When World War I and Pandemic Influenced the 1920 Presidential Election

1920 Presidential Election

1920 Presidential Election: Whipped by a burst of historic events over four heartbreaking years, the exhausted Americans longed to catch their collective breath as election day approached.

The four years before the presidential election of 1920 delivered a terrible confluence of war, plague, terrorism and unemployment. As soon as the First World War killed 100,000 Americans, a global flu pandemic stole an additional 650,000. Racial riots, workers’ strikes and a series of anarchist bombings – including one that killed 38 people on Wall Street – shook American cities after the war.

The American economy was far from roaring in 1920, as unemployment soared and stock prices plummeted. Americans were bitterly divided over whether to join the League of Nations, and fears of the spread of communism after the Russian Revolution sparked the Red Red Scare and Palmer Raids.

A cheating scandal had tainted the national pastime with accusations that the “Black Sox” had conspired with players to repair the 1919 World Series. Even the sky seemed to offer little salvation as a group of nearly 40 tornadoes struck Georgia to Wisconsin on Palm Sunday in 1920, leaving more than 380 dead.

READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so deadly

The “best of seconds”

President Warren G. Harding, right, pictured with Calvin Coolidge, his vice-president and successor, circa 1923. News agency / Getty Images

In this tumultuous context, the Republican Party met in Chicago in June 1920 to select its candidate to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered a debilitating stroke months earlier. Seeking to regain the White House, the Republicans settled on a black horse candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, in the tenth ballot.

“There is no first candidate this year,” said Connecticut senator Frank Brandegee. “We’ve had a lot of linebackers, and Warren Harding is the best of the seconds.” Newspaper editor of a small city in a swinging state of the heart of the United States, who bridged the progressive and conservative wings of the party, Harding was a safe bet that could deliver exactly the political comfort that Americans dreamed of .

Harding promised anxious voters everything but a radical change. In a May 1920 speech in Boston, he said, “America’s current need is not heroism, but healing; not the nostrils, but normality; not revolution, but restoration; not restlessness, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the passionate; no experimentation, but balance; not the submersion in internationality, but the maintenance in triumphant nationality. ”

READ MORE: The suffrage race before the 1920 elections

Return to “normality”

A 1921 cartoon about normality, by John Tinney. Newberry Library

When he returned from the Senate in his hometown of Marion, Ohio, in July, Harding proclaimed to his neighbors: “Normal men and the return to normalcy will stabilize a civilization that has been ignited by the supreme upheaval of the whole world. ” “Back to normal” and “back to normal” were quickly adopted as slogans for the Harding campaign (with another, “America First”.)

Harding’s mention of “normality” sparked not only a political debate, but also a grammatical debate. Critics of the Republican candidate claimed that the word was a bad speech made by Harding when he really meant “normality”. The candidate stepped back. “I noticed that the word prompted many newspaper editors to change it to” normal, “Harding told reporters. “I searched for“ normality ”in my dictionary, and I can’t find it there. “Normality”, however, I find, and it’s a good word. Indeed, the term appeared in newspapers at the time, and Merriam-Webster dates back to at least 1855.

Harding insisted that his desire for “normality” was not a desire to go back. “By” normality “I do not mean the old order, but a regular and regular order of things,” he said. “I mean normal procedure, naturally, without excess. I do not believe that the old order can or should return, but we must have a normal order, or, as I said, a “normal”. ”

The “front porch campaign”

Harding speaking to a crowd of supporters outside his home in Marion, Ohio.

Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

Echoing his promise of a return to simpler and less chaotic times, Harding ran a campaign straight out of the 1890s, a time before Theodore Roosevelt’s progressiveness, Wilson’s idealism and the turmoil of populism . While his Democratic opponent, Ohio Governor James M. Cox, traveled 22,000 miles across the country to hold election rallies, Harding rarely ventured farther than his door and mimicked William McKinley’s path to ‘at the White House with a’ front porch campaign ‘. Thousands of pilgrims came to Harding’s house just off Main Street in Marion and gathered on the front lawn around the veranda to hear the candidate climb the top step. Foreshadowing the selfie lines a century later, voters waited their turn to be photographed with Harding and his wife, Florence, who were sent to their local newspapers.

Harding’s milquetoast personality and attraction to small towns spoke of the time: he won by a landslide at the Electoral College and by popular vote to become the 29th President of the United States. It has transported 37 of the 48 states, including all states outside of the South. The Republican ticket garnered more than 16 million votes, nearly double those counted by Cox and his serving vice president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Republican Party also won major majorities in the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

“Our supreme task is to resume our normal path and forward”, Harding said in his inaugural speech.

But as America emerged from under the clouds of recession, pandemic, and war in the years that followed, the Harding presidency generated its own turmoil. The ban has seen an increase in gang violence and organized crime. Harding’s cabinet has been plagued by corruption, such as the Teapot Dome scandal, in which oil tankers bribed Interior Secretary Albert Fall for drilling rights on federal lands. Harding would not complete his four-year term. He died in 1923 at the age of 57 in a hotel room in San Francisco while touring the United States.