Roaring: A Return To Normalcy

On The First Presidential Election In 1920s America

Luis A. Mendez
Dec 19, 2017 · 10 min read

On the evening of Jan. 5, 1919, former U.S President Theodore Roosevelt, a rumored and favored candidate to seek the Republican nomination for president in the upcoming 1920 race, had problems with his breathing. His physician promptly treated him, and Roosevelt felt well enough to go to bed.

“Please put out that light, James” he asked the family servant before he drifted off to the sleep. It would be the final known words from his lips on this planet.

When word of Roosevelt’s passing in his sleep got to his son, Archibald, he telegraphed his relatives, “The old lion is dead.”

The sitting vice president of the time, Democrat Thomas Marshall, commented that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

Months later in September 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sought public sentiment to pressure the Republican-controlled Congress into approving the United States’ entry into the League of Nations. His strategy was to campaign across the critical western states, as if he were campaigning for a candidate of his Democratic party for an important congressional election. He planned nearly 30 major speeches, and was confident he could turn what was mixed opinion then into a decidedly pro-League public attitude.

However, the president suffered a series of debilitating strokes. He became an invalid, with most of the people around him helping to run the daily White House agenda. As the political environment grew more and more toxic against him and his party, his vice president and even his own son-in-law eyed the Democratic nomination for president in the upcoming 1920 campaign. He had been cast aside and allies were looking to replace him as the de facto leader of the Democratic party.

Both political parties were now entering the new decade without a clear leader. Republicans, many expecting a Roosevelt revival, found themselves going into a presidential nominating convention without a clue who’d they’d end up choosing to represent them. Democrats, meanwhile, were backstabbing each other as they attempted to grab the nomination, with some of the old guard even feeling they could somehow hang on. It was in this uncertainty for the parties, after tragedies struck each, that elephant and donkey began the 1920 presidential campaign.

On June 8, 1920, that year’s Republican National Convention kicked off in Chicago. Although the nomination race was wide open, three favorites were clear going into the convention: Gen. Leonard Wood, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden and U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson from California. Progressives were in favor of Wood, while conservatives backed Lowden. Johnson, a progressive who had been Roosevelt’s running-mate during his ill fated attempt as a third party presidential nominee in 1912, was looking to let this divide work in his favor.

There were of course some dark horses being rumored about, including the 1916 Republican presidential nominee (and future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) Charles Evans Hughes, and U.S. Sen. Warren G. Harding from Ohio.

One name that may have been favored in another circumstance going in, but ended up a dark horse come convention week, was the former director of the U.S. Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, who had finally made the decision to join the Republican party after both parties were trying to poach him as one of theirs. However, Hoover had publicly stated he was not interested in running for president this particular year.

Harding’s political manager, future U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, had made the strategy clear for his underdog candidate beforehand: “I don’t expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballots, but I think we can afford to take chances that about 11 minutes after 2, Friday morning of the convention, when 15 or 12 weary men are sitting around a table, someone will say: ‘Who will we nominate?’ At that decisive time, the friends of Harding will suggest him and we can well afford to abide by the result.”

This is almost exactly what would end up happening.

On the first ballot, Wood led with 29 percent of the vote; however it took an outright majority to be chosen as the presidential nominee for the party. Second to him was Lowden, followed by Johnson at third, Pennsylvania Gov. William C. Sproul in fourth, 1912 vice presidential candidate Nicholas Murray Butler at fifth and in sixth place Harding. Down the line, Hoover had even gotten a few votes regardless his intention not to be an active candidate for the nomination; Hughes had received none since he did not actively seek a second nomination in as many conventions.

At the end of the first day, they had reached four rounds of voting and a choice was nowhere in sight. Wood remained the top pick, however, now garnering 31 percent of the vote, followed still by Lowden in second place and Johnson in third place. However, Harding had slowly but surely climbed his way to fourth place by then.

The second day of voting produced only more uncertainty. Lowden had grabbed the lead with 31 percent of the vote in the fifth round, only to end up in a virtual dead heat with Wood in the sixth and seventh rounds. By then, a group of politicians and delegates were getting around the idea of Harding as a “moderate conservative” compromise, and he had suddenly climbed his way to outpacing Johnson in votes for third place. By the end of the eight round, Lowden had grabbed back the clear lead with Wood slipping to second as Harding’s votes only grew from round to round.

Before the ninth round, the idea of Harding as the compromise pick had led to him being directed to a “smoke-filled” backroom with the party leaders of the time. The GOP’s U.S senators wanted to speak to him, particularly the de facto head honcho at the time, Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

Lodge and the others were coming around the idea of directing the party towards their fellow colleague in the upper chamber. After the 1912 debacle wherein the party broke in two and lost the election, a compromise candidate was attractive. However, after just losing in 1916, they didn’t want to afford any mistakes, either. So they asked Harding point blank, “Are there any skeletons in your closet?”

Harding replied he did not have any. The problem with this claim was, as noted presidential historian Richard Norton Smith once said, Harding’s skeletons had skeletons. In an era where women were seeking more respect and rights, he was a serial womanizer; estimates have shown he may have possibly have had multiple affairs and various secret illegitimate children. On top of that, Harding was a drinker and a gambler, at a time that the country was giving outlawing perceived sins, such as liquor, a try.

But Harding's claim he was scandal-free was enough for the bosses. In the ninth round, they had used their power to give Harding the lead with 38 percent of the vote, with Lowden now falling behind Wood at third place. In the tenth and final ballot, he had surged to 65 percent of the vote and was awarded the nomination.

