|Warren G. Harding|
|29th President of the United States|
March 4, 1921 – August 2, 1923
|Vice President||Calvin Coolidge|
|Preceded by||Woodrow Wilson|
|Succeeded by||Calvin Coolidge|
|United States Senator|
March 4, 1915 – January 13, 1921
|Preceded by||Theodore Burton|
|Succeeded by||Frank Willis|
|28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio|
January 11, 1904 – January 8, 1906
|Preceded by||Harry Gordon|
|Succeeded by||Andrew Harris|
|Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Philippines|
|Preceded by||John F. Shafroth|
|Born||Warren Gamaliel Harding|
November 2, 1865
Blooming Grove, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||August 2, 1923 (aged 57)|
San Francisco, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Harding Tomb|
|Alma mater||Ohio Central College|
Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923) was the 29th President of the United States (1921–1923), a Republican from Ohio who served in the Ohio Senate and then in the United States Senate where he protected alcohol interests and moderately supported women's suffrage. He was the first incumbent U.S. senator and (self-made) newspaper publisher to be elected U.S. president.
Harding was the compromise candidate in the 1920 election, when he promised the nation a return to "normalcy", in the form of a strong economy, independent of foreign influence. This program was designed to rid Americans of the tragic memories and hardships faced during World War I. Harding and the Republican Party had desired to move away from progressivism that dominated the early 20th century. He defeated Democrat and fellow Ohioan James M. Cox in the largest presidential popular vote landslide (60.32% to 34.15%) since popular vote totals were first recorded.
Harding not only put the "best minds" on his cabinet including Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce and Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, but also rewarded his friends and contributors, known as the Ohio Gang, with powerful positions. Cases of corruption, including the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, arose resulting in prison terms for his appointees. He was a keen poker player, who once gambled away on a single hand an entire set of White House china dating back to Benjamin Harrison. Harding did manage to clean up corruption in the Veterans Bureau.
Domestically, Harding signed the first federal child welfare program, dealt with striking mining and railroad workers, including supporting an 8-hour work day, and attended an unemployment rate drop by half. He also set up the Bureau of the Budget to prepare the United States federal budget. Harding advocated an anti-lynching bill to curb violence against African Americans; it failed to pass. In foreign affairs, Harding spurned the League of Nations, and (Congress having rejected the Treaty of Versailles) signed a World War I peace treaty with Germany and Austria separate from the other Allies. Harding promoted a successful world naval program.
In August 1923, Harding suddenly collapsed and died. His administration's many scandals have historically earned Harding a low ranking as president, but there has been growing recognition of his fiscal responsibility and endorsement of African-American civil rights. Harding has been viewed as a more modern politician who embraced technology and who was sensitive to the plights of minorities, women, and labor.
Childhood and education
Warren Gamaliel Harding was born November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. His paternal ancestors, mostly ardent Baptists, hailed from Clifford, Pennsylvania and had migrated to Ohio in 1820. Nicknamed "Winnie", he was the eldest of eight children born to Dr. George Tryon Harding, Sr. (1843–1928) and Phoebe Elizabeth (Dickerson) Harding (1843–1910). His mother, a devout Methodist, was a midwife who later obtained her medical license. His father, never quite content with his current job or possessions, was forever swapping for something better, and was usually in debt; he owned a farm, taught at a rural school north of Mount Gilead, Ohio, and also acquired a medical degree and started a small practice. It was rumored in Blooming Grove that one of Harding's great-grandmothers might have been African American. Harding's great-great grandfather Amos claimed that a thief, who had been caught in the act by the family, started the rumor as an attempted extortion. Eventually, Harding's family moved to Caledonia, Ohio, where his father then acquired The Argus, a local weekly newspaper. It was at The Argus where, from the age of 10, Harding learned the basics of the journalism business. In 1878, his brother Charles and sister Persilla died, presumably from typhoid.
Harding continued to study the printing and newspaper trade as a college student at Ohio Central College in Iberia. At the same time, he worked at the Union Register in Mount Gilead. Harding became an accomplished public speaker in college, and graduated in 1882 at the age of 17 with a Bachelor of Science degree. As a youngster, Harding had become an accomplished cornet player and played in various bands. In 1884, Harding gained popular recognition in Marion, when his Citizens' Cornet Band won the third place $200 prize at the highly competitive Ohio State Band Festival in Findlay. The prize money paid for the band's snappy dress uniforms Harding had bought on credit.
Journalism career and marriage
Upon graduating, he had stints as a teacher and insurance man, and made a brief attempt at reading the law. He then raised $300, in partnership with others, for the purchase of the failing Marion Daily Star, the weakest of the growing city's three newspapers; Harding was complete owner of the Star by 1886. Harding revamped the paper's editorial platform to support the Republican Party, and enjoyed a moderate degree of success. He became an ardent supporter of Governor "Fire Alarm Joe" Foraker; however, his political stance put him at odds with those who controlled local politics in Marion. When Harding moved to unseat the Marion Independent as the official daily paper, he met with strong resistance from local figures, such as Amos Hall Kling, one of Marion's wealthiest real estate speculators. The editorial battle with the Independent became so heated that, at the inevitable mention of Harding's questionable bloodline, father and son proceeded, with shotgun in hand, to demand, and get, a retraction.
While Harding won the war of words and made the Marion Daily Star one of the most popular newspapers in the county, the battle took a toll on his health. In 1889, at age 24, he suffered from exhaustion and nervous fatigue. He spent several weeks at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to regain his strength and ultimately made five visits over 14 years. Harding later returned to Marion to continue operating the paper. He spent his days promoting the community on the editorial pages, and his evenings "bloviating" (a word Harding used frequently) with his friends over games of poker. In 1893, the Star supplanted the Independent as the official paper for Marion's governmental notices, after Harding exposed the rival paper for overcharging the city. In 1896, the Independent ceased doing business and Amos Kling wasted no time in financing and launching another rival paper, the Republican Transcript, in a failed attempt to derail his son-in-law. Harding also made political speeches on the Chautauqua circuit and expressed admiration for his ideal American patron, Alexander Hamilton. He also is said to have originated the phrase "Founding Fathers".
In 1900, a political opponent, J.F. McNeal, with the help of Amos Kling, secretly bought up $20,000 in loans owed by Harding, and immediately called them due in full. Harding just barely secured the funds to pay off the debt to save the Star. In the last year of his presidency, anticipating no resumption of his journalism career following his years in the White House, Harding sold the Star to Louis H. Brush and Roy D. Moore for $550,000.
On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of his nemesis (and hers as well), Amos Hall Kling. Florence Kling DeWolfe was a divorcée, five years Harding's senior, and the mother of a young son, Marshall Eugene DeWolfe. "Flossie's" first, and compulsory, marriage, to an alcoholic, had been soundly condemned by her father, to the point of her disownment. Her mother remained loyal and provided support nevertheless. She pursued Harding persistently, until he reluctantly proposed. On his part, according to noted biographer Russell, true love was missing, but the prospect of social acceptance, and standing, was the compelling reason for his proposal. Florence's father was incensed by his daughter's decision to marry Harding, prohibited his wife from attending the wedding (she sneaked in long enough to see the vows exchanged) and refused to speak to his daughter or son-in-law for eight years. Her mother continued to provide support on the sly.
The couple was complementary, with Harding's affable personality balancing his wife's no-nonsense approach to life. Florence Harding, exhibiting her father's determination and business sense, turned the Marion Daily Star into a profitable business in her management of the circulation. She has been credited with helping Harding achieve more than he might have alone; some have speculated that she later pushed him all the way to the White House. Early in their marriage, Harding bestowed on her the lasting nickname "Duchess" as a nod to the imperious (and often alienating) persona she shared with her father.
