th president of the United States, serving from 1921 to 1923.

Apart from a recession in 1920–1921, the 1920s saw the American economy reach a new level of industrial production and prosperity. New industries flourished, especially in the areas of electric power, automobiles, gasoline, tourist travel, and highway and housing construction. Good times were widespread for all sectors, with the exceptions of agriculture and coal mining.

Harding and Coolidge Administrations

In the U.S. presidential election of 1920, the Republican  Party ran Warren G. Harding on a promise of a “return to normalcy” after the years of war, ethnic hatreds, race riots, and exhausting reforms. Harding used new advertising techniques to lead the GOP to a landslide victory, carrying the major cities as many traditionally Democratic voters such as the Irish, Catholics, and Germans—feeling betrayed by Woodrow Wilson ‘s administration—deserted to the Republicans.

The fanfare was short-lived, however, as the Teapot Dome scandal tainted the reputation of the Harding administration. In 1922, it was revealed that Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall had leased U.S. Navy petroleum reserves at the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming and two other properties in California to private oil companies at favorable rates without competitive bidding. The leases themselves were not illegal, but Fall accepted bribes from Mammoth Oil and Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company to secure the deals; he was later convicted and became the first member of a presidential cabinet to be sentenced to prison.

Also in 1922, a nationwide strike by railway shopmen, which became known as the “Great Railroad Strike,” began under the guidance of labor organizations. Clashes with strikebreakers, shootings by armed company guards, and sabotage by strikers led to the deaths of at least 10 people. Harding proposed a settlement that was rejected by the rail companies, while Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty pressed for national action against the strike. After a sweeping and highly controversial injunction by a federal judge against striking, picketing, and other union activities, the railroad strike eventually faded away through local arrangements between workers and their employers. In another national controversy, Harding clashed with veterans over the issue of providing bonus payments for those who served in World War I, instead favoring a future pension system. Harding vetoed a version of an adjusted compensation act in September 1922, diminishing his overall popularity and costing him support among Republicans who saw his attempts at fiscal responsibility as endangering the party’s prospects in future elections.

Suffering exhaustion and illness believed to be brought on by the stress of the controversies, Harding died of an apparent heart attack in August 1923 during a cruise to Alaska. Vice President Calvin Coolidge—a dour, puritanical, and intensely honest man—succeeded Harding and in many ways, could not have been more different than his predecessor. Coolidge’s White House stood in sharp contrast to that of Harding.

Coolidge proclaimed, “The business of America is business”; he extolled entrepreneurship and emphasized technological efficiency and prosperity as the keys to social improvement, and the economy flourished. In the Coolidge economy, energy was a key factor, especially electricity and oil. As electrification reached a growing number of cities and towns, consumers demanded new products such as lightbulbs, refrigerators, and toasters. Factories installed electric motors and saw productivity surge. Oil booms in Texas, Oklahoma, and California enabled the United States to dominate world petroleum production, which became even more important in an age of automobiles and trucks.

Hoover Administration

When Coolidge declined to run for reelection in 1928, the Republican Party nominated engineer and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was elected by a wide margin. Hoover believed in the efficacy of individualism and business enterprise, with limited coordination by government, to cure all problems. He envisioned a future of unbounded plenty and the imminent end of poverty in America.

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Herbert Clark Hoover listening to a radio in 1925: President Herbert Hoover advocated individualism and business enterprise, but his policies that created an economic boom enabled credit extensions and speculation that resulted in the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

The economic bubble of the late 1920s under Hoover was reflected in the extension of credit to a dangerous degree, including in the stock market, which rose to record high levels. Government size was at a very low level while at the same time government spending increased, causing greater economic freedom and prosperity. Dangerously high credit levels combined with excessive speculation in the stock market led to the stock market crash of 1929. This threw the nation’s economy into the Great Depression that hobbled the country in the 1930s.

The new era of the 1920s was marked by unregulated capitalism, with the Harding and Coolidge administrations marking a return to the hands-off style of nineteenth-century presidents, in contrast to the activism and regulation of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Yet the dangerous practices of credit extensions, stock speculation, and excessive government spending under Hoover brought the good times to a calamitous end.

The Election of 1920

In the 1920 presidential election, Republican Senator Warren G. Harding soundly defeated Democratic Governor James M. Cox.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate how the legacy of World War I shaped the 1920 presidential election

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The U.S. presidential election of 1920 represented the aftermath of World War I. There was a massive backlash against the reformist zeal of the Progressive Era and President Woodrow Wilson, who was believed by Irish-American and German-American voters to have reneged on his commitments to both communities at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
  • While Democratic presidential candidate James Cox relied on a high-energy campaign in which he visited 36 states, Republican Warren Harding favored a “Front Porch Campaign” in which he spoke to voters from his home in Ohio.
  • Harding won in a landslide victory, using an almost four-to-one spending advantage over Cox in a national advertising campaign.
  • Eugene Debs, the jailed labor leader, received the largest number of popular votes ever gained by a Socialist Party candidate.

Key Terms

  • Warren G. Harding: (1865–1923) An Ohio newspaper publisher and U.S. senator, who won a landslide victory in the 1920 election, becoming the 29th president of the United States.
  • James M. Cox: (1870–1957) The 46th and 48th governor of Ohio, a U.S. representative from Ohio, and Democratic candidate for president in the election of 1920.
  • Eugene V. Debs: (1855–1926) An American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for president of the United States.

The U.S. presidential election of 1920 was dominated by the aftermath of World War I. Along with a hostile response to certain policies of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, there was a massive repudiation of the reformist zeal of the Progressive Era. Politicians argued over peace treaties and America’s entry into the League of Nations, which produced an isolationist reaction. While revolutions dominated overseas politics, at home, the wartime economic boom had collapsed, and 1919 was marked by major strikes in the meatpacking and steel industries, large-scale race riots, and terrorist attacks on Wall Street that produced fear of radicals.

Wilson chose not to run for a third term, and both major parties turned to dark-horse candidates from Ohio, which was rich in electoral votes, while the third-party Socialists stuck with their chosen candidate of the previous four presidential elections.

Republican Party

Former President Theodore Roosevelt had been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but his health collapsed in 1918. He died in January 1919, leaving no obvious heir to his Progressive legacy. The Republicans chose Senator Warren G. Harding, an Ohio newspaper publisher, who chose to virtually ignore his opponent and instead run against the policies of Wilson.

