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Conservatism in the United States

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Conservatism in the United States

Conservatism in the United States has a long and evolving history. Modern conservatism as we know it emerged in the 1920s with the Republican party. Although conservatism aimed to isolate America from Europe's messy wars, this proved unrealistic throughout the twentieth century.

Modern Conservatism in the United States

Modern conservatism in the United States favours a free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and maintaining traditional social ideas. In the 1920s, after the First World War, a series of three Republican presidents were in power, and all were strongly committed to conservatism.

Modern Republican conservatism opposed the idea of government intervention. Here are three ideologies that define modern conservatism:

IdeologyExplanation
Laissez-faire capitalismThis meant businesses were free to expand without government restrictions. Conservatives believed that as these businesses grew wealthier, everyone would benefit as wealth would ‘trickle down’ in the form of employment opportunities. In practice, this led to policies like lowering taxes on personal income and business profits, weakening the power of unions, and reducing overall government spending.
ProtectionismIt involved increasing taxes on foreign goods, in order to protect American businesses from competition.
IsolationismWhen a country ignored international events in favour of focusing on national interests. However, complete withdrawal from international relations was impractical during the 1920s.

Modern conservatism operated on the idea that the government stifled economic progress and innovation.

The Rise of Contemporary Conservatism in the United States

Conservatism's laissez-faire capitalism was reminiscent of the Gilded Age, a period of huge economic growth in the late nineteenth century. In a similar way to then, conservative policies in the 1920s benefited big businesses and helped to reduce government debt, leading to an economic boom.

Why was conservatism popular in the 1920s?

The Republican President Warren Harding campaigned for ‘a return to normalcy’, which Americans were ready for after the First World War and the government policies of the Progressive Era.

The Progressive Era lasted from the 1890s until 1920 and focused on political reform and the regulation of big businesses. In contrast to conservatism, progressive aims included a greater role for the federal government, protecting workers' rights, providing state-funded welfare benefits, and introducing reforms to help minorities.

By the end of the war, however, the American public no longer favoured this approach. Instead, they wanted to focus on their businesses and reduce the government's involvement.

Conservative Politics

There were three Presidents who implemented the conservative policies of the 1920s: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

Warren Harding

Warren Harding (1921 - 1923) was tasked with reducing government spending, which had increased tenfold between 1910–20. He relied heavily upon his advisors, most notably appointing pro-business multimillionaire Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. Mellon would remain in this post for both other presidents of the 1920s, reducing the national debt by nearly $10 billion between 1919–29.

Conservatism in the United States Warren Harding StudySmarterWarren Harding. Wikimedia Commons.

Some notable actions of the Harding administration include the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This gave him more control over the nation's budget by forcing other government departments to have presidential approval for their budgets. Harding also introduced the Fordney-McCumber Tariff in 1922, which imposed a tax on foreign goods, encouraging Americans to buy goods produced in America.

Government expenditure fell by over $1 billion in the first year of administration, which meant that taxes could be reduced. Although the tariff promoted American businesses, it was detrimental for farmers as they had to pay more for machinery, and it made it difficult for Europeans to repay their debts to the US.

In terms of foreign affairs, Harding focused on international cooperation and disarmament.

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge took over after Harding died in 1923 and remained in office until 1928. The election of 1924 has been said to be the high point of conservatism in the United States, as both the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigned on conservative principles.

Coolidge famously said that ‘the chief business of the American people is business,’ which became the dominant attitude of the time. His policies epitomised laissez-faire, and by the end of his time in office, unemployment had reduced, government debt had shrunk by $5 billion, and the stock market was at a high point.

Conservatism in the United States Calvin Coolidge StudySmarterHerbert Hoover. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite his laissez-faire policies and his support of conservatism, Coolidge held some progressive social beliefs. For instance, he supported women's suffrage, signed a law that gave Native Americans citizenship rights, and pushed against lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group. However, he signed the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted immigration from parts of Europe and Asia.

A key piece of foreign policy introduced by Coolidge was the Dawes Plan, which provided long-term loans to Germany as they were struggling to pay their war reparations to Britain and France. With Germany able to pay with American aid, Britain and France paid back their war debt to the US. The Dawes Plan hugely benefited American bankers, as well as the countries involved.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was the final President of the 1920s conservative era, holding office from 1929 to 1933. He held similar views to Harding and Coolidge but further emphasised individualism. He believed that people should solve their own problems by working harder and without government assistance.

Conservatism in the United States Herbert Hoover StudySmarterHerbert Hoover. Wikimedia Commons.

He introduced the 1931 Hawley-Smoot tariff, which raised tariffs on foreign goods to an all-time high, in order to promote American businesses.

