After the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson, unable to convince Republicans in the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, stated emphatically that the American people should settle the issue of the League of Nations in the presidential election of 1920. Democrats and Republicans both nominated Ohioans, James Cox on the Democratic, pro-League platform and Senator Warren G. Harding on the Republican ticket. Harding hoped to attract both conservative and liberal votes by skirting the troublesome issue of the League of Nations on a platform neither for the League nor against it. Imprisoned labor leader Eugene V. Debs also ran on the Socialist Party ticket and did surprisingly well considering his imprisonment and the anticommunist sentiment of the day.
Harding’s noncommittal stance paid off on Election Day, as he defeated Cox by a margin of more than 7 million popular votes and won 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127. As a result of the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the election was the first time women had voted in a national election in American history.
Harding’s election meant big bucks for big business. The anti-trust gains made by Wilsonian progressives went out the door as a new age dawned for fat-cat tycoons and good old boys in the Republican Party. Ironically, though, many of Harding’s pro-business policies hurt the American economy in the long run. First, the sudden free-for-all in the market led to speculation and corruption. Speculators began using future earnings on the stocks they owned—money they did not even have yet—to buy new stocks, a process known as “buying on margin.” This overspeculation, along with widespread corruption and faulty international finances, eventually led to the stock market crash of 1929 .
Moreover, the steep Fordney-McCumber Tariff prevented Europe from exporting goods to the United States to boost its economy after the war. Europe was deeply in debt and needed to sell goods to American consumers to pay off loans owed to the U.S. government. Harding’s new tariff sparked an international tariff war that brought international trade to a virtual standstill.
Conservatism flourished under Harding as the president distributed rewards to big business and limited benefits for average American workers. In 1923, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital that women workers did not merit special labor protection from the government, because they were now enfranchised and could theoretically protect themselves. This decision effectively reversed the previous 1908 Muller v. Oregon ruling.
Meanwhile, Congress passed the Esch-Cummins Transportation Act in 1920, which deregulated railroads, putting their control back into the hands of plutocratic owners. In 1922, Harding and Congress also passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which drove taxes on foreign goods up to almost 40 percent to protect American industry. Such conservative measures, combined with the federal government’s new willingness to break strikes using force, caused a drastic drop in labor union membership throughout the country.