Harding’s main campaign slogan was a “return to normalcy,” playing upon the weariness of the American public after the social upheaval of the Progressive Era. World War I and the Treaty of Versailles proved deeply unpopular, causing a reaction against Wilson, who had pushed especially hard for the latter. Irish-American and German-American voters who had backed Wilson and peace in 1916 now voted against Wilson and Versailles. “A vote for Harding,” said the German-language press, “is a vote against the persecutions suffered by German-Americans during the war.”

Portrait of Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding, 1920: Republican Senator Warren Harding of Ohio secured a sweeping victory in the 1920 presidential election.

Harding relied upon a “Front Porch Campaign,” bringing thousands of voters to Marion, Ohio, to hear the candidate speak from his home. While staying primarily in one spot, he still spent $8.1 million on the campaign, primarily on national advertising with the theme “America First.” This was four times the amount spent by his Democratic opponent, James M. Cox, who employed a much more energetic strategy in the campaign.

Democratic Party

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson had reneged on his commitments to the Irish-American and German-American communities, which vehemently denounced him afterward. This set up a hard road for the next Democratic presidential hopeful, James M. Cox, who was the Ohio governor and, like Harding, a newspaper publisher who established a chain that still operates today as the media conglomerate Cox Enterprises.

Portrait of James M. Cox

James M. Cox, 1920: Democratic candidate James Cox, the governor of Ohio, lost to Warren Harding in the presidential election of 1920.

Cox conducted a whirlwind campaign that included rallies and formal addresses, visiting 36 states and making 394 speeches that reached an estimated total audience of up to 2 million people. Rather than follow the wishes of so-called Wilsonians, who wanted the election to be a, “referendum on the League of Nations,” Cox instead focused on domestic issues, including a fight against unemployment and inflation through his proposals to lower income tax and tax business profits.

Socialist Party

Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs received 913,664 popular votes, 3.4 percent of the total votes, despite being in prison at the time for advocating non-compliance with the draft of World War I. This was the highest number of popular votes received by a Socialist Party candidate in the United States, though not the largest percentage of the popular vote, as Debs had received double the vote percentage in the 1912 election. The 1920 election was his fifth and last attempt to become president.

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Eugene V. Debs’s campaign from prison: This cartoon depicts Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs, campaigning for president from prison in 1920. He was serving a sentence for encouraging people to avoid the draft in World War I.

Other Parties

Parley P. Christensen of the Farmer-Labor Party received 1 percent of the vote total, while Prohibition Party candidate Aaron S. Watkins came in fifth with.7 percent of the vote, the poorest showing for the Prohibition Party since 1884. Since the Eighteenth Amendment had already been passed the previous year, initiating the period of Prohibition that banned alcohol sales and consumption in the United States, this single-issue party seemed unnecessary to voters.

Election Results

Harding won in a landslide victory, becoming the 29th president of the United States. He took 37 states, including the three most recently ratified states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. His 26.2 percent is the largest margin of victory in the popular vote since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820. The total number of votes cast in 1920 was approximately 26.8 million, an increase of 8 million from 1916. The Democratic Party vote total was almost exactly as in 1916, and Democrats took only 1,100 counties in the nation, but the Republican Party vote nearly doubled and nearly two-thirds of counties were carried by Republican candidates.

The election was the first since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, in which women gained the right to vote in all 48 contiguous states. As a result, the total popular vote increased dramatically. It was the first election in which the results were recorded by the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first of three elections to date in which a sitting U.S. senator became president (the others were John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008.)

Despite Cox’s sound defeat, his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became a well-known political figure due to his energetic campaigning. In 1928, he was elected governor of New York, and in 1932, he became the 32nd U.S. president, holding the office until his death in April 1945.

Harding’s Policies

President Warren Harding took office in the middle of a postwar depression and enacted policies to encourage the nation’s return to prosperity and progress.

Learning Objectives

Identify the Harding administration’s beneficial policies and those that were less popular

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As a result of Warren Harding ‘s policies, the  economy, wages, profits, and productivity made substantial gains, while the budget decreased by half.
  • Harding cut taxes and signed the Revenue Act of 1921, which gave wealthy Americans large tax deductions, while the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 established the Bureau of the Budget and the General Accounting Office, setting up a formal budgeting process and assuring oversight of expenditures.
  • Harding signed the Fordney-McCumber  Tariff Act, which increased tariff rates to the highest level in U.S. history and was seen as a contributing factor to the stock market crash of 1929.
  • Outside of economic affairs, to accommodate the advent of the automobile age, Harding signed the  Federal  Highway Act of 1921 to expand the nation’s highway system. Harding was also an advocate of civil rights for African Americans, encouraging the establishment of an international commission to improve race relations and supporting a federal anti- lynching  measure, the Dyer Bill.

Key Terms

  • Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act: Legislation that raised American tariffs in order to protect U.S. factories and farms from foreign competition.
  • Conference of Unemployment: Approximately 300 prominent members of industry, banking, and the labor movement who were called together in September 1921 to work toward solutions to the problem of unemployment.
  • Revenue Act of 1921: The first Republican tax reduction following the party’s landslide victory in the 1920 presidential elections.

President Warren G. Harding assumed office in March 1921 while the nation was in the midst of a postwar economic decline, known as the “depression of 1920–1921.” By the summer of his first year in office, however, an economic recovery began and Harding convened the Conference of Unemployment in 1921, headed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, that advocated economic stimulation through local work projects and encouraged businesses to apply shared work programs. These were among the beneficial policies instituted during Harding’s administration, although others were not so productive or popular.

Portrait of Warren G. Harding

U.S. President Warren G. Harding: President Harding assumed office in 1921, in the midst of a postwar economic decline.

Revenue, Budget, and Tariff Acts

Harding believed that the federal government should be fiscally managed in a manner similar to the private sector and had campaigned on the slogan, “Less government in business and more business in government.” Harding signed the Revenue Act of 1921, which gave large deductions in the amount of taxes the wealthiest Americans had to pay. Revenues to the federal treasury increased substantially in this period. The combined declines in unemployment and inflation (later known as the “Misery Index”) were among the sharpest in U.S. history. Wages, profits, and productivity all made substantial gains during the 1920s.