He expressed the concept of conservatism well in the following quote:

"When the Republican Party came into full power [in 1921] it went at once resolutely back to our fundamental conception of the State and the rights and responsibilities of the individual. Therefore, it restored confidence and hope in the American people, it freed and stimulated enterprise, it restored the Government to its position as an umpire instead of a player in the economic game."

- Herbert Hoover, "Rugged Individualism" Campaign Speech 19281

Hoover was very optimistic about the economy when he took office, but this soon changed after the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to the Great Depression, which would last until 1939. Hoover's ideas about individualism no longer appealed to the American people when it came to the election of 1932, as they were facing a deep depression. The dire economic circumstances of 1929, and America's inability to cope with the Wall Street Crash, paved the way for progressive Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Did you know? President Roosevelt campaigned on a policy of government intervention and relief for the poor. His "New Deal" programmes included financial regulation, public works programmes, unemployment relief, creation of new parks and green spaces, and aid to the farming industry.

Examples of conservatism in the United States

Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all represented conservatism in the United States. Here are some examples of their policies after the First World War:

  • The soldiers who fought during the First World War received a much lower wage in the army than they would have in civilian jobs. They asked the government for a bonus to make up for the loss in earnings but all three Presidents opposed this.

  • During the First World War, a dam was being built on the Tennessee River to power two chemical plants. After the war, there were calls for the government to finish the dam to provide electricity and fertilisers to the area. Coolidge and Hoover opposed this idea of government ownership, favouring private business.

  • The conservative Presidents opposed buying surplus farm produce. During the First World War, farmers produced more food, but upon the end of the war, the demand was much lower, so they were left with excess goods. The lack of government assistance combined with debt amassed during the war meant many farmers could not afford to keep their farms running.

Social Conservatism in the United States

The most notable policy of social conservatism of the 1920s was Prohibition. The prohibition of alcohol was introduced in 1919 by the 18th Amendment and was maintained throughout the 1920s. While President Harding personally disregarded prohibition, Herbert Hoover called it ‘a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.’ This policy was ineffective as the illicit trade of alcohol grew and led to organised crime, so it was repealed in 1933.

Conservatism in the United States Detroit Police after finding clandestine brewery StudySmarterThe Detroit Police inspecting some equipment found in a clandestine brewery during Prohibition. Wikimedia Commons.

After the First World War, the US experienced the first Red Scare in response to the 1917 communist Russian Revolution. Thousands of suspected socialist radicals were arrested, immigration was restricted, and labour unions were seen as suspicious.

In line with the conservative goal of maintaining traditions, there was a fundamentalist Protestant revival, with some states banning the teaching of evolution. In the first half of the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan grew to its largest membership number, serving to promote white supremacy as well as functioning as a type of conservative social organisation in the Midwest and the South.

Conservatism in the United States - Key takeaways

  • Conservatism became popular after the First World War as it offered the American people ‘a return to normalcy’ in comparison to the reforms of the Progressive Era.
  • Key economic concepts of conservatism include laissez-faire capitalism, the trickle-down principle, and protectionism.
  • The conservative ideal for foreign policy was isolationism, but this period focused on disarmament, cooperation, and policies that helped US national interests.
  • The three conservative Republican presidents of the 1920s were Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, who were consistent in their conservative policies.
  • Conservative policies included tariffs on foreign goods, reduction in government spending, and tax reduction.
  • Social conservatism focused on maintaining traditions, which manifested in the 1920s as fear of anything ‘alien’, including socialists, immigrants, and minorities. It was also the basis for prohibition and fundamentalist Protestants banning the teaching of evolution.

References

  1. Herbert Hoover, "Rugged Individualism" Campaign Speech 1928. You can read the full speech here: https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook_print.cfm?smtid=3&psid=1334.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conservatism in the United States

Conservative values include a free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and maintaining traditional social ideas.

Conservatism is a philosophy that emphasises traditional values and limited government interference in the economy.

Conservatives are generally members of the Republican party.

Conservatism in society, or social conservatism, historically focused on alcohol. It fought for Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which banned alcohol in the United States. Extreme social conservatism saw the growth of the KKK and white supremacy in the South. 

The main features of conservatism are: 

  • a free economy
  • private ownership of property and businesses
  • a limited federal government
  • maintaining traditional social ideas

Modern conservatism emerged in the 1920s with the Republican party. 

Final Conservatism in the United States Quiz

Question

What four principles is conservatism committed to?

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Answer

A free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and traditional social ideas.

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Question

What is the idea of laissez-faire capitalism?

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Answer

Businesses are free to expand without government restrictions.

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Question

What does ‘trickle-down’ refer to?

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Answer

The belief that as businesses grew wealthier, everyone would benefit as wealth would ‘trickle down’ and provide jobs.

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Question

Which of these is not a conservative idea?


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Answer

Progressivism

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Question

Who were the three conservative Presidents of the 1920s?