Now came the issue of finding Harding a running mate. Johnson was offered a spot on the ticket as the progressive balance, but incredibly he turned the offer down. The second choice was U.S. Sen. Irvine Lenroot from Wisconsin, who accepted. One problem — the delegates did not. When he was announced as the running mate, various delegates rebelled against the idea of having two men, both senators, chosen by the establishment on the ticket.

No one is absolutely sure who started it — one claim is it was ironically started by a delegate of Lenroot’s own home state, but several attendees began to chant for Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who had made a name for himself for his much-praised handling of the Boston police strike and his subsequent landslide re-election to his office the year before. He had also received some votes from a few delegates for the presidential nomination throughout the voting process.

The party relented and put Coolidge on the ticket. When word got to Coolidge’s home state’s senior senator, he was aghast. Lodge saw Coolidge as beneath him in New England high society, and now he was going to attempt to win office as the president to the chamber of Congress he ran. But both the party bosses and the delegates ended up with a ticket that made each side happy enough.

Democrats met just a few weeks later in San Francisco on June 28, 1920, for their presidential nominating convention. By the time of the convention, buzz surrounded President Wilson’s son-in-law, the former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo. However, the ailing Wilson incredibly had a plan to block his nomination, and trigger a clamoring among delegates for him to run for a then-unprecedented third term. In the meantime, the vice president also had his eyes on the nomination, but the buzz around the Wilson family drama and other potential new national faces, led to him being seen as a dark horse coming in.

If you thought the Republican nominating process was a mess, it took 44 ballots to decide a Democratic nominee that same year. Wilson continuously used his clout to give his son-in-law headaches. McAdoo spent 11 ballots atop the vote choices, but was unable to break away and get the outright majority needed. Meanwhile, the vice president gave up a couple rounds in and the governor of Ohio, a fellow by the name of James M. Cox, was climbing his way to becoming that new fresh face for the party to counter the Wilson ties.

Wilson, waiting for a miracle in which the delegates would turn to him in the uncertainty, finally relented on the 22nd ballot. By then, his son-in-law was in a battle with Cox and was trailing for multiple rounds now. The convention got so out of control in the chaos of the marathon battle that someone actually made the daring decision to place a woman’s name as a possible nominee, a suffragette known as Laura Clay, a first by a major political party in U.S history. For the record, she only received one vote throughout the whole thing.

By the 30th round, it seemed like Wilson’s son-in-law’s plans of being the nominee were back on track. He had regained the lead and now just needed the outright majority. However, nine ballots later Cox had regained the lead, and by the 44th round had finally won the barn-burner between the two.

Cox, knowing his party was the underdog in the race, chose Theodore Roosevelt’s relative in Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, to be on the ticket with him. He made no secret of why he wanted him as his running mate: “He has a magic name,” Cox said. Unlike with the Republican convention, the delegates and the party got around him quickly as the number two on the ticket.

The 1920 presidential election was fought for in a toxic national environment for Democrats. Wilson, after eight years, was going out a massively unpopular president; the nation was in an upheaval as demonstrations and riots were commonplace in major cities; the unemployment rate was at record highs with the economy in the middle of a depression; the fiscal situation was a mess, with high debt for the time and a budget deficit.

Cox, knowing he was the underdog, worked his butt off. He visited all but 12 of the states, gave almost 400 speeches and even co-opted some then-popular Republican ideas to win over displeased voters. He created a battleground map strategy, focusing on holding the base while winning the swing states to eke out a come from behind victory. This was a man who was going to do whatever it took to win the White House.

But the environment was too much to overcome, and his Republican foe was offering something seductively enticing to a country tired of war and progressive reforms. Like the country looking for morality after the Clinton scandal years, or looking for change after the Bush war-torn years, Harding was offering “normalcy” to a worn out electorate. Before Obama promised “Change” and Trump promised to “Make American Great Again,” Harding was declaring a “Return to normalcy.”

The message was simple and yet placated to many various issues that concerned voters. A return to the time before Wilson — before World War I, before the turbulent years of change — to a simpler time. Some of it was a change in domestic policy, others what can now be looked back on as a brand of populist nationalism. Harding wanted to create an environment of less spending and lower taxes, but also wanted to promote nationalistic attitudes, chiefly opposing entry into the League of Nations and feeding into worries about immigrants by promoting “Americanism.” He was also quick to denounce claims he had any West Indian black in his family tree, a rumor spread by opponents, in a different age when something so insignificant to us today could take down a campaign.

Harding ran a McKinley-style “front porch campaign,” sticking close to home and attracting supporters to come see him instead of him coming to them, all this even while his campaign foe was traversing most of the country. It seem to work, as a good chunk of the media were accused of showing favoritism to Harding, who was well known as a very personable guy who had no problem chewing the fat with potential supporters.

Of course not all the media were fond of Harding. The New York Times opted to endorse Cox over him and referred to the Republican hopeful as “a second-class Ohio politician.”

When it was all said and done, Harding’s promise in a toxic environment against his party’s main foe to “return to normalcy” was too much for the active Cox to overcome. Harding won 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127, got an incredible 64 percent of the two party vote and won all but 11 states, including his and Cox’s home state of Ohio, Roosevelt’s home state of New York and the president’s and vice president’s home states of New Jersey and Indiana, respectively. He even grabbed some solidly Democratic states at the time, such as Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Harding’s margin remains the most dominant popular vote era margin won by a presidential candidate. He also became the first sitting Senator to achieve the presidency.

Republicans were now in charge after eight years of being on the outside looking in. President Harding and Vice President Coolidge had a vision of a more fiscally sound and less globalist country. The Senate majority leader awaited to finally get his agenda passed after years of battling it out with Wilson. They promised a return to the olden days, even in an age of rapid change. “Normalcy.”

But in the coming decade, Americans would experience anything but normalcy. And the coming administration would undergo anything but peace and simplicity.

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