Harding also signed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which established the framework for the modern federal budget and was considered to be one of his greatest domestic achievements. Harding requested and obtained congressional authorization for the country’s first formal budgeting process by establishing the Bureau of the Budget, while the General Accounting Office was created to assure oversight of federal budget expenditures. Harding appointed Charlie Dawes, known for being an effective financier, as the first director of the Bureau of the Budget. Due to these policies, the government budget was cut nearly in half in just two years.

On September 21, 1922, Harding enthusiastically signed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act, which increased the tariff rates contained in the previous Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913 to the highest level in the nation’s history. The act raised tariffs in America in order to protect factories and farms, although the tariffs established in the 1920s have historically been viewed as a contributing factor in the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Modernization

The 1920s was a period of modernization for America. On February 27, 1922, Harding implemented the first of a series of Radio Conferences headed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. At the first meeting, 30 participants including representatives of amateur radio, government agencies, and the radio industry made “cooperative efforts” to ensure the public interest in broadcasting, to establish who would  broadcast and for what purpose, and to curb direct advertising.

In what he proclaimed to be the age of the “motor car,” Harding signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which defined the Federal Aid Road program to develop an immense national highway system. From 1921 to 1923, the government spent a total of $162 million on America’s highway system, infusing the U.S. economy with a large amount of capital.

After World War I, 300,000 wounded veterans were in need of hospitalization, medical care, and job training. Harding subsequently pushed for the establishment of the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, later organized as the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was the first permanent attempt at answering the needs of those who served the nation in times of war.

Civil Rights

In an age of severe racial intolerance, Harding refused to engage in the typical racial animosity. In a speech given on October 26, 1921, in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Harding made a case for African-American civil rights, making him the first president to openly advocate black political, educational, and economic equality during the twentieth century.

Harding placed African Americans in some important federal positions, such as Walter L. Cohen of New Orleans, Louisiana, whom he named comptroller of customs. Harding also advocated the establishment of an international commission to improve race relations between whites and blacks, but strong political opposition by the southern Democratic bloc stopped the launch of the commission. Harding had previously spoken out publicly against lynching on October 21, 1921, and he expressed his support for Congressman Leonidas Dyer’s federal anti-lynching bill. Known as the Dyer Bill, the measure passed the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922, but was defeated in the Senate by a Democratic filibuster. The bill was at least a step in the right direction, as Congress had not debated a civil rights bill since the 1890 Federal Elections Bill.

Unpopular Policies

In spite of his policies aimed at improving the nation, Harding’s reputation was tarnished through some unpopular decisions and domestic events.

In 1922, a nationwide strike by railway shop men, which became known as the “Great Railroad Strike,” began under the guidance of labor organizations. Clashes with strikebreakers, shootings by armed company guards, and sabotage by strikers led to the deaths of at least 10 people. In another national controversy, Harding clashed with veterans over the issue of providing bonus payments for those who served in World War I, instead favoring a future pension system. Harding vetoed a version of an adjusted compensation act in September 1922, diminishing his overall popularity and costing him support among Republicans who saw his attempts at fiscal responsibility as endangering the party’s prospects in future elections.

Administrative Corruption

Known as the “Ohio Gang,” President Harding and his political associates caused financial and political scandals in the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Identify the Teapot Dome scandal and its effect on the Harding administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After President Warren G. Harding’s election, friends and colleagues from the Ohio area moved to Washington, D.C., and established headquarters in a house on K Street. They became known as the ” Ohio Gang ” for their state affiliation and connection to various scandals involving the Harding administration.
  • The Harding presidency suffered its most damaging blow in the Teapot Dome scandal, a bribery conspiracy that involved oil land leases given in exchange for bribes to Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.
  • Graft and corruption charges permeated Harding’s Department of Justice. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was involved with an illegal liquor scheme, with bootleggers confiscating tens of thousands of cases of  whiskey  through bribery and kickbacks.
  • Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, was convicted of fraud and bribery in connection with government contracts.

Key Terms

  • Ohio Gang: A network of politicians and industry leaders closely surrounding Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States of America.
  • Teapot Dome Scandal: A bribery conspiracy that took place in the United States from 1922–1923, during the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for federal oil land leases.

After Warren G. Harding’s election as U.S. president, friends and colleagues from the Ohio area moved to Washington, D.C., and made their headquarters in a house on K Street, an area famous for political connections and clout. Eventually known as the “Ohio Gang,” these men caused several financial and political scandals, and in addition to Harding’s own personal controversies, severely damaged Harding’s personal reputation and eclipsed his presidential accomplishments. By far the most damaging was the so-called Teapot Dome scandal, a bribery conspiracy that occurred in 1922–1923.

The Teapot Dome Scandal

The origins of the scandal went back to conservation legislation of presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, including the creation of naval petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California. Three naval oil fields, Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills in California and the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming, were tracts of public land reserved for underground supplies to be used by the U.S. Navy only when regular oil reserves diminished to emergency levels.

Senator John B. Kendrick of Wyoming received a letter in April 1922 alleging Sinclair Oil Corporation had been given a secret deal involving federal lands in his state. Kendrick called for an inquiry, which was led by Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and included Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, a junior member of the Senate minority, who from 1922 to 1923, doggedly investigated alleged wrongdoing by Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall.

Earlier in 1922 Fall had leased naval petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Elk Hills, and Buena Vista Hills at favorable rates, and without competitive bidding, to Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company and Mammoth Oil, a subsidiary of Sinclair Oil. The leases themselves were not illegal, but Fall accepted bribes from the companies to secure the deals totaling approximately $404,000 (about $5.36 million today), including a no-interest loan of $100,000 ($1.3 million today) from Pan American oil baron Edward L. Doheny. Fall used money from the bribes to improve his cattle ranch and business investments, and his attempts to cover the deals were successful in spite of the ongoing investigation by Senator Walsh. That was until 1924, when questions arose about how Fall had quickly and noticeably improved his standard of living and wealth. Walsh then uncovered evidence of the $100,000 loan from Doheny, leading to revelations of the other secret gifts.

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Teapot Dome Senate Committee, 1924: In this photo, oil businessman Edward L. Doheny, second from right at table, testifies before the Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome oil leases in 1924.