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Answer

Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

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Question

Who was the Secretary of the Treasury for all three presidents in the 1920s?


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Answer

Andrew Mellon

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Question

Name one notable act of Warren Harding’s administration.


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Answer

1921 Budget and Accounting Act OR 1922 Fordney-McCumber Tariff.

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Question

 Who said ‘the chief business of the American people is business’?


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Answer

Calvin Coolidge

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Question

Which plan gave aid to Germany so they could pay reparations to Britain and France?


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Answer

The Dawes Plan.

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Question

What was the 1931 tariff introduced by Herbert Hoover, which raised tariffs on foreign goods to an all-time high?


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Answer

The Hawley-Smoot Tariff.

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Question

Give one example of a specific policy that the three Presidents agreed on.


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Answer

One of: opposition to giving soldiers a bonus to make up for the loss of earnings, opposition to completing the building of a dam on the Tennessee River for civilian benefits, opposition to buying surplus farm produce.

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Question

What did the 1924 Immigration Act do? 


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Answer

Restrict immigration from parts of Europe and Asia.

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Question

 What was prohibited in the 1920s?


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Answer

Alcohol

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Question

Give three examples of social conservatism.


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Answer

 Three of: prohibition, the Red Scare, the Immigration Act, the fundamentalist Protestant revival, the growth of the KKK.

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Question

What event ended the period of Republican conservatism?


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Answer

The 1929 Wall Street Crash, which led to the Great Depression.

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Question

When was Warren Harding president?

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Answer

1921–23

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Question

On what platform did Harding campaign?

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Answer

A return to normalcy.

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What percentage of the popular vote did Harding win in the 1920 election?


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Answer

61%

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Question

Name two members of the Harding administration.


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Answer

Any two of: Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover, Charles Hughes

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Question

What did the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act do?


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Answer

Required presidential approval for the budgets of government departments and formed the General Accounting Office to audit expenditures.

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Question

What did the decline in government spending mean?


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Answer

Taxes could be reduced.

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Question

Why was agriculture a major issue for Harding?


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Answer

European markets closed due to high tariffs and crop prices dropped, farms were also left with a surplus due to overproduction.

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Question

How did Harding tackle the agriculture crisis?


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Answer

Introduced high tariffs on foreign imports.

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Question

What were the long-term effects of increased tariffs?


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Answer

European countries were less able to pay back war debts to the US and farmers struggled to buy European machinery.

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Question

What act restricted immigration in 1921?


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Answer

 The Emergency Quota Act

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How many immigrants were allowed annually due to the immigration reform in 1921?


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Answer

350,000

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What did Harding refuse to give soldiers?


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Answer

A bonus to make up for their loss of earnings when they were at war.

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Name one international treaty which Harding oversaw.


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Answer

The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty or The Nine-Power Treaty.

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How many times had US government spending increased between 1910 and 1920?


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Answer

Ten times.

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What tainted Harding’s presidency?


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Answer

Scandals conducted by his friends in political positions.

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When was Calvin Coolidge president?

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Answer

1923–29

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What political philosophy did Coolidge believe in?

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Answer

Conservatism

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What year was Calvin Coolidge born?

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Answer

1872

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What event cast Coolidge into the spotlight in 1919?

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Answer

His use of the state guard to restore order during a strike by the Boston police.

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Where did Coolidge practice law and hold political office before he entered the federal government?

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Answer

Massachusetts

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Who was President whilst Calvin Coolidge was Vice President?

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Answer

Warren Harding

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What slogan did Coolidge run on during the 1924 presidential election?

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Answer

‘Keep Cool with Coolidge’.

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How did Coolidge restore faith in the federal government after the scandals of the Harding administration?

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Answer

He appointed a counsel to investigate the Teapot Dome Scandal and dismissed Harding’s corrupt attorney, Harry M Daugherty.

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Question

What did Coolidge famously say about business?

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Answer

‘The chief business of the American people is business.’

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What is the definition of laissez-faire?

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Answer

 Laissez-faire literally means 'let them do [what they will]' and refers to limited government intervention in a country's economy.

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Question

Name three pieces of domestic legislation passed by the Coolidge administration.

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Answer

Any three of:

  • The Indian Citizenship Act (1924) 
  • The Immigration Act (1924) 
  • The Revenue Acts (1924 and 1926) 
  • The Radio Act (1927) 

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Question

Which two bills did Coolidge veto?

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Answer

The Veterans Bonus Bill and the McNary-Haugen Bill

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Question

Coolidge supported US membership in the League of Nations.

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Answer

False

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Question

Name the two most important pieces of foreign policy passed under Coolidge.

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Answer

The Dawes Plan and the Kellogg-Briand Pact

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Question

Name three members of the Coolidge administration.

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Answer

Andrew Mellon, Charles Dawes, and Frank Kellogg

Show question

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