Harding, Warren G.

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Warren G. Harding

Robert K. Murray

WITH these words, "I cannot hope to be one of the great presidents, but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved," Warren G. Harding began one of the most corruption-riddled and discredited administrations in the nation's history. Since his day, the name of Harding, rather than evoking praise and admiration, has conjured up scenes of smoke-filled rooms, evil machinations, and raucous poker parties. Few recall anything concrete about his administration except for the infamous Harding scandals. His performance has been rated consistently by American historians as the worst in the national experience, worse than that of Ulysses Grant, worse even than that of the one president who was forced to resign, Richard Nixon. There is both justice and injustice in this historical verdict.

Warren Gamaliel Harding was born on 2 November 1865 in a tiny clapboard house on the edge of the small village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. His ancestors had migrated from Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley years before. Harding's father was a self-educated veterinarian who in 1873 attended the Homeopathic Hospital College in Cleveland and thereafter turned his attention from animals to people. His mother, Phoebe Dickerson, who began as a Methodist but became a convert to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, provided the family with a fundamentalist background and devoutly read her Bible, as Warren's middle name suggests.

Little is known of Harding's boyhood, which was spent in and around Caledonia, Ohio. He was nicknamed Winnie by his family, attended the village school, swam in the local creek, played scrub baseball, and loved animals, especially dogs. As an adolescent, he served as a printer's helper and learned how to stick type, feed press, make up forms, and wash rollers. In 1882 he graduated from Ohio Central College in nearby Iberia. This college's major function was to prepare students for rural teaching, and its curriculum was as meager as its instruction was poor. The year Harding completed his work, there were just three graduates; no records exist to reveal whether he stood at the head, middle, or foot of his class. There is evidence that he did not take his studies too seriously. His main interest was in editing the school paper, the Iberian Spectator.

Finding rural teaching not to his liking, Harding left the battle against juvenile ignorance in 1883, tried selling insurance for a year, and then, with two partners, bought a decrepit five-column, four-page newspaper called the Marion Star. This paper rapidly expanded under Harding's direction and ultimately achieved an unchallenged position in the bustling Ohio community. Seven years after taking over the Star, Harding married Florence Kling De Wolfe, a divorcee with an eleven-year-old child. Flossie, as she was called, was five years older than Warren, plain-featured, somewhat ungraceful, and sharp-tongued. But what she lacked in beauty she compensated for in determination and ambition.

Moving into a wide-porched, gable-roofed house that Harding had built, Florence complemented her husband by further expanding his newspaper. While he concentrated on editorial policy and securing advertisements, she reorganized the carrier delivery system and introduced a streamlined bookkeeping plan. And as the Star prospered, so did the importance and influence of its editor. Harding's journalistic activities and his deep involvement in community matters provided an excellent base for launching a political career. Marion offered Harding a suitable background for the projection of his personality and his ideas. For Harding, this small midwestern town represented the common denominator of the nation. Here the farmer and the businessman met on equal ground; here there was no great gulf between employer and employee; here conflict was minimized and divisions were healed. Cooperation, friendship, and local pride constituted a splendid harmonya harmony that Harding believed was essential for both economic and political success.

Rise in Ohio Politics

Ohio politics needed some harmony at that time. During those years, Senator Marcus A. Hanna, Senator Joseph B. Foraker, and Boss George B. Cox dominated the Republican party in the Buckeye State. When their interests coalesced, they pooled their collective majorities to achieve stunning victories. At other times they leaped at each other's throats, causing defeat through violent intraparty feuds. In this atmosphere, Warren Harding quickly became one of the best-known party pacifiers. He firmly believed that conciliation was a political weapon superior to obstruction and strife, and this fact alone made him increasingly valuable in the acrimonious environment of Ohio politics.

In 1899, Harding ran for his first elective office, the Ohio Senate, and won. He was returned in 1901 for a second term and was elected floor leader. In 1903 he was elected to the post of lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Myron T. Herrick and for the ensuing two years served as the amiable moderator of the Ohio Senate. At the conclusion of his term as lieutenant governor, he voluntarily returned to Marion and to the Star. However, through his editorials he continued to exert considerable influence on Ohio Republican party politics.

Harding was induced to leave his "retirement" in 1910 to run as a compromise gubernatorial candidate against Judson Harmon, the Democratic incumbent. He lost, but not before making additional friends within Republican ranks because of his sensitivity to the desires of all factions. In 1912, William Howard Taft selected him to place his name in nomination at the Republican National Convention, primarily because of Harding's known conciliatory qualities. Although such soothing tactics did not prevent the Bull Moose secession, Harding returned to Ohio from the 1912 convention an even bigger political figure than when he left. Two years later, he was the party's favorite to succeed incumbent Republican Senator Theodore E. Burton and won the 1914 senatorial election by a stunning majority of one hundred thousand.

The year 1915 was not a propitious one in which to enter the United States Senate. The major legislative battles over Wilson's New Freedom program had already been fought, and fears of war were beginning to overshadow normal partisan activities. During the war itself, there was little opportunity for a junior senator to make much of a reputation, and it was not until the League of Nations question emerged in 1919 that there was an issue capable of evoking serious partisan debate.

What modest reputation Harding acquired before 1919 was secured within the fold of the party rather than on the floor of the Senate. He delivered the Republican National Convention's keynote address in 1916 and was elected its permanent chairman. His call for unity and moderation struck just the proper chord for a party still suffering from the 1912 defeat.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, he carried his committee load, shunned acrimonious debate, and generally followed the old guardor popular opinion, if that proved more beneficial. He voted for returning the railroads to their private owners after the war and pushed for high tariffs. He was dubious about government subsidies to agriculture, opposed excess-profit taxes and high surtaxes, and took a dim view of strong executive authority. He was mildly conservative in his attitude toward unions and was not swept off his feet by the "Red Scare" of 19191920. On woman suffrage and Prohibition he swam with public opinion, personally being committed to neither.

On the League, Harding was generally towed along by the more influential Republican senators. But his position also rested on expediency, since he believed that his Ohio constituents opposed it. He signed Senator Lodge's "round robin" anti-League statement in March 1919 and, as a member of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, was privy to all discussions regarding the League question. He was also one of the senatorial group that called on the White House, in mid-August 1919, to air its differences with Woodrow Wilson. In the end, Harding declared himself in favor of the Lodge reservations and voted accordingly. Although never one of the "irreconcilables," he joined with such anti-League diehards as William E. Borah, Medill McCormick, and James A. Reed at the home of Nicholas Longworth after the anti-League vote on 19 November 1919 to eat scrambled eggs and celebrate the victory.

Presidential Election of 1920

Harding's emergence in 1920 as a presidential possibility resulted from a confluence of disparate events. First, as a senator and favorite son from Ohio, "the Mother of Presidents," he automatically was a factor in any presidential equation. Second, continuing acrimony in the Republican party encouraged constant speculation about a compromise candidate. Third, the inability of the major contenders in 1920 to outstrip one another in garnering a majority of the eligible delegates played into the hands of the dark horse. Finally, Harding's cause was pushed by a dedicated and skillful group of supporters, the foremost being Harry Micajah Daugherty.

Daugherty, a Washington Court House, Ohio, political manipulator and lobbyist, had known Harding since the turn of the century, but it was not until after Harding had become senator that their friendship deepened. Sizing up the confused political situation in 19191920, Daugherty strongly urged Harding to enter the race and ignored his first negative responses. Contrary to later popular myth, neither Harding nor his wife sought the presidency, and even after Harding was swept along by the enthusiasm of his friends, Florence Harding remained opposed to his running. Although Daugherty later exaggerated his own role in the final decision"I found him sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water," he once braggedDaugherty's insistence, along with the favorable circumstances and Harding's own belated ambition, did finally make him an active contender.

Even so, Harding's nomination required considerable luck. Later, when asked by reporters how he would describe his success in capturing the nomination, Harding replied, "We drew to a pair of deuces, and filled." There was much truth in this statement, since only a continued deadlock between front-runners Frank O. Lowden and General Leonard Wood at the convention itself kept open the way for an alternative. That possibility had already prompted Daugherty, who was running Harding's campaign headquarters, to woo both sides assiduously and to prophesy:

When both realize they can't win, when they're hot and sweaty and discouraged, [they] will remember me and this little headquarters. They'll be like soldiers after a battle, who recall a shady spring along a country road, where they got a drink as they marched to the front. When they remember me that way, maybe both sides will turn to Harding.

Some four months before, Daugherty had made another prophetic statement that, in view of the Friday night activities at the convention (the height of the Lowden-Wood deadlock), gave birth to the smoke-filled-room myth. Said Daugherty:

I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballot, but I think we can well afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after 2 o'clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, some one of them will say, "Who will we nominate?" At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him and can afford to abide by the result.

Such a meeting was in fact held on Friday night, 11 June 1920, in a hotel suite rented by the Republican party chairman, Will Hays, and attended by a circulating group of party leaders at which various alternatives to Wood and Lowden were discussed. Among those suggested was Warren Harding, although, contrary to some later accounts, this loosely formed and ever-changing meeting broke up before a consensus was reached. Representing neither a cabal nor a formal gathering, these Friday night discussions did set the stage for the continuation of a search for a solution on the floor of the convention on Saturday morning, which finally resulted in the nomination of the Ohioan on the tenth ballot. Given the circumstances, Harding's selection was no fluke. From the Friday deadlock on, he had emerged as the most available candidate.

Despite caveats in some quarters as to the wisdom of the convention's choice, it was generally agreed that Harding would make a strong candidate. With him on the ticket was Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, who had gained widespread fame for his antiradical stand during the Boston police strike the year before.

