President Harding’s Appeal to Halt Lawbreaking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In an interview for the Literary Digest, President Warren G. Harding summarized his views of the causes of an increase in corruption and crime in the United States. Harding argued against the prevailing view that society’s apparent “moral laxity” was attributable to the tumult of World War I. He called upon leaders in every facet of government and in local communities to lead by example and demonstrate a renewed commitment to morally upright behavior.

Summary Overview

In an interview for the Literary Digest, President Warren G. Harding summarized his views of the causes of an increase in corruption and crime in the United States. Harding argued against the prevailing view that society’s apparent “moral laxity” was attributable to the tumult of World War I. He called upon leaders in every facet of government and in local communities to lead by example and demonstrate a renewed commitment to morally upright behavior.

Defining Moment

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was continuing to undergo a dramatic industrial and economic transformation into a developed, modern nation. As this rapid evolution occurred, however, the country also experienced what many reformers saw as a moral decline. Poverty, political corruption, and crime increased in major cities such as New York and Chicago. The temperance movement, which, for decades, had urged Americans to reduce or moderate their alcohol consumption, was surpassed in influence by the Prohibition movement, which focused on legislative and constitutional changes to ban alcohol sales outright. Still, the country’s attention turned away from social reform when the United States entered World War I.

Prohibitionists saw renewed momentum for their cause at the end of the war. Prohibitionists succeeded in convincing Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol. The states quickly ratified the amendment, and the era of Prohibition began in January 1920. Unfortunately for those who anticipated a reversal in crime following Prohibition, the opposite occurred. Crime rates skyrocketed, earning the 1920s the infamous moniker of “the lawless decade.”

Organized crime “families,” which had been operating in major American cities for years before the passage of Prohibition, seized the opportunities presented by a lack of legal alcohol sales. The revenues generated by bootleggers from illegal alcohol sales bought these gangs increasing influence in the form of bribes to law enforcement and government officials. Crime lords such as Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Umberto Valenti began to assert themselves in New York City, while in Chicago, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone headed a powerful network of gangsters. Prior to Prohibition, organized crime groups focused primarily on “vice” crimes, such as gambling and prostitution. Prohibition, however, provided a highly lucrative opportunity for gangsters such as Masseria and Capone, whose rises to power were made possible by the practice of bootlegging. Gangs vying for control and influence in major US cities engaged in bloody violence, while the police, who were ill-prepared to counter the heavily armed and deeply rooted gangs’ activities, could do little to stem gang wars.

Although it was certainly one of the most significant types of criminal activity, organized crime was not the only issue that arose during this period. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, drug trafficking, bank robberies, auto theft, and kidnapping all saw a spike in the early 1920s. The growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s spurred race riots and other forms of violence across the country.

The government and law enforcement agencies were hamstrung by internal corruption. Even the Harding administration was marred by scandal and allegations of moral depravity (Harding himself was known to gamble and drink alcohol, a vice that did not go unnoticed by the public). In 1922, Harding was approached by the media to offer his thoughts about the root causes for the increase in moral turpitude and crime in the United States.

Author Biography

Warren Gamaliel Harding was born near Marion, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He graduated in 1882 from Ohio Central College. He gained a strong reputation as an evenhanded reporter and editor for the Marion Daily Star before winning a seat in the Ohio state senate in 1900. After two terms, Harding was elected to the US Senate in 1914. Campaigning on a platform of a “return to normalcy” following the reform-minded presidency of predecessor Woodrow Wilson, Harding won the presidency in a landslide victory against Democratic candidate James M. Cox in 1920. Harding’s administration was marred by allegations of cabinet corruption and a perceived lack of vision, although he was credited with laying the foundation for economic reconstruction after World War I. While on a trip to California, he suffered a heart attack and died on August 2, 1923, while still in office. Harding was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge.

Document Analysis

In the years following the end of World War I, the United States entered a period of great social, political, and economic change. One of the most pivotal developments of this period was the passage of Prohibition, which was enacted with the intention of supporting a social morality. Prohibition, however, only sent the social negatives of alcohol use underground and gave rise to a spike in violent crime. President Harding, asked to state his opinions on how to counter this trend of “lawlessness” in a 1922 interview for the Literary Digest, calls upon the nation’s leaders to demonstrate morally upright behavior themselves so that others could follow their example.

