Harding & Coolidge Policies: Analysis & Impact in the 1920s

Harding & Coolidge Policies: Analysis & Impact in the 1920s

Policies of Harding and Coolidge


Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, often referred to as the “Roaring Twenties” presidents, played pivotal roles in shaping America’s post-World War I landscape. The 1920s, a decade marked by significant economic growth, cultural shifts, and political changes, saw Harding and Coolidge implementing policies that would leave lasting impacts on the nation. In the aftermath of the war, America sought to distance itself from European entanglements, while at home, the populace yearned for stability and a return to pre-war normalcy. Both presidents responded to these desires, each in their unique manner, reflecting their individual philosophies and the spirit of the times.

Harding, who coined the campaign slogan “Return to Normalcy”, focused on domestic issues, promoting business-friendly policies and reducing governmental interventions. He aimed to reignite the American spirit after the devastating effects of the Great War, emphasizing peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, Coolidge, famously declaring that “the business of America is business”, continued and amplified many of Harding’s policies, cementing the era’s reputation for pro-business stances and fiscal conservatism.

This essay endeavors to delve deep into the policies of Harding and Coolidge, shedding light on their significance and the consequent impact on the United States. Through a comprehensive analysis, we will examine the economic, foreign, and domestic policies of both presidents, unraveling the common threads that tied their administrations together, as well as the controversies and criticisms that accompanied their tenure. As we journey through the decade, we will seek to understand the combined legacies of these leaders and their place in the broader narrative of American presidential history.

Warren G. Harding: The Return to Normalcy

Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, stepped into office at a time when the country was in search of healing and stability. The toll of World War I and the subsequent challenges it posed to the American psyche demanded a leader who could offer hope and direction. Harding, with his charismatic appeal and the campaign promise of a “Return to Normalcy”, seemed to fit the bill. This phrase encapsulated the nation’s collective yearning for a retreat from international conflicts and a focus on domestic prosperity.

Background of Harding’s presidency

Coming from a background in journalism, having served as a senator from Ohio, and being a familiar face in Republican politics, Harding was well-equipped to connect with Americans on a personal level. His relaxed and affable demeanor, coupled with a pragmatic approach to politics, allowed him to bridge divides and work towards a unified national agenda.

Economic policies: Emphasis on business-friendly environment

Harding’s economic vision was clear: America should be a haven for businesses. To this end, his administration worked tirelessly to create an environment conducive to economic growth. Two key aspects of his economic policy stand out:

  1. Tax reductions: One of the primary strategies Harding employed was a substantial reduction in taxes, especially for corporations and the wealthy. With Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon at the helm, the Revenue Act of 1921 was passed, slashing taxes and effectively setting the stage for a decade of economic expansion.
  2. Tariff adjustments – Fordney-McCumber Tariff: Another crucial economic policy under Harding was the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922. This act raised import tariffs considerably, aiming to protect American industries from foreign competition. While it bolstered domestic businesses, critics argue that such protectionist measures might have sown the seeds for future international economic conflicts.

Foreign policy

Though Harding promised a withdrawal from global entanglements, his foreign policy was far from isolationist. Instead, he focused on selective engagement, ensuring that America’s interests were always at the forefront.

  1. Washington Naval Conference: A highlight of Harding’s foreign policy, this 1921-1922 conference aimed at naval disarmament and ensuring the stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Through treaties such as the Five-Power Treaty, countries agreed to limit naval construction, promoting peace and reducing the arms race’s burden.
  2. Rejection of the League of Nations: Staying true to his “Return to Normalcy” mantra, Harding, along with the Senate, rejected the U.S. participation in the League of Nations. This decision reflected a broader sentiment in America, where involvement in international alliances, especially those that could draw the country into conflicts, was viewed skeptically.

Domestic concerns

While Harding’s administration witnessed considerable success on the policy front, it was also tainted by scandals and controversies.

