What Did the World Look Like in 1920?

2020 is already off to a dynamic start. What was the state of the world 100 years ago, as it rolled into a new decade?

By Kaleena Fraga

The new year has certainly gotten off to an eventful start. In the first month of 2020, we’ve seen massive fires, sabre rattling, an impeachment trial in the United States, and the end (or the beginning?) of the Brexit saga in the EU. Whew. So what did the world look like 100 years ago? Did people at the time feel that the 1920s started on a similarly chaotic foot?

Obviously (obviously) we’re all about the presidential side of things. So what was the White House situation in January of 1920?

The presidency in January 1920

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson was completing his second term in office. Or, was he? While rallying support for his League of Nations plan in October 1919, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith effectively took control.

Without the 25th amendment, which would not be ratified for another half-century, there was no way to remove Wilson from office. Not that many people knew about his stroke—in the pre-social media age, Edith Wilson was effectively able to keep her husband’s condition under wraps.

The president’s wife later denied that she’d ever served as president herself, but she did acknowledge her “stewardship” of Wilson’s last year in office.

The average American had no idea. They weren’t habitually checking Twitter like some of us do today.

Presidential campaigns in 1920

As in 2020, 1920 was an election year. Wilson, a Democrat, had broken up a reign of Republicans that had existed since the Civil War. (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932.)

Americans wondered who their candidates would be—especially because Theodore Roosevelt, who had energetically barnstormed for a third term in 1912, had died one year earlier, in January 1919. (A Roosevelt would be on the ticket in 1920—Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats.) In January 1920, it seemed that the country might see William Jennings Bryan run—again.

Despite his health, Wilson hoped for a third term. It wouldn’t be. He received little support from the party and died four years later. In any case, Wilson believed that campaigns required vigorous time on the stump. As Jeffrey Normand Bourdon so eloquently describes in his book From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Porch Campaigns working the stump resulted in victory for Wilson 3/4 times. But in 1920, the ill president could hardly pick up the reins of his old campaign technique.

Which resulted in a fascinating twist. Although the campaign would not start in earnest until the summer (reminder: the 2020 campaign has been dragging on for two years), the Republican nominee and eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, resorted to front-porch campaigning. This technique, as Bourdon describes, had served as a happy medium between seeking the presidency and letting “the office choose the man”—i.e., displaying none of the presidential ambition that was considered fatal in the 19th century.

Popular in the late 19th century, front porch campaigning had lost its shine as great orators like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made their mark on American presidential campaigns. But it had proven effective for James Garfield and William McKinley, and Harding went this direction as well.

Harding campaigned on a “Return to Normalcy” and “America First” following the end of WWI. His campaign marketed him as a patriotic family man. Waving to crowds from his front-porch, this was easy for voters to accept. His opponent, James Cox, was divorced. This made Harding’s front-porch persona all the more appetizing.

Harding’s status as a married man gave him a special boost in 1920, the first year American women could vote. The divorced Cox, at a disadvantaged, was portrayed as desperate for women’s votes. A judge involved with Cox’s case told the Los Angeles Times he believed the candidate’s divorce would cost Mr. Cox “a million votes.”

In the end, Harding carried the day by about seven million votes. The victory would be short lived. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, elevating his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to the White House.

The state of the world in 1920

But what did the world look like in 1920? Did the year burst into being with the same cascade of events that we’ve seen in 2020?

The new year picked up to a brisk start. Billy Joel could write a song about it. In January alone, an earthquake hit Mexico; the Treaty of Versailles was ratified (without the United States); Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees, Prohibition began, launching an era of bootlegs and speakeasies—the list goes on and on. The war had ended in November of 1918, but the world was still untangling the results. We all know how that turned out.

In summary, life continued to charge forward. In 1920, as in 2020, each day brought an avalanche of something different. But maybe it felt slower. After all, people in 1920 couldn’t spend all day watching events unfold across their phone screen.

“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

First Lady Feature: Edith Wilson

By Kaleena Fraga

Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve featured several remarkable first ladies who had the wits and wisdom to be president themselves. Edith Wilson, who hid the depth of her husband’s illness from the country, is the only one who actually got close to assuming the presidency.

2-ebw-electric-car_1_origEdith met Woodrow Wilson during a chance encounter at the White House. His first wife, Ellen, had died of Bright’s disease only seven months earlier. They had a quick and passionate courtship which alarmed many of Wilson’s advisors. Not only would the president soon run for reelection (his advisors fretted that his pursuit of a woman so soon after the death of his wife would hurt his chances), but Edith was known in town for being one of the first women to ever drive a car, and was shunned by Washington’s elite because her money came from her (deceased) first husband’s jewelry store.

Three months after they met, the Wilsons wed.

Then in 1919, two years into Wilson’s second term, and four years into their marriage, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that left him paralyzed. The president had been barnstorming around the country in the aftermath of WWI, trying to whip up support for his inspired but doomed plan for a League of Nations.

As the 25th amendment wouldn’t be ratified for almost fifty years, there wasn’t really anedith and woodrow answer to what the government should do if the president became unable to perform his duties. Wilson wasn’t dead, so there didn’t seem to be a reason for the vice president to step into his role. Without the 25th amendment, Congress and the Cabinet had no real power to act (and the extent of Wilson’s condition was kept top secret). To Edith, protective of her husband and his presidency, the answer was clear.

Anything that came to the president first had to go through the first lady. This included Cabinet members, policy papers, and any other pressing issues. As such, Edith Wilson decided what was important enough for the president to see–and what he could live without knowing.

Although Edith Wilson denied ever becoming president herself, she did acknowledge her “stewardship” during the Wilsons’ waning White House years:

“So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

President Wilson slowly recovered from his stroke, but remained paralyzed on one side. He died five years later, having remarked, “I am a broken piece of machinery–when the machinery is broken–I am ready.” When he died on February 2nd, 1924, his last word was the name of his wife, who’d guided him through his illness and the final years of his presidency. Edith.

Edith Wilson would live for almost forty years after her husband’s death. She was active in political life, speaking at the 1928 Democratic Convention and attending the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Although Americans have never elected a female president, Edith Wilson got close. During her husband’s illness, she arguably ran the country in his stead.