In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases involved in the Teapot Dome scandal had been fraudulently obtained. Fall was found guilty of bribery in 1929, fined $100,000, and sentenced to one year in prison, making him the first presidential cabinet member to receive a prison sentence for his actions in office.

The scandal revealed the problem of natural resource scarcity and the need to protect against future depletion of resources in times of emergency. The concentrated attention by the media and the public also made it the first large symbol of government corruption in America. Before the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, Teapot Dome was largely regarded as the greatest and most sensational scandal in American political history.

Portrait of Albert Fall

Albert Fall, secretary of the Interior: Interior Secretary Albert Bacon Fall became infamous for his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal, in which he took bribes in exchange for oil leases.

Smaller Scandals

Albert Fall was a member of the so-called “Ohio Gang” that also included Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and U.S. Navy Secretary Edwin Denby, among others. In addition to involvement in Teapot Dome, the Ohio Gang was believed to have been behind recurring acts of cronyism and corruption, including storing bootleg whisky inside the White House.

Graft and corruption charges permeated Harding’s Department of Justice, run by Daugherty, who was involved with an illegal liquor scheme in which bootleggers got their hands on tens of thousands of cases of whiskey through bribery and kickbacks to government officials. In another example of official misconduct, Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, was convicted of fraud and bribery in
connection with government contracts.

Harding himself was involved in scandals with women. Beginning when he was a newspaper publisher in Marion, Ohio, Harding conducted a long, extramarital affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, a local merchant ‘s wife, which continued into his time as a U.S. senator, ending only when Phillips blackmailed the senator over the relationship. Harding had another affair with a woman named Nan Britton, the daughter of a friend of Harding, while he was still a senator, and which continued throughout his presidency. The relationship did not come to light until 1928, five years after Harding’s death, when Britton published a memoir that included torrid details of the affair including trysts inside the White House. She also claimed they had a child together the year before his election as president, but it was not until 2015 that DNA testing confirmed Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Britton Harding Blaesing, was indeed fathered by Harding.

Suffering exhaustion and illness believed to be brought on by the stress of the various controversies, Harding died of an apparent heart attack before the end of his term, in August 1923 during a cruise to Alaska.

Changes in Agricultural Production

Agriculture underwent a revolution in the 1920s as heavy equipment enabled rapid expansion but also hurt small farmers and caused a migration to urban areas.

Learning Objectives

Describe how American agricultural production declined over the course of the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • High prices for agricultural products created by demand during World War I plummeted when global markets rebounded, causing the collapse of land prices and heavy debt for American farmers.
  • The McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act was the product of demand among farmers for  federal  subsidies, but was vetoed in each attempt to pass it by President Calvin Coolidge.
  • Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover ‘s farm policy favored better equipment and farming products, more electricity, and better business practices for farms, while also advocating for the creation of a Federal Farm Board dedicated to restricting crop production to  domestic  demand.
  • Despite the attempts of the government, farms lost not only business but also young workers who migrated from rural areas to the towns and cities.

Key Terms

  • Federal Farm Board: An administrative body created in 1929, before the stock market crash on October 29, whose powers were later enlarged to meet the economic crisis farmers faced during the Great Depression.
  • McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act: A highly controversial plan in the 1920s to subsidize American agriculture by raising the domestic prices of farm products; it never became law.
  • Mechanization: The use of heavy machinery to improve production. In the case of agriculture, this included tractors and combine harvesters, which made farms more efficient but displaced unskilled laborers.

During World War I, American farmers made record profits. Agricultural competition from Europe and Russia had disappeared due to the damages of battle, and American agricultural goods were shipped around the world. The early 1920s saw a rapid expansion in the American agricultural economy, largely due to new technologies and mechanization. Yet as the decade progressed, the agricultural sector did not fare as well as other industries such as automobiles that were seeing a boom through mass production. The U.S. government attempted to help with policies benefiting agriculture, but as foreign countries returned to producing their own food, American goods became overproduced and experienced a drop in prices. This downturn in the rural economy also had a social effect on the farm, as many young workers who had experienced the world beyond their hometowns during the war chose to move to larger towns and cities.

Agricultural Technology

Agriculture became increasingly mechanized in the 1920s with widespread use of the tractor, combine harvester, and other heavy equipment. Information about superior techniques was disseminated through county agents employed by state agricultural colleges and funded by the federal government. The new technologies meant that the most efficient farms were larger in size and more business-oriented firms, hurting the profits of small, family farms that had long been the model in rural America. Despite this increase in farm size and capital intensity, however, the great majority of agricultural production continued to be undertaken by family-owned enterprises.

Financial Burdens

When the war ended, the global food supply increased rapidly as Europe’s agricultural market rebounded. Overproduction led to plummeting prices, which led to stagnant market conditions and living standards for farmers in the 1920s. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of farmers had taken out mortgages and loans to buy neighboring properties and were suddenly unable to meet the financial burden. This caused the collapse of land prices after the wartime bubble when farmers used high prices to buy up tracts of land at high prices, saddling them with heavy debts. The agricultural depression grew steadily worse in the middle 1920s while the rest of the economy flourished.

McNary-Haugen Act

Farmers blamed the decline of foreign markets and the effects of the protective tariff for their troubles. Farmers had a powerful voice in Congress and demanded federal subsidies, most notably the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act. This legislation, which never became law, was a highly controversial plan to address the concerns of farmers by raising the domestic prices of farm products. The act, which was coauthored by Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R-Iowa), proposed that the government buy overproduced domestic wheat and then either store it or export it to foreign markets at a loss.

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McNary and Haugen, 1929: U.S. Senator Charles L. McNary, left, and U.S. Representative Gilbert N. Haugen in 1929. The pair coauthored a bill intended to bolster domestic prices of agricultural goods through government purchase of surpluses for sale overseas. It was never approved.

According to the bill, a federal agency would be created to support and protect domestic farm prices by attempting to maintain price levels that existed before World War I. By purchasing surpluses and selling them overseas, the federal government would take losses that would be paid for through fees against farm producers. Despite attempts in 1924, 1926, 1927, and 1928 to pass the bill, it was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge and never approved.