  1. The Teapot Dome Scandal: This was perhaps the most infamous scandal of the Harding presidency. It involved the illegal leasing of navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to private oil companies. The subsequent investigations tarnished the administration’s reputation, highlighting corruption and a lack of oversight.
  2. Reduction in immigration through the Emergency Quota Act: Reflecting the era’s nativist sentiments, Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, which drastically reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. This act was a precursor to the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, demonstrating the growing unease with immigration during this period.

In essence, Harding’s presidency, though brief, was marked by a distinct vision for America. His policies laid the groundwork for the economic prosperity of the 1920s, while also highlighting the challenges inherent in governance.

Calvin Coolidge: The Business of America is Business

Calvin Coolidge, often known as “Silent Cal” for his reserved nature, was a stark contrast to the charismatic Harding. However, his unassuming demeanor masked a steely resolve and a commitment to fiscal conservatism. Succeeding Harding after his sudden death, Coolidge faced the challenging task of steering the nation forward while dealing with the shadows of his predecessor’s scandals. Yet, under his leadership, the Roaring Twenties truly roared, marking a period of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity.

Background of Coolidge’s rise to the presidency

Calvin Coolidge’s journey to the presidency was one marked by dedication and a commitment to public service. From his early days as the governor of Massachusetts to his tenure as vice president, Coolidge was known for his integrity, diligence, and a firm belief in limited government intervention. These principles would guide his presidency, shaping America’s trajectory in the 1920s.

Economic Policies

Coolidge’s economic vision was clear-cut: he believed that a thriving business sector was essential for national prosperity. To that end, his administration championed policies that bolstered economic growth while reducing governmental interference.

  1. Continued tax cuts and fiscal conservatism: Coolidge, along with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, continued Harding’s policy of tax reduction. The Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926 further reduced income tax rates, especially benefiting the wealthy. These cuts, combined with a reduction in federal expenditures, highlighted Coolidge’s commitment to a balanced budget and fiscal prudence.
  2. Dawes Plan and international financial diplomacy: On the international front, Coolidge’s administration was instrumental in the formulation of the Dawes Plan in 1924. This plan aimed at restructuring Germany’s World War I reparations, stabilizing the German economy, and ensuring the repayment of international debts. The Dawes Plan showcased America’s growing influence in global financial matters and its commitment to fostering international economic stability.

Foreign policy

While economic affairs dominated Coolidge’s tenure, his foreign policy decisions also left an indelible mark on international relations.

  1. Continued isolationism: In line with the sentiment of the times and Harding’s policies, Coolidge continued America’s stance of isolationism. This approach was characterized by a reluctance to engage in foreign entanglements that did not directly serve America’s interests.
  2. Recognition of the Soviet Union: In a significant move, Coolidge’s administration recognized the Soviet Union in 1924. While this decision was driven more by economic considerations than political ones, it marked a pivotal moment in U.S.-Soviet relations, laying the groundwork for future interactions between the two superpowers.

Domestic policies

Coolidge’s domestic policies further highlighted his vision of a government that serves its people by interfering minimally in their lives.

  1. Indian Citizenship Act: In a significant move towards recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples, Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. This act granted U.S. citizenship to Native Americans, marking a step forward in their long struggle for rights and recognition.
  2. His stance on civil rights and racial issues: Coolidge consistently advocated for the rights of African Americans, often emphasizing the need for equality and fairness. He supported anti-lynching legislation and sought to improve conditions for African Americans in various sectors.
  3. Immigration policy: National Origins Act: Following the restrictive immigration trends of the era, Coolidge signed the National Origins Act in 1924. This act established quotas based on national origin, significantly limiting immigration from certain regions, particularly Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia.

In summary, Calvin Coolidge’s presidency was characterized by a commitment to economic growth, fiscal responsibility, and a judicious approach to foreign and domestic affairs. His leadership, grounded in the belief that “the business of America is business”, set the tone for an era of prosperity and optimism, even as it grappled with societal and global challenges.

The Common Threads: Conservatism and Prosperity

The presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, while unique in their own rights, were tied together by shared values, priorities, and historical context. Both presidents operated in the post-World War I era, a time when America was redefining its place in the world and reevaluating its domestic priorities. This section seeks to uncover the intertwined threads of conservatism and prosperity that ran through both administrations, providing insight into the collective spirit of the Roaring Twenties.

