Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and the Politics of Passivity

The 1920s followed the Progressive Era, which was dominated by men like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both in many respects altruists who believed in activist government that would intervene to solve societal problems. Remember, Teddy Roosevelt was known as a trust buster, and Wilson was going to make the world safe for democracy. People, especially business men, tired of this idealistic activism, longed for a return to “the good old days when the government didn’t bother business men with unnecessary regulations, but provided them with fat tariffs, and instructed the Department of Justice not to have them on its mind.” Progressive era efforts to break-up trusts and regulate business practices gave way to a new emphasis on partnerships between government and business. (Allen, II, 6)

Presidents Warren G. Harding (1920-23), Calvin Coolidge (1923-28) and Herbert Hoover (1928-1932) all believed in a small, non-interventionist government and the primacy of business in the formation of national economic policy. They believed that business and business leaders such as Andrew Mellon, J. D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford “replaced the statesmen, the priest, and the philosopher as the creator of standards of ethics and behavior” and should have a “free hand”. (Moore, p. 139-41)

The American people wanted a government that would keep its hands-off business, except when aiding it through favorable tariffs and other probusiness measures. They did not want an activist government or a president who was too involved. “[T]heir idea of statesmanship on the part of the President was that he should let things alone, give industry and trade a chance to garner fat profits and not ‘rock the boat’”. (Allen VI, 6)