Early political career
Harding made his foray into politics running for the Marion County Auditor's office, primarily to gain political exposure—his inability to win election was a foregone conclusion in the heavily Democratic county. When his newspaper business attained sufficient economic stability, and even dominance, in Marion, Harding and his wife traveled widely throughout the country, which broadened Harding's exposure at political gatherings. Biographer Andrew Sinclair asserts that, like many contemporaries during the days of Ohio Republican Party boss Mark Hanna, Harding was involved with graft and excessive patronage. Harding allegedly arranged free public transit passes for his family in return for favorable coverage in his newspaper. Harding, in 1897, was said to have facilitated appointment of his sister as a teacher for the blind over supposedly more qualified candidates. Harding also was accused of collusion with other newspapers on the price-fixing of public printing bids and dividing the profits from low-straw biddings. No formal charges were made against Harding based on these accusations. The accomplished publisher also gained a flair for public speaking, and Harding in 1899 was elected to fill the Ohio State Senate seat for the 13th Senatorial District, despite Amos Kling's financing of a primary opponent. Shortly after this victory, there was a fortuitous meeting with Ohio Republican party leader and McKinley ally, Harry M. Daugherty, who commented about him, "Gee, what a great looking President he'd make."; Daugherty later assumed the primary role in Harding's political career.
Harding, as a Republican state senator, was a partisan regular and did favors for political bosses Mark Hanna and Harry M. Daugherty. Harding's only notable reform effort in his first term (Ohio state offices had terms of two years) was a progressive bill to revamp the municipal code, which had passed the Senate but was halted by a single member's procedural call to "reconsider". As asserted by Sinclair, Harding, against his own conscience, signed a municipal bill that protected Republican party patronage and graft. In his second term, he was chosen Republican Floor Leader. In early 1903 Harding announced his campaign for Governor of Ohio, which was soon thwarted by an intra-party alliance that assured the election of fellow Republican Myron T. Herrick; Harding was awarded the position of Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, a post he occupied from 1904 to 1906. In short order, a number of ill-advised decisions by Gov. Herrick damaged his popularity. Harding saw an opening as the 1906 election approached, and announced his candidacy for Governor again. Nevertheless, the party bosses stuck by Herrick, and Harding took his name out of the running for any position on the ticket, which was defeated by the Democrats.
While Harding was dwindling politically, there were developments on the personal and business front. In 1907, Amos Kling married his second wife and soon after began an effort at rapprochement with daughter and son-in-law. As a result, the Klings and the Hardings took a cruise to Europe together. Not long after their return, Harding reorganized his newspaper business into the Harding Publishing Co., issued stock in the company, took two-thirds for himself and allowed his employees to purchase the rest; this was the first profit sharing arrangement of its kind in Ohio.
Harding sought the 1909 gubernatorial nomination of the GOP, which was deeply divided between progressive and conservative wings of the party, but could not defeat the united Democrats; he lost the election to incumbent Judson Harmon. Harding took his first election loss in stride, saying "...I have lost nothing which I ever had except a few dollars which I can make again, a few pounds of flesh which I can grow again, a few false friends of whom I am well rid, and an ambition which simply fettered my freedom and did not make for happiness."
In 1912, Harding gave the nominating speech for incumbent President William Howard Taft, who would later serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during Harding's administration, at the embattled Republican National Convention in Chicago—before he completed his introduction, a fist fight ensued between the Taft supporters and the more progressive Roosevelt faction, but the speech was quite a personal success. By 1914 the Republican Party was beginning to show signs of reunification, with the result that support weakened for Ohio's U.S. Senator Theodore Burton, who then decided not to stand for re-election. When prompted, Harding agreed to run for Burton's seat against his mentor, "Fire Engine" Joe Foraker, in the Republican primary, and he emerged victorious. Henry Daugherty at this point was on a first name basis with Harding and supported his campaign. Harding's general election opponent, Timothy Hogan, fell victim to fervid anti-Catholic sentiment (which Harding did not voice) and Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming Ohio's first senator elected by popular vote. The election came on the heels of the outbreak of World War I—an issue Harding downplayed due to the significant German immigrant population in his district. He served in the Senate from 1915 until his inauguration as president in 1921, making him the first sitting senator to be elected President of the United States; John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama followed in this pattern. (James A. Garfield was at the time of his presidential election a non-incumbent senator-elect.)
When Harding joined the U.S. Congress, both houses were controlled by the Democrats, and Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat, was in the White House; therefore, the legislative agenda was dominated by the opposition. Harding was often considered a fence sitter on most issues, be that labor, big business, women's suffrage, or prohibition. He was "the harmonizer", declaring that a "righteous mean" could always be obtained on an issue. He did vote on legislation to protect the alcohol industry 30 times and was against Philippine independence. He was staunchly opposed to government ownership of business. In startling form, he once spoke in support of a strong executive, at least in wartime, saying about President Wilson, "He is already ... our partial dictator. Why not make him complete and supreme dictator?" He joined with 39 other senators in opposition to Wilson's proposed League of Nations. Harding took on a personal secretary in the Senate, George B. Christian, Jr., a former neighbor, who protected him from political patrons and intrusive inquiries, and served until the future president's death. Harding introduced 134 bills, but substantively his six-year record as Senator was unremarkable; his attendance was inconsistent, he spoke minimally on the floor of the Senate and offered no major bill or debate. Harding was not even present for the vote on the women's suffrage amendment, though he "paired" his vote with another member, in effect supporting it. He was nevertheless popular and acquired many very close friends in the chamber. This popularity led to his serving as Chairman of the 1916 Republican Convention as well as Keynote Speaker.
Presidential election of 1920
In 1918, when Theodore Roosevelt was entertaining plans (later abandoned) to reprise his presidency, he considered Harding had strong potential to run and serve as vice president, and discussed with Harry Daugherty the desirability of having Harding on his ticket. In 1919, the first candidate to declare for the GOP nomination was General Leonard Wood. The GOP bosses were nevertheless determined to have a dependable listener, and were lukewarm toward the General. Some in the party began to scout for such an alternative, and Harding's name arose, despite his reluctance, due to his unique ability to draw vital Ohio votes. Also at the forefront of a throng of candidates for the nomination were Hiram Johnson, Frank Lowden and Herbert Hoover. Harry Daugherty, who became Harding's campaign manager, and who was sure none of these candidates could garner a majority, convinced Harding to run after a marathon discussion of six-plus hours. Daugherty's campaign style was variously described as pugnacious, devious and no holds barred. For example, shortly before the GOP convention, Daugherty struck a deal with millionaire and political opportunist Jake Hamon, whereby 18 Oklahoma delegates whose votes Hamon had bought for Lowden were committed to Harding as a second choice if Lowden's effort faltered.
Harding's supporters thought of him as the next McKinley. By the time the convention began, a Senate sub-committee had tallied the monies spent by the various candidates, with totals as follows: Wood—$1.8 million; Lowden—$414,000; Johnson—$194,000; and Harding—$114,000; the committed delegate count at the opening gavel was: Wood—124; Johnson—112; Lowden—72; Harding—39. Still, at the opening, less than one-half of the delegates were committed. No candidate was able to corral a majority after nine ballots. Republican Senators and other leaders, who were divided without a singular political boss, met in Room 404 of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago and after a nightlong session, tentatively concluded Harding was the best possible compromise candidate. According to Francis Russell, though additional meetings took place, this particular meeting came to be known as the "smoke filled room". Before Harding received the formal nod, George Harvey summoned him. Harvey told him he was considered the consensus nominee, and asked if he knew, "before God," whether anything in his life would be an impediment. After mulling the question over for some minutes, Harding replied no, despite his alleged adulterous affairs. The next day, when Harding was nominated on the tenth ballot, Mrs. Harding was so startled, she inadvertently stabbed Harry Daugherty in the side with her hatpins. The local Masons could not resist the opportunity to co-opt Harding's new notoriety, and promoted him to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason.