Hoover Plan

Coolidge supported an alternative program put forth by U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and Agriculture Secretary William M. Jardine to modernize farming. The plan was to use more electricity, more efficient equipment, better seeds and breeds, more rural education, and better business practices. Hoover advocated the creation of a Federal Farm Board, which was dedicated to the restriction of crop production within domestic demand, behind a tariff wall, and maintained that the farmers’ ailments were due to defective distribution. The Hoover plan was adopted in 1929, before the October 29 stock market crash.

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Commerce Secretary Hoover, 1926: U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, center, in 1926 with his assistants William McCracken, left, and Walter Drake. Hoover became U.S. president in 1929.

Mechanization and Urbanization

A popular Tin Pan Alley song of 1919 asked a question with unintended economic ramifications about U.S. troops returning from World War I: “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” In fact, many did not remain down on the farm and instead became part of a great migration of youth from farms to nearby towns and smaller cities. Some of this could be attributed to a desire for something more adventurous than rural life after seeing some of the cultural capitals of
Europe, but the migration also was driven by factors such as farm mechanization.

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Sheet music cover, 1919: A popular song titled, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” addressed the postwar climate for returning soldiers who had been exposed to culture that may have differed greatly from what they experienced growing up in rural America.

In terms of maintaining the rural population, mechanization proved to be a double-edged sword. By improving production efficiency, mechanization through heavy machinery such as tractors and harvesters improved the quality of produce and made the farms more profitable. On the other hand, mechanization displaced unskilled farm laborers who were no longer needed in the same numbers. This was a direct cause and effect in terms of farmers migrating to urban areas even before the economic devastation of the Great Depression that came after 1929.

Setbacks for Unions

A postwar decade of decline weakened unions and decreased membership due to antiunion practices by corporations and the government.

Learning Objectives

Identify the causes that led to the weakening of unions in the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • At their peak in 1919, labor unions had a total membership of 5 million, and major unions called for strikes in urban areas. Yet union membership fell drastically during the 1920s.
  • Unions and collective-bargaining agreements were looked upon suspiciously, with the government ending a number of strikes in the early 1920s. President Warren Harding resorted to military force to break up fighting between company officials and strikers in West Virginia in 1921 and to keep the peace during a nationwide rail strike in 1922.
  • Harding convened a White House conference with manufacturers and unions to reduce the length of the 12-hour work day. Yet the corporations dismissed concessions to unions negotiated by the president, and his administration more often sided with companies against unions.
  • Unions were also frequent recipients of harsh injunctions and rulings by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Key Terms

  • Loray Mill Strike: A 1929 work stoppage at a textile mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, against the “stretch-out” employment system, which created poor conditions for workers. The strike was a leading event in a labor resurgence following a decade of antiunion sentiment.
  • American Federation of Labor: One of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in December 1886 by an alliance of craft unions. Samuel Gompers led the organization until his death in 1924, which created a leadership crisis.
  • The American Plan: A policy adopted by many American corporations in the 1920s of refusing to negotiate with unions and promoting union-free “open shops” at their work sites.

Labor unions, or associations of workers with the purpose of consolidating bargaining power and protecting workers’ rights, grew very rapidly during World War I. They emerged with large memberships, full treasuries, and a temporary government guarantee of the right of collective bargaining. Total labor union membership soared to 5 million at its peak in 1919. After this expansion, however, radical union membership saw public backlash while poor union leadership combined with maneuvers by corporations and government policies caused a major decline in the labor movement in the 1920s.

Early Government Intervention

The collapse of radical unionism was significantly aided by federal repression during World War I by means of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918: the former made it a crime to pass information harmful to the success of American armed forces, while the latter prohibited speaking, writing, or publishing anything opposed to the government or war effort. Famed labor leader Eugene V. Debs became one of the casualties of these sweeping laws when he was imprisoned in 1918 for speaking out against military conscription.

In 1922, President Warren G. Harding and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover convened a White House conference with manufacturers and unions to reduce the length of the 12-hour work day in a move to support the cause of labor, and the steel industry followed by reducing the 12-hour work day to 8 hours. Overall, however, government intervention usually fell in favor of the corporations and their attempts to end strike actions.

Broken Strikes

The larger unions made an aggressive move for expansion in 1919 by calling for major strikes in clothing, meatpacking, steel, coal, and railroads. The corporations fought back, however, and the strikes usually failed. Between May and September 1921, an outbreak of violence near Matewan, West Virginia, grew to fighting on a 25-mile front between Stone Mountain Coal Company militia and thousands of United Mine Workers members. Harding dispatched federal troops to end the uprising, which resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 miners and 30 strikebreakers, with another 985 miners tried and imprisoned.

A second major labor dispute broke out on July 1, 1922, when 400,000 railroad workers and shop men went on a national strike over hourly wages and the length of the work week. Strikebreakers were brought in to fill the positions, and Harding proposed a settlement giving shop workers concessions, but railroad owners objected and Harding had to deploy the National Guard and 2,200 U.S. marshals to keep the peace.

The upward trend in labor unrest did not continue. In 1919, more than 4 million workers, 21 percent of the labor force, had participated in about 3,600 strikes. In contrast, in 1929, about 289,000 workers, 1.2 percent of the labor force, staged only 900 strikes.

Antiunion Sentiment

In the decade following the war, economic prosperity led to stable prices, eliminating one major incentive to join unions. Unemployment rarely dipped below 5 percent in the 1920s, and few workers feared real wage losses. Unions weakened in heavy industries, such as automobiles and steel, but remained strong in construction, printing, railroads, and crafts.

Organized labor leadership weakened in the 1920s. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor ( AFL ) died in 1924 after serving as its president for 37 years, while successor William Green, secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers, “lacked the aggressiveness and the imagination of the AFL’s first president.” The AFL was down to fewer than 3 million members by 1925 after a peak of 4 million members in 1920.

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Samuel Gompers: American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers in 1911.

Most U.S. employers in the 1920s engaged in a policy of refusing to negotiate with unions, which became known as “The American Plan.” Endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in 1920, the plan promoted union-free “open shops” and the practice of forcing employees to sign “yellow-dog contracts” in which they promised not to join unions. The campaign also depicted unions as “alien” to America’s individualistic spirit with NAM and other employer groups discrediting unions through Red Scare tactics that linked them to Communism.

