Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Prologue: Inauguration Day 1921

"When one surveys the world about him after the great storm, noting the marks of destruction and yet rejoicing in the ruggedness of the things which withstood it, if he is an American he breathes the clarified atmosphere with a strange mingling of regret and new hope."1 So began Warren G. Harding on the crisp, cold morning of March 4, 1921, soon after taking the oath of office to become the 29th president of the United States. A return to "normalcy" had been Harding's solemn vow as a presidential candidate, of course, and everything from the stripped-down spectacle of the day's events - at the president-elect's request, the customary ball had been abandoned and the usual parade had been scaled back - to the content of the inaugural address worked to convey the impression that this "great storm" had passed, that the long national nightmare of the Wilson years was ended, and that the new steward in the White House would steer a return course to pre-war stability.2

"Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way," argued the new president. "Reconstruction, readjustment, restoration, all these must follow." In their overreaching, Harding suggested, the policies of Woodrow Wilson had disrupted the natural order of things. "[N]o statute enacted by man can repeal the inexorable laws of nature. Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government," he warned. Surveying the American economy after eight years of Democratic rule, Harding thought "[t]he normal balances have been impaired, the channels of distribution have been clogged, the relations of labor and management have been strained." And, as the world had "witnessed again and again the futility and the mischief of ill-considered remedies for social and economic disorders," the new President promised a simpler and humbler approach to governance on his watch. "I speak for administrative efficiency, for lightened tax burdens, for sound commercial practices, for adequate credit facilities, for sympathetic concern for all agricultural problems, for the omission of unnecessary interference of Government with business, for an end to Government's experiment in business, and for more efficient business in Government administration."3

In short, as per his decisive electoral mandate -- Harding had defeated Democratic nominee and Ohio Governor James A. Cox the previous November with 60.3% of the popular vote (as opposed to only 34.1% for Cox, the largest popular vote differential in modern American history) -- Harding promised an end to Wilsonian hubris, a light government touch and the type of sturdy, well-practiced, and business-minded leadership that had marked Republican administrations since the days of Williams McKinley and Taft. As the New York Tribune summed up Harding's remarks, "he looks at our political and economic life with no innovating eye. He is a conserver, and would stick to the time tested. The old America is good enough for him."4

And yet, however much Harding's words conveyed a safe and salutary return to the way things ought to be, signs of change were in the air, as perhaps exemplified by the "startlingly modern jazz number" played as America's new First Lady, Florence Harding, whom her husband and his confidants referred to as "the Duchess," took her seat.5 For Harding's inaugural that morning was not only the first to employ an automobile rather than the conventional carriage, it was also the first to be amplified by loudspeakers and the first broadcast across the nation -- as well as to army posts and battleships around the world -- via a "special wireless telephone apparatus." 6

Another sign of the times was the increased police presence at the event, who, along with 1000 Boy Scouts and 400 members of the Home Defense League, spied for troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells among the crowd - including attendees who might try to sneak a drink. (A earlier sweep had shut down several local bootleggers aiming to capitalize on the festivities.)7

And, perhaps most indicative of changing times was the attention paid by Harding -- the first president elected after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment -- to America's new women voters. "With the nation-wide induction of womanhood into our political life," Harding proclaimed, "we may count upon her intuitions, her refinements, her intelligence, and her influence to exalt the social order. We count upon her exercise of the full privileges and the performance of the duties of citizenship to speed the attainment of the highest state."8


His tip of the hat to America's newest voters notwithstanding, the meat of Harding's inaugural message was geared toward the nation's business and financial sectors. "President Harding has touched admirably upon many matters that are of great moment to the whole world today," Thomas W. Lamont of J.P. Morgan told the NY Times. For his part, Elbert Gary, Chairman of U.S. Steel, found the speech "able, comprehensive, clear, and convincing…it will have a reassuring and decided effect upon the general commercial, financial and industrial affairs of the country."9 And, while financial markets "failed to display the animation expected" after Harding's inaugural, the Wall Street Journal did attest that "the contents were favorably commented upon by interests in the Financial District," with "the withdrawal of the Government from business and the readjustment of tax problems" proving "of exceptional interest."10