A Shift to Conservatism

Both Harding and Coolidge championed a conservative approach to governance, which became a defining characteristic of the 1920s. This conservatism manifested in several key ways:

  1. Fiscal Responsibility: A cornerstone of both presidencies was a commitment to fiscal prudence. Tax cuts, reductions in federal expenditures, and a focus on a balanced budget underscored this conservative financial stance. The guidance of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon during both administrations ensured that fiscal conservatism remained at the forefront.
  2. Pro-business Policies: Both presidents believed in creating a conducive environment for businesses to thrive. Reductions in regulations, tariff adjustments, and tax cuts were tailored to benefit businesses, reflecting a shared belief in the private sector’s role in driving national prosperity.
  3. Reduced Government Intervention: In line with their conservative beliefs, both Harding and Coolidge advocated for minimal governmental interference in the daily lives of Americans. They perceived the government as a facilitator rather than a director, allowing individual enterprise and initiative to take center stage.

Prosperity and the Roaring Twenties

Under the leadership of Harding and Coolidge, the 1920s became synonymous with prosperity. This era, often dubbed the “Roaring Twenties”, was characterized by significant economic growth, cultural dynamism, and technological advancements. Several factors contributed to this prosperity:

  1. Economic Boom: The policies of both presidents fostered an environment where businesses and industries flourished. The decade witnessed a surge in consumerism, driven by innovations like the automobile, radio, and cinema. The stock market also experienced unprecedented growth, attracting investors from all walks of life.
  2. Cultural Renaissance: Alongside economic growth, the 1920s was a period of cultural blossoming. The Harlem Renaissance, the jazz age, and the proliferation of literature and arts showcased the nation’s creative spirit. This cultural renaissance, while not a direct result of presidential policies, thrived in the era’s overall atmosphere of optimism and prosperity.
  3. Technological Advancements: The 1920s saw rapid strides in technology and innovation. Advancements in aviation, communication, and entertainment transformed the American lifestyle, bridging gaps and bringing the nation closer together.

In conclusion, while Harding and Coolidge had their distinct leadership styles and faced unique challenges, their presidencies were united by a shared commitment to conservatism and the overarching theme of prosperity. Their policies and decisions laid the groundwork for a decade of economic, cultural, and technological growth, encapsulating the essence of the Roaring Twenties.

The Criticisms and Controversies

While both Harding and Coolidge presided over a period of prosperity and implemented several successful policies, their tenures were not without criticisms and controversies. These points of contention provide a more nuanced understanding of their legacies and the complexities of 1920s America.

Harding’s Troubles

Warren G. Harding’s presidency, though marked by notable achievements, was overshadowed by significant scandals and allegations of corruption.

  1. The Teapot Dome Scandal: As mentioned earlier, this was the most notorious scandal of Harding’s presidency. It exposed deep-seated corruption within the administration and raised questions about Harding’s ability to effectively oversee his subordinates.
  2. Other Scandals: The Teapot Dome was not an isolated incident. Other controversies, such as the Veterans’ Bureau scandal, further tainted Harding’s legacy and pointed to a lack of oversight and potential corruption within his administration.
  3. Perceived Weak Leadership: Harding’s affable nature, while endearing to many, also led to criticisms of his leadership style. Detractors argued that he was too easily influenced by his advisors and lacked the decisiveness needed for the presidency.

Coolidge’s Detractors

Calvin Coolidge, despite his reputation for integrity and fiscal prudence, faced his own set of criticisms.

  1. Economic Policies Favoring the Wealthy: Critics argued that Coolidge’s tax cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthy, exacerbating income inequality. Furthermore, his pro-business stance was perceived by some as favoritism towards big corporations at the expense of workers and small businesses.
  2. Laissez-faire Approach: While Coolidge’s belief in minimal government intervention appealed to many conservatives, detractors believed that this hands-off approach contributed to economic imbalances. Some historians argue that the lack of regulatory oversight during his tenure set the stage for the Great Depression.
  3. Restrictive Immigration Policies: Coolidge’s support for the National Origins Act, which limited immigration based on national origin, was criticized for being xenophobic and for stifling the rich tradition of American multiculturalism.

