The Politics of “Normalcy:” The American Confrontation with Progressivism

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The Great War altered relations between the state and its citizens. The Progressives had inspired—or perhaps, more accurately, had revived—fears that regulation was necessary if modern society were to reach its potential and not descend into chaos. They had advocated state intervention to solve a host of social and economic problems and, ultimately, to create a national identity and define a national purpose.

I.

During the 1920s, Americans faced the consequences of Progressivism.[1] Before the First World War, Progressive reformers launched a multifaceted program to “Americanize” immigrants, often relying on the schools to instill American values in children who could then instruct their parents. During the war, the Committee on Public Information imposed more rigid standards of obedience and loyalty on foreigners and citizens alike.[2] Among the numerous trials to afflict the United States during the 1920s was the appearance of an especially virulent form of ethnic, racial, and religious prejudice that echoed wartime calls for “One-Hundred Percent Americanism.” Government propaganda encouraged, or at least gave permission to, Americans to harass those who sympathized with the enemy or who dared to criticize the war effort, however incontrovertible their allegiance to the United States. During the first Red Scare of the early 1920s, the Wilson administration redirected the hatred of German immigrants and German-Americans toward anarchists, socialists, and Bolsheviks, many of whom officials identified as Southern and Eastern Europeans: Italians, Slavs, and Jews. These same groups, along with blacks, also became targets of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Of course, not only did an exaggerated fear of immigrants, radicals, and other internal enemies propel these campaigns. They were also driven by the actual occurrence of revolutionary violence, such as the bombing of Wall Street in September 1920, a tragedy that left thirty-eight dead and hundreds injured.[3]

The Great War altered relations between the state and its citizens, even though the United States was never threatened with attack or invasion, and even though most Americans had never seen the enemy. This movement continued into the 1920s. The Progressives had inspired—or perhaps, more accurately, had revived—fears that regulation was necessary if modern society were to reach its potential and not descend into chaos. The gathering of information and the establishment of uniform standards became the preferred techniques by which to solve all manner of problems. But the question remained about how much could be accomplished by rational persuasion alone. Compulsion seemed inexorable.

The national experiment with prohibition provides a vivid case in point. Prohibition required a tremendous broadening of the coercive power of the state over the lives and livelihoods of many Americans. Similarly, the repression of political dissent during the war evolved afterward into local and state efforts, often carried out in coordination with private citizens’ groups, to expose and frustrate vice and crime. Citizens and politicians alike insisted that the power of the federal government did not include the right to police. But the determination to implement such laws as the federal statutes against white slavery and kidnapping, and, of course, the Volstead Act, required some sort of national police force. The establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1921 was a move in that direction. As the name suggests, the FBI was supposed to limit its activities to the investigation of crime, not enforcement of the law. The distinction proved impossible to maintain in practice, especially after J. Edgar Hoover assumed leadership of the bureau.

The Progressives had advocated state intervention to solve a host of social and economic problems and, ultimately, to create a national identity and define a national purpose. Most Americans during the 1920s were more circumspect. As a result, the statism of the twenties was limited, as Americans sought alternatives to federal power. The changes that took place during the 1920s may have anticipated the emergence of an activist national government, the welfare state, and even the military-industrial complex, but the longstanding distrust of centralized authority also impeded these developments, stunting the growth of a bureaucracy, at least by European standards. Americans, for instance, complained about rising taxes. Most were willing to pay higher taxes to fund the response to an emergency, such as the war, or to underwrite the cost of public services, such as the operation municipal police and fire departments. They rejected the notion that the government should levy taxes to support itself, or to pay for benefits that others received. Assistance for those in need entailed charity and ought to be voluntary. Taxes, by definition, were mandatory and thus oppressive.[4]

Nonetheless, despite these misgivings, the war facilitated the expansion of government. By turns harmful and advantageous, a temptation and a warning, government efforts to manage both the economy and the society became, during the 1920s, a permanent characteristic of twentieth-century American life. Although the government relinquished control of business and industry, such as the railroads, soon after the war ended, various agencies at the same time began to apply the information collected during the war to a broad program of reform and management. The quest to improve efficiency, increase productivity, and enhance profits linked business and government in unprecedented, and often dangerous, ways, contributing to the extension of federal authority in the 1930s and beyond.[5]