In his statement to the Literary Digest, Harding first attempts to disprove the prevailing notion that the country’s “spiritual demoralization” is attributable to the tumult of World War I. Although the war’s influences were certainly evident, Harding asserts that the country’s slide into “moral laxity” began long before the war’s beginnings. Furthermore, he claims that the decline in morally upright behavior is not a short-term trend. Americans, therefore, need to pay greater attention to morality as the country continues to undergo its industrial, economic, and social evolution.

The key to this change in focus, Harding argues, are the nation’s leaders. Community leaders, whom Harding believes operate on a higher plane of society than others, were not just elected officials but people of prominence in their respective communities. In Harding’s view, these local leaders influenced and inspired others within the community to such an extent that their own behavior fostered similar deportment in others. When community leaders engage in immoral pursuits or criminal activities, the people they serve tend to follow suit, Harding argues.

Harding’s statement is particularly focused on people who act “in defiance” of Prohibition. Despite the weight the country’s Prohibition laws carried on paper, a large percentage of Americans considered these laws to be “irksome” and unfair impositions on their individual rights. Because of this attitude, Harding argues, citizens flouted the law, engaging in the same criminal industry that supported the organized crime rings responsible for the countless acts of violence taking place in city streets. These attitudes were shared by many of the community leaders as well. Harding points to businessmen, elected officials, and other community leaders who shared the belief that Prohibition was a frivolous law and, thus, were known to drink in defiance of the law. Leaders, he adds, should not be surprised to see higher crime rates and violence if they themselves drank alcohol or gambled.

Harding argues that the successful reversal of this moral decline requires leaders to show respect for the law. Prohibition and similar laws were enacted to ensure socially and morally positive behavior, Harding says. If leaders at all levels of society (and those they influence) can demonstrate a commitment to following the laws, Harding says, the rates of crime, violence, and other immoral behavior plaguing the country during the 1920s would likely decline.

Essential Themes

Many historians argue that Harding’s presidency was one of the least successful in US history. He rarely took a hard position on politically charged issues, which kept him from developing political enemies, but also left him with a reputation for being ambivalent and ineffective. Many of Harding’s closest advisors, however, were engaged in corrupt activities, and he did little to discipline them. Nevertheless, when crime rates increased significantly following Prohibition, Harding told the media that the country’s leaders must be the ones to take a definitive stand for morality in order to reverse the trend.

Harding made clear his opinion that the increase in crime and moral depravity in the early 1920s was not rooted in World War I. Certainly, he argued, the war did divert Americans’ focus from their own lives at home. However, Americans had already been sliding away from a morally upright position prior to the war, he claimed. Americans were now at a point where they felt they could simply disregard the law–especially unpopular ones, such as Prohibition. Such attitudes were the main culprit for the increase in crime and immoral activity, Harding argued.

Harding partly placed blame for this slide on the country’s leaders. From the federal government to local neighborhoods, he said, men and women who commanded respect and could inspire others were disregarding the law. When the people who looked up to these leaders saw this morally objectionable behavior (and the fact that the leaders were not prosecuted for their actions), the citizens themselves adopted a morally ambiguous ideology and disobeyed the law as well.

Harding’s solution to the problem also involved these leaders. A renewed commitment to moral and legal principles was the only vehicle by which the violence and depravity that he said gripped the country could be overcome, Harding stated. Although some Americans argued that Prohibition was an infringement on their personal rights, Harding asserted that they should nevertheless follow the letter of the law. If the community’s leaders took such a position instead of openly defying the law, Harding argued, what he saw as a moral decline might be more effectively addressed and even reversed.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade, 2011. Print.
  • Blumenthal, Karen. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Bel Air: Flash Point, 2011. Print.
  • Clark, Norman. Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.
  • Critchley, David. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891–1913. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
  • Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2011. Print.
  • Sann, Paul. The Lawless Decade: Bullets, Broads and Bathtub Gin. Mineola: Dover, 2010. Print.
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