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After War, Pandemic and Recession, Americans Voted in 1920 for 'Normalcy'

April 9, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Weary from cataclysmic world events, the U.S. electorate chose a mild-mannered candidate promising quieter times.

Lashed by a squall of historical events over four harrowing years, exhausted Americans longed to catch their collective breath as Election Day approached.

The four years leading up to the presidential election of 1920 had delivered a ghastly confluence of war, pestilence, terrorism and unemployment. As soon as World War I finished taking the lives of 100,000 Americans, a global influenza pandemic stole another 650,000 more. Race riots, labor strikes and a string of anarchist bombings—including one that slaughtered 38 people on Wall Street—rocked American cities following the war. The American economy was far from roaring in 1920 as unemployment soared and stock prices plummeted. Americans bitterly divided over whether to join the League of Nations, and fears of the spread of communism after the Russian Revolution sparked the Red Scare and Palmer Raids. A cheating scandal had tainted the national pastime with accusations that the “Black Sox” had conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series. Even the heavens appeared to offer little salvation as a cluster of nearly 40 tornadoes struck from Georgia to Wisconsin on Palm Sunday in 1920, leaving more than 380 dead.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The ‘best of the second-raters’

President Warren G. Harding, right, pictured with Calvin Coolidge, his Vice-President and successor, circa 1923.

Against this turbulent backdrop, the Republican Party gathered in Chicago in June 1920 to select its nominee to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered a debilitating stroke months earlier. Seeking to regain the White House, Republicans settled on a dark-horse candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, on the tenth ballot. “There ain’t any first-raters this year,” declared Connecticut Senator Frank Brandegee. “We got a lot of second-raters, and Warren Harding is the best of the second-raters.” A small-town newspaper publisher from a swing state in the American heartland who bridged the party’s progressive and conservative wings, Harding was a safe choice who could deliver just the sort of political comfort Americans craved.

Harding promised nerve-wracked voters anything but radical change. In a May 1920 speech in Boston, he declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but …read more


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