In response to government involvement in society and the pressure on Americans to comply with federal mandates, the new concept of reform to emerge during the 1920s resolved to free the individual from supervision of, and control by, the collective, whether social or political. In dress, hairstyle, manners, language, and sexual conduct, all individuals ought to be released from adhering conventional standards and traditional morality, to say nothing of the law. Their wellbeing, and ultimately the health of society, required that they be permitted to cultivate their identity and to express their individuality. Sinclair Lewis’s novels Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), to cite two of the most obvious examples, denounced the chauvinism and intolerance of communities that forestalled such personal liberation. But neither social reformers nor party politicians could stay the expansion of a national culture or the development of a national audience for it, which by any calculation brought greater uniformity to American life.

Subsequent criticism aside, at the time this development seemed beneficial to many Americans. Ethnic diversity, along with the cultural discord and political tension to which it gave rise, had provoked the conflict in Europe. Ethnic homogeneity and cultural uniformity, many Americans reasoned, would have a salutary effect on the United States, uniting Americans as a single people and a cohesive nation. (Never mind that respectable Americans saw their country as being polluted by outsiders, radicals, criminals, and scoundrels of various sorts, with whom they had no intention of ever making common cause.) As matters turned out, the standardization of American culture during the 1920s did less to effect a common national character that it did to serve the profit motive. For the moment, Americans left it to their counterparts in Europe to promote national unity, cultural uniformity, and racial purity in an attempt to enforce political consensus.

But mass entertainment, the mass media, and mass consumption were insufficient to quell the anxiety, both individual and collective, that increasing numbers of Americans felt about the changes that were engulfing their society. For, by the 1920s, Americans had not merely fashioned a consumer economy; they had also built a consumer society. The affluence of the 1920s, like the subsequent deprivation of the 1930s, penetrated every aspect of American life. Consumer capitalism proved nothing short of a revolutionary force bent on discarding custom and tradition in favor of innovation and novelty. The sovereignty of the market threatened to uproot historic cultures that had long rested on seemingly unalterable ethnic, religious, or geographic foundations. Men and women, rich and poor, all Americans alike had to suffer the prospect of dissolution, of being absorbed into the standardized mass of products, opinions, and attitudes from which dissent was becoming gradually more impossible. Yet, the culture of consumption that came to maturity during the 1920s generated more conflict than consensus. If nothing else, by so prominently displaying the trappings of wealth, it revived old questions about economic equality and social justice that had haunted political debate in the United States since the eighteenth century, and that continues to bedevil Americans in the twenty-first.

In addition, the consumer society redefined the meaning of work, opportunity, and success. The previous generation of reformers, from the Populists to the Progressives, had focused on challenging the power of monopoly, reviving economic competition, and safeguarding independent proprietorship. They envisioned an economy in which small producers were still ascendant. The state and, in particular, the national government intervened to counter the often unfair advantages that large corporations enjoyed. This action guaranteed that all Americans who entered the free market stood a reasonable chance of success. At the same time, the government rejected policies that encouraged a more equitable distribution of wealth. Economic success and failure remained entirely the province of the individual. During the early 1920s, Presidents Harding and Coolidge adopted an unobtrusive approach to the workings of the economy, hesitant to intervene in the private arrangements that businessmen had made and doing little even to promote economic growth. The economic crisis that occurred at the end of the decade raised anew questions about the distribution of economic resources, which many, including for a time President Franklin Roosevelt, had deemed the primary obligation of the state.

II.