Opposing Harding for the Democrats was another newspaper editor, James M. Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News and then governor of Ohio. Cox's running mate was the thirty-eight-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Yorker. Hampered by certain aggressive personality characteristics and by President Wilson's insistence that the campaign be a "great and solemn referendum" on the League, Cox failed to strike sparks with the public. War-to-peace conversion traumas, the soaring cost of living, widespread labor unrest, alleged radical subversion, and a threatening postwar recession also combined to promote a public desire for change.

Harding capitalized on all of these factors and ran an able campaign. Under the tutelage of Daugherty and other party advisers, he eschewed the temptation to tour the country "bloviating," as he described his free style of speechmaking. Instead, he stayed at home in Marion, reading carefully prepared speeches from his front porch to delegations that came to visit him from across the country. Contrary to some later assertions, Harding was the dominant figure in this campaign, making his own pronouncements, which often were specifically tailored to particular delegations. And the whole tone of the campaign was also distinctly his. The emphasis on pacification, on conciliation, on restoration, and on harmony was not characteristic of most of the aggressively anti-Wilson leaders of his party. Harding said, "America's present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy"words that the public apparently wanted to hear in the 1920 campaign.

At least that is what the election returns showed on 2 November. It was an astonishing victory, and newspaper headlines groped for superlatives. Whether a result of Harding's own performance or a reaction against Wilsonism, the 16,181,289 votes for Harding, in contrast to the 9,141,750 votes for Cox, represented a resounding mandate. After savoring this victory for a month while on vacation in Texas and Panama, Harding returned to Marion in December to begin the task of selecting his official family. Great time and care were devoted to this job. Calling Marion "the Great Listening Post," Harding sought advice from all quarters and elicited suggestions from all factions. Even leading Democrats were requested by Harding to offer advice.

Presidential Appointments and Style

The result was a curious blend of the best and the worst in cabinet making. Harding shocked many old-guard supporters by naming Charles Evans Hughes, a proponent of the League of Nations, as his secretary of state. Harding considered him as having one of the "finest minds in the country." Similarly, he gave conservative Republicans "gooseflesh," as one phrased it, by appointing Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. Somewhat of a political maverick, Hoover was distrusted by a sizable number of powerful old-line Republican politicians, but Harding selected him over their protests because, as he explained to one of them, "I believe he's the smartest 'gink' I know." In another independent decision, Harding chose Henry C. Wallace, editor of Wallace's Farmer and a member of one of the most famous farming familes in the United States, as his secretary of agriculture.

Some of his other appointments were more to conservative liking. Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh was given the nod for secretary of the treasury, a selection that delighted such old-guard stalwarts as senators Boies Penrose and Philander Knox of Pennsylvania. The post of secretary of war went to John Weeks of Massachusetts, who was sponsored by Senator Lodge. James J. Davis, an active union member, was made secretary of labor. Will Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was offered the position of postmaster general. Edwin Denby, a former member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, was named secretary of the navy. Albert Fall, senator from New Mexico and a personal friend of Harding's, was given the job of secretary of the interior, despite the cries of some conservationists who were disturbed by his anticonservationist views.

Harding appointed his campaign manager and confidant, Harry Daugherty, as attorney general. Even some old-guard members balked at this selection, being concerned about Daugherty's questionable lobbying past. But Harding was adamant, once telling a disapproving Senator James W. Wadsworth of New York, "I have told [Daugherty] that he can have any place in my Cabinet he wants, outside of Secretary of State. He tells me that he wants to be Attorney General and by God he will be Attorney General!"

The change between the Wilson and the Harding administrations was immediately noticeable. Following a subdued and unostentatious inauguration, the Hardings threw open the White House gates, which had been closed in the last years of the Wilson administration, and quickly chased the gloom of the Wilson illness from the executive mansion. Portions of the White House were even opened to the public. Brighter colors were added to the furnishings and flowers appeared everywhere. Mrs. Harding reinstituted White House teas and gave three garden parties during the first summer. The president immediately restored regular White House press conferences, which Wilson had abandoned. Unquestionably, Harding had the best working relationship with the press of any chief executive in history.

It has often been said that the Hardings represented Main Street come to Washington. The Hardings did move into the White House with their small-town background and ideas intact. They did not hesitate to admit to being "just folks" or to practice small-town ways. To a critic like H. L. Mencken this seemed gauche, but to a majority of citizens it was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. The personality of the president contrasted markedly with that of his predecessor. Gregarious, affable, and handsome, Harding, in the parlance of his own time, "looked like a president." Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, he had a high forehead, heavy square jaw, and calm, sympathetic gray eyes. His nose was large but in proportion with the rest of his face. He was vain about his person; his straight silver hair was always well brushed, his heavy dark eyebrows neatly trimmed. His suits were immaculate and well pressed, and he varied his dress considerably, more so than most presidents, to fit the occasion. Sometimes he dressed more "sporty" than Mrs. Harding liked.

Harding had a magnetic quality that made both men and women like him. His was not the charisma of a leader but the simple attractiveness of a friendly and engaging individual. Next to Lincoln, Harding was probably the most human man to occupy the White House. As one close associate put it, "W. G. always wore the human side of him out." Harding also had a temper that could vent itself in outbursts of profanity, but he always quickly repented and labeled such lapses with one of his favorite words"unseemly." Kindliness, friendliness, and generosity were his most winning traits and undoubtedly sprang from his dislike of contention and disharmony and from his compulsive need for friends. Given these traits, it is not surprising that Harding placed a high value on loyalty. An acquaintance once said, "He liked politicians for the reason that he loved dogs, because they were usually loyal to their friends." Harding's fear of offending anyone, his desire to grant requests, and his indiscriminate loyalty placed him in constant danger. Harding's father once remarked that it was fortunate he was not a girl; he would have been in a family way all the time because he could not say no.

Although known at the time and not occasioning any particular adverse comment, certain of Harding's habits were later blown out of proportion and their impact on his presidency exaggerated. Harding liked to play poker and, as a senator, had had a group in every Saturday night for "food and action." After becoming president, he continued playing poker approximately once a week. Beginning sometime after dinner, these games rarely lasted beyond midnight and were for relaxation, not profit. Limited to eight at one sitting, the White House poker group had a fluid membership. Even Hoover and Hughes were invited to play. Later charges that the poker crowd "ran" the government or exercised a hypnotic influence over the president were untrue.

Harding's love of cards was matched by his love of golf. While president, Harding made every professional golfer who came to Washington give him a command performance. The first hint of spring found Harding out on the south grounds of the White House practicing tee shots. There Laddie Boy, a homely Airedale whose affection for Harding caused much comment in the press, chased and retrieved the president's practice balls. On the golf course, the dog was usually at his side while his master, despite all the practicing, struggled to break a hundred. It was fashionable to claim in later years that Harding spent all his time on the golf course, but, again, this was not true. The demands of the presidency clearly prevented him from playing the game as much as he would have liked. During his first two years in the White House, he did play about twice a week, but toward the end of his tenure, he barely had time to play at all.

Harding's drinking and smoking habits while he was in the White House were far more controversial. Harding used tobacco in all forms. He smoked two cigars a day, interspersed with a pipe and cigarettes. Harding also chewed, although he tapered off somewhat after entering the White House because of his wife's nagging. To many, chewing was a filthy habit, but not to Thomas Edison. Harding once shared a plug of tobacco with the famous inventor, causing Edison to remark, "Harding's all right. Any man who chews tobacco is all right."

More controversial was his use of liquor. Throughout his adult life Harding drank and saw nothing wrong in it. He was never personally committed to Prohibition, even though he had voted for it and, like many Americans, pretended the law did not apply to him. He was careful to serve liquor only in his private rooms in the White House and would sometimes take visitors there for that purpose. It was later claimed that Harding was a heavy drinker, although no one ever reported seeing him drunk. Still, such "sneaking around" by the president to break the law, when added to smoking, chewing, and poker playing, raised in some minds the specter of low-life carousals.

In the end, it was the quality of Harding's mind, as much as any personal habits or character traits, that limited his effectiveness as president. Wilson claimed he had a "bungalow mind," and to some extent this was true. Harding tended to accept the pat answer rather than reason through to a more sophisticated solution. His mental powers were undisciplined by hard thought, and he lived his life in the realm of clichés, maxims, and emotionally held opinions. He had never been required to study hard; neither were his closest associates and Senate colleagues noted for their intellectual prowess. Personality counted more with Harding than ideas.

Philosophical discussions and impersonal technical matters like economic theory did not appeal to him. There is no indication that he ever spent much time reading, although his personal library was rather well stocked. He did not possess a deep knowledge of public questions or of their foundations in history, economics, or law. He had managed quite well without such knowledge as a senator. But as president this limitation was constricting. A major difficulty during the Harding years was that the best people in his cabinet had to funnel their collective intelligence through his untrained and ambivalent mind. Sometimes Harding did not understand, other times he was too cautious, occasionally he was too fearful. Often he simply endorsed a solution worked out by others.

Domestic and Foreign Affairs

President Harding inherited from Wilson problems that even the wisest and best-trained chief executive would have found daunting. Calling Congress into special session in April 1921, he delivered to it perhaps the best speech of his career. Declaring that Congress should first turn to domestic problems and put "our own house in order," he mentioned not only increased tariff protection and lower taxes as prime issues but the necessity for a national budget system and economy in administration. He also called for agricultural legislation to help the farmer, construction of "a great merchant marine," encouragement of aviation for civil and military purposes, further development of radio and its effective regulation, passage of an anti-lynching law, and creation of a department of public welfare. With respect to foreign affairs, he expressed hope for some kind of an association of nations "binding us in conference and cooperation for the prevention of war," but he flatly declared that the United States should not enter the League of Nations. He stated that peace should quickly be established with all former enemies and that an orderly funding and liquidation of war debts should be undertaken.

