Warren G. Harding's Presidency

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What were the key policies and goals articulated by Republican political leaders of the 1920s?

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During the 1920s, the Republican Party became identified as the party of big business. This stance was perhaps best articulated by Calvin Coolidge, who supposedly once said that the "business of America is business." Coolidge and his predecessor, Warren Harding, are especially identified as laissez-faire executives, promoting a "hands-off" approach...

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During the 1920s, the Republican Party became identified as the party of big business. This stance was perhaps best articulated by Calvin Coolidge, who supposedly once said that the "business of America is business." Coolidge and his predecessor, Warren Harding, are especially identified as laissez-faire executives, promoting a "hands-off" approach to business. In practice, though, Republican politicians throughout the 1920s promoted government intervention on behalf of business. This included using the power of the state to break strikes, as Coolidge did while governor of Massachusetts. This was part of a broadly anti-union stance pursued by the Republicans throughout the 1920s, one rooted in pro-business ideology as well as fears of left-wing radicalism.

The Republican Party also advocated, and enacted, high tariffs seen as beneficial to American manufacturers. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff, signed into law by Harding, reversed a trend toward lower tariffs favored by progressives. During the 1920s, Republicans at the federal and state levels significantly lowered income taxes, and both Harding and Coolidge declined to use the relatively-new enforcement agencies, including the Interstate Commerce Commission, to break up monopolies or otherwise regulate business practices. President Herbert Hoover, elected in 1928, promoted a philosophy that he called "rugged individualism," one that sought to roll back the expanding role that the state had played in the lives of Americans during the Progressive Era. This ideology came under fire with the advent of the Great Depression, but it was in keeping with the mindset of the Republican Party in general, and particularly his predecessors in the White House.

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Though there were still some progressives in the party, the Republicans of the 1920s represented a shift away from Progressivism. Domestically, Republicans wanted to create a pro-business atmosphere for the United States by cutting taxes on wealth and capital gains. They also wanted to increase tariffs in order to promote domestic production. The Republican leaders of the period were able to take advantage of the anti-Bolshevik sentiment in the country in order to ensure that unionization efforts would be largely discouraged nationwide. Some Republicans were in favor of opening public lands for development even if it was tied to corruption, such as it was with the Teapot Dome Scandal.

The Republicans of this era were not internationalists, though there were a few treaties signed that limited the amount of battleships a nation could have. The Republicans of this era were against the League of Nations since it would compromise the United States's own Monroe Doctrine, and the presidents did not want to be obligated to sending troops somewhere that was not a direct interest to the United States. The Republicans of this era made loans to Germany so that they could receive money owed during WWI; however, making sure that businesses and government were repaid was a key Republican talking point during the 1920s. Instead of thinking internationally, they thought about the United States's business and foreign policy interests first.

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The Republican presidents of the 1920s pursued policies that were largely a reaction against Progressivism, at the level of both domestic and foreign policy. On the domestic front, the Republicans pursued an aggressively pro-business agenda, cutting regulation and rolling back some of the Progressive reforms. The business of America was business, as President Coolidge once said, and the business of government was to get out of the way and let business generate wealth and create jobs. Under the Republican presidents of the twenties, taxes for the rich were cut dramatically and protective tariffs raised against foreign goods. The trust-busting of the Progressive era gave way to business, particularly big businesses, being given free rein.

In terms of foreign policy, the temper of the times was strongly isolationist. American public opinion had grown tired of the interventionist policies of Woodrow Wilson. There was a widespread perception that other countries should sort out their own problems instead of relying on the United States to bail them out. The rejection of the League of Nations by the Senate in 1920 ushered in a period of isolationism, what President Harding called a "return to normalcy." From now on, the United States would pursue foreign policy on the basis of national self-interest rather than any high-flown ideals such as making the world safe for democracy.

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In the 1920s, there were three Republican presidents whose policies were largely similar to one another.  We can look at their policies and goals in terms of both domestic and foreign policies.

In domestic politics, the main goal of the Republicans was to create a climate in which business could thrive. The Republicans were not interested in continuing to regulate business in the way that the progressive presidents before them had.  Instead, they wanted to help businesses.  Harding and Coolidge did this by reducing taxes and government spending and getting government out of the way.  Hoover wanted government to do more to proactively help business.  Their differences notwithstanding, they all wanted to help American private sector businesses.

In foreign policy, the main goal was to avert the possibility of another world war.  The US did this through such things as the Washington Naval Conference treaties that were meant to prevent arms races and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war.  The US also tried to help Germany to pay the reparations forced on it by the Treaty of Versailles.  However, this was meant as much to bolster the international economy as to prevent war.

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