Ironically, Republicans quarreled over foreign rather than domestic policy as the 1920s began. The First World War and its aftermath had shattered the unity of the Republican Party. At the Republican convention of 1920, eastern internationalists supported the candidacy of General Leonard Wood. They regarded Wood as the natural successor to Theodore Roosevelt, who had died a year earlier. Frank O. Lowden, the former governor of Illinois, and Hiram Johnson, the Progressive former governor of, and current senator from, California, became the standard bearers of the midwestern isolationists.[6] The deadlock yielded a compromise, resulting in the nomination of Warren G. Harding, whom pundits had not even viewed a dark horse candidate at the beginning of the convention.[7] After Harding’s nomination, George Harvey, the editor of the North American Review, wrote that “there was no popular explosion for Harding. There was little spontaneity. He was nominated because there was nothing against him, and because the delegates wanted to go home.”[8]

Although far from inspiring, Harding’s assertion of the need not for “heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy” was neither as simplistic nor as lackluster as it may seem in retrospect. It was, Harding declared, “not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality” that would restore peace and tranquility to a people who had endured upheaval and war for too long.[9] A seasoned politician, Harding correctly assessed the requirements of the American electorate. Few Americans in the early 1920s wanted to be inspired to make over, to improve, or even to save the world. They sought instead consolation and reassurance. They craved, in Harding’s words, the “regular steady order of things:”

My best judgment of America’s need is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path. Let’s get out of the fevered delirium of war, with the hallucination that all the money in the world is to be made in the madness of war and the wildness of its aftermath. Let us stop to consider that tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people. We want to go on, secure and unafraid, holding fast to the American inheritance, and confident of the supreme American fulfillment.[10]

Shorn of the pressures of reform and the exigencies of war, Harding’s rhetoric stilled the turbulence of the preceding three decades. Americans at last could relax.

Nineteen-nineteen had been an uncommonly tumultuous year. The extended, and increasingly malicious, debate about whether the Senate should ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the United States join the League of Nations exacted an emotional toll on the American people. “How shall we help to bring order out of chaos?” asked the isolationist, Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho:

Shall we do so by becoming less or more American? Shall we entangle and embarrass the efforts of a powerful and independent people, or shall we have them in every emergency and in every crisis to do in that particular hour and in that supreme moment what the conscience and wisdom of an untrammeled and liberty-loving people shall decide is wise and just? Shall we yoke our deliberations to forces we cannot control and leave our people to the mercy of powers which may be wholly at variance with our conception of duty?[11]

Such questions answered themselves. Many who opposed both the treaty and the League did so because they despised Woodrow Wilson, or at least so his supporters concluded. Former Secretary of State Robert Lansing, for example, insisted that hatred for Wilson rather than reservations about his policies motivated critics. Wilson’s declining health added to the sense of national confusion and uneasiness. The severe case of influenza that he contracted while attending the peace conference, followed by at least two strokes, had left him physically impaired and mentally erratic. Harding’s composure, by contrast, was the quality that Americans most valued in a leader.

Labor unrest and violence compounded the mutual recriminations in which Democrats and Republicans engaged. During 1919 alone four million Americans—steel and dock workers, meat packers, and even members of the Boston police department—went on strike to protest the reduction in wages, the assault on the rights of organized labor, and the loss of jobs. Massive unemployment sometimes merged with white resentment at black success, contributing to the racial carnage that tormented such cities as Chicago, St. Louis, Knoxville, and Tulsa.[12] A hysterical press convinced readers throughout the nation that communist subversives roamed the streets at will, plotting the demise of the American government. Meanwhile, women had earned the right to vote in national elections. Prohibition had thoroughly altered the drinking habits and social customs of countless Americans, while also introducing a new set of laws and spawning a new variety of criminals. Finally, nature had inflicted its own misery in the form of an influenza pandemic that ultimately cost 675,000 American lives. By the time of the election in November, a huge bloc of voters, unsettled by war, aggravated by political squabbling, frightened by the threat of radical conspiracies, alarmed by class conflict and racial antagonism, and terrified by the pandemic longed for a restoration of order and stability. Harding promised them deliverance.[13]

During the brief three-and-one-half years he spent in office, Harding won the genuine affection of most American citizens. When he died unexpectedly on August 2, 1923, as the result of a heart attack followed by a cerebral hemorrhage, their grief was sincere.[14] Compared to his immediate predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, Harding was an intellectual mediocrity. He lacked a broad social vision or even a coherent political agenda. He seemed to embody the jovial but superficial American male, whose chief preoccupations were poker, golf, cocktails, and other men’s wives. Painfully aware of his ignorance of, and uncertainty about, the most pressing issues of the day, Harding acknowledged that he was “not fit for this office and should never have been here.” He told Judge John Barton Payne that “I don’t think I’m big enough for the Presidency.”[15]

