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2. Business

"After all, the chief business of the American people is business." This affirmation by President Coolidge of the centrality of business in postwar America is one of the most frequently quoted statements in American history. By 1925, when Coolidge made the remark in a speech to newspapers editors, the nation's economy had lifted itself out of the dreadful postwar recession and was setting astonishing new highs for production and consumption. Business was booming. The stock market was booming. American free enterprise was robust, confident, and delivering the goods, literally. Not all Americans shared in the prosperity, of course, yet many shared a reverence for business as a core component of America's greatness. How was Business, with a capital B, a core component of America's "roaring twenties"?

    Collected commentary on business in the 1920s PDF file
  • Collected commentary. Illustrating Americans' faith in business are the photos at right of presidents Coolidge and Hoover greeting business leaders on the White House lawn. The laissez faire policies championed by the three Republican presidents of the 1920s—policies restored after two decades of Progressive and Democratic business regulation—defined the national economic machine from 1921 to 1933. This collection presents period commentary from businessmen, scholars, clergymen, a novelist, the three Republican presidents, and others on the "chief business of the American people," the rewards and pitfalls of its predominance, and the proper relationship of business and government in promoting the general welfare. How wide was the range of centrist opinion on Business during the 1920s? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (For a wider range of opinion, including "radical" postwar perspectives, see Labor & Capital.) (9 pp.)

  • Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows PDF file
  • Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus, excerpts. "Indeed, the association of business with religion was one of the most significant phenomena of the day," wrote journalist Frederick Lewis Allen in his 1931 retrospective Only Yesterday, and no volume "so touched the American heart" as Bruce Barton's 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows. A well-known advertising executive, Barton had published dozens of upbeat articles offering guidance for business and marketing success, but nothing reached as wide and receptive an audience as his recasting of Jesus as the "founder of modern business" whose self-confident leadership modeled the best of executive skill, and whose parables reflected the essentials of effective advertising. Sincere and reverent throughout, Barton retold the Gospel accounts of Jesus's life and preaching as a modern man's guidebook to honest wealth and business success. What does the success of The Man Nobody Knows illustrate about the place of business in the American mindset of the 1920s? (6 pp.)

See also "Age of Prosperity," Crash, and Labor & Capital.

