The 1920 election was a pivotal one in our country’s history. It was the year when seven presidents’ fates met. Nowhere in history can we find one election when the fates of so many of our past, present and future presidents, not to mention our country’s, changed. Some changed for the better and others not so much.
The first might surprise people but our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was eager to regain the White House. In 1918 Roosevelt, who was and still to this date is the youngest person ever to assume the presidency, was 60, which certainly wasn’t a disqualifying factor. Of course Theodore Roosevelt already had served eight years as president and lost a bitter race against William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson in 1912, but Roosevelt had a thirst for the presidency like few before or since. The problem Roosevelt had was his 1912 fight for the nomination and then third party run against Taft had hopelessly split the party and allowed Wilson, a Democrat, to win easily. As you can imagine, that didn’t make many friends inside the Republican Party.
Roosevelt spent the next eight years mending fences and sat out the 1916 election to continue rebuilding relationships. This was important because very few states had primary elections, so the nomination came right through the party bosses. By the end of 1918, Roosevelt felt he was the front runner for the 1920 election. However, the first of many curve balls for that race was thrown when on Jan. 6, 1919, Roosevelt died of a stroke in his sleep.
Next affected was the aforementioned William Howard Taft. Taft as president had the opportunity to appoint a chief justice, an honor that most would boast of as a legacy, as there had only been eight chief justices in history to that point. Taft, however, always wanted that job himself, ever since law school, and his appointment of Edward White would pretty much end the dream. But the 1920 election would again turn things around. By late 1919, Justice White was in failing health and the post was a contentious battle. A Democrat being elected in 1920 would end any chance of Taft becoming chief justice, and many Republicans were cold to the idea of giving Taft that position. As for what would happen, you’ll just have to keep reading!
Woodrow Wilson, heading toward 1920, was the sitting president and still had tremendous pull inside the Democratic Party. However, in October 1919, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke, which according to accounts by his medical team, left him paralyzed. With no one stepping up to help the ailing president, his political agenda was left to the wilderness. Wilson personally would play a very small role in the 1920 election as he rarely left the White House and didn’t support a candidate for the nomination. The Democratic Party sided with Ohio Gov. James Cox to succeed Wilson, and Cox ran on President Wilson’s record, especially on World War I. Both sides would try to win over the women’s vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment and Tennessee’s ratification in August 1920.
Harding’s quick rise
Cox’s opponent was also from Ohio, Warren G. Harding, who was finishing his first term in the Senate. Harding came to the Republican convention in Chicago not being a top tier candidate, but the convention was deadlocked between Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden and California Sen. Hiram Johnson. After what was described as a meeting in a smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel, the convention settled on Harding. Harding took to the old style of campaigning from the front porch of his home in Marion, Ohio, a strategy that was heavily successful for other Ohioans earlier. Cox ran on Wilson’s record, and Harding ran against it. He wanted a “Return to Normalcy.” That slogan really resonated in 1920 in a country that was coming off a world war, an economic recession and a major pandemic. Election Day was on Nov. 2 and it was clear early on that there was a landslide. New York and Pennsylvania would give Harding a 38% margin of victory, Illinois would give Harding a 42% win, and Harding even cracked the Solid South, winning Tennessee and being very competitive in Kentucky, which were solid Democratic states. Overall Harding would win 404-127 in the electoral college and 60%-34% in the popular vote. The latter is a record that still stands today. Harding got the best birthday present he could, being elected president of the United States. He’s the only president elected on his birthday and was the first sitting senator elected president.
Harding’s administration had first to deal with the pressing issue of the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson had strongly supported it, but Harding didn’t, and the U.S. rejected membership. That left the United States technically still at war with Germany! After getting a peace treaty with Germany complete, the next item was the massive war debts incurred by not only America but debts owed to America by Britain, France and Germany. President Harding made easy repayment terms to our allies, with a 65-year repayment plan. And he agreed to lower Germany’s liabilities as well. The economy was the next issue and the country was knee deep in recession. Harding proposed lowering taxes across the board as the top tax rate was a staggering 73%, and an increase on tariffs on farm goods. That was to pave the way for an infrastructure package that the president wanted to pass. Congress tried to attach a bonus for troops who served in WWI, but Harding vetoed it because of cost.
