People often complain that politics are nasty, that politicians spend too much time disparaging one another, or that politicians draw out ugly issues to rouse the ire of the electorate. Such complaints, perhaps accurate, are not new. In the election of 1920, some articles appeared in the Sedalia Democrat that suggest attitudes that were mean-spirited and unkind.
The beliefs of the parties then were different from the beliefs of the parties now. The Democratic Party then was the party of the old South, with prejudices against immigrants and particularly strong prejudices against blacks. The Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln, happy to allow black men to vote, although J. West Goodwin of the Sedalia Bazoo pointed out that local Republicans were not willing to support black candidates for local office.
Some members of both parties feared the effect of the newly enfranchised women voters. Issues such as laws against child labor, raising the legal age of consent for females to marry or engage in sexual behavior, prison reform, and protective labor legislation were supported by many women, and some male voters feared women would enact protective legislation that would harm business interests.
The question of whether the United States should join the League of Nations was the most hotly contested issue in the 1920 election. Democrats, for the most part, supported membership; most Republicans did not. The rhetoric around the issue ranged from logical to absurd. Some of the more absurd comments stemmed from grievances surrounding the U.S.’s participation in World War I. Perhaps the most absurd comments drew on dislike and prejudice against blacks and immigrants.
In an editorial in the Sedalia Democrat, which prior to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, was solidly Democratic in its political stance, the editor noted that giving women the right to vote had dramatically affected the election. Disappointed at the election of Republican Warren G. Harding to the presidency, the editor blamed not just the women’s vote, but specifically the black women’s vote, recognizing that most blacks were Republicans.
The editor’s attitudes were explained prior to the election by a letter to the editor from female Democrat. She then added a few disparaging words about the German-Americans who supported the Republican Party. She further claimed that Republicans could not win an election without the votes of the blacks and immigrants.
Her rhetoric became even more mean-spirited when she suggested the progress and growth of the United States was the result of the actions of white, native-born citizens and that women should ally themselves with the Democrats who supported not only white native born citizens, but also patriotism, peace and liberty. She denounced the Republicans as catering to the interests of the black and immigrant voters, whom she suggested were unpatriotic.
The results of the election were interesting. President Harding, though a Republican, did little to ensure equality for blacks. In fact, W.E.B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, suggested that Harding’s views on race were abhorrent.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.