In the 1920 election, Harding ran against Democratic Ohio Governor James M. Cox, whose running mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. The election was seen in part as a rejection of the "progressive" ideology of the Woodrow Wilson Administration in favor of the "laissez-faire" approach of the William McKinley era.
Harding ran on a promise to "Return to Normalcy", a seldom-used term he popularized, and healing for the nation after World War I. The policy called for an end to the abnormal era of the Great War, along with a call to reflect three trends of the time: a renewed isolationism in reaction to the War, a resurgence of nativism, and a turning away from government activism.
On July 28, 1920, Harding's general election campaign manager, Albert Lasker, unleashed a broad-based advertising campaign that implemented modern advertising techniques; the focus was more strategy oriented. Lasker's approach included newsreels and sound recordings, all in an effort to enhance Harding's patriotism and affability. Farmers were sent brochures decrying the alleged abuses of Democratic agriculture policies. African Americans and women were also given literature in an attempt to take away votes from the Democrats. Professional advertisers including Chicagoan Albert Tucker were consulted. Billboard posters, newspapers and magazines were employed in addition to motion pictures. Five thousand speakers were trained by advertiser Harry New and sent abroad to speak for Harding; 2,000 of these speakers were women. Telemarketers were used to make phone conferences with perfected dialogues to promote Harding. Lasker had 8,000 photos distributed around the nation every two weeks of Harding and his wife.
Harding's "front porch campaign" during the late summer and fall of 1920 captured the imagination of the country. Not only was it the first campaign to be heavily covered by the press and to receive widespread newsreel coverage, but it was also the first modern campaign to use the power of Hollywood and Broadway stars, who travelled to Marion for photo opportunities with Harding and his wife. Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford were among the luminaries to make the pilgrimage to his house in central Ohio. Business icons Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone also lent their cachet to the campaign. From the onset of the campaign until the November election, over 600,000 people travelled to Marion to participate.
The campaign owed a great deal to Florence Harding, who played a more active role than the wives of previous candidates had. She cultivated the relationship between the campaign and the press. As the business manager of the Star, she understood reporters and their industry. She played to their needs by being available to answer questions, pose for pictures, or deliver food from her kitchen to the press office—a bungalow that she had constructed at the rear of their property in Marion. Mrs. Harding even coached her husband on the proper way to wave to newsreel cameras to make the most of coverage.
Campaign manager Lasker struck a deal with Harding's paramour, Carrie Phillips, and her husband Jim Phillips, whereby the couple agreed to leave the country until after the election. Ostensibly, Mr. Phillips was to investigate the silk trade.
The campaign also drew on Harding's popularity with women. Considered handsome, Harding photographed well compared to Cox. However, it was mainly Harding's Senate support for women's suffrage legislation that made him popular in that demographic. Ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920 brought huge crowds of women to Marion, Ohio to hear Harding speak. Immigrant groups such such as ethnic Germans and Irish, who made up an important part of the Democratic coalition, also voted for Harding—in reaction to their perceived persecution by the Wilson administration during World War I.
The 1920 election was the first in which women could vote nationwide. It was also the first presidential election covered on the radio, thanks to both 8ZZ (later KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and 8MK (later WWJ) in Detroit, which carried the election returns—as did the educational and amateur radio station 1XE (later WGI) at Medford Hillside MA. Harding received 60% of the national vote, the highest percentage ever recorded up to that time, and 404 electoral votes. Cox received 34% of the national vote and 127 electoral votes. Campaigning from a federal prison, Socialist Eugene V. Debs received 3% of the national vote. The Presidential election results of 1920, for the first time in U.S. history, were announced live by radio. Harding was the only Republican presidential candidate to ever defeat Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt on a presidential ticket. At the same time, the Republicans picked up an astounding 63 seats in the House of Representatives. Harding immediately embarked on a vacation that included an inspection tour of facilities in the Panama Canal Zone.
African-American lineage contention
During the campaign, Democratic opponents spread rumors that Harding's great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black person and that other blacks might be found in his family tree. In an era when the "one-drop rule" would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disfranchised, Harding's campaign manager responded, "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings', a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood." Historian and opponent William Estabrook Chancellor publicized the rumors, based on supposed family research, but perhaps reflecting no more than local gossip. The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, which he perhaps meant to be dismissive: "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." However, while there are gaps in the historical record, studies of his family tree have not found evidence of an African-American ancestor.
Harding preferred a low-key inauguration, without the customary parade, leaving only the swearing-in ceremony and a brief reception at the White House. In his inaugural speech he declared, "Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it." The Hardings also brought a different style to the running of the White House. Though Mrs. Harding did keep a little red book of those who had offended her, the executive mansion was now once again open to the public, including the annual Easter egg roll.
The administration of Warren G. Harding followed the Republican platform approved at the 1920 Republican National Convention, which was held in Chicago. Harding, who had been elected by a landslide, felt the "pulse" of the nation and for the 28 months in office he remained popular both nationally and internationally. Harding's administration has been critically viewed due to multiple scandals, while his successes in office were often given credit to his capable cabinet appointments that included future President Herbert Hoover. Author Wayne Lutton asked, "Was Harding really a failure?" Historian and former White House Counsel John Dean's reassessment of Harding stated his accomplishments included income tax and federal spending reductions, economic policies that reduced "stagflation", a reduction of unemployment by 10%, and a bold foreign policy that created peace with Germany, Japan, and Central America. Herbert Hoover, while serving in Harding's cabinet, was confident the President would serve two terms and return the world to normality. Later, in his own memoirs, he stated that Harding had "neither the experience nor the intellect that the position needed."
One of Harding's earlier decisions as president was the appointment of former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position Taft had always coveted, more so than the Presidency.
Harding 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. In April 1921, Harding spoke before a special joint session of Congress that he had called. He argued for peacemaking with Germany and Austria, emergency tariffs, new immigration laws, regulation of radio and trans-cable communications, retrenchment in government, tax reduction, repeal of wartime excess profits tax, reduction of railroad rates, promotion of agricultural interests, a national budget system, an enlarged merchant marine, and a department of public welfare. He also called for measures to end lynching, but not wanting to make enemies in his own party and with the Democrats, he did not fight for his program. Generally, there was a lack of strong leadership in the Congress and, unlike his predecessors Roosevelt and Wilson, Harding was not inclined to fill that void.
According to biographers, Harding got along better with the press than any other previous President, being a former newspaperman. Reporters admired his frankness, candor, and his confessed limitations. He took the press behind the scenes and showed them the inner circle of the presidency. Harding, in November 1921, also implemented a policy of taking written questions from reporters during a press conference. Harding's relationship with Congress, however, was strained and he did not receive the traditional honeymoon given to new Presidents. Before Harding's election, the nation had been adrift; President Woodrow Wilson had been ill by a debilitating stroke for 18 months and before that Wilson had been in Europe for several months attempting to negotiate a peace settlement after World War I. By contrast, at the March 4, 1921 Inaugural, Harding looked strong, with grey hair and a commanding physical presence. Wilson's successor stressed the importance of the ceremonial aspects of the office of President. This emphasis fulfilled his desire to travel the breadth of the country to officiate at formal functions.