By 1922 the economy had made a substantial reversal and the 12% unemployment rate had plummeted to 3%. Inflation was low and consumer confidence was higher than before the war. Shortly into his presidency, Harding appointed former President Taft to his coveted job of chief justice. Harding also attempted civil rights reform, the first president to do so in 50 years, by supporting an anti-lynching bill and delivering his message in Birmingham, Alabama. That came after horrible riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Harding, however, had several weaknesses. He trusted his friends to a fault and that included Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Interior Secretary Albert Fall. Fall would be sentenced to prison for his dealings with the selling of government reserves in Wyoming. By the summer of 1923, Harding was tired and his approval rating was slipping, so he took a tour of the country, even to Alaska. Harding’s health was in bad shape and after five days staying in San Francisco, Harding died of a massive heart attack on Aug. 2, 1923, while his wife was reading an article written about him.
Coolidge in the right place
Calvin Coolidge had come into 1920 as a very popular governor of Massachusetts and while very popular because of his action in settling a police strike in 1919, he wasn’t considered a candidate for either president or vice president. The leaders wanted Wisconsin Sen. Irvine Lenroot, but after leadership adjourned, believing their candidate would be approved, the delegates searched for other candidates and Coolidge’s work in the police strike and his writings led to his nomination. He easily won. Coolidge faithfully served Warren Harding as vice president until August 1923. Coolidge was on vacation when news of President Harding’s death reached him by messenger. After saying a prayer, Coolidge took the oath of office in his living room at 2:47 a.m., sworn in by his father. His first act? Return to bed!
Coolidge worked hard to restore credibility to the government after the scandals with members of Harding’s cabinet. Coolidge spent the remainder of Harding’s term trying to complete his policies and was for the most part successful. The biggest achievement was granting citizenship to Native Americans. Coolidge was easily elected in 1924, capturing pretty much every state his predecessor did. President Coolidge presided over huge prosperity in America. He shocked the nation when he chose not to run for a second full term as president in 1928 and left office a tremendously popular figure. Coolidge, Arizona, is named after him and Coolidge in his post-presidency visited Pinal County to dedicate a major dam project.
Hoover was next up
With Coolidge’s surprise announcement, Herbert Hoover was elevated. In 1920 he was a very popular figure in the Republican Party for his role in helping not only our troops but the starving people of the war-torn countries. Hoover was a self-made millionaire and while he wasn’t chosen for the top positions, Harding saw his value in the business sector and appointed him secretary of commerce. Hoover was instrumental in bringing radio to the homes of nearly 10 million homes during his tenure and now the country could listen directly to the president from their own homes. Hoover also was instrumental in flood relief in the Mississippi Valley in 1927. Hoover took the 1928 nomination and cruised to victory by even bigger electoral margins than his predecessors.
Hoover’s administration, however, quickly fell into despair with the stock market crash, followed by bank failures and the beginning of the Great Depression. Hoover spent four years trying to fix the Depression but it only got worse. The homeless across the country started building “Hoovervilles.” The 1932 campaign was brutal for Hoover, as he was known as a person who fed the starving after war but now seemed helpless to help them in his own country while holding the highest office. The “Bonus Army” of veterans marched to Washington to demand payment of their WWI bonuses. Hoover used the standing Army to remove them from the capital.
The Secret Service had to stop angry hecklers who attended his speeches. Hoover, after winning by the biggest electoral margin in 1928, would lose by an even larger margin four years later. Hoover, who came into office on a wave of popularity, left with his reputation in ruins.
The last of our 1920-linked presidents is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was a rising star in 1920 and was named as Cox’s running mate to take on Warren Harding. Roosevelt took Cox’s message across the country and although the ticket went down to a landslide defeat, FDR’s stock rose to the point where he was being considered for governor of New York and even president. Fate would deal him a crushing blow, however, as he contracted polio, seemingly meaning the end of his career. However, he rose from the ashes like a Phoenix and was elected governor of New York while Herbert Hoover was carrying the state in the general election. Then in 1932, he took the Democratic nomination and won an astronomical 472 electoral votes to just 59 for President Hoover. FDR would later win reelection by a 523-8 margin in 1936, 449-82 in 1940 and 432-99 in 1944.
FDR’s long presidency saw the government expand its power through new agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority and many others. Also, the passing of retirement insurance, known today as Social Security, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guarantees money deposited in banks so even if a bank fails the money is still safe. Roosevelt would later be the leader during the biggest crisis our country has faced outside the Civil War — World War II. Sadly, he wouldn’t live to see its conclusion as he died on April 12, 1945.
1920 was a very pivotal year when several paths met, changing not just the country but the world. Many of these leaders faced hardships on their path to the White House or in Taft’s case, the Supreme Court. A few different moves in 1920 would have resulted in different changes, and that remains a big “what if” discussion amongst historians. As some historians have said, “It was like all the stars aligned in 1920.” Even today, the 1920 election reverberates in society.
Tom Babbage, of Casa Grande, is a longtime collector of presidential history.