Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era

The national elections of 1918 and 1920 returned the Republican Party to dominance and ended an era of progressive reform in the United States.

Summary of Event

On November 2, 1920, radio station KDKA made one of the first commercial radio broadcasts in the United States, and the first commercial broadcast of presidential election coverage, from its facilities in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A small scattering of people, straining to hear through the static in their earphones, heard a voice reporting the election returns. The Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, had won by a landslide over his Democratic opponent, James M. Cox, governor of Ohio, with sixteen million to nine million votes. The U.S. electorate, after eight years of the New Freedom, world war, and postwar tensions, had turned their backs on Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party. U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence
Republican resurgence
Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.)
Republican Party (U.S.)
[kw]Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era (Nov. 5, 1918-Nov. 2, 1920)
[kw]America’s Progressive Era, Republican Resurgence Ends (Nov. 5, 1918-Nov. 2, 1920)[Americas Progressive Era, Republican Resurgence Ends (Nov. 5, 1918 Nov. 2, 1920)]
[kw]Progressive Era, Republican Resurgence Ends America’s (Nov. 5, 1918-Nov. 2, 1920)
U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence
Republican resurgence
Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.)
Republican Party (U.S.)
[g]United States;Nov. 5, 1918-Nov. 2, 1920: Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era[04550]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1918-Nov. 2, 1920: Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era[04550]
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Republican resurgence
Harding, Warren G.
Coolidge, Calvin
Cox, James M.
Lodge, Henry Cabot
Roosevelt, Franklin D.

The Republican resurgence began in the off-year elections of 1918. The strains of wartime politics and the mistakes of the Wilson administration had disrupted the Democratic coalition. Midwestern wheat farmers disliked the government’s price controls on their crop, liberals resented the suppression of dissent during the war, and business interests believed that the White House had been too intrusive in regulating their affairs. The Republicans were in an excellent position to gain control of the House of Representatives and a few Senate seats as well. Dislike of Wilson drew such former enemies as William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt together against the common foe.

By the autumn of 1918, with the war obviously won, Wilson was looking ahead to the peace conference at Versailles; he did not want to go to Europe after having been repudiated at home. Worried Democrats pressed Wilson to provide an endorsement of the party’s candidates to stave off a Republican victory. Despite the support that many Republicans had given to his foreign policy and to his wartime programs on Capitol Hill, Wilson issued a partisan appeal on October 25 for the return of a Democratic Congress. The Republicans, he charged, had been prowar but antiadministration; a time of peacemaking was no time for divided leadership. The tactic backfired. For Wilson, the election was a stunning upset. On November 5, the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress, 49 to 47 in the Senate and 237 to 193 in the House. The Republican Party now had a strong base on which to build a victory in the next presidential election, still two years away. The Democrats found themselves confused and leaderless while Wilson pursued his foreign policy goals at the Paris Peace Conference early in 1919.

From 1918 through 1920, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had the difficult task of maintaining party unity. Senate Republicans were badly divided on the Treaty of Versailles, Versailles, Treaty of (1919) ranging from a minority of bitter-end isolationists who opposed it in any form to the majority who favored ratification with reservations. The isolationists could defeat the party in 1920 if they decided to bolt on creation of the League of Nations, League of Nations one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points incorporated into the treaty. As Lodge knew, Wilson owed his election victory in 1912 to Republican division. If the League of Nations proved successful, that result might offset the domestic problems of the Democratic Party in 1920.

For his part, Wilson had failed to include any prominent Republicans in the American Peace Commission; he now had to accept Republican amendments that would give the League of Nations a bipartisan character, or Lodge would have to defeat it in the Senate. After Wilson suffered a crippling stroke in the autumn of 1919, he resisted all attempts at compromise. Lodge adroitly led his party to victory, defeating the treaty and the League of Nations while keeping together the disparate elements of his party.

Republican delegates were confident when they gathered at Chicago for their national convention. “Any good Republican,” said Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania, “can be nominated for president and defeat any Democrat.” At the start of the convention, no clear front-runner had emerged. In the balloting, neither of the two leading candidates, U.S. Army chief of staff Leonard Wood and Governor Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, displayed enough strength to secure the nomination. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson of California, another contender, had little support. With the convention deadlocked, the delegates turned to a compromise candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. He was the perfect dark horse. He had made many friends and no enemies in the Senate since his election in 1914. Tall, handsome, with silver hair and a suntan, Harding even looked like a president. He was an acceptable second choice to the delegates, and the next day the convention nominated him. The convention then did the unexpected and named Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts as the vice presidential candidate.