Although Harding was committed to putting the "best minds" on his cabinet, he often rewarded those persons who were active and contributed to his campaign by appointing them to high federal department positions. For instance, Wayne Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League was literally allowed by Harding to dictate who would serve on the Prohibition Commission. Graft and corruption charges permeated Harding's Department of Justice; bootleggers confiscated tens of thousands cases of whiskey through bribery and kickbacks. Harding, out of loyalty, appointed Harry M. Daugherty to U.S. Attorney General because he felt he owed Daugherty for running his 1920 campaign. After the election, many people from the Ohio area moved to Washington, D.C., made their headquarters in a green house on K Street, and would be eventually known as the "Ohio Gang". The financial and political scandals caused by these men, in addition to Harding's own personal controversies, severely damaged Harding's personal reputation and eclipsed his presidential accomplishments. In his most open challenge to Congress, Harding forced a deferral of a budget-busting World War I soldier's bonus in an effort to reduce costs.
A 2008 study of presidential rankings for The Times placed Harding at number 34 and a 2009 C-SPAN survey ranked Harding at 38. In 2010, a Siena College poll of Presidential scholars placed Harding at 41. The same poll ranked Harding 26 in the Ability to Compromise category.
Harding presided over the nation's initial consecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This followed similar commemorations established by Britain, France and Italy. The fallen hero was chosen from a group previously interred at Romagne Military Cemetery in France, and was re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
On December 23, 1921 Harding calmed the 1919–1920 Bolshevik scare, and released an election opponent, socialist leader Eugene Debs, from prison. This was part of an effort to return the United States to "normalcy" after the Great War. Debs, a forceful World War I antiwar activist, had been convicted under sedition charges brought by the Wilson administration for his opposition to the draft during World War I. Despite many political differences between the two candidates Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served; however, he was not granted an official Presidential pardon. Debs' failing health was a contributing factor for the release. Harding granted a general amnesty to 23 prisoners, alleged anarchists and socialists, active in the Red Scare.
Harding's party suffered the loss of 79 seats in the House in the 1922 mid-term elections, leaving them with a razor thin majority. The President determined to fill the void of leadership in the party and attempted to take a more aggressive role in setting the legislative agenda.
The Hardings visited their home community of Marion, Ohio, once during the term, when the city celebrated its centennial during the first week of July. Harding arrived on July 3, gave a speech to the community at the Marion County Fairgrounds on July 4, and left the following morning for other speaking commitments.
Joint Session of Congress 1921
On April 12, Harding called a joint session of Congress to address matters that he deemed of national and urgent importance. That speech, considered his best, contained few political platitudes and was enthusiastically received by Congress. On the economic front, Harding urged Congress to create a Bureau of the Budget, cut expenditures, and revise federal tax laws. Harding urged increased protectionist tariffs, lower taxes, and agriculture legislation to help farmers. In the speech, Harding advocated aviation technology for civil and military purposes, development and regulation of radio technology, and passage of a federal anti-lynching law to protect African Americans. Harding advocated, in terms of foreign affairs, a "conference and cooperation" of nations to prevent war—yet flatly stated that the U.S. should not enter the League of Nations. Harding endorsed peace between all former enemy nations from World War I and the funding and liquidation of war debts.
Domestic policies and economy
Bureau of the Budget and Veterans Bureau
Harding signed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, considered one of his greatest domestic and enduring achievements. Harding got authorization from Congress for the country's first formal budgeting process—establishing of the Bureau of the Budget. The law created the presidential budget director, who was directly responsible to the President rather than to the Secretary of Treasury. The law also stipulated that the President must submit a budget annually to the U.S. Congress. All presidents since have had to submit an annual budget to Congress. The General Accounting Office was created to assure oversight in the federal budget expenditures. Harding appointed Charles Dawes, known for being an effective financier, as the first director of the Bureau of the Budget. Dawes reduced government spending by $1.5 billion his first year as director, a 25% reduction, along with another 25% reduction the following year. In effect, the Government budget was nearly cut in half in just two years.
Harding believed the federal government should be fiscally managed in a way similar to private sector businesses. He had campaigned on the slogan, "Less government in business and more business in government." "Harding was true to his word, carrying on budget cuts that had begun under a debilitated Woodrow Wilson. Federal spending declined from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and $3.3 billion in 1922. Tax rates, meanwhile, were slashed—for every income group. And over the course of the 1920s, the national debt was reduced by one third." On August 9, 1921, Harding signed legislation known as the Sweet Bill, which established the Veterans Bureau as a new agency. After World War I, 300,000 wounded veterans were in need of hospitalization, medical care, and job training. To handle the needs of these veterans, the new Veterans Bureau incorporated the War Risk Insurance Bureau, the Brig. Gen. Charles E. Sawyer's Federal Hospitalization Bureau, along with three other bureaus that dealt with veteran affairs. Harding regrettably appointed Colonel Charles R. Forbes, albeit a decorated war veteran, as the Veteran Bureau's first director (see scandal below), a position that reported directly to the President. The Veterans Bureau later was incorporated into the Veterans Administration and ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Postwar recession and recovery
On March 4, Harding assumed office while the nation was in the midst of a postwar economic decline, known as the Depression of 1920–21. By summer of his first year in office, an economic recovery began.
Harding convened the Conference of Unemployment in 1921, headed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, that proactively advocated stimulating the economy with local public work projects and encouraged businesses to apply shared work programs.
Harding's Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, ordered a study that claimed to demonstrate that as income tax rates were increased, money was driven underground or abroad. Mellon concluded that lower rates would increase tax revenues. Based on this advice, Harding cut taxes, starting in 1922. The top marginal rate was reduced annually in four stages from 73% in 1921 to 25% in 1925. Taxes were cut for lower incomes starting in 1923.
Revenues to the treasury increased substantially. Unemployment also continued to fall. Libertarian historian Thomas Woods contends that the tax cuts ended the Depression of 1920–1921 and were responsible for creating a decade-long expansion. Historians Schweikart and Allen attribute these changes to the tax cuts. Schweikart and Allen also argue that Harding's tax and economic policies in part "... produced the most vibrant eight year burst of manufacturing and innovation in the nation's history." The combined declines in unemployment and inflation (later known as the Misery Index) were among the sharpest in U.S. history. Wages, profits, and productivity all made substantial gains during the 1920s.
Daniel Kuehn attributes the improvement to the earlier monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, and notes that the changes in marginal tax rates were accompanied by an expansion in the tax base that could account for the increase in revenue. However:
Robert Gordon, a Keynesian, admits, "government policy to moderate the depression and speed recovery was minimal. The Federal Reserve authorities were largely passive. ... Despite the absence of a stimulative government policy, however, recovery was not long delayed." Kenneth Weiher, an economic historian, notes, "despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction." He then briskly concedes that "the economy rebounded quickly from the 1920–1921 depression and entered a period of quite vigorous growth."
However, Paul Krugman demonstrates that the monetary base expanded significantly from 1922 to 1925, and that this expansion was accompanied by a reduction in commercial paper rates. Allan Meltzer agrees that the rising real money stock motivated wealth owners to invest.
Recovery did not last long. Another economic contraction began near the end of Harding's presidency in 1923, while tax cuts were still underway. A third contraction followed in 1927 during the next presidential term.