U.S. courts and the government also became less hospitable to unions. Corporations used twice as many court injunctions against strikes than during any comparable period. The Harding administration, which obtained a court injunction that destroyed the national railroad workers’ strike in 1922, also helped to end a nationwide strike of about 650,000 miners. Neither the federal nor state governments tolerated strikes and allowed businesses to sue unions for damages incurred during strikes.

The unions held on to their gains among machinists, textile workers, and seamen and in the food and clothing industries, but overall, membership fell to 3.5 million, where it stagnated until the New Deal passed the Wagner Act in 1935. There was, however, a resurgence of labor support in the textile industry, notably in the Loray Mill strike of 1929.

Loray Mill Strike

Textile mill managers in the South had introduced the “stretch-out” system in which spinners and weavers not only had to double their production, but also faced a reduction in wages. The emphasis on keeping prices down created dangerous and unsanitary conditions. In April 1929, the Communist-affiliated National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) focused its attention on the small town of Gastonia, North Carolina, where it helped organize a strike of 1,800 Loray Mill employees who demanded a 40-hour work week, a minimum $20 weekly wage, union recognition, and the abolition of the stretch-out system.

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Loray Mill: This photo shows workers, including an 11-year-old boy holding his coat, outside the Loray Mill in Gastonia, N.C.

In response, management evicted families from mill-owned homes, and North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner sent 250 National Guard troops. The strike escalated as the NTWU established a tent city protected by armed strikers. A clash left the police chief dead and people on both sides wounded, with 71 strikers arrested and eight strikers and eight NTWU members indicted for murder. A mistrial caused a wave of mob terror throughout the county until September 14, when a truck containing 22 strikers was fired upon, killing female strike leader Ella Mae Wiggins, who was known for writing popular, pro-labor songs. Seven men, including Loray Mill workers, were acquitted of the crime.

The strike in Gastonia collapsed, but during the same period, a series of textile strikes intended to abolish the stretch-out system took place throughout the South. Strikers were branded by the press as “radicals” and labor organizers as “foreign agitators,” but these spontaneous actions eventually resulted in the formation of the United Textile Workers, the, “first significant breach in southern anti-unionism.”

The labor movement fell in prominence during the 1920s, but the textile strikes in 1929 marked the beginning of a resurgence. The stock market crash later that year and the Great Depression that followed would ultimately bring it back to life.

Automobiles, Airplanes, Mass Production, and Assembly-Line Progress

The great industrial output of the 1920s saw the automobile, petroleum, chemical, radio, and film industries skyrocket.

Learning Objectives

Assess the rise of American consumption of technology in the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mass production revolutionized industry through the  assembly  line, which reduced the cost of automobiles such as the Ford Model T to affordable levels and led to a boom in highway building, travel services, and housing outside of urban areas while also increasing demand within the steel, petroleum, and glass industries.
  • Telephone lines, the electric grid, plumbing, and sewer systems all expanded. This expansion, however, spread local governments thin as they tried to meet new  infrastructure  demands.
  • Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh rose to instant fame in 1927 with the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. Advances in aviation would lead to commercial aviation in the following decade.
  • Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium and was widely used for advertising and entertainment, while electrical and sound recordings created a booming film industry.

Key Terms

  • Henry Ford: The founder of Ford Motor Company and pioneer of the assembly-line technique of mass production. His system of Fordism—the mass production of inexpensive consumer goods with high wages for laborers—revolutionized the American economy. Henry Ford’s first car was a Model T, significant not only to the 1920s but to cars today. His most famous line was, “You can buy a car in any color you want—as long as it’s black.”
  • Assembly Line: A system of workers and machinery through which a product is assembled in a series of consecutive operations such as the addition of an individual piece or set of pieces at each station on the line. Typically the product is attached to a continuously moving belt.

The 1920s was a period of great industrial production in America. The automobile, petroleum, steel, and chemical industries skyrocketed in their production during this period. This was largely due to the adoption by industry of the technique of mass production, the system by which identical products were churned out quickly and inexpensively using assembly lines. The changeover to mass production drove down prices for objects that were previously made in much more individual, time-consuming methods and subsequently enabled an increase in new, affordable technology. Meanwhile, technological advances in electrical recording created new entertainment media including radio and film, which became widespread and highly profitable. A middle class of Americans emerged in the postwar period with surplus money and a desire to spend more, spurring the demand for consumer goods, especially the car.

In the Air and on the Road

The widespread adoption of heavier-than-air, powered aircrafts had become practical for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and even attacks against ground positions during World War I. After the war, Charles Lindbergh rose to instant fame in 1927 with the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. The global attention garnered by the achievement of 25-year-old “Lucky Lindy” spawned advances that led to commercial aviation in the next decade. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lindbergh used his fame to promote the development of both commercial aviation and airmail services in the United States and the Americas.

Portrait of Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh: Famed aviator Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh made the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927 at age 25.

Throughout the 1920s, the automobile industry became one of chief importance as car manufacturing in the United States experienced extraordinary growth. Before the war, cars were a luxury, but in the 1920s, mass-produced vehicles became common throughout the country. Using the manufacturing assembly-line system, in which individual parts or sets of pieces are added to a product at stations on a conveyor belt or other moveable line, entrepreneurs such as automobile tycoon Henry Ford were able to greatly increase productivity. This innovation significantly reduced the cost of automobiles and thereby increased consumer demand.

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Ford assembly line, 1913: Assembly lines revolutionized manufacturing in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Industries related to the manufacturing and use of automobiles grew. Demand increased for petroleum, steel, and glass, leading to additional growth and profitability in these sectors. The auto industry’s effectiveness and growth caused a ripple effect through driving-related industries such as highway construction. In 1920, the United States produced 65 percent of the world’s oil. State government contracts to build highways and roads in rural areas increased as new housing sprung up outside the range of mass transit.

Cars began to alter the American lifestyle, and by 1929, one out of every five Americans owned one. Automobile dealers introduced the installment plan, a financing concept adopted in many other parts of business, while many used-car dealerships opened. Gas stations and motels appeared around the country, and the idea of “homes on wheels” became popular around this time, with Americans packing up food and camping equipment in order to get away for a while.

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Essex race cars on display in Salt Lake City, 1920: Automobile manufacturing and popularity greatly increased in the 1920s.

