Harding on Americanism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This speech was given in 1920, prior to Warren G. Harding’s selection as the Republican presidential candidate. In this speech, Harding’s isolationism and nationalism are tempered by his need to appeal to the party as a moderate who would still move the country away from international involvement. Later, when he was able to define his Democratic opponent as one who would continue Woodrow Wilson’s unpopular European entanglements, Harding was far clearer in his distrust of immigrants and desire to have Europe deal with its own problems.

Summary Overview

This speech was given in 1920, prior to Warren G. Harding’s selection as the Republican presidential candidate. In this speech, Harding’s isolationism and nationalism are tempered by his need to appeal to the party as a moderate who would still move the country away from international involvement. Later, when he was able to define his Democratic opponent as one who would continue Woodrow Wilson’s unpopular European entanglements, Harding was far clearer in his distrust of immigrants and desire to have Europe deal with its own problems.

Issues that arose at the end of World War I dominated the 1920 US presidential election. Wilson, a Democrat, had led the nation into war and tried (but failed) to convince the United States to join the League of Nations. The wartime economic boom had collapsed, and labor conflict in the form of strikes, riots, and even bombings was widespread. Ethnic groups, such as Irish and German Americans, felt that they had been mistreated and betrayed during the war, and immigrant groups came under greater scrutiny and suspicion as labor unrest and radical violence grew. As they mourned those killed during the war and as they faced rising challenges at home, many Americans turned away from future involvement in international affairs.

The 1920 election was the first presidential election to have its results broadcast on the radio, a technology still in its infancy and with a limited audience. Many more Americans had access to a gramophone than a radio in 1920, and political leaders were invited by the US State Department’s Committee on Public Information to record speeches for wide distribution before the election. Two speeches were released per month, one from each major party under the label Nation’s Forum. Harding’s speech argues that the United States should look after its own interests first.

Defining Moment

The 1920 presidential election sparked a heated conversation about both what role the nation was to play internationally and what “Americanism” meant. Republican candidate Harding of Ohio benefitted from the backlash against Democratic president Wilson, who was seen as an interventionist and internationalist after his failed push to include the United States in the League of Nations. Democrats had also traditionally enjoyed the support of labor groups, but they lost significant ground with Wilson’s failure to support full sovereignty for Ireland. German Americans felt that they had been mistreated and maligned during the war. The Democrats moved away from their support of labor, as anarchist bombings, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and inflammatory radical activism at home made the far left an increasingly uncomfortable ally. When President Wilson suffered a major and debilitating stroke in 1919, and it was clear that he would not be a viable option for a third term, Democrats nominated Ohio governor and former newspaper publisher James Cox, who chose thirty-seven-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt as his running mate. Roosevelt proved to be a popular and effective public speaker, and the campaign benefitted from his youth and energy. Cox understood that the League of Nations was unpopular, and so he endorsed it only if changes were made. Still, the party supported Wilson, who had once been enormously popular, and continued to endorse international involvement.

Harding was also an Ohio newspaper publisher. He selected Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge as his running mate. Harding’s campaign motto was “return to normalcy,” an idea with vast appeal to an American public wearied by war, strikes, international unrest, and social upheaval. Harding promised peace and comfort and gave speeches from his front porch. He led an advertising campaign that touted an “America First” policy. Though Harding did not initially reject the League of Nations outright, his speeches became increasingly nationalistic as the campaign wore on and employed phrases such as “Independence means independence, now as in 1776,” which compared international involvement to colonization.

The November 2, 1920, election was the first in which women had full voting rights and was also the first to announce election results on the radio. Harding won the presidential election by a landslide, with 60.3 percent of the popular vote, a 26.2-percentage-point victory over Cox and Roosevelt.

Author Biography

Warren G. Harding was born in 1865 in Ohio. He was the oldest of eight children, and his father was a medical doctor, who later purchased a newspaper. His mother was a practicing midwife. Harding was an excellent student and graduated from Ohio Central College in 1882 at the age of seventeen. Within four years of graduation, Harding was the owner of the Marion Daily Star newspaper, and in 1891, he married Florence Kling DeWolfe, who was the daughter of a rival newspaper owner. In 1899, Harding was elected to the Ohio state senate, and he was lieutenant governor of Ohio from 1904–06. Harding served as a US senator from 1915 until his inauguration as president in January 1921.

Harding had a reputation as a moderate and a compromiser, who rarely spoke out firmly on contested issues, but he was popular in his party and was the keynote speaker at the 1916 Republican Convention. In a contentious convention in 1920, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president of the United States, which he won against rival James Cox in November 1920.

Harding’s presidency was plagued by multiple scandals, as his reputation as a lackey to party bosses spread and men in his government often took advantage of opportunities to enrich themselves. Still, his presidency saw the beginning of an era of relative prosperity. Harding fell ill and died on August 2, 1923, in San Francisco. Though he is thought to have suffered a heart attack, his widow refused an autopsy, leading to rumors of foul play.

Document Analysis

This 1920 speech is masterfully vague, as Harding was not the yet nominee for president at the time it was given and his best chance of success was to appeal to a wide audience. At the time of the speech, the Republican Party was divided over entry into the League of Nations, but its platform moved the party further away from international involvement and intervention. This mirrored the national mood, as many Americans wished for peace and prosperity at home and saw Europe as a drain on American resources. In a later speech, Harding famously stated that Americans needed “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 was this “triumphant nationality” that Harding attempts to define in this speech.

Harding defines the moment when “Americanism” was born with the framing of the Constitution in 1787, and points out that, although there were moments that defined the national character before then, even the American Revolution was just a preliminary step to the forming of a national identity. “In simple truth, there was no thought of nationality in the revolution for America’s independence. The colonists were resisting a wrong, and freedom was their solace. Once it was achieved, nationality was the only agency suited to its preservation. Americanism really began when robed in nationality.” The Constitution established nationality, which in turn led to justified pride in the United States, which “headed the forward procession of civil, human, and religious liberty which ultimately will affect the liberation of all mankind.” Therefore, in Harding’s mind, to abandon nationalism is a grave error. Unlike Europe, “this republic has never failed humanity, nor endangered civilization.”

Harding argues that, while World War I should be a source of pride and that the United States should not shun its duties toward other nations, it would be a mistake to let other, presumably inferior governments tell it what to do. The United States may “counsel, cooperate, and contribute,” but it should not “attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization.” Despite Harding’s declaration that “We do not mean to hold aloof, we choose no [isolation], we shun no duty,” he makes clear what he thinks of involvement in Europe. “Let the internationalist dream, and the Bolshevist destroy.”

Essential Themes

In this speech, Harding argued that the essential character of the United States is superior to the rest of the world, and Americans should always look after their own interests. He stopped short of declaring that the United States should have nothing to do with the rest of the world, but he also made clear that he did not believe that the United States should have a major role in stabilizing Europe. Harding did not mention the League of Nations by name, but he did refer to a “council of foreign powers” that would try to tell the United States what to do.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: American in Prosperity and Depression 1920–1941. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
  • Pietrusza, David. 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. New York: Basic, 2008. Print.
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