Harding had fully expected to get along well with Congress, but he did not even enjoy a brief honeymoon. Difficulties with congressional leaders over priorities, continued animus emanating from the League struggle, the desire of some congressional leaders to reduce the presidency to a cipher, and Harding's own reluctance to exercise strong leadership combined to get his administration off to a slow start. Indeed, because of the squabbling and indecision, Congress was forced to remain in almost continuous session from April 1921 to September 1922 in order to complete its consideration of Harding's various proposals.

In June 1921, Congress did pass the Budget and Accounting Act, which met Harding's desire for a budget system and opened the way for economy in government administration. Harding's subsequent appointment of Charles Dawes, a Chicago banker, as budget director was a wise move, and under Dawes's leadership a savings of almost $1.5 billion was realized during the first year. In July, after skillful behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Secretary of State Hughes, Congress approved the Knox-Porter Resolution, ending the state of war with Austria and Germany; peace treaties were subsequently concluded with both countries and accepted by the Senate. Following weeks of wrangling over the size and nature of a tax cut and the successful intervention of Harding to prevent passage of a budget-busting soldiers' bonus, Congress finally endorsed the Revenue Act of 1921, reducing the surtax rate from 65 percent to 50 percent and providing for the ultimate elimination of the wartime excess-profits tax.

Under intense prodding from the farm bloc and with the approval of Harding and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, by early 1922 Congress passed six farm bills that controlled discriminatory practices by packers and stockyard owners (Packers and Stock-yards Act); regulated market contracts involving "puts and calls," "bids," and "offers" (Futures Trading Act); expanded the maximum size of rural loans (two amendments to the Farm Loan Act); provided new loans to farmers for the raising and marketing of livestock (Emergency Agriculture Credits Act); and protected farm cooperatives from the operation of the antitrust laws (Capper-Volstead Act).

Congress, reacting to the Harding administration's desire for an "America First" policy, passed

both the Tariff Act of 1921 (designed to be only a temporary measure) and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, which increased for industry and agriculture the rates contained in the old Under-wood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913. Along this same line of protecting "America first," Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1921, which restricted European migration annually to 3 percent of any nation's nationals living in the United States in 1910. This law resulted in a decrease in the number of admitted immigrants from 805,228 in 1921 to 309,556 in 1922.

Despite his various difficulties, Harding had reason to believe that his administration had acquitted itself rather well by the time of the fall congressional elections of 1922. He had quickly shown his humaneness and his desire for "normalcy" in 1921 by pardoning Eugene V. Debs, who had been placed in jail by the Wilson administration for antiwar activities, and by issuing a general amnesty for other political prisoners of the Red Scare period. Moreover, many of the requests contained in his opening speech in April 1921 had by 1922 been granted by Congress. Actually, the only one flatly rejected by that body was the one to create a new and expanded merchant marine. In the process of compiling this record, Harding and his administration had aroused considerable animosity. Harding's ineffective handling of a railroad shopmen's strike in the summer of 1922 and Attorney General Daugherty's recourse to the infamous Wilkerson injunction to break it enraged organized labor. Further, Daugherty's handling of certain war-related legal matters involving the Justice Department antagonized numerous other elements and kept alive suspicions regarding his competency. Patronage problems also continually plagued the administration, creating some severe internal disputes. But above all, Harding's consistent refusal to support a soldiers' bonus bill, together with his veto of one just prior to the fall elections, angered veterans' organizations and vote-seeking congressmen alike.

The elections of 1922, although not a total rebuff to the administration, did show serious reverses. Such Republican party stalwarts as senators Harry New, Porter J. McCumber, Frank B. Kellogg, and Miles Poindexter were defeated. In the Senate, the Republicans lost seven seats, cutting their majority from twenty-four to ten. In the House, the party lost seventy seats, reducing the Republican majority to twenty. Now more than ever, strong leadership was needed from the White House to keep the depleted Republican congressional ranks working together. There is evidence that Harding increasingly tried to provide it in his brief remaining time in office. But all such attempts would prove to be too little too late. For example, Harding failed once again in getting Congress to consider a merchant marine expansion bill. Congress also turned a deaf ear to his suggestions for a department of public welfare. Although he strongly supported the farm bloc in pushing for new agricultural credits, he demurred from its desire for some sort of direct government subsidy.

Harding's earlier appointment of William H. Taft as chief justice, along with his later selections of George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and Edward T. Sanford as associate justices, indicated he was still "no friend" of organized labor and wanted the nation to remain "business safe" on economic matters. Further, while he continually supported the passage of an antilynching law (which Congress steadfastly refused to consider), he was not successful in promoting a greater degree of racial justice, and despite his many promises, his appointment policy was not especially pro-black. Finally, even though he officially backed Prohibition enforcement, his own drinking habits vitiated a consistent and forceful stand on the matter.

Some of the successes of Harding's administration by 1923 were as much a result of the efforts of his best cabinet appointees as of himself. Secretary of State Hughes masterminded the successful Washington Naval Disarmament Conference of 19211922, which resulted in a strengthening of the Open Door in the Pacific and a reduction in the navies of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. Hughes also succeeded in improving strained relations with Mexico, left as a legacy from the Wilson years. With Harding's support, a program of military disengagement was begun in the Latin American and Caribbean areas, especially in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. A "heart balm" of $25 million was given to Colombia to atone for precipitate American action in the Panamanian revolution of twenty years before, and in 19221923 a Central American conference, held in Washington, began a redefinition of the Monroe Doctrine. Amid trying circumstances, Hughes also formalized the funding of European World War I debts to the United States and secured the necessary congressional agreement. Neither Hughes nor Harding was able to convince the Senate that the United States should join the World Court.

Secretary Hoover added luster to the administration by his skillful handling of the Commerce Department. The successful Unemployment Conference of 1921, whose efforts enabled the nation to weather the last stages of the postwar recession, was essentially Hoover's idea. Hoover's attempts to rejuvenate American overseas trade, his drive for the standardization of measures and products, and his promotion of industrial and scientific research helped restore prosperity and achieve the president's goal of benefiting business. Hoover's initiation of aviation and radio regulations and his cooperation with Harding in forcing an eight-hour day on the steel industry were also major contributions to the Harding years.

Scandals and Illness

Despite his belated attempts at more effective executive leadership and some rather impressive administration successes, Harding found the presidency to be an increasing burden from the summer of 1922 on. He liked the pomp, the ceremony, the attention, and the glitter of the office. But continuing labor strife, protracted wrangling with Congress, squabbling over patronage, mounting Prohibition enforcement problems, concern over the fall election reverses, and the need for constant executive decisionsin short, the magnitude of his presidential responsibilitiesthreatened to overwhelm him. His old friends found him more solemn and less buoyant around the poker table. He once remarked to the National Press Club, "I never find myself done.. . . I don't believe there is a human being who can do all the work there is to be done in the President's office. It seems as though I have been President for twenty years." From the fall of 1922 on, he spoke increasingly of the day when he could return to Ohio, and once, in an off-the-cuff statement, he declared, "A great many people think it is a fine thing to be President. . . . But I know better, and I would like nothing better than to be a Marionite again."

By the fall of 1922, Harding's growing mental depression rested not merely on political factors nor on the demands of the presidency; his own personal problems had begun to mount. Mrs. Harding, who had lost a kidney a number of years before, suddenly became ill with hydronephritis in late August, and for a time her life hung in the balance. Not long after, his own health began to disintegrate. A severe flu attack that felled him in mid-January 1923 seemed to trigger a visible decline. By April he was complaining that he barely had enough energy to complete nine holes rather than the usual eighteen on his infrequent trips to the golf course. By late spring of 1923, his normally ruddy color had become a pallor and his stamina was at low ebb. He told Hughes at that time that his blood pressure was consistently above 175, which caused the secretary of state to tell his wife, "We have been worrying about Mrs. Harding, but I think it is the President we should be more concerned about."

Harding had other worries. Scandals of serious import were beginning to be rumored in the spring of 1923. Attorney General Daugherty and his activities lay at the root of some of this concern. Several attempts had already been made by Daugherty's enemies, both inside and outside Congress, to force his retirement from the administration. One congressional investigation into the Justice Department had come to naught in January 1923, but it had not deterred many from thinking that despite the lack of damaging evidence, Daugherty was a serious liability to the administration.

Ironically, the first truly disturbing situation arose over Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, and not over Daugherty. Appointed by Harding on a whim, Forbes had illegally been selling government supplies from the medical supply base at Perryville, Maryland, to private contractors and at ridiculously low prices. He also was engaged in under-cover deals relating to hospital building contracts and site selections. His accomplice in these matters was Charles F. Cramer, general counsel of the Veterans' Bureau.

Brigadier General Charles E. Sawyer, Harding's personal physician and longtime Ohio friend, first suspected Forbes's motives in handling bureau business and voiced his fears to Daugherty, who passed them along to Harding. Shaken by these disclosures, Harding finally summoned Forbes to the White House, grabbed him by the throat "as a dog would a rat," and shouted at him, "You double-crossing bastard!" No record remains of the rest of the conversation, but evidently Harding demanded his resignation, giving him the opportunity to leave the country first. Forbes hastily booked passage for Europe and, once there, resigned on 15 February.

Forbes's resignation took on a more sinister meaning when, on 14 March, Cramer committed suicide by putting a .45-caliber bullet through his right temple while standing before his bathroom mirror in his Washington, D.C., home. At the time, all the public and the press were told was that Cramer had been depressed because of "recent financial reverses."