Infrastructure Improvements and Debt

After a decline during the war, electrification progressed greatly in the 1920s as more of the United States was added to the electrical grid. Most industries switched from coal power to electricity, and new power plants were constructed. Telephone lines were strung across the continent, and indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many regions.

These infrastructure programs were mostly left to local governments, many of which went deeply into debt under the assumption that an investment in infrastructure would pay off in the future, a theory that caused major problems during the Great Depression. The  federal government, meanwhile, employed the opposite strategy, using the decade of the 1920s to pay down war debts and roll back some taxes that had been introduced during the conflict but were no longer necessary to pay for mobilization and the demands of a war economy.

The Rise of Radio

Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium during the 1920s. Radio sets were initially expensive, but the medium of entertainment and information transmission proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became the grandstand for mass marketing and its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since. During the “golden age of radio,” programming was varied in a manner similar to television programming today. The establishment of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927 introduced a new era of regulation, ensuring the government played a role in the growth and oversight of the industry.

In 1925, electrical recording, one of the greatest advances in sound recording, became available for commercially issued phonograph records, spreading music to the masses along with recorded speeches and other forms of audio diversion. Hollywood also boomed, producing a new form of entertainment that shut down the old Vaudeville theaters: the silent film. Watching a movie was cheap and accessible, creating a profitable market that saw crowds surging into new downtown movie palaces and neighborhood theaters. Even greater entertainment marvels emerged as the decade progressed, the most important being sound synchronized motion pictures, or “talkies,” which quickly replaced silent films between 1927 and 1929.

A photograph of a man dangling off the hands of a large clock on the side of a tall building.

Safety Last!

The famous clock scene from the popular 1923 silent film, Safety Last!

Promoting Peace Abroad

During the new era, flourishing businesses moved abroad, and the United States signed a treaty to promote peace and aid the economy.

Learning Objectives

Describe economic and political neocolonialism, as well as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While American manufacturers struggled with the transition from wartime production to peacetime manufacturing  of goods, the pro-business policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations soon led to economic growth. U.S. businesses benefited from increased tariff  rates under the Underwood-Simmons Tariff, which reimposed the federal income tax and lowered basic tariffs from 40 percent to 25 percent.
  • Many major corporations moved overseas, mainly to Central and South America, to take advantage of resources in the areas, thus beginning an era of economic neocolonialism.
  • Recognizing the public’s rejection of Woodrow Wilson ‘s attempt to join the League of Nations, Calvin Coolidge was reluctant to involve America in international affairs. Yet he initiated the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which, “renounced war as an instrument of national policy” between the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
  • Coolidge continued U.S. occupation of Nicaragua and  Haiti, withdrew troops from the Dominican Republic, and maintained support for Mexico’s elected government against rebel opposition.

Key Terms

  • neocolonialism: The geopolitical practice of using capitalism, business globalization, and cultural imperialism to control a country in lieu of direct military control or indirect political control.
  • isolationist: Someone who advocates or supports isolationism, the state of not having diplomatic relations with other countries and of focusing solely on domestic affairs.
  • Underwood-Simmons Tariff: The United States Revenue Act of 1913, also known as the “Tariff Act,” “Underwood Tariff,” “Underwood Tariff Act,” or “Underwood-Simmons Act,” reimposed the federal income tax following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment and lowered basic tariff rates from 40 percent to 25 percent, which was well below the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909.

After World War I, manufacturing companies faced hard times as they attempted to convert from wartime production of weapons and planes to peacetime manufacturing of goods. However, the pro-business policies put in place by President Warren G. Harding and Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who became president following Harding’s death in 1923, fostered the growth of U.S. companies. These businesses soon flourished in part due to a drop in tariff rates from 40 percent to 25 percent under the Underwood-Simmons Tariff. In addition to employing pro-business acts and policies, Coolidge went against his own beliefs about staying out of international relations and signed an international treaty intended to avoid war in order to promote a peace that would aid American business ventures.

Setting Up Shop Abroad

As they had before the war, many major American companies in the 1920s set up shop in various foreign countries based on the available resources need to produce their wares. American meatpackers moved to Argentina; fruit growers established themselves in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala; sugar plantation owners went to Cuba; rubber plantation owners moved to the Philippines, Sumatra, and Malaya; copper corporations went to Chile; and oil companies went to Mexico and Venezuela.

Unfortunately, economic inequalities within the world’s economic system encouraged policies that served to exploit, rather than improve, these regions for the growth and success of American companies. Thus began an era of economic neocolonialism in which natural resources were heavily extracted from developing countries in the Global South to bolster the prosperity of wealthy countries in the Global North.

League of Nations and World Court

Although not an isolationist, President Coolidge was reluctant to enter into foreign alliances after America suffered dramatically to help win what was essentially a European war. Coolidge saw the landslide Republican victory in the presidential election of 1920 as a rejection of the Democratic Wilsonian push for the United States to join the League of Nations. While not completely opposed to the idea himself, Coolidge believed that the league did not serve American interests, and he would not advocate U.S. membership. Coolidge also refused to recognize the Soviet Union, continuing the policy of the previous administration.

Coolidge spoke publicly in favor of America joining the Permanent Court of International Justice, also known as the “World Court,” but insisted that the United States should not be bound by advisory decisions handed down by foreign powers. The U.S. Senate eventually approved a measure to join the court, with reservations, in 1926. While the League of Nations accepted the reservations, it suggested some modifications upon which the Senate failed to act, and the United States ultimately never joined the World Court.

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Detail from a League of Nations poster, circa 1920: President Calvin Coolidge did not advocate U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

Foreign Policy in the Americas

Coolidge continued American support for the elected government of Mexico against opposition rebels, lifting the arms embargo on that country and sending his close friend Dwight Morrow to Mexico as the American ambassador. Coolidge represented the United States at the Pan American Conference in Havana, Cuba, making him the only sitting president to visit the country. The American occupation of Nicaragua and Haiti continued under his administration, although Coolidge withdrew American troops from the Dominican Republic in 1924.

Kellogg-Briand Pact

Coolidge’s best-known foreign-policy initiative was the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, named for Coolidge’s Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. The treaty, ratified in 1929, committed signatories including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan to, “renounce war, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” Although the treaty failed to prevent an even greater global conflict involving all of the major signatories beginning just 1o years later, it nonetheless provided the founding principle for international law after the end of World War II.

