Harding & Coolidge Policies: Impacts on 1920s America

How did the policies of President Harding and President Coolidge affect America?

In the wake of World War I, the United States emerged as a nation eager to redefine its identity on the global stage. A nation traumatized by the horrors of war and wary of entangling alliances sought solace in its domestic realm. Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, both Republicans, became pivotal figures during this transformative period. Their policies, often reflecting a desire for limited government intervention and a strong emphasis on economic growth, played crucial roles in shaping the socio-economic fabric of 1920s America. But how did these policies affect the nation? Did they usher in a golden era of prosperity, or sow the seeds for impending economic turmoil? This essay delves into the intricacies of Harding’s and Coolidge’s policies, comparing their impacts and drawing conclusions about their lasting legacy on the United States.

Background Context

The America that Presidents Harding and Coolidge inherited was one in flux. The First World War had just concluded, and its aftermath had left deep imprints on the national psyche. American soldiers returned home to find a society grappling with rapid changes. The war had accelerated industrial growth, and cities buzzed with activity, drawing rural populations into urban centers. Yet, with the conclusion of the war, there was an economic contraction, and many soldiers struggled to reintegrate into civilian life.

Politically, the nation had just experienced the idealistic yet tumultuous presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His vision of making the world “safe for democracy” and his push for the League of Nations had met with mixed reactions at home. While some lauded his internationalist outlook, many were disillusioned by the stark realities of the war and became skeptical of America’s role in global affairs. This period, termed as the “Red Scare,” saw a growing fear of communism, bolstered by events like the Russian Revolution. It led to widespread paranoia, resulting in the Palmer Raids and a general suspicion towards anything perceived as ‘un-American.’

Economically, the U.S. was on the cusp of what would later be termed the “Roaring Twenties.” This era, known for its economic boom, jazz music, and flapper culture, was also marked by significant technological advancements, consumerism, and the growth of the entertainment industry. The rise of the automobile, radio, and cinema changed the way Americans lived and perceived the world around them.

It was in this backdrop that Harding’s call for a “Return to Normalcy” resonated with many. Americans longed for stability and a return to pre-war values. They yearned for leadership that understood their desire for economic growth without overseas entanglements. Both Harding and Coolidge, in their distinct ways, promised to deliver on this front. However, to truly comprehend the impacts of their policies, it’s essential to understand the America they sought to lead.

President Harding’s Policies

Warren G. Harding’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1921 marked the beginning of a shift away from the progressive ideals and international focus of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson. Harding’s primary aim was to bring about what he termed a “Return to Normalcy” — a move back to the conservative values and isolationist tendencies that characterized the pre-war era.

One of the cornerstone policies of Harding’s tenure was the emphasis on tax cuts. He believed that lowering taxes would invigorate the American economy, and his administration oversaw significant reductions, particularly for the wealthier citizens. This move was rooted in the belief that the wealthy, when taxed less, would invest in businesses and spur economic growth, a philosophy that would be echoed by subsequent Republican administrations.

Hand in hand with tax policies, Harding also championed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922. This legislation raised American tariffs on imported goods with the goal of protecting domestic industries from foreign competition. While this did bolster some American industries in the short term, critics argued that such protectionism hampered international trade and hurt American exporters in the long run.

Harding’s focus on streamlining the federal budget led to the signing of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This Act centralized the federal budgeting process, introducing more efficiency and accountability. For the first time, the President was required to submit an annual budget to Congress, ensuring greater fiscal oversight.

However, Harding’s presidency was not without its blemishes. The Teapot Dome Scandal stands out as a significant stain on his administration. In what became a notorious episode of political corruption, valuable oil reserves were leased to private companies without competitive bidding, leading to a series of investigations and tarnishing the reputation of the administration. This scandal highlighted the pitfalls of lax oversight and the dangers of crony capitalism.

Beyond specific policies, Harding’s vision for America was clear. He championed business interests, believed in limited governmental intervention in the economy, and prioritized domestic affairs over international engagements. While his presidency was cut short by his untimely death in 1923, his policies set the tone for the remainder of the decade.

President Coolidge’s Policies

Following the unexpected death of President Harding, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn into the presidency. Often dubbed “Silent Cal” for his reserved demeanor, Coolidge’s governance style starkly contrasted Harding’s. However, in terms of economic policies, he followed a similar trajectory, emphasizing laissez-faire principles and maintaining a pro-business stance.

Coolidge believed in limited government intervention in the economy, once famously stating, “The chief business of the American people is business.” This philosophy guided much of his tenure. He oversaw further tax cuts, most notably through the Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926, which not only reduced income tax rates but also eliminated the inheritance tax. Such policies aimed to stimulate investment and growth by letting wealth remain in the hands of individuals and corporations.

On the immigration front, Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924. This legislation was a reflection of the isolationist and nativist sentiments prevalent during the period. The Act established quotas based on national origin, severely limiting the number of immigrants, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, and effectively barring Asian immigrants. This move was met with criticism for its racial and ethnic bias but was also seen by many as a way to preserve American jobs and cultural identity.

Agriculture was another sector where Coolidge’s policies had significant implications. Despite the rural economic struggles of the 1920s, he twice vetoed the McNary-Haugen Bill, which aimed to assist farmers by having the government purchase surplus crops to stabilize prices. Coolidge’s vetoes were rooted in his belief that the market, not government intervention, should dictate prices.

