The Booming 1920s

United States History

In the presidential election of 1920, the overwhelming victory of the Republican nominee, Warren G. Harding, was final evidence of the general repudiation of Wilson's internationalism and idealism. As journalist William Allen White explained, the American people were "tired of issues, sick at heart of ideals, and weary of being noble."

The 1920 election was also the first in which women throughout the nation voted for a presidential candidate. In 1919 Congress had submitted to the states the 19th Amendment, which was ratified in time to permit women to vote the following year.

In keeping with the prevailing prosperity (at least in the urban areas of the country), governmental policy during the 1920s was eminently conservative. It was based upon the belief that if government did what it could to foster private business, prosperity would eventually encompass most of the rest of the population.

Accordingly, Republican policies were intended to create the most favorable conditions for U.S. industry. The tariff acts of 1922 and 1930 brought tariff barriers to new heights, guaranteeing U.S. manufacturers in one field after another a monopoly of the domestic market. The second of these tariffs, the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, embodied rates so high that more than 1,000 economists petitioned President Herbert Hoover to veto it: subsequent events bore out their predictions of costly retaliation by other nations. At the same time, the federal government started a program of tax cuts, reflecting Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's belief that high income taxes prevented the rich from investing in new industrial enterprises. Congress, in a series of laws passed between 1921 and 1929, responded favorably to his proposals that wartime taxes on income, excess profit taxes and corporation taxes be repealed outright or drastically reduced.

"The chief business of the American people is business," declared Calvin Coolidge, the dour, Vermont-born vice president who succeeded to the presidency in 1923 after Harding's death, and was elected in his own right in 1924. Coolidge hewed to the conservative economic policies of the Republican Party, but he was a much abler administrator than the hapless Harding, whose administration was mired in charges of corruption in the months before his death.

Throughout the 1920s, private business received substantial encouragement, including construction loans, profitable mail-carrying contracts and other indirect subsidies. The Transportation Act of 1920, for example, had already restored to private management the nation's railways, which had been under government control during the war. The Merchant Marine, which had been owned and largely operated by the government from 1917 to 1920, was sold to private operators.

Republican policies in agriculture, however, were meeting mounting criticism, for farmers shared least in the prosperity of the 1920s. The period from 1900 to 1920 had been one of general farm prosperity and rising farm prices, with the unprecedented wartime demand for U.S. farm products providing a strong stimulus to production. Farmers had opened up poor lands long allowed to remain idle or never before cultivated. As the value of U.S. farms increased, farmers began to buy goods and machinery that they had never before been able to afford. But by the end of 1920, with the abrupt end of wartime demand, the commercial agriculture of staple crops such as wheat and corn fell into sharp decline. Many factors accounted for the depression in American agriculture, but foremost was the loss of foreign markets. U.S. farmers could not easily sell in areas where the United States was not buying goods because of its own import tariff. The doors of the world market were slowly swinging shut. When the general depression struck in the 1930s, it merely shattered agriculture's already fragile state.

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Source: U.S. Department of State