Farm acts and Radio Conferences
In 1921 and 1922, Harding signed a series of bills regulating agriculture. The legislation emanated from President Woodrow Wilson's 1919 Federal Trade Commission report, which investigated and discovered "manipulations, controls, trusts, combinations, or restraints out of harmony with the law or the public interest" in the meat packing industry. The first law was the Packers and Stockyards Act, prohibiting packers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices. Two amendments were made to the Farm Loan Act of 1916 that President Wilson had signed into law, which had expanded the maximum size of rural farm loans. The Emergency Agriculture Credit Act authorized new loans to farmers to help them sell and market livestock. The Capper–Volstead Act, signed by Harding on February 18, 1922, protected farm cooperatives from anti-trust legislation. The Future Trading Act was also enacted, regulating puts and calls, bids, and offers on futures contracting. Later, on May 15, 1922, the Supreme Court ruled this legislation unconstitutional.
On February 27, 1922, Harding implemented the first of a series of Radio Conferences headed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The last Radio Act of 1912 was considered "inadequate" and "chaotic"; change was necessary to help the fledgling radio industry. At the first meeting, 30 representatives—including amateurs, governmental agencies, and the radio industry made "cooperative efforts" to ensure the public interest in broadcasting, who would broadcast, and for what purpose, and to curb direct advertising. Also discussed was how wattage power used by broadcasters would be distributed depending on the radio station's conditional use and location.
A second radio conference was called in 1923, and this time Secretary Hoover successful obtained radio regulation power without legislation. Hoover himself, in January 1923, told the press there was an, "...urgent need for radio regulation." Large radio stations such as Westinghouse advocated that only 25 larger radio stations in large metropolitan areas be allowed to broadcast, while smaller stations would be given limited power. At the end of the meeting, the industrialists agreed to give Hoover the power to, "...regulate hours and wave lengths of operation of stations when such action is necessary to prevent interference detrimental to the public good."
Harding became the first president to have a radio in his office, when on February 8, 1922, he had a radio set installed in the White House so he could listen to news and music as his schedule permitted. On June 14, Harding was also the first president that the American public heard on the new mass medium. He spoke on radio at a dedication site in honor of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to the Star Spangled Banner.
Revenue Act and Highway Act of 1921
On November 22, 1921, Harding signed the Revenue Act of 1921, which greatly reduced taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Protests from Republican farmers caused the deductions to be less than Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon desired. The lengthy 96-page Act reduced the corporate tax from 65% to 50% and provided for ultimate elimination of the excess-profits tax during World War I.
The 1920s were a time of modernization for America—with the advent of movie, flappers, and automobiles. To improve and expand the nation's highway system, Harding signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. From 1921 to 1923, the federal government spent $162 million on America's highway system, infusing the U.S. economy with a large amount of capital. In 1922, Harding proclaimed that America was in the age of the "motor car". He stated that the automobile, "reflects our standard of living and gauges the speed of our present-day life."
On September 21, 1922, Harding enthusiastically signed the Fordney–McCumber Tariff Act. The protectionist legislation was sponsored by Representative Joseph W. Fordney and Senator Porter J. McCumber. It increased the tariff rates contained in the previous Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913, to the highest level in the nation's history. Harding became concerned when the agriculture business suffered economic hardship from the high tariffs. Previously, on May 21, 1921 Harding had signed emergency legislation that put tariffs on select foreign inputs. By 1922, Harding began to realize that the long-term effects of tariffs could be detrimental to national economy, despite the short-term benefits. Harding's successors, President Calvin Coolidge and President Herbert Hoover, also advocated tariff legislation. The tariffs established in the 1920s have historically been viewed as a contributing factor to causing the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
Harding was very specific in commenting on the appointment of Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes, that the secretary would be the sole spokesman for the State Department (as opposed to the Wilson administration). The U.S. Senate had refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in both 1919 and 1920 because it required the U.S. to endorse the League of Nations. Hughes worked behind the scenes to formally make peace with former enemies Austria and Germany. This was known as the Knox–Porter Resolution; its peace treaties were signed with both countries, passed by Congress on July 1, and signed by Harding on July 2, 1921, officially ending World War I for the U.S.
Washington arms conference and treaties 1921–1922
Harding spearheaded, with the urging of the Senate, a monumental global conference, held in Washington, D.C., to limit the armaments of world powers, including the U.S., Japan, Great Britain, France, Italy, China, Belgium, Netherlands and Portugal. Harding's Secretary of State, Charles E. Hughes, assumed a primary role in the conference and made the pivotal proposal—the U.S would reduce its number of warships by 30 if Great Britain decommissioned 19, and Japan 17 ships. Starting on November 6, 1921 and ending February 6, 1922, world leaders met to control a naval arms race and to bring stability to East Asia. The conference enabled the great powers to potentially limit their large naval deployment and avoid conflict in the Pacific. The delegation of nations also worked out security issues and promoted cooperation in the Far East.
The conference produced six treaties and twelve resolutions among the participating nations, which ranged from limiting the size or "tonnage" of naval ships to custom tariffs. The treaties, which easily passed the Senate, also included agreements regulating submarines, dominions in the Pacific, and dealings with China. The treaties only remained in effect until the mid-1930s, however, and ultimately failed. Japan eventually invaded Manchuria and the arms limitations no longer had any effect. The building of "monster warships" resumed and the U.S. and Great Britain were unable to quickly rearm themselves to defend an international order and stop Japan from remilitarizing.
Harding, in an effort to improve U.S. relations with Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean Islands implemented a program of military disengagement. On April 20, 1921, the Thomson–Urrutia Treaty with Colombia was ratified by the Senate and signed by Harding; that awarded $25,000,000 as indemnity payment for land used to make the Panama Canal.
Harding stunned the capital when he sent to the Senate a message supporting the participation of the U.S. in the proposed Permanent Court of International Justice. This was not favorably received by Harding's colleagues; a resolution was nevertheless drafted, in deference to the President, and then promptly buried in the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Civil rights, labor disputes and strikes
Blair Mountain miner war
On May 12, 1921, just two months into Harding's presidency, violence was initiated near Matewan, West Virginia, between private detectives, on behalf of the Stone Mountain Coal Company, and United Mine Workers union members who had been fired from their jobs and were being evicted from company-owned housing. The miners cut down telephone and telegraph lines and trained their guns on the mines, strikebreakers and buildings. The battle lasted three days and on the first day and night of the battle some 10,000 rounds were fired. Former Justice of the Peace Harry C. Staton was killed, and Ephraim Morgan, Governor of West Virginia, pleaded in person with Harding for federal military support. Harding, who was keeping track of the situation, would only send in troops if state militia could no longer handle the striking miners. On August 1, Sid Hatfield, a prominent Union organizer and Matewan chief of police, was assassinated by mining company agents. On August 28, four days of fighting broke out on a 25 mi (40 km) front at Blair Mountain between coal company militia and thousands of Union miners led by Bill Blizzard. Both the miner and the strike buster armies were equipped with physicians, nurses and chaplains. Harding, having issued two proclamations to keep the peace, finally used military force including Martin MB-1 bombers that deployed gas and explosive bombs. Federal troops arrived on September 2, forcing the miners to flee to their homes and hostilities ended on September 4; 50 to 100 miners had been killed, as well as 30 strike busters, in the fighting. After the battle, 985 miners were tried and imprisoned for crimes against the State of West Virginia. Bill Blizzard was indicted and tried for treason, but was acquitted.