The Forbes resignation and the Cramer suicide provided natural grist for Washington's rumor mills, but their impact was eclipsed by the sudden death of Jess W. Smith ten weeks later. A diabetic with flabby jowls, scraggly mustache, and large, pleading brown eyes made larger by black, round shell-rimmed glasses, Smith was Harry Daugherty's private secretary and general factotum. As such, he was also a friend of Harding's. Living with Daugherty in the attorney general's Wardman Park Hotel apartment, Smith had used his close contact with the administration to engineer his own scams, which involved the selling of liquor licenses, the granting of paroles, and the arrangement for other types of "fixes."

Helping Smith was a small group of petty scoundrels, collectively known as the Ohio Gang, who used a "little green house on K Street" as a kind of racket headquarters. Just how much of this activity was known to Harding prior to Smith's death is conjecture. But he knew enough to have a long and emotional argument with Smith at the White House on the day before Smith died. Early the next morning Smith was found slumped on the floor in his bedroom in Daugherty's apartment, still clad in his pajamas, his head in a wastebasket, a pistol in his hand, and a bullet through his temple. The assistant White House physician, Dr. Joel T. Boone, told the press that Smith had had a very severe case of diabetes, had not fully recovered from an appendicitis operation of a year before, and in a state of depression had killed himself.

These events, along with Harding's declining health, did not provide an auspicious background for a much-publicized presidential trip to Alaska in mid-June 1923. The decision to make this trip rested on both medical and political grounds. No fewer than five cabinet officers and twenty-eight bureaus exercised authority over the territory, and the president hoped that a firsthand inspection would help him resolve some of these conflicts. His doctors thought a vacation from the cares of Washington would do him some good.

Later it was claimed that the whole Alaskan venture was suffused with a sense of foreboding and that there was morbid talk of death. The Forbes, Cramer, and Smith tragedies, coupled with Harding's sudden decision to sell the Marion Star just before his departure, added credence to these contentions. But if there was no air of morbidity about the presidential party, it was subdued by the realization that the president was very tired and appeared nervous and worried.

During the outward-bound phase of the journey, Harding seemed to recapture some of his old bounce. According to Hoover, as they neared Alaska, Harding displayed the attitude "of a school boy entering on a holiday." Still, Hoover recalled that on the way north Harding once asked him in the privacy of the presidential cabin what Hoover would do if he were president and knew of a scandal brewing. Hoover replied, "Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side." When Hoover pressed for particulars, Harding mumbled something about irregularities in the Justice Department and then "abruptly dried up." When the party turned south toward home, the president became noticeably more morose and his nervousness again increased. By the time he arrived in Vancouver on 26 July, it was obvious that he was again entirely exhausted, and members of the presidential party were deeply alarmed.

A day later, as his train moved down the west coast toward San Francisco, the president complained of pains in the upper abdominal region. By the time the train reached San Francisco, it was clear that he had a cardiac malfunction. Put to bed in the Palace Hotel, he was apparently on the mend when, on the evening of 2 August, while his wife was reading to him from the Saturday Evening Post, he suffered an acute coronary artery occlusion, otherwise known as an infarct. In any case, death was instantaneous.

The ensuing cross-country funeral procession allowed Warren Harding for the moment to achieve his goal of being one of America's best-loved presidents. Hundreds of thousands of grieving citizens lined the tracks, singing softly his favorite hymns, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Lead, Kindly Light," as his flag-draped casket, displayed in a specially designed railroad car, passed slowly by. Back in Washington, his coffin was placed in the center of the Capitol rotunda at the exact spot where Lincoln had lain in state. Ten truckloads of flowers lined the walls as thirty-five thousand mourners filed by and another twenty thousand waited in vain outside in lines that were four abreast. Similar scenes were repeated at his burial ceremony in Marion a day later.

Historical Legacy

Death should have brought Warren Harding's problems to an end, but in some respects they were just beginning. Even while the press was eulogizing him as a "man of peace," "an ideal American," and "the greatest commoner since Lincoln," events were in motion that would destroy the Harding reputation almost completely. The general outline of the Harding scandals was known to only a few at the time of his death, but this knowledge spread quickly after his demise. Within three months of his burial, a Senate investigation into the Veterans Bureau uncovered Charles Forbes's improprieties, resulting in his conviction and a two-year jail sentence.

Before this investigation was completed, another was begun into unconfirmed rumors of alleged "oil deals" involving top Harding officials. Centering on Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, this Senate probe unearthed evidence of the transfer of certain oil reserve lands (the most famous being Teapot Dome in Wyoming) from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. Fall then had leased them for development to two oil men, Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, without competitive bids. Fall was later convicted of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government, and was sentenced to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Secretary of the Navy Charles Denby, while not a party to the granting of the leases or the exchange of bribes, was finally forced out of the cabinet because of his naïveté and stupidity.

Far more sensational was the final investigation growing out of the Harding years, one involving Daugherty and the Justice Department. Begun by the Senate in March 1924, it clearly established the perfidy and machinations of Jess Smith and the Ohio Gang, but it was not able to establish "beyond doubt" Daugherty's rumored involvement in these activities. A fortuitous fire destroyed the records in Daugherty's brother's bank in Washington Court House (where the attorney general and Jess Smith kept a joint account) and eliminated evidence that might have proved crucial. Nonetheless, some witnesses (most of them admittedly unreliable and one even known to be a perjurer) told tales of bacchanalian orgies at the little green house on K Street in which both Daugherty and Harding allegedly took part. In the end, the only government official to be convicted as a result of this investigation was Colonel Thomas W. Miller, alien property custodian, who had accepted bribes arranged by Jess Smith to illegally transfer a German-owned American subsidiary to an American firm. He ultimately served eighteen months in jail and paid a $5,000 fine. Daugherty, in turn, went through two trials in 19261927, the first ending in a hung jury and the second declaring him not guilty because of insufficient evidence.

All of this naturally raised questions about Harding's own involvement in the scandals. It was diffi-cult for many to believe that the president was not somehow connected with this skulduggery. Even if he were not personally involved, most citizens believed that he must have known about it. Actually, he did not know about Fall, but as we have seen, he did know about Forbes and Smith and had done nothing to expose their corruption. In any case, continued doubts and uncertainties left Harding's reputation badly tarnished.

But it was also Harding's own questionable past that further damaged whatever reputable image he might otherwise have retained. In 1927 there appeared a book entitled The President's Daughter, written by Nan Britton, a former Marionite who was years younger than the dead president. In this book, Britton claimed that Harding had fathered a child by her in 1919 and that their illicit contact had continued on into the presidential years. Rumors also circulated that Harding had had extramarital relations with still another Marion woman who was the wife of one of the town's leading businessmen.

There is considerable doubt that Harding was the father of Nan's child, because medical evidence exists to indicate that he was probably sterile. There is some possibility that the two of them may have maintained a relationship during his senatorial career, but it most certainly did not extend into the White House period. There is no doubt whatever that Harding and Mrs. Carrie Phillips, the business-man's wife, did maintain an intimate relationship for a number of years prior to his becoming a senator.

Whatever the precise truth surrounding these various relationships, they, together with the corrosive effect of the scandals, produced a devastating reaction that prompted much muckraking and mythmaking. Wholly fictional exposés of Harding's life and his alleged carousals now made the rounds. So did increasingly exaggerated stories of the activities of the Ohio Gang. As a result, rumors about Harding's private life and knowledge about the scandals remained, while many of the achievements of the administration were lost to view.

Unjustifiable in some respects as the final verdict may be, Warren Harding must bow to the adverse judgment of history. Extramarital matters aside, fatal flaws obviously existed not only in some of the friends around him, but in Harding himself. Kindliness, friendliness, generosity, and loyalty are not necessarily bad traits for a president to have, but in the case of Harding they were liabilities. Under the circumstances, he probably should never have sought the presidency, and a more discerning electorate would not have elected him.

As it was, throughout the remainder of the 1920s, Warren Harding represented an acute embarrassment for the nation and the Republican party. The great colonnaded marble monument that was erected to him outside of Marion through contributions from his friends immediately following his death stood undedicated because no major Republican figure had the nerve to appear there. Fittingly, President Herbert Hoover, a man who owed much to Harding, finally screwed up his courage, journeyed to Marion in the summer of 1931, and delivered a brief dedicatory address. Standing before a battery of microphones and with Harry Daugherty seated on the platform directly behind him, Hoover faced the issue squarely:

Here was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment.. . . Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but that they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.

Perhaps no better or more judicious epitaph for the Harding years exists.


The Harding papers belong to the Ohio Historical Society and are housed in the Ohio Historical Museum Building in Columbus, Ohio. Samuel H. Adams, Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding (Boston, 1939), the best-known biography of Harding, is badly flawed because of its emphasis on the scandals and its frequent elevation of rumor to fact. Randolph C. Downes, The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding, 18651920 (Columbus, Ohio, 1970), is an exhaustive scholarly treatment of Harding's prepresidential career, based mainly on local Ohio primary sources. Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times (New York, 1968), a highly impressionistic biography, places undue emphasis on Harding's extramarital affairs and private traumas.

Andrew Sinclair, The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding (New York, 1965), is the first attempt to revise the image of Harding as a politician and president following the opening of the Harding papers in 1964. Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis, 1969), the most detailed and scholarly work on Harding's presidency, is based largely on manuscripts, including the Harding papers. Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (Lawrence, Kans., 1977), represents a relatively brief distillation of the latest scholarship on the Harding administration, relying especially on Sinclair and Murray. Harry M. Daugherty (in collaboration with Thomas Dixon), The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy (New York, 1932), is a sometimes factual, more often fanciful, defense of Harding and Daugherty and their activities, written in reply to Nan Britton's book and Hoover's dedicatory address of 1931. Also see Robert H. Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding (Columbia, Mo., 1996).

