Warren G. Harding: “Not Nostrums, but Normalcy” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Warren G. Harding delivered this speech before the Home Market Club in Boston, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1920, before he was selected as the Republican nominee for president. His speech presented a critique of the political reforms and Progressivism of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. This was the first speech in which Harding called for a return to “normalcy,” a major theme of his campaign. Throughout the speech, Harding drew a number of contrasts between what he saw as the needless experimentation of Wilson’s Progressive agenda and his desire to see the United States return to traditional, more conservative ideals and practices that he believed the Republican Party embodied. He called for less dependence on government, more reliance on the character and accomplishments of the people, and an abandonment of the internationalism associated with US participation in World War I and Wilson’s attempt to draw the country into the League of Nations.

Summary Overview

Warren G. Harding delivered this speech before the Home Market Club in Boston, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1920, before he was selected as the Republican nominee for president. His speech presented a critique of the political reforms and Progressivism of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. This was the first speech in which Harding called for a return to “normalcy,” a major theme of his campaign. Throughout the speech, Harding drew a number of contrasts between what he saw as the needless experimentation of Wilson’s Progressive agenda and his desire to see the United States return to traditional, more conservative ideals and practices that he believed the Republican Party embodied. He called for less dependence on government, more reliance on the character and accomplishments of the people, and an abandonment of the internationalism associated with US participation in World War I and Wilson’s attempt to draw the country into the League of Nations.

Defining Moment

In the 1920 presidential election, American voters chose the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, by a large margin, thus largely repudiating the Progressivism and internationalism represented by the Democratic platform. The first term of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration (1913–17) is often cited as the high point of Progressive reform. During Wilson’s second term (1917–21), the United States’ entry into World War I and Wilson’s attempt to establish the League of Nations largely diverted attention away from domestic reform. Progressivism was a reform movement that embraced government as a major agent of change in American society and sought to rein in the power of big business through strict government regulation. Progressives wanted the government to have a more direct role in managing and regulating the US economy and undertook a major overhaul of the US banking and monetary system with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. Progressives also sought to give more political power to the people through measures such as the direct election of US senators by popular vote, which was achieved with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, and the enfranchisement of women, which was achieved with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Progressivism was not strictly aligned with only the Democratic Party; for example, Theodore Roosevelt was a Progressive Republican. But Warren G. Harding identified more with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The best way to understand Harding’s call for a “return to normalcy” is to see it as a rejection of what he considered to be the reckless innovation and experimentation of Wilson’s Progressivism. The fact that Harding was elected in a decisive fashion in 1920, along with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, demonstrates that Harding correctly perceived that there was a popular reaction against Progressivism and Wilson’s policies. Wilson had suffered a stroke in September 1919 and was largely incapacitated for the remainder of his term, and, therefore, he was not a candidate in 1920. But Wilson hoped voters would back the platform of the Democratic nominee, James M. Cox, and support his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to persuade the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and to bring the United States into the League of Nations.

Harding delivered this speech in May 1920, before he had been selected as the Republican nominee for president. Although Harding was not considered a front-runner for the nomination that year, he emerged as a compromise candidate after the convention deadlocked. One of the earliest supporters of Harding’s presidential bid, E. Mont Reily, coined the phrase “Harding and Back to Normal,” and marketing executive Albert D. Lasker, who directed much of the campaign’s advertising, popularized the slogan “Back to Normalcy.” On November 2, 1920, Harding won a decisive victory over Cox, pulling 60.3 percent of the popular vote.

Author Biography

Warren Gamaliel Harding was born near Marion, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. After graduating from Ohio Central College in 1882, he attempted various business endeavors before he bought the Marion Daily Star and began serving as the newspaper’s editor. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1899, and in 1903, he was named the lieutenant governor of Ohio. In 1914, he was elected to the US Senate. When the Republican National Convention deadlocked in 1920, Harding emerged as a compromise candidate and was selected as the presidential nominee. He decisively defeated the Democratic candidate, James M. Cox. As president, Harding tried to live up to his campaign promises of returning to normalcy by reining in the growth of government, adopting a pro-business strategy, and pursuing an isolationist foreign policy. However, his administration was tarnished by the corruption of some of his cabinet officials. The worst of these scandals, known as the Teapot Dome scandal, was not yet widely known when Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco, California, on August 2, 1923. Harding was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge.