Strikes by the UMW were restarted again in 1922 when workers refused a wage reduction insisted upon by companies. Union wages apparently had risen far above others under the Wilson administration. After five months, the companies capitulated, and the wage reductions were tabled. This was a Pyrrhic victory for Lewis and the UMW, as membership in the union would drop from 400K to 150K by 1930 as the nation transitioned to less costly petroleum.
Great railway strike and repeal of 12-hour workday
A year after Harding contended with the 1921 mining labor war in West Virginia, a strike broke out during the summer of 1922 in the railroad industry. On July 1, 1922, 400,000 railroad workers and shopmen went on strike over hourly wages reduced by seven cents and a 12 hour-day workweek. Strike busters were brought in to fill the positions. Harding proposed a settlement that gave the shop workers some concessions; however, the railroad owners objected. Harding sent out the National Guard and 2,200 deputy U.S. marshals to keep the peace. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty convinced Judge James H. Wilkerson to issue a broad sweeping injunction to break up the strike. This was known as the "Wilkerson" or "Daugherty" injunction, which enraged the union as well as many in congress, as it prohibited First Amendment rights. Harding had Daugherty and Wilkerson withdraw the objectionable parts of the injunction. The injunction ultimately succeeded in ending the strike; however, tensions remained high between railroad workers and company men for years. Daugherty's harsh injunction against labor created great discord in Harding's cabinet. This, along with Daugherty's other activities, prompted one congressman, Oscar Keller of Minnesota, to attempt, in vain, to bring impeachment charges against the Attorney General.
In 1922, Harding and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover convened a White House conference with manufacturers and unions, to reduce the length of the 12-hour workday, in a move for the cause of labor. The labor movement supported an 8-hour day and a 6-day workweek. Harding wrote Judge Gary, a steel industry leader who attended the meeting, advocating labor reform. The labor conference, however, decided against labor's demands in 1923. Both Harding and Hoover were disappointed with the committee's ruling. Harding wrote a second letter to Gary and with public support the steel industry repealed the 12-hour work day to an eight-hour work day.
Anti-lynching movement and immigration
Notably in an age of severe racial intolerance during the 1920s, Harding did not hold any racial animosity, according to historian Carl S. Anthony. In a speech on October 26, 1921, given in segregated Birmingham, Alabama Harding advocated civil rights for African Americans; the first President to openly advocate black political, educational, and economic equality during the 20th century. Harding went further and viewed the race problem as a national and international issue and desired that the sectionalism of the Solid South and black membership of the Republican party be broken up. Harding, however, openly stated that he was not for black social equality in terms of racial mixing or miscegenation. Harding also spoke on the Great Migration, believing that blacks migrating to the north and west to find employment had actually tempered race relations between blacks and whites.
According to the Louisiana Historical Association, he named some African Americans to federal positions, such as Walter L. Cohen of New Orleans, Louisiana, whom he named comptroller of customs. Harding also advocated the establishment of an international commission to improve race relations between whites and blacks; however, strong political opposition by the Southern Democratic bloc prevented the commission. The Ku Klux Klan had its highest membership during its revival in the 1920s, when it expanded membership among urban populations of the Midwest and South who were concerned about job competition and immigration.
Harding supported Congressman Leonidas Dyer's federal anti-lynching bill, known as the Dyer Bill, which passed the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922. The bill was defeated in the Senate by a Democratic filibuster. Harding had previously spoken out publicly against lynching on October 21, 1921. Congress had not debated a civil rights bill since the 1890 Federal Elections Bill.
The Per Centum Act of 1921 signed by Harding on May 19, 1921, severely reduced the amount of immigration into the U.S. to 3% of a country's represented population based on the 1910 census. The Act allowed unauthorized immigrants to be deported. Harding and Secretary of Labor James Davis believed that enforcement had to be humane. Harding often allowed exceptions granting reprieves to thousands of immigrants.
Sheppard–Towner Maternity Act
On November 21, 1921, Harding signed the Sheppard–Towner Maternity Act, the first major federal government social welfare program in the U.S. The law funded almost 3,000 child and health centers throughout the U.S. Medical doctors were spurred to offer preventative health care measures in addition to treating ill children. Doctors were required to help healthy pregnant women and prevent healthy children from getting sick. Child welfare workers were sent out to make sure that parents were taking care of their children. Many minority groups, particularly African American, Native American, and foreign-born women, resented the law and the welfare workers who visited their homes and intruded into their family's lives. The law was sponsored by a woman, Julia Lathrop, America's first director of the U.S. Children's Bureau. Although the law remained in effect only eight years, it set the trend for New Deal social programs during the Great Depression. Many women who had been given the right to vote in 1920, were given career opportunities as welfare and social workers.
Harding was tolerant towards religious faiths. Harding appointed prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi Joseph S. Kornfeld, and Catholic leader, Father Joseph M. Dennig, to foreign diplomatic positions. Harding also appointed Albert Lasker, a Jewish businessman and Harding's 1920 Presidential campaign manager, head of the Shipping Department. In an unpublished letter, Harding advocated the establishment and funding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Life at the White House
Katherine Marcia Forbes, wife of Harding's Veterans Bureau appointment Charles R. Forbes, had unprecedented access to the White House. Mrs. Harding and Katherine had become close friends since meeting in Hawaii, when Senator Harding and his wife were on vacation. In 1921, Katherine Forbes wrote a series of articles for the Washington Post describing the daily life of President Harding and the First Lady. President Harding and Mrs. Harding wanted to be known as, "...just home folks." At dinners, Harding's dog Laddie Boy, was allowed to beg guests for food and play with children. Red velvet upholstery covered much of the furniture. Harding's informal dress included a plain tuxedo, plaited shirt, and pearl studs. Mrs. Harding herself was able to talk with many guests at the same time. Inside the White House, the Hardings had a great grandfather clock, a gold fish bowl, a French vase with pussy willows, neutral color rugs, and a grand piano. Harding sometimes gave children private tours of the White House that included the conservatories and kennels.
Harding's lifestyle at the White House was fairly unconventional compared to his predecessor President Woodrow Wilson. Upstairs at the White House, in the Yellow Oval Room, Harding allowed bootleg whiskey to be freely served to his guests during after-dinner parties at a time when the President was supposed to enforce Prohibition. One witness, Alice Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, claimed that trays, "...with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about." Some of this alcohol had been directly confiscated from the Prohibition department by Jess Smith, assistant to U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Mrs. Harding, also known as the "Duchess", mixed drinks for the guests. Harding also indulged in poker playing twice a week, smoking, and chewing tobacco. Harding allegedly won a $4,000 pearl necktie pin at one White House poker game. Although criticized by Prohibitionist advocate Wayne B. Wheeler over Washington, D.C. rumors of these "wild parties", Harding claimed his personal drinking inside the White House was his own business.
Upon winning the election, Harding appointed many of his longtime allies and campaign contributors to prominent political positions in control of vast amounts of government money and resources. Known as the "Ohio Gang" (a term used by Charles Mee, Jr., in his book of the same name), some of the appointees used their new powers to exploit their positions for personal gain. Although Harding was responsible for making these appointments, it is unclear how much, if anything, Harding himself knew about his friends' illicit activities. No evidence to date suggests that Harding personally profited from such crimes, but he was apparently unable to prevent them. "I have no trouble with my enemies", Harding told journalist William Allen White late in his presidency, "but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!" The only scandal which was openly discovered during Harding's lifetime was in the Veteran's Bureau. Yet the gossip became rampant after the suicides of Charles Cramer (Veterans Bureau) and Jess Smith (Justice Dept.) Harding responded aggressively to all of this with a mixture of grief, anger and perplexity.
