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 were bitterly divided over whether to join the League of Nations and fears of spreading 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.
The 'best of the second-raters'
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 adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Back to ‘normalcy’
When he returned from the Senate to his hometown of Marion, Ohio, in July, Harding proclaimed to his neighbors, “Normal men and back to normalcy will steady a civilization which has been fevered by the supreme upheaval of all the world.” “Back to normalcy” and “return to normalcy” were quickly adopted as Harding campaign slogans (along with another one, “America First.”)
Harding’s mention of “normalcy” sparked not just a political debate but also a grammatical one. Critics of the Republican nominee claimed the word was a malaprop uttered by Harding when he actually meant to say “normality.” The candidate pressed back. “I have noticed that word caused considerable newspaper editors to change it to ‘normality,’” Harding told the press. “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary, and I do not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I find, and it is a good word.” Indeed, the term appeared in newspapers of the day, and Merriam-Webster traces its origins back to at least 1855.
Harding insisted his desire for “normalcy” was not a longing to turn back the clock. “By ‘normalcy’ I do not mean the old order, but a regular, steady order of things,” he said. “I mean normal procedure, the natural way, without excess. I don’t believe the old order can or should come back, but we must have normal order, or, as I have said, ‘normalcy.’”
The ‘front porch campaign’
Echoing his promise of a return to simpler, less chaotic times, Harding ran a campaign straight out of the 1890s, a time before the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, the idealism of Wilson and the turmoil of populism. While his Democratic opponent, Ohio Governor James M. Cox, traveled 22,000 miles around the country to hold campaign rallies, Harding rarely ventured further than his doorstep and emulated William McKinley’s path to the White House with a “Front Porch Campaign.” Pilgrims came by the thousands to Harding’s house just off Main Street in Marion and gathered on the front lawn around the verandah to hear the candidate orate from the top step. Foreshadowing selfie lines a century later, voters waited for their turns to have photographs taken with Harding and his wife, Florence, that was sent to their hometown newspapers.
Harding’s milquetoast personality and small-town appeal spoke to the times: He won by a landslide in both the Electoral College and the popular vote to become the 29th president of the United States. He carried 37 of 48 states, including every state outside the South. The Republican ticket captured more than 16 million votes, nearly double those tallied by Cox and his vice-presidential running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Republican Party also won sizable majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
“Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way,” Harding declared in his inaugural address.
But while America emerged from under the clouds of recession, pandemic and war in the ensuing years, the Harding presidency generated its own turbulence. Prohibition saw a rise in gang violence and organized crime. Harding’s cabinet was plagued by corruption such as the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which oil men bribed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall for drilling rights on federal land. Harding would not finish his four-year term. He died in 1923 at the age of 57 in a San Francisco hotel room while on a cross-country tour of the United States.