“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.
On November 2, 1920, the Republican candidate for President, Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding, turned fifty-five. He also won the White House in a landslide, receiving over 60% of the popular vote, the largest percentage since James Monroe had run unopposed a century prior.
In Chicago, crowds gathered at the corner of Madison and Dearborn where the Chicago Tribune’s enormous bulletin board shared the returns as they came in. The board showed Harding winning Michigan by over 300,000 votes—an uproar from the crowd. The board showed Harding becoming the first candidate in US electoral history to receive 1 million votes in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—people sang and danced in the streets.
By 10pm over 15,000 people engaged in a celebration that stretched throughout the Loop. Streets shut down to traffic. Car horns blared out of joy not frustration. A brass band magically appeared on one corner and struck up a Souza march. On a different corner, a lone musician, an elderly man crowned in an Uncle Sam hat, had his kettle drum stolen by a young woman; he chased her down, getting the drum and a kiss in return as his gathered audience cheered him on. Another man decided to mount one of the lions outside the Art Institute. He kept shouting, “This is the greatest night of my life!”
Indoors, groups of new women voters held somewhat more restrained celebrations. At the Republican headquarters in the Auditorium building, many gathered around an enormous birthday cake intended for Harding but topped with forty-eight candles, one for each of the states where women could now vote. The slices were cut and distributed by Ruth Hanna McCormick, an executive member of the Republican National Committee and wife of a Senator from Illinois. Eight years later Ruth Hanna McCormick would run for a seat in the House of Representatives and win.
Earlier that day, women of all ages and backgrounds went to the polls. Eleven-year-old Fay Simansky was too young to vote, so she did her part by offering to watch the children mothers brought with them to the ballot box. She had one price for her services: the mothers had to support Harding. One Chicago man who supported Harding was Charles G. Lowrey, 84, who told reporters of his first vote, for Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. Election Day 1920 coincided with his 60th wedding anniversary, and he was joined at the polls for the first time by his wife, 81, who also voted for Harding.
A Tribune photographer captured an image of a young jubilant suffragette sitting atop an automobile and holding up a handmade sign that read simply, “I Told You So.” A century later, in a very different election, women voters would again say “I told you so” about the power they held to shape the country’s destiny, when they played an outsized role in flipping several states and elevating a woman for the first time to the Vice Presidency.
Harding had a birthday to remember and slept well that night. The following morning, despite being in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta for having spoken out against the United States’ involvement in World War I, the Socialist candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs, took comfort in his stronger than expected showing and look forward to 1924. “Let us open our next campaign,” he said, “with all the enthusiasm revolutionary idealism inspires.”
The defeated Democratic candidate, Governor James M. Cox sent a congratulatory message to President-elect Harding, volunteering “as a citizen” to support the nation’s chief executive in “whatever emergency might arise.” Then he returned to husking corn on the farm where he had been born in Ohio.