Political conservatives also rejoiced. No doubt finding validation in its thorough renunciation of the League of Nations, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge deemed the speech "a splendid address…all must be gratified with the patriotic spirit that it breathed." Enthused Republican Senator James Watson of Indiana, "It was magnificent…It was thoroughly American from beginning to end…it bore a spirit of loyalty to American institutions and against internationalism and all weakening of the spirit of true patriotism."11

And even to many press observers, the "great storm" seemed at long last over as well. "Under blue skies serene and cloudless a multitude listened with deep approval," wrote George Rothwell Brown of the Washington Post, as Harding "reconsecrated the nation to the ideals of its inspired founders…No president ever more quickly found his way into the hearts and minds of the people."12

Also writing in the Post, actress and inaugural attendee Lillian Russell Moore similarly conveyed her enthusiasm for the new president as the dawning of a new day: "America is full of sunshine once more," she exclaimed. "It was all uplifting. There is a hope and a feeling of good fellowship in the hearts of the people in Washington. The mystery, the silence, the aloofness that has been the condition here in and about the White House for the last few years, so depressing and menacing, is dispelled…I thanked God that I was an American and that a true American through whose veins coursed real American blood was our president."13

Still, the acclaim was not unanimous -- There were those who found Harding's inaugural less sanguine. The policies in the speech aside, Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken thought its form alone, which he famously dubbed "Gamalielese," prophesied dark days ahead for the country. "On the question of the logical content of Dr. Harding's harangue of last Friday, I do not presume to have views," he wrote. "But when it comes to the style of the great man's discourse, I can speak with…somewhat more competence…[H]e writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm…of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."14

Mencken's memorable diatribe can in part be explained away as the usual nattering of an interminable cynic. But he was not alone in his contempt for the new president. However they felt about the deeply polarizing Woodrow Wilson, many progressives saw grim tidings for reform in Harding's ascendance to the Oval Office.

James Cox, his Democratic opponent in the 1920 election, had ably summed up progressive concerns about the Harding agenda the previous August, while on the campaign trail. "The normalcy voiced by their candidate as visioned by his masters is the bayonet at the factory door, profiteering at the gates of the farm, the burden of government on shoulders other than their own and the Federal Reserve System an annex to big business."15 With normalcy now decisively enthroned, many progressives lamented the political landscape that lay before them. "Reaction is on," Senator Hiram Johnson wrote to William Jennings Bryan when Harding's victory became inevitable. "Whether the old spirit of progressivism can be aroused, in either of the parties, during our generation, seems to me doubtful."16 "What a God damned world!" exclaimed the progressive publisher William Allen White. "Starvation on the one hand, and indifference on the other, pessimism rampant, faith quiescent, murder met with indifference; the lowered standard of civilization faced with universal complaisance, and the whole story so sad that nobody can tell it. If anyone had told me ten years ago that our country would be what it is today, and that the world would be what it is today, I should have questioned his reason."17

Indeed, if progressives needed a visual reminder of the dire straits in which reform seemed to have fallen on inauguration day, they need only look over at the outgoing president, the feeble, emaciated Woodrow Wilson. Once viewed as the man who would lead the world into a new age of peace, Wilson was now frail and exhausted, the sick man of progressivism. "There was something tragic about the broken frame of the man who limped from the White House to accompany his successor to the Capitol," observed the New York Times, who called his final moments in the White House "dramatic and touchingly pathetic."18 As it turns out, Wilson was too weak even to attend all of the inaugural services. After riding to the Capitol with the president-elect, during which he ignored the crowds, looked straight ahead, and, during one quiet moment between the two presidents, broke down in tears, Wilson declined to attend the official inauguration in the Senate Chamber, on the grounds that he was likely too weak to make it up the required steps.19 "The Senate has thrown me down," Wilson quipped to Pennsylvania Senator Philander Knox, obliquely referring to the League of Nations fight that had so sapped his strength, "but I am not going to fall down."20

And so, as Harding ushered in the era of normalcy from the Capitol portico, Wilson limped to a waiting car and retired to his new home on S Street, where he was greeted by a crowd of well-wishers, eager to give their fallen president one final round of applause. Even when the gathering struck up "Onward, Christian Soldiers," Wilson was either too weak or too moved to respond. He waved from a second-floor window, pointed at his throat, and withdrew. 21