Shared Criticisms

Both presidents, operating in a similar historical context, faced overlapping criticisms:

  1. Isolationism: Their shared stance of retreating from global affairs was criticized by some as shortsighted. Detractors believed that this approach relinquished America’s role as a global leader and potentially jeopardized international stability.
  2. Lack of Progress on Social Reforms: While the 1920s was a period of economic growth, social reforms, especially concerning civil rights and labor rights, lagged. Both presidents were criticized for not doing enough to address societal inequalities and injustices.

In summary, while Harding and Coolidge achieved notable successes during their tenures, they were not immune to criticisms and controversies. These challenges highlight the multifaceted nature of presidential leadership and the complexities inherent in governing a diverse and evolving nation.

Legacy and Impact

While the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge took place nearly a century ago, their impacts continue to reverberate through American history. Both presidents, through their policies and leadership styles, left indelible marks on the nation’s political, economic, and cultural landscapes. This section aims to explore the enduring legacies of both men and assess their contributions to the broader tapestry of American history.

Harding’s Legacy

Despite the shadow of scandals that marred his presidency, Harding’s legacy extends beyond these controversies:

  1. Establishment of the Bureau of the Budget: One of Harding’s lasting contributions was the creation of the Bureau of the Budget, which played a pivotal role in streamlining federal expenditures and fostering fiscal responsibility.
  2. Washington Naval Conference: Harding’s emphasis on disarmament and peace is exemplified by the success of the Washington Naval Conference, which sought to prevent a post-WWI arms race among global superpowers.
  3. A Short but Influential Tenure: While Harding’s term was cut short, his selection of key cabinet members and his vision for “normalcy” set the stage for the prosperity of the 1920s.

Coolidge’s Legacy

Calvin Coolidge’s tenure, characterized by fiscal conservatism and a belief in limited government, has left a lasting legacy on American governance:

  1. Fiscal Conservatism: Coolidge’s commitment to a balanced budget and reduced federal expenditure became a model for future conservative administrations. His collaboration with Treasury Secretary Mellon on tax cuts and fiscal policies remains a benchmark for conservative economic strategies.
  2. Emphasis on Integrity: Coolidge’s personal integrity and commitment to transparency stood in stark contrast to the scandals of the Harding administration. His leadership style has been praised for restoring faith in the presidency and the federal government.
  3. Championing Business and Economic Growth: Under Coolidge’s watch, the Roaring Twenties reached its zenith. His pro-business policies, combined with technological advancements, spurred significant economic growth and prosperity.

Shared Legacy

The combined legacies of Harding and Coolidge highlight a pivotal period in American history:

  1. The Roaring Twenties: The policies and visions of both presidents set the tone for a decade of prosperity, cultural dynamism, and innovation. Their tenures encapsulate the spirit and challenges of the 1920s.
  2. Conservatism’s Resurgence: Both presidents played crucial roles in recentering conservatism in American politics, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, reduced government intervention, and pro-business policies.
  3. Setting the Stage for Future Debates: The policies and priorities of both administrations, particularly in the realms of economics and social reforms, have informed debates and discussions in American politics for decades, with echoes still evident in contemporary political dialogues.

In conclusion, the legacies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, while marked by successes and challenges alike, have left an indelible imprint on American history. Their leadership styles, policy choices, and the overarching themes of their presidencies provide valuable insights into the complexities and dynamism of the Roaring Twenties and the evolution of American governance.


The presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge represent a defining era in American history, encapsulating the essence of the Roaring Twenties. While often remembered for the prosperity and cultural dynamism of the decade, a deeper examination reveals a multifaceted period marked by political shifts, economic transformations, and enduring legacies.

