Roaring: Teapot Dome
In April 1922, U.S Sen. John B. Kendrick from Wyoming received an angry letter from a Wyoming oil operator. The letter included a claim from the operator that the Teapot Dome oil field from his state, in the hands of the Department of the Interior, had been handed over to oil tycoon Harry F. Sinclair in a secret deal to make Secretary of Interior Albert B. Fall a rich man. In other words, the cabinet member had raided the treasury for personal gain. Kendrick would introduce a resolution to have an investigation into the matter.
This was the start of a drama that would become known as the greatest scandal in American political history, save for perhaps Watergate 50 years later. It would turn what could have been the story of a uniquely successful presidency into a legacy of one of the worst administrations in the oval office’s history. It arguably led to stress killing an American president and thus would lead to a president who would take on the aftermath of the scandal and lead the country to a new era of prosperity. This is the story of the Teapot Dome Scandal and all that surrounded it.
By 1922, President Warren G. Harding had turned his 1920 landslide election victory into action. He promised a “return to normalcy” and he delivered, pushing for massive tax and spending cuts and freeing many political prisoners from Woodrow Wilson’s time in office. He brokered the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty that would stop a potential naval arms race between the United States, Britain and Japan. The result was a growing economy on the rebound, avoidance of potential war and a fiscal situation that had turned around in a positive direction.
Yes, Harding’s womanizing continued behind the scenes. He also indulged in other bad behavior as president, such as keeping alcohol stocked in spite of Prohibition and not to mention gambling away the White House china. But the country had gone from being on the verge of collapse to enjoying what was becoming the start of a boom. All of these things could have led to his administration being regarded among the best or at the very least among the above-average administrations. However, the Teapot Dome scandal would so plague his administration that it would be the defining moment of his presidency.
As Harding enjoyed leading the executive branch, his cabinet was run amok with shady men involved in equally shady dealings. They were given freedom to act with no oversight and used it to their personal gain. Chief among these were Fall, the aforementioned Secretary of the Interior, and the loathsome Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty.
Fall had used his position to make himself rich with the aforementioned sell of oil fields, as well as gifts or “kickbacks” he received from tycoons who benefited from this. Daugherty had been allegedly involved in fraudulent sales of metals, with some help from the Director of the Veterans’ Bureau Thomas W. Miller. It all added to a cabinet involved in things such as bribery, defrauding the U.S Government and shady illegal kickbacks.
The letter sent by that angry Wyoming oil operator, however, would start the chain of events that exposed it all. Kendrick’s decision to have an investigation was at first seen as a partisan act by a Democrat toward a Republican administration. However, after the Republican U.S Sen. Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin had his offices ransacked in connection with the investigation, suspicions started to become more bipartisan.
Democratic U.S Sen. Thomas J. Walsh of Montana would become the leader of this investigation, and he doggedly chased after the evidence. His decision to be public about his inquiry would keep the press interested as they broke story after story on the emerging scandal. When he discovered a $100,000 loan in favor of Fall, the pieces began to be put together.
The scandal would take time to grow and fester. As it became bigger and its full scope began to be exposed, Harding had begun to stress out over the situation. His anger with his cabinet’s shenanigans led to a reported moment where he pulled a member of his administration aside and physically attacked him before finally leaving him be in frustration.
Harding may have not been directly connected to the illegal doings, but his inability to control his cabinet became a stain on him. Plus, his decision to get involved in the 1922 Great Railroad Strike became a political loser, on top of the fact that some were growing angry with his policies on giving the rich tax cuts. Although unemployment was on its way down and the depression had been turned around, some were still trying to rebound in their personal life.
Therefore, as the investigations continued into the scandal, the 1922 midterms saw Democrats have a wave election in which they gained nearly 80 U.S House seats and weakened the Republican majority significantly. Ditto in the U.S Senate, where the blue team won back six seats and took away the filibuster-proof majority status from the Republicans to a “weaker” superiority.
By 1923, the stress of the scandals and the presidency and his wife’s bad health were getting to Harding, even as the economy continued its momentum and optimism was bouncing back. He knew he had heart conditions, and he had a terrible scare with illness earlier that year. He went as far as to update his will, and many around him noticed he seem to be getting weaker and more easily tired.
And yet, he thought a massive tour of the western part of the country would help him and the party with the 1924 presidential election on the horizon. During that trip, he visited the then-territory of Alaska, the first president to do so.
On his way from a speech in Washington to San Francisco, Harding began to complain of pain in his upper abdomen. His physician thought it was merely a dieting issue. Another doctor suspected a heart issue but was ignored. Eventually the doctors saw his health get worse and came to agree he had a heart issue coupled with a bout of pneumonia — a much more serious illness back then compared to today.
His wife stayed by his side and read him a favorable article on him. He said as she paused at one moment, “That’s good, read some more” and then moments later suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 57. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, would now be president.
When he died, Harding left a country on a great rebound from economic lows, but one which had grown resentful and distrustful of the executive branch as it learned of his cabinet’s actions.
Harding’s health issues were there before he became president, but one has to wonder with the stress of such an important job and the pressure of his party to bounce back after rough midterms, if the scandals that were emerging and plaguing his administration were the final straw.
It is even said that his wife remarked to him as he laid in his coffin that he could no longer be hurt by his enemies.
Teapot Dome was but one of the various scandals that Harding's cabinet had been involved in, but it has become the quintessential one and, next to maybe just Watergate, the greatest scandal in American politics. Its effects would even outlast Harding.
The full scope of the scandal would grow for years after Harding’s passing. The Supreme Court itself was involved in dealing with it in 1927. Convictions against various men of power would drop. Fall would eventually face prison time, as would Miller. Daugherty would keep escaping serious punishment, but his political career was eventually destroyed as a result. Walsh would go on to be known as the political hero who exposed it all; even gaining Coolidge’s respect on the matter enough to allow him to pester Daugherty even after Harding’s passing.
The scandal would also taint Harding’s legacy. To this day, almost a century later, historians have ranked him among the worst of the worst presidents. His naval treaty victory, his freeing of political prisoners and his economic record took a significant backseat in discussions on him.
That one angry letter from one constituent to his representative in congress had changed the course of history.