29th President of the United States
March 4, 1921 – August 2, 1923
|November 2, 1865
Near Blooming Grove, Ohio
|August 2, 1923
San Francisco, California
|Florence Kling Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923) was an American politician and the 29th President of the United States, from 1921 to 1923, when he became the sixth president to die in office. A Republican from the U.S. state of Ohio, Harding was an influential newspaper publisher with a commanding presence and a flair for public speaking. He served in the Ohio Senate (1899–1903) and later as lieutenant governor of Ohio (1903–1905). His political leanings were conservative.
At the conclusion of his term, Harding returned to private life, only to reenter politics ten years later as a United States Senator (1915–1921), where he again had a relatively undistinguished record, missing over two-thirds of the roll-call votes. A little known politician at the time of the 1920 Republican National Convention, Harding emerged as a dark horse to become the presidential nominee through political maneuvering. In the 1920 election, he defeated his Democratic opponent James M. Cox in a landslide, 60.36 % to 34.19 % (404 to 127 in the electoral college), becoming the first president born after the Civil War.
As president he appointed a strong cabinet, led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Some other appointments proved to be corrupt. In foreign affairs Harding liquidated World War I, and led the way to world naval disarmament at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22. In domestic affairs he ended the postwar depression, stabilized inflation, cut wartime taxes, and opened a decade of prosperity.
While on the final leg of a tour of the western states and the Alaska Territory, Harding died in San Francisco, California, 27 months into his term, at age 57. The cause of death was first said to have been food poisoning; it was later believed that he died from apoplexy or a stroke. Medical scholars now believe that Harding died of end-stage heart disease. He was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge.
Because of several scandals involving others in his administration, after his death Harding gained a reputation as being one of America's least successful Presidents. Prior to the 1990's, Harding was usually ranked as the worst overall president in numerous polls of historians. Some recent writers have come to different conclusions about Harding's place in history. John Dean, who wrote a 2004 biography of Harding for Times Press, has stated that "Harding is not a role model for a failed Presidency."  Historian Robert H. Ferrell concluded that Warren G. Harding was basically "a good President." Since 1990, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson have consistently been ranked lower than Harding on historical presidential polls.
President Harding was born on November 2, 1865, near Corsica, Ohio (now Blooming Grove, Ohio). Harding was the eldest of the eight children of Dr. George Tryon Harding, Sr. and Phoebe Elizabeth (Dickerson) Harding. His heroes were Alexander Hamilton and Napoleon. His mother was a midwife who later obtained her medical license, and his father taught for a time at a rural school north of Mount Gilead, Ohio. While he was a teenager, the Harding family moved to Caledonia, Ohio, in neighboring Marion County when Harding's father acquired The Argus, a local weekly newspaper. It was here that Harding learned the basics of the business. His education was completed at Ohio Central College in Iberia, Ohio. While a college student, he learned more about the printing and newspaper trade while working at the Union Register in Mount Gilead.
After graduation, Harding moved to Marion, Ohio, where he raised $300 with two friends to purchase the failing Marion Daily Star. It was the weakest of Marion's three newspapers and the only daily in the growing city. Harding converted the paper's editorial platform to support the Republicans and enjoyed a moderate degree of success. However, his political stance was at odds with those who controlled most of Marion's local politics. When Harding moved to unseat the Marion Independent as the official paper of daily record, his actions brought the wrath of Amos Hall Kling, one of Marion's wealthiest real estate speculators, down upon him.
While Harding won the war of words and made the Marion Daily Star one of the biggest newspapers in the county, the battle took a toll on his health. In 1889, when Harding was 24, he suffered exhaustion and nervous fatigue. He traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to spend several weeks in a sanatorium regaining his strength. He later returned to Marion to continue operating the paper. He spent his days boosting the community on the editorial pages, and his evenings "bloviating" (Harding's term for informal conversation) with his friends over games of poker.
On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Kling, an older woman, a divorcee, and the mother of a young son, Marshall Eugene DeWolfe. She had pursued him persistently, until he reluctantly surrendered and proposed. Florence's father, Amos Hall Kling, was Harding's nemesis. Upon hearing that his only daughter intended to marry Harding, Kling disowned her and even forbade his wife to attend her wedding. He opposed the marriage vigorously and would not speak to his daughter or son-in-law for eight years.
The couple complemented one another with Harding's affable personality balancing his wife's no-nonsense approach to life. Florence Harding inherited her father's determination and business sense and turned the Marion Daily Star into a profitable business. She has been credited with helping Harding to achieve greater things than he might have done alone, leading to speculation that she later pushed him all the way to the White House.
Harding was a Freemason, raised to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason on August 27, 1920, in Marion Lodge #70, F.& A.M., in Marion, Ohio.