How had it come to this? Only two and a half years earlier, Wilson had been the victorious leader in a war to make the world safe for democracy, and was adored by millions the nation and world over. And, while many thought the Great War a setback to reform, and had endured personal calumny and ridicule in the nationalist fervor that had followed in its wake, even "peace progressives" had still looked to a reconstructed post-war world with a good deal of hope for the future. "We need no longer work for the right of self-determination for the peoples of the earth," editorialized The Survey in November 1918. "Militarism is dead, unless we are so incredibly stupid as to revive it…The Atlantic Ocean is the new Mediterranean, and while trade winds blow its waves shall be consecrated to freedom…The war is won. Under what device can we consolidate its gains, eliminate its evils, capitalize for the programs appropriate to peace the social enthusiasms which it has generated?"22

That device remained elusive, for The Survey as for the progressives. In the months and years that followed, the millennial post-war dream of November 1918 would founder amid a sea of diplomatic realpolitik, social upheaval and unfortunate coincidences, finally culminating in Harding's impressive mandate in November 1920. Novelist Willa Cather once famously remarked that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts."23 For the progressive movement, that break happened a few years earlier, between the end of the war and the election of 1920.


Continue to Part One: Crack-Up: From Versailles to Normalcy.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Warren Harding, "Inaugural Address," March 4, 1921. Reprinted at Bartleby.com (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres46.html).
2. New York Times, Jan 11, 1921, p. 1. A frequent critic of excess government expenditures, progressive Senator George Norris of Nebraska had urged Harding, if he desired to be extravagant on his inauguration day, to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln, who allegedly "kissed thirty-four girls on that occasion…Nobody will deny the same privilege to President-elect Harding, if he can find girls who are willing - and I presume he can - so long as it is not charged up to the taxpayers of the country and they do not have to pay for it." Richard Lowitt, George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1913-1933 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 134-135. 3. Harding, "Inaugural Address."
4. Washington Post, Mar. 6, 1921, p. 30.
5. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), 260. The phrase is Anthony's.
6. John W. Dean, Warren Harding (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 95. Anthony, 259-260. New York Times, January 9, 1921, 1. Despite this "special apparatus" and the fact that many amateur radio operators passed on the message from these sites, Calvin Coolidge's inaugural in 1924 is usually ascribed to be the first one officially broadcast on the radio.
7. Anthony, 259. Washington Post, March 5, 1921, p. 3.
8. Harding, "Inaugural Address."
9. New York Times, March 5, 1921, p. 25. Wall Street Journal, March 5, 1921, p. 1.
10. Wall Street Journal, March 5, 1921, p. 7.
11. Washington Post, March 5, 1921, p. 3.
12. Washington Post, March 5, 1921, p. 1.
13. Washington Post, March 5, 1921, p. 6.
14. H.L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1956), 38-42. Mencken delighted in these slaps at "Gamalielese," referring to it a few months later as "a kind of baby talk, a puerile and wind-blown gibberish. In sound it is like a rehearsal by a country band…In content it is a vacuum." In his 1931 autobiography Crowded Years, former Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo gave an equally colorful summation of Harding's signature rhetorical style. He characterized a Harding speech as "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork." Dean, 73. To the editors of The New Republic, "Mr. Harding's words bubble and splash all around his thought, leaving the reader baffled. His intention eludes you in a spray of polysyllables and ambiguities. He is not only unable to say what he thinks, he seems at the same time not to know just what he thinks. The Senator apparently illustrates the claim of many psychologists that without language the mind cannot function." William Gibbs McAdoo, Crowded Years: The Reminiscences of William G. McAdoo (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 389. "Cox and Harding," The New Republic, September 8, 1920, 30.
15. Wesley M. Bagby, The Road to Normalcy : The Presidential Campaign and the Election of 1920. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), 147.
16. Bagby, 150.
17. White to Ray Stannard Baker, December 8, 1920. Walter Johnson, ed., Selected Letters of William Allen White 1899-1943 (New York: Henry Holt, 1947), 213.
18. New York Times, Mar. 5, 1921, 1.
19. Gene Smith, When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (New York: TIME, 1964), 184.
20. Hartford Courant, Mar. 5, 1921, 15.
21. Smith, 187-188.
22. Burl Noggle, Into the Twenties (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 31.
23. Dumenil, 3.

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