Like the majority of historians, Harding’s contemporaries took his measure. Republican Senator Boise Penrose of Pennsylvania counseled Harding’s managers during the campaign to “keep Warren at home. Don’t let him make any speeches. If he goes out on a tour, somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damn fool to try to answer them.” Confirming Senator Penrose’s misgivings, William Gibbs McAdoo, President Wilson’s son-in-law and the former Secretary of the Treasury, characterized Harding’s speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” When Harding died, the poet e.e. cummings lamented that Harding was “the only man, woman, or child / who wrote a simple declarative sentence / with seven grammatical errors.”[16] Again, Harding himself entertained few pretensions about his lack of intellectual acumen. His inadequacies did not dim his popularity. He was the man whom most Americans in 1920 wanted as their president.

Notwithstanding Harding’s deficiencies, and the scandals that did permanent harm to his reputation, his presidency was neither devoid of substance nor accomplishment. If the transgressions of Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall disgraced Harding’s administration, the achievements of Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover added to its luster.[17] Together Hughes, Mellon, Wallace, and Hoover built the administrative structures necessary to manage American participation in international politics and the global economy. Their labors heightened American influence throughout the world and prosperity at home.

At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, Hughes negotiated the Five-Power Treaty, persuading England, Japan, France, and Italy to join the United States in restricting the size of their fleets. He thereby forestalled a costly and portentous naval arms race. Harding did his part by appointing Democrats as well as Republicans to the American delegation. Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Democratic Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama both took an active role in drafting the treaty. Harding made it clear that he appreciated the “proper jealousy” with which the Senate held its constitutional authority to ratify treaties. He meant the direct involvement of powerful senators in the process to ensure that they would compose a treaty that their colleagues in the Senate could approve.

Unlike Wilson’s campaign in behalf of the Treaty of Versailles, Harding took a bipartisan approach to the debate in the Senate that helped to secure ratification. His tactic worked. The final vote on the Five-Power Treaty was 67 in favor and 27 opposed. Senator Underwood delivered the twelve Democratic votes that assured the treaty obtained the requisite two-thirds majority. If the settlement forged at the Washington Naval Conference cannot be reckoned among the greatest exploits of American diplomatic history, it was nonetheless no small feat to reinforce the international balance of power, especially in the aftermath of Wilson’s catastrophic failure to institute a lasting peace at the end of World War I.[18]

Harding and Hughes may not have endorsed internationalism, but neither did they embrace isolationism. The United States still had an obligation to advance international cooperation and peace. At the end of his Second Annual Address, which he delivered to Congress on December 8, 1922, Harding clarified the bearing that the United States must assume toward the community of nations:

We are cognizant of the world’s struggles for full readjustment and rehabilitation, and we have shirked no duty which comes of sympathy, or fraternity, or highest fellowship…. Every obligation consonant with American ideals and sanctioned under our form of government is willingly met…. Our constitutional limitations do not forbid the exercise of a moral influence, the measure of which is not less than the high purposes we have sought to serve.

After all there is less difference about the part this great Republic shall play in furthering peace and advancing humanity than in the manner of playing it. We ask no one to assume responsibility for us; we assume no responsibility which others must bear for themselves, unless nationality is hopelessly swallowed up in internationalism.[19]

The United States never joined the League of Nations, but Harding urged American diplomats to cooperate with the League to prohibit illegal traffic in arms and opium. In addition, he encouraged the Senate to consent to a protocol authorizing American membership on the Permanent Court of International Justice, the so-called World Court. The Senate demurred. Finally, although Harding supported immigration quotas and high tariffs to curtail the flow of foreign people and goods into the United States, he also began to dismantle the interventionist policies that had vexed relations between the United States, Mexico, and various Caribbean and Latin American countries since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt—policies that reflected only discredit on the nation and its leaders.[20]

III.