As an influential newspaper publisher with a flair for public speaking, Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899. He served four years before being elected lieutenant governor of Ohio, a post he occupied from 1903 to 1905. His leanings were conservative, and his record in both offices was relatively undistinguished. At the conclusion of his term as lieutenant governor, Harding returned to private life.
Re-entering politics five years later, Harding lost a race for governor in 1910 but won election to the United States Senate in 1914. He served in the Senate from 1915 until his inauguration as President on March 4, 1921, becoming the second sitting Senator to be elected President of the United States.
As with his first term as Senator, Harding had a relatively undistinguished record, missing over two-thirds of the roll-call votes. Among them was the vote to send the 19th Amendment (granting women's suffrage) to the states for ratification, a measure he had supported. Harding was a strong opponent of President Woodrow Wilson's proposal to create a League of Nations, and he made a speech against its formation, claiming it was a mockery of American democracy.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell has suggested that Harding's political success was based on his appearance, essentially that he "looked like a president". Gladwell argues that the first impression of Harding outweighed his intellectual and other deficiencies, and refers to the combination as the 'Harding Factor' in how people make decisions.
Relatively unknown outside his own state, Harding was a true “dark horse” candidate, winning the United States Republican Party nomination due to the political machinations of his friends after the nominating convention had become deadlocked. Republican leaders met in a smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago to end the deadlock. Before receiving the nomination, he was asked whether there were any embarrassing episodes in his past that might be used against him. His formal education was limited, he had a longstanding affair with the wife of an old friend, and he was a social drinker. Harding answered “No” and the Party moved to nominate him, only to discover later his relationship with Carrie Fulton Phillips. Phillips and her family received an extended tour of Asia courtesy of the Republican Party, in order to secure her silence. Mrs. Harding's newlywed brother Vetallis “Tal” Kling and his bride Elnora “Nona” Younkins-Hinaman also received an all expense-paid tour of Europe from the Hardings. The bride was a Catholic widow, and the marriage was performed in the Roman Catholic Church. At the time Catholic associations were a liability in American politics, and Catholics were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, recently revived as anti-Roman Catholic as well as anti-black and anti-Jewish. The Klan was rapidly becoming popular in the Midwest. There is The People's Almanac)
The milestone election of 1920 was the first in which women could vote nationwide. Harding received 61% of the national vote and 404 electoral votes, an unprecedented margin of victory. Cox received 36% of the national vote and 127 electoral votes. Socialist Eugene V. Debs, campaigning from Federal prison, received 3% of the national vote. Debs was in prison for opposing Wilson's draft; despite the many political differences between the two candidates, when Harding became President he pardoned Debs.
The administration of Warren G. Harding followed the Republican Party platform approved at the 1920 Chicago convention. The thrust of the administration was to return the nation to a period in time when business forces — not government watchdog agencies — minded the business of the nation.
Harding also believed in the separation of powers; that it was the Congress that was responsible for legislation, and it was Harding’s duty to ensure that it was signed into law. Harding also held high regard for the U.S. Supreme Court and believed that the Court’s role was to act as a safety net for Constitutional matters on behalf of the nation, its interests, and most importantly, its citizens. To solidify that notion, he nominated President William Howard Taft for the position of Chief Justice.
Harding’s brief tenure in office has been widely characterized as one in which the President did little aside from play poker with cronies or golf with friends. During his twenty-seven months in office, he took one vacation, in the winter of 1922. During that vacation, the First Lady suffered an attack from kidney disease, and the vacation lengthened for one week until Mrs. Harding was released from the hospital.
During his term, Harding personally answered most of the correspondence sent to him, which included queries posed to the President from United States citizens. It wasn’t until his health began to decline in 1923 that he turned the correspondence over to a staff of assistants.
Harding also pushed for the establishment of the Bureau of Veterans Affairs (later organized as the Department of Veterans Affairs), the first permanent attempt at answering the needs of those who had served the nation in time of War. Both the President and Mrs. Harding visited with members of the armed services that were hospitalized.
The President also undertook a very active speaking schedule. In October 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama, Harding spoke out in favor of thoughtfully approaching the issue of race, stating that the nation could not enjoy the promises of prosperity until the matter of equality was addressed.
The Hardings visited their home community of Marion, Ohio once during the term when the city celebrated its Centennial the first week of July. The President arrived on 3 July, gave a speech to the community at the Marion County Fairgrounds on 4 July, and left the following morning for other speaking commitments.
|Warren G. Harding
|Secretary of State
|Charles Evans Hughes
|Secretary of the Treasury
|Secretary of War
|John W. Weeks
|Harry M. Daugherty
|Will H. Hays
|Harry S. New
|Secretary of the Navy
|Secretary of the Interior
|Albert B. Fall
|Secretary of Agriculture
|Henry C. Wallace
|Secretary of Commerce
|Secretary of Labor
|James J. Davis
Harding appointed the following justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
Upon winning the election, Harding appointed many of his old allies to prominent political positions. Known as the “Ohio Gang” (a term used by Charles Mee, Jr., for his book of the same name), some of the appointees used their new powers to rob the government. It is unclear how much, if anything, Harding himself knew about his friends' illicit activities.