Recent works include Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President (New York, 1998), and John A. Morello, Selling the President, 1920: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding (Westport, Conn., 2001).

For further sources consult Richard G. Frederick, comp., Warren G. Harding: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1992).

Harding, Warren G.

views updated May 18 2018

Warren G. Harding

Born November 2, 1865 (Corsica, Ohio)
Died August 2, 1923 (San Francisco, California)

U.S. president

"Let us stop to consider that tranquillity at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people. . . ."

Warren G. Harding was elected to the presidency on the promise of returning the nation to what he called "normalcy" after the turmoil of World War I (1914–18). His term in office, which lasted from 1921 until his unexpected death in 1923, ushered in not only the general economic prosperity that characterized the Roaring Twenties but also the dominance of the Republican Party during this decade. Charming and personable, Harding was much loved by the ordinary people of the United States during his presidency, but history has not been as kind. His reputation was marred by revelations after his death that his administration had been riddled with corruption.

Finding his way

Warren Gamaliel Harding was the eldest of eight children born to George Tyron Harding, a Civil War veteran, a farmer, and a doctor, and Phoebe Dickerson Harding, a gentle, very religious woman who eventually went into medical practice with her husband. Harding attended a one-room school and performed his farm chores without much enthusiasm. The

family moved to a farm outside the small town of Caledonia when Harding was ten years old. Here Harding learned to play the cornet, spent his summers working in a sawmill, and worked as a printer's "devil" (helper) at a newspaper, where he learned the basics of a trade with which he would be involved for a long time to come.

When Harding was fourteen he entered Ohio Central College, a two-year academy with a rather weak academic program. He served as co-editor of the school newspaper before graduating in 1882. Shortly before his graduation, Harding's family had moved to Marion, and he joined them there that summer. He worked as a teacher but lasted only one semester, claiming later that it was the hardest job he had ever had. Next he read law in an attorney's office (the common method, in the early twentieth century, for training to become a lawyer), but he did not like this kind of work either. Jobs as an insurance agent and a part-time reporter for the weekly Mirror newspaper also did not work out.

Florence Harding: A Formidable First Lady

Florence Kling Harding, wife to U.S. president Warren G. Harding, was a strong individual who supported her husband's career to the White House but could not escape the rumor that she was some how involved in his death. A dynamic woman, Florence inspired a range of opinion about her character and her relationship to her husband.

Born into a wealthy family in Marion, Ohio, in 1860, Florence studied music for one year before returning home. The nineteen-year-old soon became pregnant by a local boy, Henry "Pete" De Wolfe. Although they were said to have eloped, a marriage may not have actually taken place. Son Eugene was born in 1880, and De Wolfe left his young family soon after the birth. Florence, struggling as a single mother, gave the baby to her parents to raise.

At age thirty, Florence met Warren G. Harding, who had recently bought Marion's Daily Star newspaper. Although her father disapproved, the two married in July 1881. Their marriage produced no children.

After their marriage, Florence took over the newspaper's circulation department, where she was known as a demanding but effective manager. Meanwhile, Harding became active in politics, supported and encouraged by his wife. He served first as an Ohio state senator, and in 1914 was elected to the U.S. Senate.

As the 1920 election approached, Harding's campaign manager urged him to run for president. Florence had reservations but supported her husband. She was actively involved in her husband's campaign by courting the press and endearing herself to female voters by speaking out on women's rights. With the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, that had recently come into law, Florence became the first wife of a presidential candidate to cast a vote for her husband.

Harding won the presidency by a large margin. Upon moving into the White House, Florence immediately ordered the mansion to be opened to tourists. As First Lady, she hosted many teas, receptions, and state dinners. These festivities were well covered by the media, and newspapers often printed Florence's remarks in favor of women competing in sports and running their own businesses. Behind the scenes she encouraged her husband to speak out more forcefully on racial equality and religious tolerance. Florence was also known to serve as bartender at the poker games hosted by her husband, who served illegal liquor at these private gatherings.

Although Florence made significant contributions to her husband's career, their marriage does not appear to have been happy. It was widely known, though not reported by the press, that the president indulged in extramarital affairs. After the death of both Hardings, a book written by Nan Britton claimed that her daughter had been fathered by Harding.

By 1923 rumors were circulating that the Harding administration was riddled with corruption. The Hardings were aware of these growing concerns when they set off on a trip to Alaska and the West Coast that was billed as "a Voyage to Understanding." During the journey Harding became ill and, on August 2, 1923, suddenly died. Florence refused to allow an autopsy, which later led to allegations that she had somehow been involved in his death, but these were never proven.

After the funeral, Florence destroyed many of Harding's presidential papers, most likely to protect his reputation. She lived for only another year and a half, dying of kidney disease on November 21, 1924.

Meanwhile Harding helped to organize a town band, and he started forming the conservative Republican beliefs that he would hold for the rest of his life. In November 1884, when he was nineteen, Harding got together with two friends to buy, for three hundred dollars, a small, ill-equipped daily newspaper called the Marion Star. Eventually Harding became the Star's sole owner, and under his care the newspaper became increasingly successful. Within five years, in fact, it was Marion's leading publication.

At the same time, Harding was becoming a prominent citizen of Marion. He was appointed to the boards of directors of several companies, served as a trustee of his Baptist church, and belonged to a number of community organizations. In 1881 he married Florence "Flossie" Kling (1860–1924), who was five years older than Harding. Her father initially disapproved of the marriage because he had heard rumors that one or more of Harding's ancestors had been black. At this period in U.S. history, many people not only considered African Americans inferior to those of European ancestry but also strongly disapproved of intermingling between people of different races. This issue would continue to be raised from time to time during Harding's career.

In any case, it seems that Harding's marriage to Flossie, whom he called "Duchess" due to her dominant personality, was unhappy, and over the course of their married life he would have several extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, Harding's wife believed in his potential for success and encouraged his progress in both publishing and politics. Soon after their marriage she took over the Star's circulation department, and her able leadership helped to make the newspaper a thriving, profitable operation.

A popular Ohio politician

Harding had a natural gift for public speaking and an ability to say little of substance in an important-sounding, pleasing way. Thus he seemed well suited to run for political office. In 1899 he was elected as a Republican state senator, an impressive feat in a state dominated by Democrats. In this position he gained a reputation as someone who could mediate between the two different groups of Republicans within the Senate, who often squabbled with each other. During his second term as senator, Harding was chosen for the prestigious role of Republican floor leader. It was during this period that he met Harry Daugherty (1860–1941), a Republican politician, lawyer, and lobbyist (someone who tries to influence legislators on a particular issue) who would play a major role in his presidential administration.

Harding was elected to the largely ceremonial office of lieutenant governor of Ohio in 1902. Eight years later he ran for governor, but he was defeated and returned to Marion to run his newspaper. Harding gained some national attention in 1912 when he made a speech introducing William Howard Taft (1857–1930) as the nominee of the Republican National Convention. Two years later Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate.

He spent six years in the Senate, where he was well liked but accomplished nothing notable. In fact, Harding was present for less than one-third of the votes taken during his term. He consistently avoided taking any firm stands on the issues of the day, such as the prohibition of alcoholic drinks (which would become law in January 1920 after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and whether women should be allowed to vote (the Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1920, would win them this right).

Harding did, however, serve as chairman of the Republican National Convention in 1916, when Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) was chosen to run against President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), the Democratic Party's candidate. Hughes lost to Wilson, who led the nation into war the next year despite his earlier promises to keep the United States out of the conflict.

An inoffensive candidate for president

As the 1920 election approached, Republicans knew that they were in a good position to win. Embittered by the failure of his effort to get the United States to join the League of Nations, an international organization formed to encourage cooperation and peace between countries, and weakened by illness, Wilson had decided not to run for reelection. The only question was whom the Republicans should nominate. At first the top contenders did not include Harding, but his old friend Daugherty persuaded him to put himself forward as a candidate. Daugherty began drumming up support for Harding's candidacy.

At the Republican convention, held that summer in Chicago, Illinois, the inability of party members to agree on a nominee made Harding seem an attractive candidate. Almost everyone could agree that he had some ideal qualities: he was from an important state, he was a loyal Republican (and thus more easily controlled), he had an friendly personality, and he had never taken any controversial stands on anything. The night before Harding was nominated, a group of senators met in what came to be called a "smoke-filled room" (meaning a behind-the-scenes setting), where they expressed their approval for Harding's candidacy.

The next day he was nominated on the tenth ballot; unlike today's conventions, those in the early part of the century often featured multiple votes before a candidate was chosen. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; see entry), an unsmiling, upright man known as "Silent Cal," was

chosen as the vice-presidential candidate. The Republican platform (statement of positions on various issues) centered on cutting government spending, lowering taxes, and imposing more restrictions on immigration. The Democrats, meanwhile, chose as their candidate another Ohio native, the rather bland Senator James M. Cox (1870–1957), with Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future president) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) as his running mate.

Harding conducted a relaxed campaign, inviting anyone who wanted to talk with him to visit his home in Marion. Standing on his own front porch, he conducted what he called "bloviating," delivering the kind of fancy-sounding, clicheloaded speeches for which he was famous. Yet Harding avoided taking any clear stands on the issues, such as U.S. involvement with the League of Nations. In a famous speech delivered in May 1920, he promised a "return to normalcy," which, as quoted in Geoffrey Perret's America in the Twenties, he later defined as "a regular steady order of things. … normal procedure, the natural way, without excess."