The extraordinary demands placed on government after the United States entered the First World War had transformed the income tax into the foremost instrument of American fiscal policy. With the Revenue Acts of 1917 and 1918, the principal architect of which was Representative Claude Kitchen of North Carolina, a Democratic Congress reduced the number of exemptions for all taxpayers and increased the tax rate to six percent on incomes up to $4,000, to 12 percent on incomes above $4,000, and to a maximum of 65 percent on the highest incomes. Congress also imposed an excess profits tax on corporations and raised the estate tax to a maximum of 25 percent. By the end of the war, high taxes had turned many voters against the Democratic Party. If the “return to normalcy” had any specific meaning, growing numbers of Americans interpreted it to signal relief from what they considered the excessive tax burden that had befallen them during the war years.

In his Secretary of the Treasury, Harding found a kindred spirit. Andrew Mellon despised the income tax, which he believed was not only an economic affliction but also a moral outrage.[21] Taxes penalized the rich, discouraged enterprise and investment, and, as a consequence, inhibited economic activity. Mellon proposed instead a strategy that amounted to an early version of supply-side, trickle-down economics. When the wealthy kept a larger portion of their incomes, he asserted, everyone benefited. As capital investment expanded, it produced jobs, augmented productivity, and lowered prices.

In 1921, Mellon recommended to the House Ways and Means Committee a series of tax cuts totaling $800 million. He proposed to eliminate the wartime luxury tax and the excess profits tax, while decreasing the surtax on high incomes from 65 to 35 percent. To make the offer more agreeable to Democrats, Mellon included a modest enlargement of the standard deduction for families, a new federal tax on luxury automobiles, and a two percent boost in the corporate income tax. To his surprise and dismay, Congress accepted these measures, but deferred action on the tax cuts that Mellon wanted, save for fixing the surtax on the highest incomes at 50 percent.

Angry but undaunted, Mellon tendered a second proposal in 1923, a few months after Harding had died. The president’s death did not garner Mellon much congressional sympathy. He had requested that Congress drop the surtax on the highest personal incomes to 25 percent and abolish the estate tax. Even the Republicans in Congress found Mellon’s plan to be too extreme, although they did agree to lessen the surtax, slashing it to from 50 to 40 percent. But these concessions proved to be the extent of the tax reform that Congress would tolerate. To realize his ambitions, Mellon had to await the election of a more compliant legislature.

Mellon was a staunch fiscal conservative who welcomed low interest rates, balanced budgets, and minimal government regulation as vociferously as he did negligible taxes. At the opposite end of the political spectrum was another eminent but controversial member of Harding’s cabinet, Herbert Hoover, who served as the secretary of commerce.[22] In important respects, Hoover was a progressive technocrat. He had no more ardent faith than in organization, efficiency, and science. Liberals such as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Franklin Roosevelt both saw in Hoover a splendid candidate for president on the Democratic ticket. But the very qualities that made Hoover attractive to Democrats aroused skepticism and mistrust among Republicans. Hoover unambiguously saw government as more than a necessary evil, the powers of which, most Republicans concurred, ought to be as restricted as possible. When a brief but severe depression struck the American economy in 1921, idling five million workers, Hoover appealed to Harding to initiate a massive federal public works program to combat unemployment. Harding ignored Hoover’s advice, but among Republicans, the counsel itself marked Hoover as a subversive.

A reliable conservative, Mellon seemed far more trustworthy. His skillful management of the economic crisis looked like a work of genius when prosperity returned in 1923. Throughout his tenure as secretary of the treasury, Mellon adhered to the time-honored principle that the economy was a private system, operating with the assistance and support, but not the interference, of government. Progressivism and the war had made the distinction between business and government more difficult to sustain in practice. They had grown interdependent, and that association endangered the possessive individualism on which rested the system of free enterprise. For that reason, Hoover’s reverence for “voluntary cooperation” and “associative individualism” sounded gravely heretical.

Yet, attentive to the intimate connections that existed between business and government, even the conservative Mellon, like the more radical Hoover, sought to formulate public policy. He did so not merely to safeguard the private sector from government regulation, but also, and more important, to make certain that the system operated without experiencing serious and prolonged disruptions, whether the cause was economic, social, or political. Although they differed on the role that government should perform, both Mellon and Hoover urged businessmen to act responsibly, to further their private interests without at the same time compromising the public welfare. The modern entrepreneur must differentiate himself from the predatory Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Neither Mellon nor Hoover could tolerate friction between the quest for profits and the preservation of a just and equitable society.

