“On the 1920 Campaign Trail” is a series of blog posts documenting the 1920 election season. Paul Durica, the Newberry’s Director of Exhibitions and curator of Decision 1920: A Return to “Normalcy,” is reporting and commenting on the campaigns of Warren G. Harding (Republican), James M. Cox (Democrat), and Eugene V. Debs (Socialist).
Paul will track the ups and downs building up to the election, as the candidates appeal to voters during a time that parallels our own: barely removed from a global pandemic and riven by unrest around racial and economic inequities.
With only a few weeks to go before voters headed to the polls, Democratic candidate Governor James M. Cox took a break from his cross-country campaigning to deliver a few speeches in his home state of Ohio.
In a small city southwest of Cleveland, he fielded a question from a woman voter that had to do with one of his recent West Coast stops, California, where a local law prevented Japanese immigrants, already denied a chance at United States citizenship, from owning land despite their prevalence in the agricultural industry.
The California state law received its greatest opposition from the sovereign nation of Japan, and the questioner wanted to know if was this the kind of dispute that would be resolved by the League of Nations, the international arbiter formed in the aftermath of Word War I that Cox wanted the United States to join. The Governor repeated a previously stated belief that this was an “internal” matter but, if the League did weigh in, he was confident that it would recognize the United States as a “white man’s country.”
Race and immigration had not been issues discussed much by Cox or by his Republican rival, Senator Warren G. Harding. As the election neared, some states that had reliably gone to the Democrats since the end of the Civil War, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maryland, looked poised to flip, and suddenly the “race question” was being raised more often on the campaign trail. Anxious Democratic party officials openly warned that such a reversal would result in enforcement of civil rights laws and increased equality for Black Americans. The pitch to voters in these states was simple: you might be ambivalent toward the League of Nations but not toward keeping the United States a “white man’s country.”
In August Tennessee had become the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, extending the franchise to women across the nation, and seemed like the easiest pickup for Republicans. Close to the election, when Harding finally left Ohio where he’d been conducting his campaign from the front porch of his home for most of the summer and fall, he made stops in Tennessee and Maryland. In the end, he carried both states.
Strengthening Republican victories in other states were Black voters, a constituency whose support the party took for granted. Upon Harding’s victory, the Chicago Defender, which counted Black Americans from across the country as its readers, issued a statement, “What We Expect,” that laid out the course Republicans should take now that they controlled the White House and Congress. It was not enough to appoint a few Black Americans to government offices, the Defender argued. A Harding Administration had to make sure that laws connected to the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution were enforced on behalf of all Americans; that a Republican Congress enact laws intended to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan; and that the United States Senate pass a federal anti-lynching bill first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1918.
None of these expectations would be met. Today, a century later, many remain unmet.