The Teapot Dome scandal was a defining moment in American history that helped fuel the public’s general distrust of government and fears of corporate-governmental collusion.
Teapot Dome was the name of an
Secretary Fall first made it possible for the secretary of the Navy to assign several emergency reserve oil fields to the Department of the Interior. He then leased the fields to the private Mammoth Oil Company, realizing a personal profit of approximately $400,000 in the process. Many civil and criminal charges were brought against Fall and others, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court after a Senate investigation. Fall was convicted of bribery and sentenced to a year in prison. The incident was another black eye on the already scandal-ridden administration of President Warren G. Harding. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1927 to render the oil leases invalid and return the reserve fields to the Navy.
The scandal revealed the extent to which the nation’s resources were in the hands of a powerful few. It thus exposed a growing need for stronger governmental protection of those resources. Subsequent administrations would take more seriously the public interest preserving the United States’ natural resources. The Senate investigation into the scandal also marked the first time that Congress compelled witnesses to testify before its committees. Many observers at the time questioned Congress’s authority to compel such testimony.
Fall’s defenders point out that oil was relatively scarce in the United States during the early 1920’s, and he may have perceived a legitimate need for American companies to gain access to the federal reserves. It was the secretive nature of his actions and the fact that he profited from them that created the public outcry. With his conviction, Fall became the first member of a presidential cabinet to be sentenced to prison for his actions in that position. The Teapot Dome scandal marked the beginning of an era when the American ideal of a government by and for the people would come to include a government that protects the interests of the people from what would come to be known as “special interests,” such as the oil lobby.
Bates, J. Leonard. The Origins of Teapot Dome: Progressives, Parties, and Petroleum, 1909-1921. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963. Noggle, Burl. Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920’s. 1962. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Stratton, David H. Tempest over Teapot Dome: The Story of Albert B. Fall. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Secret Service