Campaigning in 1928: Chickens in Pots and Cars in Backyards

By Rulli, Daniel F. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Campaigning in 1928: Chickens in Pots and Cars in Backyards


Rulli, Daniel F., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


While the military and political accomplishments of World War I were clearly limited, the war, nonetheless, established a foundation for unparalleled economic growth in the United States during the 1920s. A significant consumer economy grew as many Americans worked fewer hours, earned higher salaries, invested in the stock market, and bought everything from washing machines to Model T Fords. This culture of consumerism in the 1920s changed the politics of American society and set the tone for American attitudes about economic political issues for decades to come. In the early 1920s, President Warren G. Harding's policies were generally conservative, especially regarding taxes, tariffs, immigration restriction, labor rights, and business regulation. Continuing Republican policies, President Calvin Coolidge included federal tax cuts and high tariffs. The expansive economy of the 1920s was fueled by the use of factory machine manufacturing and standardized mass production. The economic boom also resulted from the effects of World War I on technology, scientific management, the rapid increase in worker productivity, the psychology of mass consumption (with installment credit) behind the purchase of radios, motion picture tickets, electric appliances, and automobiles. Certainly, federal policies that supported big business with high tariffs, cutbacks in the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate unfair trade practices, and the reduction of corporate and personal income taxes contributed to the boom as well.

It was with this backdrop that Herbert Hoover and Al Smith squared off in the election of 1928. Hoover was born in Iowa and orphaned as a child. He began a career as a mining engineer soon after graduating from Stanford University in 1895. Within twenty years he had used his engineering knowledge and business skills to make a fortune as an independent mining consultant. In 19t4, Hoover administered the American Relief Committee and during World War I he headed the Commission for Relief in Belgium and the U.S. Food Administration and was chairman of the Interallied Food Council. After the war he directed the American Relief Administration. Then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Hoover in 1920, "He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could be no better one." In 1919 Hoover founded the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. As Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations from 1921 to 1929, Hoover was widely celebrated for his leadership. The man who had fed Belgium, had run the U.S. Food Administration, revolutionized the Department of Commerce, and ministered to victims of the 1927 Mississippi flood appeared the ideal candidate in 1928. Hoover seemed more practical than Woodrow Wilson, glowed with respectability compared to the Harding administration, was easily more inspired than Coolidge, and was generally considered more "purely American" than his Democratic opponent, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith.

Smith, a colorful and charismatic Democrat from New York's lower East Side, was the first Catholic in United States history to be nominated for President. And, while Smith's Catholicism was attacked by some nativist groups, in his memoir Hoover states that "Governor Smith unwittingly fanned the flame in an address in Oklahoma against intolerance. He insisted that religious faith did not disqualify any man from public office. He was right. But up to that moment it had been an underground issue."

In any case, the election of 1928 was a contest between two self-made men, both "Horatio Alger" stories that celebrated rugged American individualism. Very similar to the 1928 Democratic platform, Hoover's New Day platform included shorter working hours for labor, additional public works, and a Federal Farm Board to assist hard-pressed farmers. In addition, the candidates agreed upon reform of judicial procedure and the prison system; the promotion of child welfare; better housing; the elimination of national wastes; better organization of the Federal Government; control of immigration; development of water resources; and oil conservation. …

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