Harding, Warren G. Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Florence Harding was a strong and positive presence in her husbands administration. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress.) Florence Harding was a strong and positive presence in her husband's administration. Published by Gale Cengage (Courtesy of The Library of Congress.)
Warren G. Harding delivering a campaign speech much like the return to normalcy speech. ( Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.) Warren G. Harding delivering a campaign speech much like the "return to normalcy" speech. Published by Gale Cengage (© Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

The "Return to Normalcy" Speech
Published in 1920

The 1920 election marked a major shift in the mood and direction of U.S. society. During the Progressive Era (roughly 1900 to 1914), elected officials and other leaders sought to achieve social reforms by expanding the federal government's power to protect the vulnerable, especially workers, children, and consumers. Under the lead of the idealistic Democratic president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), the nation had stood by the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) against German aggression in a war that was meant, in a phrase common during the period, to "make the world safe for democracy." But in the aftermath of that bloody conflict, U.S. citizens faced not only the knowledge of its horrors but also an economic recession at home. They began to retreat from the outward looking stance of progressivism toward isolationism (staying separate from other countries' affairs). When it came time to elect a new president, Wilson's Democratic Party was weak and divided. It chose as its candidate Ohio's progressive-leaning governor, James M. Cox (1870–1957). The Republicans also chose an Ohioan: a popular newspaper publisher and senator named Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23).

The speech excerpted here contains what is probably Harding's best-known phrase: "return to normalcy." The phrase and the speech, delivered in Boston in May 1920, express Harding's view of the direction the nation should take. Harding promised voters that if he was elected, the United States would stay out of other nations' troubles and concentrate on its own affairs. Further, Harding vowed to support business interests and to steer the federal government away from the protective, activist role it had taken, while also making it more efficient. One of Harding's campaign slogans, in fact, was "Less government in business and more business in government."

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Harding's "Return to Normalcy" speech …

To understand Harding's calming effect on the nation, it is important to take into account the devastating impact of World War I (1914–18; the United States entered the war in 1917). More than 15,000,000 people died in this conflict, which was waged with new, more effective weapons, airplanes, and trench warfare. While the United States suffered a comparatively low 320,000 casualties (including 130,000 killed), its citizens joined the rest of the world in horror at the high cost of war and disillusionment with its results.

Harding is often considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Although he was personally honest, many of the men he chose to serve in his administration proved corrupt. His short presidency (he died before the end of his first term) was marred by several bribery scandals that shocked the U.S. public in the years following Harding's death.

Harding's speeches were usually peppered with grandiose words and phrases, some of which he made up himself. One of these is the word "normalcy," which Harding later defined, as quoted in Geoffrey Perret's book America in the Twenties, as "a regular steady order of things normal procedure, the natural way, without excess."

Excerpt from the "Return to Normalcy" speech

There isn't anything the matter with world civilization, except that humanity is viewing it through a vision impaired in a cataclysmal war. Poise has been disturbed, and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational; sometimes there have been draughts upon the dangerous cup of barbarity, and men have wandered far from safe paths, but the human procession still marches in the right direction.

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another thing to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life's acquirements. …

This republic has its ample tasks. If we put an end to false economics which lure humanity to utter chaos, ours will be the commanding example of world leadership today. If we can prove a representative popular government under which a citizenship seeks what it may do for the government rather than what the government may do for individuals, we shall do more to make democracy safe for the world than all armed conflict ever recorded.

The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity of statutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.

The problems of maintained civilization are not to be solved by a transfer of responsibility from citizenship to government, and no eminent page in history was ever drafted by the standards of mediocrity. More, no government is worthy of the name which is directed by influence on the one hand, or moved by intimidation on the other. …

My best judgment of America's needs is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path. Let's get out of the fevered delirium of war, with the hallucination that all the money in the world is to be made in the madness of war and the wildness of its aftermath. Let us stop to consider that tranquillity at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people. …

What happened next …

Harding won the 1920 election, gaining 60.4 percent of the popular vote (the largest margin of votes a presidential candidate ever received). The Republicans also won majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, making it easy for them to push through their program of cutting taxes, loosening government control of industry, and restricting immigration. The economy began to grow steadily stronger, and many U.S. citizens gave Harding's administration the credit. Yet behind the scenes, a web of corruption was being woven. It seems likely that at the time of his death, which occurred while he was on a speaking tour of the western states, Harding was worried about the misdeeds committed by the friends he had elevated to high government offices. One of these, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1861–1944), was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. In 1931 Fall became the first cabinet member to go to jail after he was convicted of renting public oil fields to private companies in exchange for personal loans.

Did you know …

  • Harding's wife Florence, or Flossie (called Duchess by her husband in reference to her dominant personality), was a strong and in many ways positive presence in her husband's administration. She opened the White House, which had been shut up tight during Wilson's long illness, to visitors and helped to create a lighter, more welcoming atmosphere there. Even though their marriage seems to have been unhappy, she is credited with having supported and encouraged her husband throughout his political career.
  • Despite his weaknesses as a president, Harding was a friendly, outgoing person who was much loved by the ordinary people of the United States. While serving as president, he played golf and poker twice a week, kept his private quarters well stocked with illegal liquor, and was rumored to indulge in extramarital affairs. He loved dogs, went frequently to baseball games, and actually enjoyed standing in long reception lines, shaking people's hands and exchanging small talk.

Consider the following …

  • Under President Wilson, the federal government had taken an activist role in people's lives. Harding promised a laissez-faire approach to government. Investigate the meaning of these terms and relate them to the 1920s.
  • World War I was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. In this speech, Harding introduced a twist on that phrase. What do you think he means?

For More Information


Dean, John, and Arthur M. Schlesinger. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004.

Downes, Randolph C. The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding: 1865–1920. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970.

Kent, Deborah. Warren G. Harding: America's 29th President. New York: Children's Press, 2004.

Landau, Elaine. Warren G. Harding. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2005.

Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Web Sites

Warren G. Harding. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/wh29.html. Accessed on June 17, 2005.