Coolidge’s commitment to a laissez-faire approach played a pivotal role in the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. Under his leadership, the nation saw significant economic growth, low unemployment, and a booming stock market. However, his critics argue that such policies also played a part in widening income inequality and setting the stage for the Great Depression.

In hindsight, President Coolidge’s term encapsulated the spirit of the 1920s — a decade characterized by innovation, prosperity, but also deep socio-economic divides. His policies reflected the broader sentiments of his era, emphasizing individualism, business growth, and a wary approach to international engagements.

Comparative Analysis of Harding and Coolidge

While Presidents Harding and Coolidge served consecutively and both advocated for pro-business policies, their presidencies were distinct in style, focus, and impact. Their shared party affiliation and overarching economic philosophies naturally invite comparison, but it’s crucial to understand the nuances that set them apart.

Commonalities in Economic Policies: Both Harding and Coolidge prioritized business interests, championing tax cuts and reducing government intervention in the economy. They shared a belief in the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism, contending that reduced taxes and tariffs would foster economic growth and innovation. The Revenue Acts and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff are testament to their aligned economic visions.

Differences in Governance: While Harding’s administration was marred by scandals like the Teapot Dome, Coolidge’s tenure was notably scandal-free. Coolidge’s reserved nature and hands-on management style helped maintain a cleaner administrative image. Moreover, Coolidge’s fiscal policies were stricter, often vetoing bills he believed would lead to excessive government spending, whereas Harding was somewhat more lenient.

Isolationist Tendencies: Both presidents exhibited isolationist tendencies but expressed them differently. Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” sought to distance America from the traumas of WWI and the League of Nations. In contrast, Coolidge’s policies, like the Immigration Act of 1924, reflected a more internalized form of isolationism, focusing on preserving American jobs and cultural identity.

Legacy in the Republican Party: The policies and philosophies of Harding and Coolidge laid the groundwork for the Republican Party’s economic stances for decades to come. Their emphasis on low taxes, deregulation, and a pro-business agenda can be seen echoed in the platforms of many subsequent Republican leaders.

In conclusion, while Harding and Coolidge shared many similarities in their economic outlooks, their approaches to governance and international affairs varied. Both presidents indubitably left their mark on the 1920s, but their legacies, when viewed side by side, offer a rich tapestry of contrasts and alignments, reflecting the multifaceted nature of the era they presided over.

Broader Impacts

The presidencies of Harding and Coolidge occurred during one of America’s most transformative decades. While their policies directly influenced economic and political landscapes, their broader impacts on society, culture, and future policymaking are equally profound.

Economic Prosperity and Disparity: The 1920s, often heralded as the Roaring Twenties, saw remarkable economic growth. The policies of both presidents, emphasizing business growth and reduced taxation, undeniably contributed to this prosperity. However, this wealth was not evenly distributed. The rich became richer, while many, especially in rural areas and among the working class, struggled to make ends meet. This widening economic disparity sowed the seeds for social tensions and set the stage for the Great Depression.

Shift in Cultural Dynamics: The economic policies of the 1920s, coupled with technological advancements, gave rise to a consumerist society. The availability of affordable goods, like cars and radios, changed the way Americans lived and socialized. Cities grew, nightlife flourished, and a new culture of entertainment emerged. However, this urban and modern lifestyle often clashed with more traditional and rural ways of life, leading to cultural rifts.

Precedence in Isolationist Policies: The isolationist stances of Harding and Coolidge, though different in their nuances, established a precedent for future American foreign policies. Their wary approach to international engagements, be it through trade or immigration, reflected a broader sentiment of American exceptionalism and the desire to safeguard national interests.

Foundation for Future Policymaking: The pro-business and laissez-faire policies championed during the Harding and Coolidge eras have had lasting impacts on American politics. These policies became foundational for conservative economic thought, influencing subsequent Republican administrations and sparking debates about the role of government in economic affairs that persist to this day.

In essence, the broader impacts of Harding’s and Coolidge’s policies reach beyond mere economics or politics. They shaped societal values, cultural norms, and the very fabric of American life. Their legacies serve as a testament to the enduring influence of presidential policies on the nation’s trajectory.


The 1920s, a period of innovation, economic growth, and socio-cultural transformation, was significantly influenced by the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Their collective tenure marked a distinct shift from the progressive ideals of the earlier part of the 20th century towards a more conservative and pro-business stance.

Their policies, characterized by tax reductions, limited government intervention, and isolationist tendencies, undoubtedly played a role in the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. However, these policies also sowed the seeds for economic disparities and cultural rifts, the reverberations of which were felt deeply during the subsequent Great Depression.

While Harding and Coolidge shared a broader vision for America’s economic trajectory, their distinct personalities, leadership styles, and nuanced policy differences made each presidency unique. Yet, together, they encapsulated the spirit and contradictions of a decade marked by both unparalleled prosperity and underlying instability.

Looking back, the legacies of Harding and Coolidge serve as a stark reminder of the profound impact of presidential policies, not just on the economic and political landscapes, but also on the very essence of society and culture. Their era, with all its triumphs and challenges, offers valuable lessons for future generations on the intricacies of governance and the delicate balance of progress and tradition.

Course Outline and Notes: How did the policies of Harding and Coolidge affect America?

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? (See Lesson 56)

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)

-Nine Power Act – Open Door in Asia is recognized. This limited imperialistic competition.

-Five Power Act – Ship building froze for ten years. Some ships scrapped. Ratios set at 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 between US, GB, Japan, France, Italy.

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. 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

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.