Elected by a landslide

That promise undoubtedly appealed to the desire of many voters for peace and calm at an uncertain, confusing time. The election ended in a landslide victory for Harding, who won 61 percent of the popular vote. This was the widest winning margin any U.S. presidential candidate had ever achieved.

Harding's first task as president was to appoint the individuals who would make up his cabinet, the group of officials who head each department of the federal government. Some of the men he chose were very respectable and competent, including Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948), Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1855–1937), and Secretary of Commerce (and future president) Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; see entry). But Harding also rewarded several of his close friends for their support by appointing them to high offices. Known as the "Ohio gang" because many came from Harding's home state, these men—including Daugherty, who became attorney general; Veteran's Bureau director Charles Forbes; and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1861–1944)—would eventually betray Harding's trust.

As Harding's first term began, he took steps to deliver on his campaign promise of "Less government in business and more business in government," setting off a trend of laissez-faire (hands-off) government that would last throughout the 1920s. Backed by Treasury Secretary Mellon, he set into motion a program of lowered taxes, especially for the nation's wealthiest citizens, and decreased government spending, as well as an increase in tariffs (taxes other nations had to pay to import their products to the United States). He also vetoed a bonus for World War I veterans that Congress had passed and indicated his support for new measures to restrict the number of immigrants allowed to come to the United States.

On the other hand, Harding supported the Sheppard-Towner Act, which gave federal aid to the states to help reduce infant mortality, and he helped to end the steel industry's twelve-hour workday. He signed the 1921 Federal Highway Act, which provided funding for road construction and improvement, as well as legislation creating offices to handle public welfare and the federal budget. In addition, Harding pardoned many individuals who had been imprisoned during the war for beliefs then considered traitorous; the most famous of these was labor leader Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926).

Harding's most notable accomplishment in the realm of foreign affairs was organizing the Washington Conference in 1921. This gathering of representatives from the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan resulted in these nations agreeing to reduce the size of their navies. Harding also came out in favor of full repayment of debts owed the United States by countries that had borrowed money during World War I (some thought these debts should be forgiven), and he worked to restore better relations with Mexico and the Central American nations.

During the first year or so of Harding's presidency, the economy took something of a downturn due to the sudden dip in manufacturing and employment caused by the end of the war. But by 1922 things were looking up again. Between that year and 1927, the economy would grow by an impressive 7 percent per year, as most U.S. citizens grew more prosperous and gained more buying power.

Rumors plague a popular president

On the personal front, Harding and his wife worked hard to infuse the White House with a new spirit of cheer and welcome after the rather dreary days of Wilson's presidency. They opened the front gates and window shutters so that ordinary people could catch a glimpse of what was going on inside, and they allowed the public to tour the White House, during which Flossie Harding herself would sometimes greet visitors. They hosted many teas, receptions, and holiday parties, not to mention the weekly poker games that Harding enjoyed (a glass of illegal liquor at his side) with a select group of friends. The president also liked getting away from work to play golf and attend baseball games, and he claimed to take true pleasure in the dull process of standing in reception lines and chatting with people.

Perhaps because of his long involvement with the newspaper publishing business, Harding enjoyed an especially friendly relationship with the press. For their part, the journalists who covered the White House never publicly mentioned something that was widely known: the president carried on extramarital affairs. The relationship that lasted the longest was with Carrie Phillips, the wife of a Marion friend, with whom (as proved by letters discovered after Phillips's death) Harding was involved from 1905 to 1920. Harding is also thought to have had an affair with Nan Britton, a woman thirty years younger than he was, who would later claim to have given birth to Harding's daughter.

As the summer of 1923 approached, a different kind of rumor began to circulate. Whispers of corruption in the Harding administration seem to have reached the president himself; he probably knew, for example, that Forbes was strongly suspected of having stolen funds from the Veteran's Bureau and that others close to Harding may also have been lining their pockets with government money. There is evidence that Harding was worried about these rumors, even as he set out on what he called a "Voyage of Discovery" in June. Along with Mrs. Harding, the president was scheduled to take a 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometer) journey as far west as Alaska (becoming the first president to visit that future state) in order to talk with U.S. citizens about his support for the League of Nations' World Court.

To those around him during this period, Harding seemed weary and depressed. While traveling on a train bound for San Francisco, California, he suffered what is now thought to have been a mild heart attack. After reaching San Francisco, he seemed to be recovering. On August 2, however, he died suddenly in his hotel room, with Mrs. Harding by his side. Within a few days Calvin Coolidge had been sworn in as president. The death of their beloved president came as a shock to the people of the United States. Thousands lined the route of the train that carried Harding's body back to Marion. Florence Harding, who had been ill for a long time, died only sixteen months after her husband.

Despite his great popularity at the time of his death, Harding's reputation had become tarnished within a year. Congressional investigations held during late 1923 and early 1924 revealed the nature and extent of the wrongdoing that had occurred during his presidency. Some of the culprits were among those closest to Harding. Daugherty, for example, had taken bribes from former clients in exchange for political favors, while Forbes had funneled thousands of Veteran's Bureau dollars into his own bank account. The worst offenses, however, soon became known as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Drilling for oil

Teapot Dome was the name of an area of Wyoming where some government oil reserves (land rich with oil, which was intended to fuel navy ships) were located. It turned out that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had arranged for this and other western reserves to be transferred from the Department of the Navy to his own department. Then Fall had granted the right to drill for valuable oil on these lands to several of his friends who were oil company executives. Fall was eventually convicted of bribery and sent to prison, becoming the first cabinet member in U.S. history to serve time in jail. Although never convicted of a crime, Daugherty and Forbes were both forced to resign, while two other government officials connected to the scandals committed suicide.

Harding's reputation was further damaged by the publication of The President's Daughter (1927), a book by Britton in which she detailed her affair with the president and revealed that he had fathered her daughter, Elizabeth. Public disapproval of both the corruption scandals and Harding's illicit affairs have tended to overshadow the more positive aspects of his presidency, especially the deep bond of affection he forged with the majority of U.S. citizens.

For More Information


Dean, John, and Arthur M. Schlesinger. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004.

Downes, Randolph C. The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding: 1865–1920. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970.

Kent, Deborah. Warren G. Harding: America's 29th President. New York: Children's Press, 2004.

Landau, Elaine. Warren G. Harding. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 2004.

Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Web Sites

Warren G. Harding. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/query.html?col=colpics?=warren+harding. Accessed on June 23, 2005.

"Warren G. Harding." American Presidents Life Portraits. Available online at http://www.americanpresidents.org/presidents/president.asp?PresidentNumber=28. Accessed on June 23, 2005.

Harding, Warren G.

views updated May 17 2018

Warren G. Harding

The "Return to Normalcy" Speech
Published in 1920

The 1920 election marked a major shift in the mood and direction of U.S. society. During the Progressive Era (roughly 1900 to 1914), elected officials and other leaders sought to achieve social reforms by expanding the federal government's power to protect the vulnerable, especially workers, children, and consumers. Under the lead of the idealistic Democratic president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), the nation had stood by the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) against German aggression in a war that was meant, in a phrase common during the period, to "make the world safe for democracy." But in the aftermath of that bloody conflict, U.S. citizens faced not only the knowledge of its horrors but also an economic recession at home. They began to retreat from the outward looking stance of progressivism toward isolationism (staying separate from other countries' affairs). When it came time to elect a new president, Wilson's Democratic Party was weak and divided. It chose as its candidate Ohio's progressive-leaning governor, James M. Cox (1870–1957). The Republicans also chose an Ohioan: a popular

newspaper publisher and senator named Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23).

The speech excerpted here contains what is probably Harding's best-known phrase: "return to normalcy." The phrase and the speech, delivered in Boston in May 1920, express Harding's view of the direction the nation should take. Harding promised voters that if he was elected, the United States would stay out of other nations' troubles and concentrate on its own affairs. Further, Harding vowed to support business interests and to steer the federal government away from the protective, activist role it had taken, while also making it more efficient. One of Harding's campaign slogans, in fact, was "Less government in business and more business in government."

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Harding's "Return to Normalcy" speech …

To understand Harding's calming effect on the nation, it is important to take into account the devastating impact of World War I (1914–18; the United States entered the war in 1917). More than 15,000,000 people died in this conflict, which was waged with new, more effective weapons, airplanes, and trench warfare. While the United States suffered a comparatively low 320,000 casualties (including 130,000 killed), its citizens joined the rest of the world in horror at the high cost of war and disillusionment with its results.

Harding is often considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Although he was personally honest, many of the men he chose to serve in his administration proved corrupt. His short presidency (he died before the end of his first term) was marred by several bribery scandals that shocked the U.S. public in the years following Harding's death.

Harding's speeches were usually peppered with grandiose words and phrases, some of which he made up himself. One of these is the word "normalcy," which Harding later defined, as quoted in Geoffrey Perret's book America in the Twenties, as

World War I: A Devastating Conflict

The "Great War," later known as World War I, was fought from 1914 to 1918, and had a major impact on the Roaring Twenties. Although the decade was noted for its carefree spirit, it was also the same period of what Ernest Hemingway called "The Lost Generation," referring to the young people whose outlooks were greatly affected by the war.

In the decades preceding World War I, Europe was a continent divided by tense alliances. Both Germany and Austria-Hungary, called the Central Powers, wanted to expand their territories. They aligned with each other, while Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy had their own agreement. If one was attacked, all would defend. In June 1914 a Serbian student who was unhappy with Austria-Hungary's rule of his country assassinated Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. This event sparked greater violence as Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, and Germany soon followed with a declaration of war against Russia and France. Britain, Italy, and a number of smaller European nations came to France and Russia's defense. Collectively, this group was known as the Allies.