The Election of 1924

Republican Calvin Coolidge benefited from a split within the Democratic Party, winning the 1924 presidential election.

Learning Objectives

Describe how voter demographics were reconfigured in the 1924 election and the reasons Calvin Coolidge was elected

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Vice President Calvin Coolidge took office in 1923 when President Warren G. Harding died, and Coolidge was given  credit  for a booming economy  at home and no visible crises abroad.
  • Democratic candidate John W. Davis was a conservative and pushed many liberal Democrats to back the Progressive Party candidate, Senator Robert M. La Follette. This split in the Democratic Party aided Coolidge’s victory.
  • The 1924 presidential election was the first in which all Native Americans were recognized as  citizens and permitted to vote.

Key Terms

  • John W. Davis: (April 13, 1873–March 24, 1955) The Democratic Party candidate for president in 1924. He served as a U.S. Representative from West Virginia from 1911 to 1913, and then as solicitor general of the United States and U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Woodrow Wilson.
  • Calvin Coolidge: (1872–1933) The 30th president of the United States (1923–1929). He previously served as vice president of the United States under Warren G. Harding from 1921 to 1923 and as governor of Massachusetts beginning in 1919.
  • Robert M. La Follette: (June 14, 1855–June 18, 1925) The Progressive Party candidate for president in 1924. He served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as governor of Wisconsin, and as U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to 1925.

Calvin Coolidge, the Republican candidate who served as vice president under Warren G. Harding and became president in 1923 when Harding died unexpectedly while still in office, won the U.S. presidential election of 1924. Coolidge, the former governor of Massachusetts, was given credit for a prosperous economy at home and no visible crises abroad, which was especially important in the decade following the carnage of World War I. Coolidge’s candidacy was aided by a split within the Democratic Party that
caused liberals to vote for a third-party Progressive candidate.

Portrait of Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, 1923: Coolidge’s successful 1924 Republican campaign for president was aided by a split within the Democratic Party.

Democratic Party Split

The Democratic Party candidate for president in 1924 was John W. Davis, a little-known former congressman and diplomat from West Virginia. Davis was a conservative, causing many liberal Democrats to move their support to the third-party campaign of Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, who ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party.

The Democratic National Convention of 1924 was considered a disaster that deeply divided the party. Held at Madison Square Garden in New York City from June 24 to July 29, the convention became known as “Klanbake” due to the strong influence of the Ku Klux Klan among the southern delegates. It was the longest continually running convention in U.S. political history and required 103 ballots before former U.S. Solicitor General Davis received the nomination, carrying only the traditionally Democratic “Solid South” bloc of states and Oklahoma. His nomination was considered a compromise following a battle between the front runners, former Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo of California and New York Governor Al Smith.

The party that went forward with Davis in 1924 was decidedly Wilsonian, as clearly indicated by the published party platform that read in part, “We, the representatives of the Democratic Party, in national convention assembled, pay our profound homage to the memory of Woodrow Wilson.” The platform made direct comparisons with the Republican administration then in the White House, stating, “The
tariff, the destruction of our foreign markets and the high cost of transportation are taking the profit out of agriculture, mining and other raw material industries. Large standing armies and the cost of preparing for war still cast their burdens upon humanity. These conditions the existing Republican administration has proven itself unwilling or unable to redress.”

Portrait of John William Davis

John William Davis: John W. Davis ran as the nominee of a divided Democratic Party in the presidential election of 1924.

Republican Party Advantage

The Republican Party National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, ran from June 10 to June 12 and made history by being the first GOP convention to provide equal representation to women, with a rule change that provided each state with a national committee-man and national committee-woman. This likely gained Republicans favor among females, who had only achieved the right to vote four years earlier with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The GOP in 1924 also enjoyed the continuing support of African Americans who considered it the Party of Lincoln, with the majority of black voters favoring Republicans in every national election since the Civil War.

The 1924 GOP convention platform called for a, “rigid economy in government” and made note of the economic accomplishments under President Harding, which undoubtedly were influential in convincing many Americans to vote Republican. The platform stated in part that the reduction of taxes by $1.25 billion per year, reduction of public debt by $2.4 billion, reduction of public expenditures from $5.5 billion to a prewar figure of $3.4 billion, “all during the short period of three years—presents a record unsurpassed in the history of public finance.” With Coolidge riding that booming economy, there was little doubt that he would win the election. Yet he gained an additional advantage from an unexpected place: a third party.

The La Follette Swing

La Follette, a former U.S. Representative and Governor of Wisconsin, was originally a Republican and launched his Progressive Party as a vehicle for his vocal opposition to World War I, the League of Nations, and railroad trusts. The 1924 Progressive Party, comprised solely of La Follette supporters, was different than the party of the same name that ran Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1912; the new Progressives were generally agrarian, populist, and Midwestern as opposed to Roosevelt’s urban, eastern elite following.

La Follette’s appeal among liberal Democrats allowed Coolidge to achieve a 25.2 percent margin of victory over Davis in the popular vote, the second largest since 1824. In 12 states, the La Follette vote was greater than that cast for Davis. In Wisconsin, La Follette also defeated the Republican ticket, thus gaining one state in the Electoral College.

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette

Robert M. La Follette: Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party politics drew support away from the Democrats in 1924, hurting the Davis campaign and helping Coolidge achieve an overwhelming election victory.

Historic Results

The 1924 presidential election was the first in which all Native Americans were recognized as citizens and allowed to vote. The distribution of the vote was subsequently altered throughout the country and particularly in 18 states in the middle and far West. La Follette’s 17 percent vote total was the third highest for a third-party candidate since the Civil War and only has been surpassed by Theodore Roosevelt’s 27 percent in 1912 and Ross Perot’s 19 percent total in 1992.

Davis, running with Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, and La Follette, paired with Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, saw Coolidge exceed their combined national tally by 2.5 million votes. Coolidge and his running mate, Charles G. Dawes of Ohio, topped the polls in 35 states, leaving the electoral vote for Davis in only 12 states.

Coolidge won all five boroughs of New York City, primarily due to his popularity among Irish Catholics and other immigrant communities, which is still considered a nearly impossible feat for a Republican candidate in a historically Democratic stronghold. Coolidge’s campaign slogan, “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” not only was highly popular with the nation, but an indicator of how easily he would win the presidency in 1924.