Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 21st August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The ‘Teapot Dome’ Incident: American Political Scandal

On the 7th of April 1922, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall announced that a government drilling policy was “being rapidly formulated” which would provide reserves for the future needs of the US navy. What Fall failed to reveal, however,was the nature of this deal: he had granted this land to two of America’s oil magnates, Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, in return for illegal bribes totaling around $300,000. When Washington lawyer and conservationist Harry Slattery revealed the entire ‘Teapot Dome’ oil reserve had been leased to Sinclair, this initially insignificant story became become front-page news. The subsequent national political scandal hugely influenced Washington and provides extensive historical insight into the nature of American politics in the early 20thcentury.

50 miles North of Casper, Wyoming, is a 9000-acre oil deposit known as the ‘Teapot Dome’ which, along with reserves in California, was recognized by a long-established bipartisan agreement as being conserved for supplying the US navy.After Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election, President Harding’s appointment of Fall as Minister of the Interior resulted in these oil reserves coming under his control. Following his appointment, he received a letter of congratulations from the relatively unknown Democrat Senator Thomas Walsh, who supported his pragmatic approach to using resources on public lands for national interests.

Where these two Western politicians differed, however, was their understanding of political responsibility. Doheny, an American oil tycoon who founded the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, had previously offered to arrange for Walsh to invest in an oil field venture in Montana. Walsh refused this “alluring” offer, explaining he did not want to be “under suspicion of having utilized the position to which my people have elected me for my own profit”. Fall, by contrast, did not share such high moral values when dealing with Doheny. This led to Walsh becoming the main protagonist of the ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal, throughout which he tirelessly investigated Fall’s dealings with oil magnates, ultimately revealing his corrupt behavior.

Fall was hugely effective at defending his actions during the first inquiry, in which he claimed the initial $100,000 he received was a loan from close friend and newspaper owner Edward McLean. Despite the press reports at this stage being largely favorable to Fall, Walsh was not so easily deterred. He persuaded McLean to admit he never lent Fall such a sum, before convincing Doheny to dramaticallyadmit he had bribed Fall at the second inquiry in January1924.Consequently, Fall was found guilty of accepting Doheny’s bribe in 1929, becoming the first American cabinet minister to be convicted and imprisoned for a crime committed whilst in office. The immediate political impact was predictable: Walsh gained national prestige, enabling him to twice be re-elected to the Senate, whilst Fall has been remembered as a political villain.

Contrastingly, the lasting political significance of the scandal remains much more complex. As the inquiry developed, the Democrats saw an opportunity to make Republican corruption their leading issue for the 1924 presidential election campaign. This strategy backfired, however, when William McAdoo, the unquestionable favourite for the Democratic nomination, was implicated in Doheny’s business affairs. Accordingly, McAdoo was no longer perceived as a clean political candidate. This resulted in a civil war within the Party as support for his rival, New York Governor Alfred Smith, increased exponentially. Whilst the Democrats divided, Republicans united behind President Coolidge, whose proposal of a politically impartial “immediate, adequate, unshrinking prosecution”was praised highly throughout American politics.

Although the significance of the Teapot Dome scandal upon the 1924 presidential election remains historiographically disputed, Noggle convincingly concludes that “rather than destroy the Republican Party, Teapot Dome, through Calvin Coolidge, may have helped it to prevail” in his definitive work, Teapot Dome: Oil and politics in the 1920s. Moreover, the scandal remained prominent in political news during the next decade, as it exemplified the frequent exposure of corruption in US politicsthroughout this era.‘Teapot Dome’, therefore, illustrates how political scandal resulting from widespread corruption in 1920s Americahad hugelydamaging consequences, which ultimately reduced the faith of ordinary American people in the morality of those whom they elected as their political representatives.

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