Before any of the scandalous activity became widely known, Harding's popularity began to ebb, but he responded with determination to run for re-election, despite strong support emerging for the very popular Henry Ford for the Democrats. While on his trip to Alaska in 1923, Harding asked reporters and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, how he should respond to associates who may have betrayed him. He also said at this time, according to Joe Mitchell Chapple, "Someday the people will understand all that some of my erstwhile friends have done for me." However much he did know at the time of his departure for Alaska, Russell concludes it did not include Fall and Daugherty. Harding reformed the corrupt Veteran's Bureau in March, 1923.
The most notorious scandal was the Teapot Dome affair, most of which came to light long after Harding's death. This affair concerned an oil reserve in Wyoming that was covered by a teapot-shaped rock formation. For years, the country had taken measures to ensure the availability of petroleum reserves, particularly for the Navy's use. On February 23, 1923, Harding issued Executive Order # 3797, which created the Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4 in Alaska. By the 1920s, it was clear that petroleum was important to the national economy and security. The reserve system was to keep the oil under government jurisdiction rather than subject to private claims. Management of these reserves was the subject of multi-dimensional arguments—beginning with a turf battle between the Secretary of the Navy and the Interior Dept. The strategic reserves issue was also a debate topic between conservationists and the petroleum industry, as well as those who favored public ownership versus private control. Harding's Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, brought to that office a lot of political and legal experience—and also a lot of personal debt, incurred in his obsession to expand his personal estate, Three Rivers, in New Mexico. He also was an avid supporter of the private ownership and management of reserves.
Fall contracted Edward Doheny of Pan American Corp. to build storage tanks in exchange for drilling rights. It later came to light that Doheny had made significant personal loans to Fall. The Secretary also negotiated leases for the Teapot Dome reserves to Harry Sinclair of the Consolidated Oil Corp. in return for guaranteed oil reserves to the credit of the government. Again, it later emerged that Sinclair had personally made concurrent cash payments of over $400,000 to Fall. These activities took place under the unsuspecting watch of progressive and conservationist attorney, Harry Slattery, acting for Gifford Pinchot and Robert La Follete. Fall was ultimately convicted in 1931 of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. In 1931, Fall was the first cabinet member in history imprisoned for crimes committed while in office. Paradoxically, while Fall was convicted for taking the bribe, Doheny was acquitted of paying it.
Harding's appointment of Harry M. Daugherty as Attorney General received more criticism than any other. As Harding's campaign manager, Daugherty's Ohio lobbying and back room maneuvers with politicians were not considered the best qualifications. Historian M. R. Werner referred to the Justice Department under Harding and Daugherty as "the den of a ward politician and the White House a night club". On September 16, 1922, Minnesota Congressman Oscar E. Keller brought impeachment charges against Daugherty. On December 4, formal investigation hearings, headed by congressman Andrew J. Volstead, began against Daugherty. The impeachment process, however, stopped, since Keller's charges that Daugherty protected interests in trust and war fraud cases could not be substantially proven.
One alleged scandal involving Daugherty concerned the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corp., which supposedly overcharged the Federal government by $2.3 million on war contracts. Capt. Hazel Scaife tried to bring the company to trial, but was blocked by the Department of Justice. At this time, Daugherty was said to have owned stock in the company and was even adding to these holdings, though he was never charged in the matter.
Daugherty remained in his position during the early days of the Calvin Coolidge administration, then resigned on March 28, 1924, amidst allegations that he accepted bribes from bootleggers. Daugherty was later tried and acquitted twice for corruption. Both juries hung—in one case, after 65 hours of deliberation. Daugherty's famous defense attorney, Max D. Steuer, blamed all corruption allegations against Daugherty on Jess Smith, an aide at the Justice Department who had committed suicide.
Harding's Attorney General hired William J. Burns to run the Justice Dept.'s Bureau of Investigation, Burns was said to be unabashed in his willingness to conduct unauthorized searches and seizures of political enemies of the Justice Dept. A number of inquisitive congressmen or senators found themselves the object of wire taps, rifled files, and copied correspondence. Burns' primary operative was Gaston B. Means, a reputed con man, who was known to have fixed prosecutions, sold favors, and manipulated files in the Justice Dept. Means, who acted independently, took direct instructions and payments from Jess Smith, without Burn's knowledge, to spy on Congressmen. Means hired a woman, Laura Jacobson, to spy on Senator Thaddeus Caraway, a critic of the Harding administration. Means also was involved with "roping" bootleggers.
Narcotic trafficking was rampant at the Atlanta Penitentiary while Daugherty was Attorney General. The appointed warden, J.E. Dyche, made internal prison reforms by firing two guards while two other officers were indicted by the Justice Department. Daugherty, however, was slow to follow up on these indictments. As Dyche began to investigate the drug supply ring outside the prison, Daugherty fired him and replaced him with a close friend, A. E. Sartain. Daugherty stopped the investigation into the drug ring until the two indicted officers were brought to trial. The Superintendent of Prisons, Heber Votaw, allegedly interfered and suppressed Dyche's attempted investigation into the narcotic ring outside the prison. Votaw, was Harding's brother-in-law, and had been appointed by the President in April 1921. Harding sent Charles R. Forbes, Director of the Veterans Bureau, to privately investigate the matter. This upset Daugherty, who said the Atlanta prison situation was none of Forbes' business.
Daugherty, according to a 1924 Senate investigation into the Justice Department, had authorized a system of graft between aides Jess Smith and Howard Mannington. Both Mannington and Smith allegedly took bribes to secure appointments, prison pardons, and freedom from prosecution. A majority of these purchasable pardons were directed towards bootleggers. Cincinnati bootlegger, George L. Remus, allegedly paid Jess Smith $250,000 to not prosecute him. Remus, however, was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to Atlanta prison. Smith tried to extract more bribe money from Remus to pay for a pardon. The prevalent question at the Justice Department was "How is he fixed?"
Jess W. Smith
Daugherty's personal aide Jess W. Smith, was widely viewed as the Attorney General's (and therefore the President's) spokesman and henchman. Smith was considered Daugherty's proxy, and a central figure, in government file manipulation, paroles and pardons, influence peddling—and even served as bag man.
During Prohibition, pharmacies received alcohol permits to sell alcohol for medical purposes. According to Congressional testimony, Daugherty allegedly arranged for Jess Smith and Howard Mannington to sell these permits to drug company agents who really represented bootleggers. The bootleggers, having obtained a permit could buy cases of whiskey. Smith and Mannington split the permit sales profits. Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 cases of whiskey were sold to bootleggers at a net worth of $750,000 to $900,000. Smith also supplied bootleg whiskey to the White House and the Ohio Gang house on K Street, concealing the whiskey in a briefcase for poker games.
Eventually, rumors of Smith's abuses—free use of government cars, going to all night parties, manipulation of Justice Department files—reached Harding. Harding withdrew Smith's White House clearance and Daugherty told him to leave Washington. On May 30, 1923, Smith's dead body was found at Daugherty's apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. William J. Burns immediately took Smith's body away and there was no autopsy. Russell, concluding this was a suicide, indicates that a Daugherty aide entered Smith's room moments after a noise awoke him, and found Smith on the floor with his head in a trash can and a revolver in his hand. Russell also states that Smith had purchased the gun (though he was said to have detested guns), that a bullet had entered Smith's temple, exited the forehead, and lodged in a doorjamb. Smith allegedly purchased the gun from a hardware store shortly before his death, after Daugherty verbally abused him for waking him up from a nap.