Preferring to work behind the scenes, both Mellon and Hoover shared a commitment to discreet but effective management. Yet, Hoover stood at the forefront of an intellectual revolution that linked progress exclusively to science and technology. Only trained experts could cope with such intricate structures. Hoover was such a man. Orphaned and impoverished as a child, Hoover became a mining engineer of international reputation and a millionaire several times over by the age of forty. He was a real-life Tom Swift. The handiwork of children’s novelist Edward Stratemeyer (writing under the pseudonym Victor Appleton), Tom Swift was a youthful mastermind who devised practical inventions from which he earned a handsome, but never an extravagant, profit. Like Horatio Alger in the nineteenth century, Stratemeyer provided a model of leadership for his audience. If in Alger’s tales of rags-to-riches the hero prevailed in business and in life because of his moral rectitude, marking outward success as the sign of inward virtue, Tom Swift thrived because of his patience, diligence, imagination, and rationality. Tom was ingenious and resourceful. His inventions solved problems, and made life easier, simpler, and better for everyone. The villains of the stories, by contrast, were invariably the exploitive industrialists who expend resources for personal aggrandizement that might more justly have served the public good.

As secretary of commerce between 1921 and his own election as president in 1928, Hoover represented the evolution, not the demise, of Progressivism. Denouncing fraud and deception as tolerable, or at least as necessary, business practices, Hoover instructed entrepreneurs to take a more scientific approach to wealth. They should focus on investment strategies, fund research and development, and bring to market products to improve the standard of living and enrich the quality of life. The articulation of public policy and the conduct of reform, Hoover argued, must henceforth be guided by the vast store of information that such advisory councils as the Brookings Institute and the National Bureau of Economic Research accumulated, organized, and distributed to businessmen and politicians. For Hoover, knowledge really was power. His confidence in data, in science, and in technology, and his crusade to introduce a socially responsible capitalism into the United States, helped to intensify the utopian enthusiasm that characterized the 1920s until the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression.

Hoover’s positivist devotion to the utility of facts and his absolute trust in the objective conclusions of science were perhaps naïve. But in his view, such propositions formed the gateway to a so-called New Era in which all questions would be answered, all mysteries laid bare, and all problems solved. Meticulous analysis, Hoover conjectured, would enable social scientists, politicians, policymakers, and businessmen to identify present and, more important, to predict future trends. Planning thus became in his mind a more palatable alternative to regulation for businessmen still inclined to think of government as an intrusive nuisance or, worse, a domineering tyrant. Hoover’s vision depended in part on at least implicit recognition of the idea that profits were incidental to the efficient operation of the economic system. Greed and selfishness had no place in the new order.

The ideal figure someday to lead the nation, Hoover was at once the “Great Engineer” and the “Great Humanitarian.” Having overcome tragic circumstances, he was determined to enable others to surmount their own hardships and to live productive, satisfying lives. Throughout the 1920s, his formula was as consistent as it was alluringly simple. Scientific research engendered economic innovation. Economic innovation multiplied profits. Profits could then be distributed to workers and invested in additional research, which would secure uninterrupted economic stability. He conceived of American society as a fabulous machine that would never breakdown, and would operate with only nominal and periodic adjustments. When Hoover was elected to the presidency in 1928, he was poised at last to set this machine in motion, his supreme triumph assured.

Yet, in truth, Hoover’s efforts to foster cooperation among various business interests during the early 1920s had already failed by the time he became president. His endorsement of trade associations while he was the secretary of commerce, for example, had trapped him between the critics of and the apologists for business. The former objected that trade associations would invariably facilitate violations of antitrust laws. The latter were, in fact, eager to circumvent antitrust restrictions by using government agencies to fix prices. Hoover’s resolution of the impasse was at best desultory. He supported both trade and agricultural associations, but denied them the legal authority to enforce their edicts. He admitted the problems and needs of a modern industrial economy, but the solutions that he imagined appalled and terrified him.