New technologies greatly influenced how the war was fought. U-boats, or submarines, could now hide beneath the seas to attack ships above, and the automatic rifle, machine gun, and hand grenade changed the battlefield on land. The traditional combat style of marching onto a field to fight with gun and sword was replaced with trench warfare. Soldiers dug ditches into the ground, shooting and bombing the enemy from a distance. The ground in between the trenches was a deadly "no man's land," nearly impossible to cross. The use of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, and airplanes to drop bombs also dramatically increased the number of those injured and killed during what was the bloodiest conflict the world had seen. An estimated ten million soldiers were killed and twenty million wounded, while millions of civilians also died from hunger and rapidly spreading diseases like influenza.

The United States finally entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, after intercepting a telegram indicating Germany wanted to make Mexico its ally. U.S. troops bolstered the weary European soldiers and provided the momentum to victory. The Central Powers surrendered, signing a peace agreement on November 11, 1918. As Europe turned its attention to rebuilding, the United States retreated into a policy of isolationism. Though it had suffered far fewer casualties than its European allies, American soldiers were deeply affected by the conflict and returned home to a public that could not understand the destruction they had witnessed, which made it difficult for many veterans to adjust.

"a regular steady order of things normal procedure, the natural way, without excess."

Excerpt from the "Return to Normalcy" speech

There isn't anything the matter with world civilization, except that humanity is viewing it through a vision impaired in acataclysmal war.Poise has been disturbed, and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational; sometimes there have beendraughts upon the dangerous cup ofbarbarity , and men have wandered far from safe paths, but the human procession still marches in the right direction.

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; notnostrums , but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but thedispassionate ; not experiment, butequipoise ; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by militaryautocracy , because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another thing to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life's acquirements.

This republic has its ample tasks. If we put an end to false economics which lure humanity to utter chaos, ours will be the commanding example of world leadership today. If we can prove a representative popular government under which a citizenship seeks what it may do for the government rather than what the government may do for individuals, we shall do more to make democracy safe for the world than all armed conflict ever recorded.

The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity ofstatutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.

The problems of maintained civilization are not to be solved by a transfer of responsibility from citizenship to government, and noeminent page in history was ever drafted by the standards of mediocrity. More, no government is worthy of the name which is directed by influence on the one hand, or moved byintimidation on the other.

My best judgment of America's needs is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path. Let's get out of the fevereddelirium of war, with the hallucination that all the money in the world is to be made in the madness of war and the wildness of its aftermath. Let us stop to consider that tranquillity at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people.

What happened next …

Harding won the 1920 election, gaining 60.4 percent of the popular vote (the largest margin of votes a presidential candidate ever received). The Republicans also won majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, making it easy for them to push through their program of cutting taxes, loosening government control of industry, and restricting immigration. The economy began to grow steadily stronger, and many U.S. citizens gave Harding's administration the credit. Yet behind the scenes, a web of corruption was being woven. It seems likely that at the time of his death, which occurred while he was on a speaking tour of the western states, Harding was worried about the misdeeds committed by the friends he had elevated to high government offices. One of these, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1861–1944), was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. In 1931 Fall became the first cabinet member to go to jail after he was convicted of renting public oil fields to private companies in exchange for personal loans.

Did you know …

  • Harding's wife Florence, or Flossie (called Duchess by her husband in reference to her dominant personality), was a strong and in many ways positive presence in her husband's administration. She opened the White House, which had been shut up tight during Wilson's long illness, to visitors and helped to create a lighter, more welcoming atmosphere there. Even though their marriage seems to have been unhappy, she is credited with having supported and encouraged her husband throughout his political career.

  • Despite his weaknesses as a president, Harding was a friendly, outgoing person who was much loved by the ordinary people of the United States. While serving as president, he played golf and poker twice a week, kept his private quarters well stocked with illegal liquor, and was rumored to indulge in extramarital affairs. He loved dogs, went frequently to baseball games, and actually enjoyed standing in long reception lines, shaking people's hands and exchanging small talk.

Consider the following …

  • Under President Wilson, the federal government had taken an activist role in people's lives. Harding promised a laissez-faire approach to government. Investigate the meaning of these terms and relate them to the 1920s.
  • World War I was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. In this speech, Harding introduced a twist on that phrase. What do you think he means?

For More Information


Dean, John, and Arthur M. Schlesinger. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004.

Downes, Randolph C. The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding: 1865–1920. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970.

Kent, Deborah. Warren G. Harding: America's 29th President. New York: Children's Press, 2004.

Landau, Elaine. Warren G. Harding. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2005.

Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Web Sites

Warren G. Harding. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/wh29.html. Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Cataclysmal: Devastating.

Poise: Calmness.

Draughts: Drinks.

Barbarity: Wildness, cruelty.

Nostrums: An unreliable remedy or medicine.

Dispassionate: Unemotional.

Equipoise: Balance.

Autocracy: Government run by one person with unlimited power.

Statutory enactment: Putting laws into effect.

Eminent: Well-respected.

Intimidation: Threatening.

Delirium: State of confusion or craziness.

Warren Gamaliel Harding

views updated May 23 2018

Warren Gamaliel Harding

The twenty-ninth president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923), highly popular during his lifetime, was later regarded as one of the worst presidents in the country's history.

Warren G. Harding was born on Nov. 2, 1865, on a farm near Blooming Grove, Ohio. He attended local schools and graduated from Ohio Central College in 1882. His father moved the family to Marion that same year. After unsatisfactory attempts to teach, study law, and sell insurance, young Harding got a job on a local newspaper. In 1884 he purchased the struggling Marion Star with two partners (whom he later bought out). The growth of Marion and his own business skill and editorial abilities brought prosperity to the Starand to Harding. On July 8, 1891, he married Florence DeWolfe, a widow with one child; they had no children of their own.

Election to Office

Active in local Republican politics, Harding was elected in 1899 to the Ohio Senate, where he served two terms and became Republican floor leader. In 1903 he was elected lieutenant governor but retired in 1905. Although a born harmonizer who remained personally on good terms with all elements in the faction-ridden Ohio Republican party, he belonged to the Old Guard wing of the party. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1910. But in the Republican comeback in 1914 Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a senator, Harding strongly supported business, pushing for high tariffs, favoring the return of the railroads to private hands, and denouncing radicals. He was a "strong reservationist" on the League of Nations, and he followed Ohio public opinion by voting for the prohibition amendment.

In 1919 Harding announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination; he won the nomination on the tenth ballot. Legend has pictured Harding as a puppet in the hands of his wife or his campaign manager. But Harding was no one's puppet: he was an ambitious and calculating politician. Nor was he the handpicked nominee of a group of Old Guard senators. The convention was unbossed, and Harding, with his reputation as a loyal party man, his amiable personality, and his avoidance of controversial stands, was the second choice of the majority of the rank-and-file delegates. When the two front-runners deadlocked, the convention had swung to the handsome Ohioan.

In the election Harding successfully straddled the explosive League of Nations issue. By capitalizing on the public's yearning for a return to "normalcy" after World War I, Harding won by the largest popular majority yet recorded.

The President

Despite the country's postwar position as a creditor nation, Harding gave his blessing to protective farm tariffs. Devoted to governmental economy, he supported establishment of the Bureau of the Budget, sharply cut government expenditures despite depressed economic conditions, and vetoed the World War I veterans' bonus passed by Congress. He backed Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon's program for repealing the excess-profits tax and lowering the income tax on the wealthy; he gave Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover a free hand in his efforts to promote business cooperation and efficiency; he favored turning over government-owned plants to private enterprise; he packed regulatory commissions and the Supreme Court with conservative appointees; and he strongly favored immigration restriction.

Harding wished to remain neutral in labor disputes and worked behind the scenes for conciliation, but when his hand was forced, he took management's side. Thus, after his attempted mediation in the 1922 railroad shopmen's strike failed, he approved a sweeping injunction against the strikers—this won him the bitter enmity of organized labor.

But Harding was not the archreactionary of later myth. He supported the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921), extending federal aid to the states to reduce infant mortality. He unsuccessfully proposed establishing a department of public welfare to coordinate and expand Federal programs in education, public health, child welfare, and recreation. He was instrumental in ending the 12-hour day in the steel industry. He promoted increased federal spending on highways. He commuted the sentences of most of the wartime political prisoners, including Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. While balking at government subsidies or price-fixing to assist farmers hard hit by postwar falling prices, he approved legislation for extending credit to farmers, for stricter federal supervision of the meat industry, for regulating speculation on the grain exchanges, and for exempting farm marketing cooperatives from the antitrust laws.

Foreign Policy

In foreign policy Harding was largely guided by his prointernationalist secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes. Although Harding regarded the 1920 election as a popular mandate against American membership in the League of Nations, his administration cooperated with the nonpolitical activities of the League, and in 1923 he came out in favor of American membership on the World Court. Adamant in demanding full repayment of Allied war debts, he was flexible in arranging terms.

Efforts were made to restore good relations with Mexico and Cuba and to terminate military intervention in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Colombia was indemnified for the loss of Panama. The Harding administration's most important diplomatic achievement was the Washington Conference. Meeting in November 1921, the conferees formulated a series of treaties, which secured Senate ratification, fixing ratios of warships for the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy, guaranteeing the territorial status quo in the Pacific, and reaffirming the independence and territorial integrity of China and the open-door principle of commercial equality.