Harding’s “return to normalcy” and Coolidge’s assertion that “the business of America is business” reflect a shared vision of governance, emphasizing fiscal conservatism, pro-business policies, and limited government intervention. However, their tenures were not without challenges. From the Teapot Dome scandal that overshadowed Harding’s achievements to criticisms of Coolidge’s laissez-faire approach as a precursor to the Great Depression, both presidencies navigated complex landscapes.

Yet, despite the controversies, both presidents left lasting imprints on the nation. Their commitment to fiscal responsibility, the championing of American businesses, and their roles in shaping the cultural and economic dynamism of the 1920s underscore the significance of their leadership. Moreover, their presidencies serve as a testament to the ever-evolving nature of American governance, highlighting the balance between progress and tradition, innovation and conservatism.

In retrospect, the Harding and Coolidge years offer invaluable insights into the challenges and triumphs of leadership, the intricacies of policy-making, and the enduring quest for prosperity and progress. As America continues to grapple with its identity and future trajectory, the lessons from the 1920s, as embodied by these two presidents, remain ever relevant, reminding us of the delicate interplay between vision, governance, and the broader currents of history.

Class Notes and Outline for the Policies of Harding and Coolidge

The 1920’s were a time of great character and change yet Presidents Harding and Coolidge were conservative Presidents. The policies they set in place were popular at the time but as we shall see their lack of fore sight and unwillingness to stay involved internationally eventually led America into its most desperate hour… the Great Depression.

I. America in the 1920’s – Presidential Policies

A. What did Harding mean by a “return to normalcy?”

1. Simpler times – Harding was a conservative. He felt that the Progressive Era had complicated things.

2. A return to Laissez Faire. Harding felt that Progressive Legislation was un American and hurt our industrial capacity.

3. Isolation – Harding believed that the less we were involved in foreign affairs the better. While he did deviate from this on several occasions his foreign policies were always directed towards reducing the chances of being involved in another conflict.

B. What were American attitudes like during the Harding administration?

1. Intolerance

2. Red Scare, Sacco Vanzetti, Palmer Raids, Ku Klux Klan

3. Emergency Quota Act

C. How involved was America in foreign policy?

1. Washington Arms Conference (1922) – attempted limited disarmament

2. Passage of Fordney-McCumber Tariff (1920)

-High protective tariffs. European exports to US fell from 5 billion to 2.5 billion in 1922.

3. Demand for reparations.

D. What scandals occured during Harding’s presidency?

1. Teapot Dome Scandal – In 1921 Secretary of the Interior, a member of the Ohio Gang, was able to gain control of valuable oil fields in Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hill, California. These oil fields had been set aside by the government for use by the navy. In 1922 Secretary Fall made a secret deal with two rich oilmen. He gave them a lease to pump oil out of the fields and sell it for themselves. Fall receive $325,000 in bonds and cash as well as a large herd of cattle. After over six years of testimony and implicating others in the Harding administration Fall receive a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.

2. There were other scandals involving the Ohio Gang. Jesse Smith, assistant to Attorney General Harry M. Cramer was exposed as a “bagman.” He was carrying bribes to and from the Attorney General’s office. After he was banished from Washington he committed suicide. Charles Cramer, legal advisor to the Veterans Bureau was also exposed for taking bribes, he too committed suicide. Charles Forbes, head of the same bureau, was convicted of taking at least $250 million dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Colonel Thomas W. Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property was convicted of fraud. He had sold valuable German patents seized in the war for far below market price. He too had taken bribes.

E. Policies of Calvin Coolidge – Coolidge took office when Harding died. He too was a simple man with simple policies. Coolidge rarely spoke and was dubbed “Silent Cal.” After the tumult of the scandal ridden Harding Administration Silent Cal’s quiet leadership, simple policies and conservative values were very popular.

1. Great prosperity, simple policies.

2. Kellogg Briand Pact (1928)

-15 nations agree to renounce war. Eventually 62 sign on.

E. Effects of Coolidge’s and Harding’s policies

1. Rich got richer and poor got poorer.

2. Wild speculation on stocks

3. Agricultural overproduction and farm foreclosures.

4. Continuing decrease international trade caused by a terrible depression in Europe and our protective tariffs.