Warren Harding’s Fatal Quest for Normalcy

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“Ohio again is the big political state,” the Cincinnati Post said. “It may be pivotal as well as political. It may decide the election.”

It was June 1920, and the newspaper had good reason to boast. A few days earlier, the Republican convention in Chicago had nominated Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding as its candidate for president. And the Democratic convention in San Francisco was about to make its own bid for Ohio’s 24 electoral votes by choosing the state’s governor, James M. Cox, as its flag bearer.

Both parties were attentive to what Ohioans wanted -- and what they wanted, above all, was an end to the sense of unending crisis.

Four years earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had won Ohio on the promise to keep the U.S. out of European entanglements. Within 14 months of his second inauguration, however, there were a million Americans fighting overseas. The treaty concluding the war produced peace in Europe but political strife in the U.S., as the two parties bickered over its ratification. Wilson had been immobilized by a stroke during his failed campaign to swing public opinion behind the treaty.

‘Disrupted Conditions’

It wasn’t just the war. The economy was also a mess. Price levels doubled between 1916 and 1920 and there were shortages of key goods. American cities were seized by major strikes and anarchist bombings.

Added to this was the engorgement of the federal government. In real terms, federal expenditure was about five times higher in 1920 than it had been in 1913, while the federal civilian payroll was more than 50 percent bigger. And it all had to be paid for. The number of Americans filing income-tax returns jumped to more than 7 million in 1920 from fewer than 400,000 in 1914.

Republicans said that the Democrats had lost touch with the common man. “The disrupted social, economic and industrial conditions of this country seemingly held no interest for Mr. Wilson,” complained Ohio Representative A.R. Johnson. When Wilson went to France to negotiate the peace treaty at Versailles, Johnson said, “he left all thought of his own land and its people behind.”

Republicans didn’t pretend that Harding was a great intellect. He was “not a flaming torch in ability of genius,” one newspaper conceded. But he presented Ohioans with a simple and alluring offer: an end to chaos and a return to “normalcy.” (“Harding has sprung a new one on us,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer said. “’Normality’ might have done just as well.”)

There would be an end to the “saturnalia of extravagance” in Washington, Harding promised voters in Marion, Ohio, in August 1920. There would also be an end to war taxes, “experiments with business,” and political commitments overseas. There would be a return to the simpler and happier times that the country enjoyed before the war.

The pitch worked. Harding won 60 percent of the vote in Ohio and in the country at large in November 1920. It was a “victory so overwhelming as to break all records,” said the Canton Repository. Americans waited for normalcy to settle on the country once again.

It never happened. Circumstances had changed too radically for the new administrative apparatus of central government to be fully dismantled. The military establishment shrank from its wartime peak but never returned to its pre-war scale. The number of people paying income tax declined, but in the mid-1920s it was still 10 times higher than in 1916.

Harding even signed legislation, the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which had the effect of consolidating the presidential power about which he had once complained.

Growing Entanglements

The American economy was evolving, along with its place in the international order, and this meant that the administration couldn’t avoid entanglements at home or abroad. The White House was deeply engaged in resolving deadly strikes within the coal and railroad industries in 1921 and 1922 and at the same time hosted major negotiations among the great powers to control the naval arms race. Harding also shocked his isolationist friends in early 1923 by proposing that the U.S. become a member of the World Court established a few months earlier by the League of Nations.

Harding found himself managing a complex portfolio with a barebones staff. It was grueling work, made even harder by corruption scandals involving friends from Ohio whom Harding had appointed to important federal posts. Few people doubted that the burdens of office had caused Wilson’s crippling stroke -- but then, Wilson had been a wartime president. Normalcy was supposed to be less demanding.

Harding realized that it wasn’t. He told a friend in May 1923 that the presidency was “a man-killing job.” Ten weeks later, Harding fell ill while traveling by train from Seattle to San Francisco. He died within a few days. His physician thought it might have been the result of eating tainted crab meat. Others speculated that it was a heart attack. The Seattle Argus viewed it more simply: “President Harding was worked to death.”

(Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. His latest book is “America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837.”)

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Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net