The most infamous scandal of the time was the Teapot Dome affair, which shook the nation for years after Harding's death. The scandal involved United States Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, who was convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. (Absent the bribes and personal loans, the leases themselves were quite legal.) In 1931, Fall became the first member of a presidential Cabinet to be sent to prison.
Thomas Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Jess Smith, personal aide to the Attorney General, destroyed papers and then committed suicide. Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, skimmed profits, earned large amounts of kickbacks, and directed underground alcohol and drug distribution. He was convicted of fraud and bribery and drew a two-year sentence. Charles Cramer, an aide to Charles Forbes, also committed suicide.
No evidence to date suggests that Harding personally profited from these crimes, but he was apparently unable to stop them. “My God, this is a hell of a job!” Harding said. “I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, my God-damned friends… they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”
In June 1923, Harding set out on a cross-country “Voyage of Understanding”, planning to meet ordinary people and explain his policies. During this trip, he became the first president to visit Alaska. Rumors of corruption in his administration were beginning to circulate in Washington by this time, and Harding was profoundly shocked by a long message he received while in Alaska, apparently detailing illegal activities previously unknown to him. At the end of July, while traveling south from Alaska through British Columbia, he developed what was thought to be a severe case of food poisoning. Arriving at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, he developed pneumonia. Harding died of either a heart attack or a stroke at 7:35 p.m. on 2 August 1923, at the age of 57. The formal announcement, printed in the New York Times of August 2, 1923, stated that "A stroke of apoplexy was the cause of death." He had been ill exactly one week.
Naval physicians surmised that he had suffered a heart attack; however, this diagnosis was not made by Dr. Charles Sawyer, the Surgeon General, who was traveling with the presidential party. Upon Sawyer's recommendation, Mrs. Harding refused permission for an autopsy, which soon led to speculation that the President had been the victim of a plot. Sawyer's medical qualifications were also called into question. Harding was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn in by his father, a justice of the peace, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Following his death, Harding's body was returned to Washington, where it was placed in the East Room of the White House pending a state funeral at the United States Capitol. White House employees at the time were quoted as saying that the night before the funeral, they heard Mrs. Harding speak for more than an hour to her dead husband. The most commonly reported (though never verified) remark attributed to Mrs. Harding at this time was “They can't hurt you now, Warren.”
Harding was entombed in the receiving vault of the Marion Cemetery, Marion, Ohio, in August 1923. Following Mrs. Harding's death on 21 November 1924, she too was temporarily buried next to her husband. Both bodies were moved in December 1927 to the newly completed Harding Memorial in Marion, which was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. The lapse between the final interment and the dedication was partly because of the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal.
Harding's detractors began using the damaging rumor of his alleged African-American ancestry against him in the 1880s, claiming that Harding was "tainted by colored blood." Among those spreading the rumor was Amos Kling, Harding's future father-in-law, one of Marion's wealthiest citizens, who detested Harding and his newspaper.
Those who hold to the theory of mixed race do so without proof, often relying on the research of William Estabrook Chancellor for details of Harding's supposed African-American lineage. There is no scientific or legal basis for these arguments. Chancellor's work never provided clear indications of his sources, or his proof. In fact, so few copies of his book exist (one of five known copies is owned by a private book collector in Marion, Ohio) that its availability to modern scholars is limited (however, Justice Department agents are alleged to have bought and destroyed most copies of this book). Furthermore, there has never been a test of Harding's DNA. The claim is also impossible to verify through public records in Ohio; Harding was born in 1865, and the state of Ohio did not require registration or recording of births until 1867. Furthermore, Chancellor's theories find no basis in Federal census records, nor in probate court records. Harding's 1923 California-issued death certificate also indicates nothing to suggest Chancellor's theories were accepted as fact. With the release in the 1960s of Francis Russell's The Shadow of Blooming Grove, the specter of Harding's mixed blood was again raised and, lacking factual sources, quickly put down as innuendo.
There is another rumor that Harding was involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Historians Wyn Craig Wade and Glenn Feldman are among those who promote the theory. Both assert that Harding joined the Klan following his election, taking his Klan oath in the Green Room of the White House. Wade's evidence, based on claims made by Stetson Kennedy, is dismissed by several Harding biographers as based on third-party hearsay. Wade uses as evidence letters written by members of the Calvin Coolidge administration.
However, no primary source material—that is to say material either written by Harding supporting the Klan or any documentation by members of the Harding administration to support Craig and Wade's assertions—is known to exist. Recent Harding biographers Robert Ferrell, Carl Anthony and John Dean dispute this claim and point to the allegations as an example of the rumors that surrounded the President after his death.