The specter of the stricken Wilson, who had not recovered from his stroke, hung over the Democratic Party’s convention in San Francisco. After the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson sought vindication at the polls. He called for a “solemn referendum” on the League of Nations in the election of 1920. Wilson even hoped to break tradition with a third nomination and to barnstorm the country again on the League of Nations issue. His doctors knew that such an attempt would kill him.

The nomination for which Wilson hoped never came. Three contenders battled one another through four grueling days of roll calls: the former secretary of the treasury and the son-in-law of the president, William G. McAdoo, perhaps the most able contender; Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, most recently noted for his anticommunist crusade during the Red Scare of 1919-1920; and Governor James M. Cox of Ohio. On the forty-fourth ballot, the convention picked Cox as the party’s nominee and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the popular assistant secretary of the Navy, as his running mate. Cox, a three-term governor with a progressive record, had the advantage of not being identified with the Wilson administration and its political failures.

The campaign took place in an atmosphere of postwar upheaval. Since the end of World War I, World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period a wave of strikes, bombings and attempted bombings, race riots, and lynchings had frayed the country’s nerves. Many Americans had tired of Progressivism, bigger government, and higher taxes; the nation indulged in a period of intolerance and repression of minorities and unpopular ideas. In May, 1920, Harding accurately captured the mood of the nation when he said, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy.”

Since 1896, the Republican Party had been the majority party, and with his party united behind him, Harding had only to sit back and wait for the most smashing victory up to that time in U.S. presidential politics. Rolling up a 60 percent majority, he carried every state outside the South, and he even cracked that region with a victory in Tennessee, leading Cox by 404 to 127 in the electoral college. Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, a prisoner in the Atlanta penitentiary, received more than 900,000 votes, about 3 percent of the total.


The Republican resurgence of 1918-1920, which stemmed from voter disgust with Progressivism, Wilson, and the Democrats, led to a decade of Republican electoral dominance. Harding’s scandal-ridden administration ended with his death in 1923, and then Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency, easily winning election in his own right in 1924. Both Coolidge and his successor as president, Republican Herbert Hoover, led strongly probusiness and antiprogressive administrations. It was not until the 1930’s that the Democratic Party regained dominance in U.S. politics, as Hoover’s insufficient measures to repair the economy during the Great Depression contributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932. U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence
Republican resurgence
Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.)
Republican Party (U.S.)

Further Reading

  • Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Brief essays, written for the general reader, describe every U.S. presidential election campaign from the country’s founding to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Concludes with a postscript that discusses how campaigns and elections have changed over the course of the nation’s history. Includes index.
  • Burner, David. The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932. 1968. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Takes a close look at why the Democratic Party collapsed during World War I. Notes the impact of such issues as Prohibition and woman suffrage on the party’s electoral coalition.
  • Cooper, John Milton. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Overview of the Progressive Era presents a good analysis of the last two years of Wilson’s presidency. Includes maps, suggestions for further reading, and index.
  • Ferrell, Robert H. Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1921. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Provides detailed treatment of Wilson’s performance as a war leader, with coverage of key issues leading up to the repudiation of the Democrats in 1918 and 1920.
  • Gould, Lewis L. Reform and Regulation: American Politics from Roosevelt to Wilson. 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1986. Political history of the period concludes with a chapter that considers the Republican victories in the 1918 and 1920 elections.
  • Livermore, Seward W. Politics Is Adjourned: Woodrow Wilson and the War Congress, 1916-1918. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966. Thorough study of the reasons for the Republican success in the 1918 elections. Emphasizes the policy mistakes of the Wilson administration.
  • Miller, Karen A. J. Populist Nationalism: Republican Insurgency and American Foreign Policy Making, 1918-1925. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Focuses on the effects of the Republican resurgence on U.S. foreign policy, with an emphasis on the political maneuvering of politicians William E. Borah and Hiram Warren Johnson. Includes select bibliography and index.

Republican Congressional Insurgency

Wilson Is Elected U.S. President

Scandals of the Harding Administration

Coolidge Is Elected U.S. President