Document Analysis

“Normalcy” has become a key word associated with Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign. Perhaps the best way to understand what Harding meant by normalcy is to look at how he intended it to contrast with certain trends and policies that were established during his predecessor President Woodrow Wilson’s eight-year administration, which pushed Progressive reform legislation and also saw the United States drawn into active participation in World War I. Harding believed that the reform-minded experimentation and innovation of Wilson’s Progressive agenda was a departure from the norms of American politics and society.

Harding’s reference to “normalcy” appears in one long sentence in which he draws a number contrasts. The United States, Harding claims, needed normalcy rather than “nostrums.” The term “nostrum” refers to untried, “quack” medical cures–and thus untried political measures. Each of the phrases in Harding’s paragraph-long sentence was intended to contrast something undesirable about Wilson’s Progressivism with a more normal, less dramatic return to traditional concepts and practices.

Harding concedes that the United States’ entry into World War I might have been necessary, but he suggests it is not necessary or desirable to try to “revise human nature”–thus implying that such revisions had been attempted in Wilson’s reform agenda with the expansion of government. Harding suggests that the United States needs to “put an end to false economics” and return to a mindset where people seek what they can do for their country rather than what their government can do for them (a theme echoed in John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not…”). In doing this, Harding asserts, “we shall do more to make democracy safe for the world than all armed conflict ever recorded.” Harding intended for this phrase to recall Wilson’s characterization of the United States’ entry into World War I as an effort to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Another way to understand Harding’s concept of normalcy can be seen in the last paragraph of this excerpt. Harding says the United States needs to “steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path.” Again, all of these phrases suggest that the nation had just recently passed through a period of rapid, perhaps haphazard change and now needs to simply back away from the “fevered delirium of war” and to return to what is normal. The country’s greatness and good fortune, Harding asserts, are ultimately dependent simply upon “the normal forward stride of all the American people.”

Nowhere in this speech did Harding try to provide specific evidence for his assertions. Speaking before a largely Republican crowd in Boston, Massachusetts, he likely assumed that many in the audience would agree with him. Given his decisive victory in the 1920 election, it is evident that many voters throughout the nation did embrace Harding’s call for a return to “normalcy.”

Essential Themes

In this speech, Harding introduced the notion of returning to “normalcy,” which became a hallmark of his 1920 presidential campaign. Harding believed the postwar era represented a decisive time of crisis for the United States and that a continuation of President Woodrow Wilson’s policies would be a grave mistake for the country and democracy worldwide. Harding’s basic argument that the Progressive reforms embodied in the domestic policies of Wilson’s administration and the internationalism represented by the attempts to secure US membership in the League of Nations represented a departure from what he saw as the “normal” trends in US politics and society. As he believed these departures were doomed to failure in the long run, Harding wanted the United States to return to traditional ideals and practices. While Harding never mentioned Wilson or any particular piece of Progressive legislation in this speech, it is clear that he intended to draw a contrast between Progressivism’s reform agenda and Wilson’s internationalism on the one hand and, on the other, what he believed was the normal American emphasis on a quiet, responsible society, in which individuals of strong character sought to direct their own affairs without government interference or assistance. Harding believed that the Progressives had tried to “revise human nature” and to institute a “false economics” by increasing government influence and regulation, and he argued that such attempts were doomed to failure. Progressive ideals and policies were what Harding termed “nostrums”–untried but popular remedies that he saw as a quick fix for complex problems. Success would instead be found in a return to emphasis upon “quality citizenship” in which the people took responsibility for their own welfare and sought to do good for the nation rather than to think of what the government might do for the individual. What the United States needed, in Harding’s eyes, was to back away from this time of rapid change, to take stock, and to move ahead steadily along traditional lines.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1969. Print.
  • _________. The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era. New York: Norton, 1973. Print.
  • Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents P of Kansas, 1977. Print.
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