The January 8, 2006 New York Times Magazine  carried an expose of Stetson Kennedy, showing that he had systematically exaggerated and misrepresented his work for over 50 years, calling to question the veracity of many of his sources.
Melinda Gilpin, site administrator for the Harding Home and Museum in Marion, argues that there is no primary evidence of Harding's Klan membership and that Harding was the first 20th Century President to speak out against the practice of lynching blacks. The 1920 Republican Party platform urged Congress to pass laws combating lynching , placing Harding's purported membership in conflict with Klan goals. Gilpin also points to the Klan's "one drop rule" (that no one who possessed even a drop of non-Caucasian blood could join the Klan) was in direct conflict with the rumors that swirled around Harding and his supposedly mixed race background.
In 2005, The Straight Dope presented a summary  of many of these arguments against Harding's membership and added speculation about Harding's motives as further evidence that he would not have joined (i.e. that while it might have been politically expedient for him to join the KKK in public, to do it in private made no sense).
The extent to which Harding engaged in extra-marital affairs is somewhat controversial. It has been recorded in primary documents that during his lifetime, Harding had an affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips; and Nan Britton wrote The President's Daughter in 1927 documenting her affair and child (Elizabeth Ann) with Harding.
Rumors of the Harding love letters circulated through Marion, Ohio, for many years. However, their existence was not confirmed until author Francis Russell gained access to them during his research for his book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove. The letters were in the possession of Phillips. Phillips kept the letters in a box in a closet and was reluctant to share them. Russell persuaded her to relent, and the letters showed conclusively that Harding had a 15-year relationship with Mrs. Phillips, who was then the wife of his friend James Phillips, owner of the local department store, the Uhler-Phillips Company. Mrs. Phillips was ten years younger than Harding. By 1915, she began pressing Harding to leave his wife. When he refused, she left her husband and moved to Berlin with her daughter Isabel. However, as the United States became increasingly likely to be drawn into World War I, Mrs. Phillips moved back to the U.S. and the affair reignited. Harding was now a U.S. Senator, and a vote was coming up on a declaration of war against Germany.
Mrs. Phillips threatened to go public with their affair if the Senator supported the war, but Harding defied her and voted for war, and Carrie did not reveal the scandal to the world. When Harding won the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, he did not disclose the relationship to party officials. Once they learned of the affair, it was too late to find another nominee. To reduce the likelihood of a scandal breaking, the Republican National Committee sent Phillips and her family on a trip to Japan and paid them over $50,000. She also received monthly payments thereafter, becoming the first and only person known to have successfully extorted money from a major political party.
The letters Harding wrote to Mrs. Phillips were confiscated at the request of the Harding heirs, who requested and received a court injunction prohibiting their inclusion in Russell's book. Russell in turn left quoted passages from the letters as blank passages in protest against the Harding heirs' actions. The Harding-Phillips love letters remain under an Ohio court protective order that expires in 2023, 100 years after Harding's death, after which the content of the letters may be published or reviewed.
Besides Mrs. Phillips, Harding also reportedly had an affair with Nan Britton, the daughter of Harding's friend, Dr. Britton of Marion. Nan Britton's obsession with Harding started at an early age when she began pasting pictures of Senator Harding on her bedroom walls. According to Britton's book The President's Daughter, she and Senator Harding conceived a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, in January of 1919, in his Senate office. Elizabeth Ann was born on October 22, 1919. Harding never met Elizabeth Ann but paid large amounts of child support. Harding and Britton, according to unsubstantiated reports, continued their affair while he was President, using a closet adjacent to the Oval Office for privacy. Following Harding's death, Britton unsuccessfully sued the estate of Warren G. Harding on behalf of Elizabeth Ann. Under cross-examination by Harding heirs' attorney, Grant Mouser (a former member of Congress himself), Britton's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies, and she lost her case. Britton married a Mr. Christian, who adopted Elizabeth Ann. In adulthood Elizabeth Ann married (Mrs. Henry Blaesing) and raised a family. During most of her life she shied from press coverage about her alleged birthright, and refused requests for interviews in her later years. Elizabeth Ann Blaesing died on November 17, 2005 in Oregon.
Harding was notorious for his verbal gaffes, such as his comment "I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."  His errors were compounded by his insistence on writing his own speeches. Although it might not have been a mispronunciation as some thought, Harding's most famous "mistake" was his use of the word "normalcy" when the more correct word to use at the time would have been "normality." Harding decided he liked the sound of the word and made "Return to Normalcy" a recurring theme. Critic H.L. Mencken disagreed, saying of Harding, "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." Mencken also coined the term "Gamalielese" to refer to Harding's distinctive style of speech. Upon Harding's death, poet E. E. Cummings said "The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead." 
Some suggest Harding had a form of aphasia.