Hoover’s rhetoric during the campaign of 1928 exposed the dilemma that he was to confront as president to a far greater extent than he could have appreciated. Government direction of the economy was essential, he admitted, but it was also fraught with peril. Corporations, as he had discovered, were authoritarian. Democratic government, on the contrary, required collaboration and assent. According to the unfolding logic of Hoover’s position, for government to manage business and the economy, government had to become more authoritarian and less democratic. He does not appear to have entertained the converse possibility of democratizing business, the authoritarian character of which was unalterably set in his mind. But a program of “regimentation,” to use Hoover’s word, brought the United States perilously close to the socialist, communist, and fascist regimes for which he felt nothing but contempt.

The inconsistencies that troubled Hoover’s thought might never have become acute and, finally, untenable if not for the crisis of the 1930s. As president, trying to navigate a volatile emergency, Hoover could not bring himself to become the tyrant he thought the economy needed to survive. As conditions worsened, he instead surrendered power and abdicated responsibility. Detailed knowledge, precise expertise, and quiet efficiency, in the end, could offer no rejoinder to the Great Depression.

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Notes:

[1] I found two now classic articles still useful in determining what happened to the Progressive Movement during the 1920s. See Arthur S. Link, “What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?,” American Historical Review 64 (1959), 833-51 and Henry F. May, “Shifting Perspectives on the 1920s,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 (1956), 405-27.

[2] See Paul L. Murphy, World War I and the Origins of Civil Liberties (New York, 1970) and Harry N. Scheiber, The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, 1917-1921 (Ithaca, NY, 1960).

[3] See Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in the First Age of Terror (New York, 2009).

[4] See John F. Witte, The Politics and Development of the Federal Income Tax (Madison, WS, 1985).

[5] Two recent books offer keen insights into the changed relations between the national government and American citizens. See Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York, 2008) and Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (Chicago, 2009). See also Stanley Coben, A. Mitchell Palmer (New York, 1962) and “A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20,” Political Science Quarterly 79 (1964), 52-75; Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (Minneapolis, 1955).

[6] Johnson had been Roosevelt’s running mate on the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party ticket in 1912, which he had helped to found. By 1920, Johnson’s staunch isolationism had soured relations with the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, most of w hose members supported Wood. Once nominated, Harding asked Johnson to serve as his running mate, but Johnson declined.

[7] The final delegate tallies on the tenth ballot were: Harding, 692 1/5; Wood, 156; Johnson, 80 1/5; Lowden, 11.

[8] Quoted in the Modesto (California) Evening News (June 25, 1920), 11. On the Republican Convention, see Wesley M. Bagby, “The `Smoke Filled Room’ and the nomination of Warren G. Harding,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 41 (1954-1955), 659-61, 663, 672-74 and Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times (New York, 1968), 355-96. On the campaign and election of 1920, see Bagby, The Road to Normalcy: The Presidential Campaign and Election of 1920 (Baltimore, 1962), Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson & World War I, 1917-1921 (New York, 1985), 219-30; Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, 397-436.

[9] Harding made the speech in which he called for a return to “normalcy” on May 14, 1920, while a candidate for the Republican nomination. See Warren G. Harding, “National Ideals and Policies,” The Protectionist (May, 1920), 71-81.

[10] Ibid.

[11] William E. Borah, “Americanism” (February 21, 1919), quoted in Horace Green, ed. American Problems: A Selection of Speeches and Prophecies by William E. Borah (New York, 1924), 101-102. See also Thomas Benjamin Lundy, The League and the Nation’s Danger: A Study of the so called “League of Nations” (Philadelphia, 1919), 33.

[12] On labor unrest during the 1920s, see Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle, 1964) and Francis Russell, A City in Terror: 1919, the Boston Police Strike (New York, 1975). On racial violence, see William M. Tuttle Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York, 1970) and especially Lee E. Williams, Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine, Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921 (Hattiesburg, MS, 1972).

[13] The standard biography of Harding remains Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, but there are a number of valuable studies of Harding’s political career and presidency. See Randolph C. Downes, The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding, 1865-1920 (Columbus, OH, 1970); Charles L. Mee, The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding (New York, 1981); Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis, 1969) and The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding –Coolidge Era (New York, 1973); Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (Lawrence, KS), 1977).

