Area 90: The U.S. During the Great Depression (1920s-1930s)
Question: What lessons can be learned from the effects of the Great Depression?
Background for teachers and students
The Teapot Dome Scandal—one of the most serious corruption scandals in the history of the U.S. government—came to light in 1922 and continued to trouble American politics for years. The secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Albert Fall, accepted bribes from oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny and allowed them to drill for oil in Wyoming’s Teapot Dome Naval Petroleum Reserve.
The reserve was named for a sandstone rock that once looked a great deal like a teapot. The oil in the reserve was set aside for use by the U.S. Navy’s ships during a national emergency. The reserve is part of the larger Salt Creek Oil Field, in northern Natrona County north of Casper, Wyo.
U.S. President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, who had appointed Albert Fall to his post, went along with Fall’s request to transfer control over the naval petroleum reserves from the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior. Supposedly this was to provide better protection for the reserves, which were to be kept for emergency purposes only but were not to be leased out for general production and sale. Fall, however, made private deals with Sinclair and Doheny after they paid him bribes so that their companies could lease the oil and drill for it in all three of the national petroleum reserves, of which the Teapot Dome reserve became the most famous. Once the oil was out of the groud, the companies could then sell it for a profit and paid the government a royalty.
Wyoming oil man Leslie Miller, a Democrat who later would be elected governor, grew suspicious of foul play when he noticed trucks from Sinclair’s company hauling drilling equipment into the Teapot Dome reserve. Miller asked Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John B. Kendrick, also a Democrat, to look into this matter, and Kendrick referred the matter to a Senate investigating committee. Existence of the leases became public in April 1922. Public interest in the scandal grew from that point on.
In the summer of 1923, Harding traveled to the West, stopping in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park and Alaska. However, he died suddenly in San Francisco. Some historians believe Congress might well have impeached Harding for his role in the scandal had he not died that year. A few years later, Albert Fall became the first cabinet-level officer in American history to go to jail for crimes committed while serving in office. Though Fall had been convicted of accepting bribes, Sinclair and Doheny were exonerated of the charges of giving the bribes to Fall. Sinclair did serve a 9-month prison term for contempt of Congress. Sinclair had hired detectives to trail jury members during the original bribery trial.
In a final court action, the U.S. government sued to cancel the leases that Fall had given as bribes to Sinclair. U.S. District Judge T. Blake Kennedy in Wyoming ruled that the leases were legal and had to stay in effect. The U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned Kennedy’s decision, however, and the leases were canceled.
Because of the corruption surrounding Harding, many historians still consider him one of the worst presidents ever to serve in that office.
The selections linked below, “The Teapot Dome Scandal” and sections of “The Oil Business in Wyoming” offer substantial background on the topic for teachers and for students 8th grade and up. The articles may be demanding for 6th and 7th graders.