Scandals in the Administration

By 1923 Harding was increasingly disturbed by the rumors of corruption involving high administration officials and hangers-on. But he failed to act decisively, partly because he believed the attacks were politically motivated, partly because of a misplaced loyalty to old friends. Perhaps his worst mistake was in appointing his senatorial crony Albert B. Fall as secretary of the interior. Fall persuaded Harding to transfer naval oil reserves from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. Then, after Fall had corruptly leased the reserves at Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., to oilmen, he induced Harding to defend these transactions when questions were raised in the Senate.

Although the Republicans had suffered sharp losses in the 1922 congressional elections, Harding personally remained tremendously popular. However, his health was affected by overwork and anxiety over his wife's health and the multiplying evidences of corruption in his administration. He suffered a heart attack followed by bronchopneumonia while on his cross-country tour in the summer of 1923. He died on Aug. 2, 1923, probably from a cerebral hemorrhage. The posthumous exposure of the scandals in Harding's administration—including Fall's conviction for bribery, the attorney general's forced resignation and narrow escape from jail, and prison sentences for the head of two government bureaus—and the charges that Harding had fathered an illegitimate daughter and that he drank excessively all led to his decline in public esteem.

Yet Harding was not the affable, weak, and even stupid figure of popular legend. He was a hardworking, conscientious, well-intentioned, politically skillful chief executive who was not without courage or the capacity for growth. Most contemporaries praised his success in leading the country through the painful transition from the difficulties of the postwar years, and his administration did lay foundations for later prosperity. But he showed indecisiveness and lack of leadership when faced with conflict; his mind was untrained and undisciplined; and most important, the values of small-town America which he embodied were inadequate for dealing with the problems of the postwar world.

Further Reading

There is no satisfactory biography of Harding. Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times (1968), emphasizes the scandalous aspects of Harding's private and public life. Andrew Sinclair, The Available Man: The Life behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding (1965), contains shrewd insights but is superficial in its research. Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era (1969), is a well-researched but not wholly convincing attempt to rehabilitate Harding's presidential reputation. See also William Allen White, Masks in a Pageant (1928), and Samuel Hopkins Adams, Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren G. Harding (1939). On the election of 1920 see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections, vol. 3 (1971). □

Harding, Warren Gamaliel

views updated May 23 2018


Warren Gamaliel Harding served as the twenty-ninth president of the United States, from 1921 to 1923. Harding, who also served one term in the U.S. Senate, presided over an administration that achieved little and that was tainted by political corruption.

Harding was born November 2, 1865, on a farm at Caledonia (now Blooming Grove), Morrow County, Ohio, the eldest of eight children. He attended Ohio Central College. Harding then tried teaching, reading the law, selling insurance, and working as a journalist. He became the editor and publisher of the Marion Star, in Ohio, in 1884.

In 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of a prominent Marion banker. DeWolfe was a divorcée, five years Hard-ing's senior, with great ambitions for Harding. She helped build the Marion Star into a prosperous newspaper and encouraged Harding to enter republican party politics.

Harding was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1898, and was elected lieutenant governor of the state in 1903. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1910. His national political standing rose over the next decade. At the Republican National Convention in 1912, he was selected to nominate President william howard taft for a second term. (In 1921, he would nominate Taft to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) In 1914, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Regarded as a fine public speaker, he gave the keynote address at the 1916 Republican National Convention.

As a U.S. senator, Harding was well liked by his colleagues but demonstrated little interest in the legislative process. He introduced no major bills during his six-year term, and was frequently absent. His politics followed the Republican mainstream: favoring high tariffs on imports and opposing the league of nations and the federal regulation of commerce.

At the 1920 Republican National Convention, in Chicago, most of the delegates favored Governor Frank O. Lowden, of Illinois; Major General Leonard Wood, formerly army chief of staff; or Senator Hiram W. Johnson, of California, for president. After four ballots, the convention was deadlocked. Early in the morning, in what Harding campaign manager harry m. daugherty called a smoke-filled room, the party leaders agreed on Harding as a compromise candidate. The convention agreed to the selection and nominated Governor calvin coolidge, of Massachusetts, as Harding's vice presidential running mate.

Harding defeated the democratic party nominee, Governor James M. Cox, of Ohio, in the November 1920 election. Harding campaigned from the front porch of his home in Marion, avoiding any specifics on his domestic political agenda. Instead, he promised the United States a return to "normalcy."

Harding's presidency was marked by the delegation of responsibilities to his cabinet chiefs. Rejecting the strong executive leadership style of Presidents theodore roosevelt and woodrow wilson, Harding relied on a distinguished group of men, including Secretary of Commerce herbert hoover, Secretary of State charles evans hughes, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace. These and other cabinet heads helped lead the government away from wartime emergency conditions. In 1921, Secretary Hughes convened the Washington Conference on Naval Disarmament. The members of the conference—England, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States—agreed to limit their naval warships in fixed ratios.

In June 1923, Harding began a cross-country speaking tour, in hopes of reviving Republican party fortunes, which had taken a beating in the 1922 congressional election. On the trip, he received a secret telegram that disclosed an impending scandal for his administration concerning a Senate investigation of oil leases. In Seattle, Harding fell ill, presumably of food poisoning. His train stopped in San Francisco, where doctors reported Harding had pneumonia. On August 2, Harding died. No autopsy was made, leaving the exact cause of death unknown. Vice President Coolidge succeeded Harding as president.

"Americans ought ever be asking themselves about their concept of the ideal republic."
—Warren G. Harding

The scandals that stained the Harding administration largely became public after Harding's death. One involved Attorney General Daugherty, who in 1926 was tried twice on

charges he had committed improprieties in administering the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Both trials ended in a hung jury.

The teapot dome scandal was the most troubling. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, a wealthy New Mexico attorney, had left the U.S. Senate in 1921 to join Harding's cabinet. In 1924, he was indicted for criminal conspiracy and bribery. It was alleged that he accepted a $100,000 bribe from oil producers Harry F. Sinclair and Edward Doheny in exchange for leasing government-owned oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to the pair's oil companies at unusually favorable terms. Fall was acquitted of the conspiracy charge in 1926, but was convicted of accepting bribes in 1929. He served two years in prison and paid a fine.

President Harding's short term of office and the scandals that befell his political appointees have left his administration remembered more for its corruption than for its achievements.

further readings

Dean, John W. 2004. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books.

Watkins, T.H. 1990. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes, 1874–1952. New York: Holt.

Harding, Warren G.

views updated May 21 2018

Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding served as president just under two and a half years before dying in office. His administration is most remembered for its scandals.

Newspaper man

Harding was born on November 2, 1865, and was one of eight children of an Ohio doctor and his wife. At sixteen, Harding attended Ohio

Central College. He graduated in 1882 and taught school for one term before recognizing that teaching did not suit him well.

With a loan from his father, Harding purchased the Marion Daily Star in Marion, Ohio, in 1884. It was a failing newspaper, but with the help of two friends, Harding entered into the newspaper publishing business. His partners left the venture within a few months, but Harding stayed on to build the newspaper into a success by 1890. He married Florence Kling DeWolfe in 1891 and joined several civic and service organizations. Harding became well known in Marion.

Enters politics

Harding's political influence increased throughout the 1890s. He won a seat in the Ohio senate in 1899 and served two terms. In 1903, he was elected lieutenant governor of Ohio. Harding was popular among Ohio Republicans and his easygoing style appealed to leaders.

Beginning in 1905, Harding left politics for five years to focus on running his newspaper. It had become an important paper throughout the state of Ohio, primarily because of Harding's favorable reputation. In 1912, his name became known throughout the country when he nominated William Howard Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13) for president at the Republican National Convention. Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914 and moved to Washington, D.C.

Senator Harding did not impress anyone with his performance. But when he voted in favor of the United States joining the League of Nations (an international organization favored by Democratic president Woodrow Wilson [1856–1924; served 1913–21] that promoted international peace and security) in 1916, he was looked upon favorably.

Harding announced his presidential candidacy in 1919 and received the nomination in 1920. He beat his Democratic opponent, Ohio governor James M. Cox (1870–1957), by receiving more popular (individual) votes than any candidate of any preceding presidential election.

Conservative and scandalous

Harding supported a conservative financial program that included cutbacks in government spending, higher tariff (tax on imported goods) rates, and corporate (business) tax reduction. By signing the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, he created a Bureau of the Budget accountable to the president, which made it easier to keep track of spending. Harding vetoed the 1922 Soldier's Bonus Bill, which would have paid a cash bonus to veterans of World War I (1914–18).

By 1923, the United States's economy had turned around from one of hardship to one of prosperity. Newspapers praised Harding for the improvement. Within government, however, the picture was not so rosy. Rumor reached Harding that some of his friends were using their positions of power for their own personal glory and improvement.

One scandal in particular overshadowed the Harding administration. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1861–1944) improperly released government oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming , and Elk Hills, California , to private interests. And although Harding was not directly involved, he shouldered the blame because he knowingly appointed his friends to positions for which they were not skilled.

The Teapot Dome Scandal had not yet broken publicly, but privately Harding was nervous. He and his wife took a long-planned crosscountry trip to the Alaska territory in June 1923. On the way home, while at a layover in San Francisco, Harding suffered a heart attack. He died on August 2 in his hotel room. Soon thereafter, the scandal broke, and Harding's reputation suffered greatly.

Harding, Warren Gamaliel

views updated May 14 2018

Harding, Warren Gamaliel (1865–1923) Twenty-ninth US president (1921–23). A senator (1915–21), he was a compromise Republican presidential candidate. His campaign for a return to ‘normalcy’ easily won the election. He handed government to his cabinet, and his administration, known as the ‘Ohio Gang’, was one of the most corrupt in US history. The Teapot Dome Scandal forced a Congessional investigation. Harding died before the worst excesses became public knowledge, and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, succeeded him.


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