[14] Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, 591-996.

[15] Quoted in Brian Farmer, American Conservatism: History, Theory, and Practice (Newcastle, UK, 2005), 217.

[16] Senator Penrose is quoted in Ferrell, 226, but also see John A. Morello, Selling the President, 1920: Albert Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding (Westport, CT, 2001), 51. William Gibbs McAdoo, Crowded Years (Boston, 1931), 388-89. e.e. cummings is quoted in Paul Dickson, Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents (New York, 2013), 66.

[17] After Harding’s death, six members of his administration faced indictment for various crimes, all of which arose from more extensive government involvement in the economy and the new international commitments that arose from the war.

Charles Forbes, the Director of Veteran’s Affairs, went to prison for accepting bribes from a construction company that was bidding on government contracts and for selling medical supplies at absurdly discounted prices to another firm. Charles Cramer, Forbes’s chief legal counsel, committed suicide before he could be charged.

Jess Smith, the personal secretary of Attorney General Daugherty, conspired with Thomas W. Miller, the custodian of alien property, to support the dubious claims of a German banking family to recover $7 billion in securities that the United States government had confiscated during the war. In exchange, Miller received a payment of $50,000 and Smith a payment in excess of $224,000. Miller went to prison for more than a year and, like Charles Cramer, Smith committed suicide. For his part in the affair, Daugherty twice went to trial. Although he was acquitted on both occasions, Coolidge dismissed him from the cabinet.

Albert Fall pressured the Navy Department to transfer the administration of oil reserves in Elk Hills, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming to the Department of the Interior. Fall then granted drilling leases to the Pan American Petroleum Company, from which he received $100,000 in cash, and to the Continental Trading Company, from which he and his son-in-law received $200,000 in Liberty Bonds. Convicted of accepting bribes, Fall was fined $100,000 and sentenced to one year in jail. See J. Leonard Bates, The Origins of Teapot Dome: Progressives, Parties, and Petroleum, 1909-1921 (Urbana, IL, 1963); Burl Noggle, Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920s (Baton Rouge, LA, 1962); Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, 488-532.

[18] Critics at the time and since have dismissed the treaty as another instance of American diplomatic naiveté, pointing out that it contained too many loopholes to be effective. It did nothing, for instance, to prepare the way for a reduction of land forces. More ominously, in Asia viability of the pact rested on the sufferance of the Japanese, who ignored its provisions whenever they found it convenient to do so. See Selig Anderson, The Uncertain Giant, 1921-1941: American Foreign Policy Between the Wars (New York, 1965); Thomas Buckley, The United States and the Washington Naval Conference, 1921-1922 (Knoxville, TN, 1970); Betty Glad, Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusion of Innocence: A Study in American Diplomacy (Urbana, IL, 1970); William Appleman Williams, “The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920s,” Science and Society 18 (1954), 1-20.

[19] “Second Annual Message” (December 8, 1922) University of Virginia.

[20] Ibid.

[21] On Mellon, see David Cannadine, Mellon: An American Life (New York, 2006); Harvey O’Connor, Mellon’s Millions: The Biography of a Fortune (New York, 1933); Robert R. Keller, “Supply-Side Economic Policies during the Coolidge-Mellon Era,” Journal of Economic Issues. 16/3 (1982), 773–90; Susan M. Murnane, “Selling Scientific Taxation: The Treasury Department’s Campaign for Tax Reform in the 1920s,” Law & Social Inquiry 29/4 (2004), 819–56.

[22] On Hoover’s tenure as the secretary of commerce, see Gary D. Best, The Politics of American Individualism: Herbert Hoover in Transition, 1918-1921 (Westport, CT, 1975); Kendrick A. Clements, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary, 1918-1928 (New York, 2010); Ellis W. Hawley, ed., Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, 1921-1928: Studies in New Era Thought and Practice (Iowa City, 1981); Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (Boston, 1975).

The featured image is President Warren G. Harding’s first cabinet meeting (1921) from the Library of Congress. There are no copyright restrictions and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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