Discussion Questions

  1. According to the commentary, what were the greatest contributions of American business to the nation's progress, economic health, and self-confidence?
  2. What were the most immediate problems and disparities caused by American business?
  3. Using the statements of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, write an overview summarizing the Republican perspective of the proper relationship between business and government.
  4. Deduce the perspective of those who supported a greater role of government in business affairs, using the statements of Norman Thomas, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others, and the 1926 Carey Orr political cartoon.
  5. Conduct research on the political parties' stands on the government-business relationship. (See Supplemental Sites below, especially Political Party Platforms). How do the 1920s platforms resemble today's debate on the issue?
  6. Match the paraphrased statements on the proper relationship between business and government with the men who expressed them. [Answers]
    A. Henry Ford 1. We must have both business and government, but both must remain subordinate to the people.
    B. Norman Thomas 2. Government control of business was necessary during the war (World War One), but unfettered business has made America the great nation it is.
    C. Pres. Warren Harding 3. Business and property should not be favored in our laws and courts over the general welfare of the people.
    D. Pres. Herbert Hoover4. Honest business should be free of government restrictions, but it should also work with government to stop unfair business practices that lead to government regulation.
  7. Script a talk-show interview with Bruce Barton, Edward Purinton, and Frederick Lewis Allen on Allen's statement that "the association of business with religion was one of the most significant phenomena of the day." Select the talk-show host from the authors of these readings, perhaps history professor William Munro or clergyman Reinhold Niebuhr.
  8. Create a dialogue between Henry Ford and John Dos Passos on the symbolic meaning of Detroit, the home of Ford Motor Co., in America's business landscape.
  9. According to Englishman W. L. George, what caused the critical difference between the European and the American sense of business opportunity? What gave Americans the "widest room for the wildest ambition"?
  10. Why might the Alexander Hamilton Institute have chosen to advertise its Modern Business Course with a scenario in which two men make decisions that "separated them forever"? How did the ad reflect prevalent attitudes toward business, opportunity, and success?
  11. How did Norman Thomas and William Munro disagree about the U.S. having become "a property-minded nation," one in which the public had "accepted or adopted this business point of view"? What danger and unfairness did Thomas see in this attitude? What progress and fairness did Munro see?
  12. According to sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, how did business advertising influence the content of the three newspapers in "Middletown" (Muncie, Indiana)?
  13. In "Newsreel LIX" from The Big Money, what did John Dos Passos contrast with the industrial products manufactured in Detroit? Why? What is the irony of his last line?
  14. For each statement in the first column below, decide how the commentator in the second column would have responded. Use the resources in this section and other writings by the men. (Create a similar exercise using the collected commentary in "Age of Prosperity.")
    Statement How would ____ have responded to this statement?
    Edward Purinton: "The finest game is business. The rewards are for everybody, and all can win."G. A. Steward
    William Munro: "The true test of an economic order is whether it tends to promote a wide diffusion of material comfort among all classes of the people." Henry Ford or John Dos Passos
    Percival White: "The American businessman . . . has no friends but business friends, no interests but business interests. . . . From this tremendous acceleration of life, the American has no escape." Walter Lionel George
    Reinhold Niebuhr: "The lust for power and the greed for gain are the dominant note in business." William Munro or Calvin Coolidge
    The man who didn't order the Hamilton Institute pamphlet Forging Ahead in Business: "Why was it that life could not treat men more equally in the distribution of rewards?" Herbert Hoover
    Norman Thomas: "The older resentment of little business against big, or of farmers against Wall Street, is, in 1929, either lessening or losing power." the man who ordered the Hamilton Institute pamphlet
Barton, The Man Nobody Knows___
  1. Why did Barton decide to write The Man Nobody Knows? What did he find unrealistic in the Sunday School depictions of Jesus?
  2. What leadership characteristics of a successful businessman did Jesus exemplify, according to Barton? How did Jesus create a vast organization from a few disciples?
  3. What exemplary salesmanship tactics did Jesus employ, according to Barton? Why was Jesus successful in "mastering public attention"? Explain the four elements of advertising power that Jesus modeled in his parables.
  4. "Business woke up to a great discovery," wrote Barton, elaborating on Jesus's marketing skills. How did Barton explain this discovery using examples from 1920s advertising?
  5. How did Barton reason that "all business is his Father's business," i.e., that there is no difference between work and religious work?
  6. Why do you think The Man Nobody Knows became a two-year bestseller? What "popular demand" did it address, according to Frederick Lewis Allen in his 1931 Only Yesterday?
  1. Drawing evidence from the readings in this section, write an overview of the centrality of business and a "business point of view" in the 1920s. Begin or end your summary with one of these statements from the readings:

Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did "prosperity" become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did "workingmen" and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?
  • Compare the Twenties' boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.


Collected commentary
Barton, The Man Nobody Knows, excerpts
 9 pp.
 6 pp.
15 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy (American Memory, Library of Congress)

The U.S. Economy in the 1920s (Gene Smiley, Marquette University; Economic History Assn.)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)
Pres. Calvin Coolidge, Address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, January 17, 1925, full text, including "the chief business of the American people is business." (The American Presidency Project)

Political Party Platforms by year (The American Presidency Project)

Bruce Barton, overview: "The Forgotten Imagemeister," by David Greenberg, Washington Monthly, April 2006

Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Photo Company Collection.
– President and Mrs. Coolidge with the Republican Businessmen's Association of New York, 1924 (probably October; date cut off) (details). LC-USZ62-111399.
– President and Mrs. Coolidge with Association of Advertising Men, 29 October 1924 (details). LC-USZ62-111400.
– President Hoover with business paper editors, 30 April 1929 (detail). LC-DIG-npcc-17567.

Presidential portrait photographs courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.
– Calvin Coolidge, n.d. (detail). ARC Identifier 532050.
– Herbert hoover, n.d. (detail). ARC Identifier 532049.

Answers, discussion question #6: A-1. B-3. C-4. D-2. 

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