Charles R. Forbes, the energetic Director of the Veterans Bureau, disregarded the dire needs of wounded World War I veterans to procure his own wealth. To limit corruption in the Veterans' Bureau, Harding insisted that all government contracts be by public notice, but Forbes provided inside information to his co-conspirators to ensure their bids succeeded. After his appointment, Forbes was quick to have Harding issue executive orders that gave him control over veterans' hospital construction and supplies. Forbes defrauded the government of an estimated $225 million through hospital construction, after increasing construction costs from $3,000 to $4,000 per bed. Forbes' main task at the Veterans bureau, having an unprecedented $500 million yearly budget, was to ensure that new hospitals were built around the country to help the 300,000 wounded World War I veterans.
In the Spring of 1922, Forbes went on tours, known as joy-rides, of new hospital construction sites around the country and the Pacific Coast. On these tours, Forbes allegedly received traveling perks and alcohol kickbacks, took a $5,000 bribe in Chicago, and made a secret code to ensure $17 million in government construction hospital contracts with corrupt contractors. On the tours, Forbes allegedly went to parties, drank bootleg liquor, and played craps.
Intent on making more money, on his return to the U.S. Capitol Forbes immediately began selling valuable hospital supplies under his control in large warehouses at the Perryville Depot. The government had stockpiled huge amounts of hospital supplies during the first World War, which Forbes unloaded for a fraction of their cost to the Boston firm of Thompson and Kelly. In exchange for the deal, J.W. Thompson of the firm added $150,000 to the contract for Forbes, who also received a percentage of the profits realized. The check on Forbes' authority at Perryville was Gen. Charles E. Sawyer, chairman of the Federal Hospitalization Board, who represented controlling interests in the valuable hospital supplies.
Dr. Sawyer and Forbes were at odds with each other over authority at the Veterans Bureau. Sawyer, a homeopathic doctor who was Harding's personal physician, told Harding that Forbes was selling valuable hospital supplies to an insider contractor. After issuing two orders for the sales to stop, Harding finally summoned Forbes to the White House and demanded Forbes' resignation, since Forbes had been insubordinate in not stopping the shipments. Harding, however, was not yet ready to announce Forbes' resignation and let him flee to Europe on the "flimsy pretext" that he would help disabled U.S. Veterans in Europe. While in Europe, Forbes submitted his resignation to Harding on February 15, 1923.
Harding placed a reformer, Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, in charge of the Veterans Bureau. Hines immediately cleared up the mess left by Forbes. When Forbes returned to the U.S., he visited Harding at the White House in the Red Room. During the meeting, Harding angrily grabbed Forbes by the throat, shook him vigorously, and exclaimed "You double-crossing bastard!" A guest who had an appointment with the President interrupted this physical encounter and Forbes was allowed to leave. Harding was bitter over Forbes' "betrayal" and the two never saw each other again. In 1926, Forbes was brought to trial and convicted of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. He drew a two-year prison sentence and was released in November 1927.
Charles F. Cramer, Forbes' legal council to the Veterans Bureau, rocked the nation's capital when he committed suicide in 1923. Cramer was found dead by a maid in his bathroom on the morning of March 14 with a bullet wound to the head. Previously, in the fall of 1922 Cramer had been "bitterly assailed" by the American Legion at Indianapolis over alleged corruption at the Veterans Bureau. Cramer, at the time of his death, was being investigated by a Senate committee and had been criticized and personally attacked. Cramer, himself, had denied charges of corruption and said he had given his "whole-hearted and patriotic service" to the Bureau. Cramer had paid $40,000 in Veteran funds to a private landholder to lease land to build a Veterans Hospital in Camp Kearny, California. The estimated value of the 325-acre land tract was only $8,000. Maj. Gen. John F. O'Ryan conducted the investigation into the Veterans' Bureau. In addition to replacing Forbes with Hines, Harding dismissed or transferred a number of subordinates at the Veteran's Bureau.
Shipping board, office of alien property and prohibition bureau
On June 13, 1921, Harding appointed Albert D. Lasker chairman of the United States Shipping Board. Lasker, a cash donor and Harding's general campaign manager, had no previous experience with shipping companies. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 had allowed the Shipping Board to sell ships made by the U.S. Government to private American companies. A congressional investigation revealed that while Lasker was in charge, many valuable steel cargo ships, worth between $200 and $250 a ton, were sold for as low as $30 a ton to private American shipping companies without an appraisal board. J. Harry Philbin, a manager in the sales division, testified at the congressional hearing that under Lasker's authority U.S. ships were sold, "...as is, where is, take your pick, no matter which vessel you took." Lasker resigned from the Shipping Board on July 1, 1923.
Thomas W. Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Miller's citizenship rights were taken away and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. After Miller served 13 months of his sentence, he was released on parole. President Herbert Hoover restored Miller's citizenship on February 2, 1933.
Roy Asa Haynes, Harding's Prohibition Commissioner, ran the patronage-riddled Prohibition bureau, which was allegedly corrupt from top to bottom. The bureau's "B permits" for liquor sales became tantamount to negotiable securities, as a result of being so widely bought and sold among known violators of the law. The bureau's agents allegedly made a year's salary from one month's illicit sales of permits.
Western travels, illness and death
In June 1923, Harding set out on a westward cross-country Voyage of Understanding, in which he planned to renew his connection with the people, away from the capital, and explain his policies. The schedule included 18 speeches and innumerable informal talks. Accompanying him were Secretaries Work, Wallace, and Hoover, House Speaker Gillett, and Rear Admiral Adam Hugh Rodman. During this trip, he became the first president to visit Alaska.
Harding's physical health had declined since the fall of 1922. One doctor, Emmanuel Libman, who met Harding at a dinner, privately suggested that the President was suffering from coronary disease. By early 1923, Harding had trouble sleeping, looked tired, and could barely get through nine holes of golf.
Though Harding wanted to run for a second term, he may have been aware of his own health decline. He gave up drinking, sold his "life-work," the Marion Star, in part to regain $170,000 previous investment losses, and had the U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty make a new will. Harding, along with his personal physician Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, believed getting away from Washington would help relieve the stresses of being President. By July 1923, criticism of the Harding Administration was increasing. Prior to his leaving Washington, the President reported chest pains that radiated down his left arm.
St. Louis, Kansas, Denver
During Harding's western travels, historian Samuel H. Adams claims that Harding's political views began to expand, and became more independent from established Republican Party agenda. In St. Louis, Harding promoted U.S. participation in the World Court having earnestly desired world peace. In Kansas, Harding gave a speech on agriculture and, much to his doctor's displeasure, rode on a farming combine in searing summer heat.
In Denver, Harding extolled the virtues of the 18th Amendment, saying it should never be repealed, urging that the prohibition laws be obeyed. Harding, himself, did not pack any whiskey for traveling on the Presidential train. Breaking away from Republican isolationism, Harding advocated more spending on national defense in case of another war. Harding also made a speech fully endorsing labor's right to organize, and even spoke against those who sought to destroy labor movements around the country. In Tacoma, Washington, the President read a letter that promoted his efforts for a 12-hour work day. Sensing his own conversion, Harding even told his friends that he felt a spiritual change was influencing his stance on issues.
Alaska, British Columbia, Seattle
President Harding, as his physically demanding schedule continued, boarded a naval transport ship, the USS Henderson, and voyaged to Alaska. During four days at sea, Harding was unable to rest and regain strength. Rumors of corruption in his administration were beginning to circulate in Washington. While in Alaska, Harding was profoundly shocked by a long message he received detailing illegal activities previously unknown to him.
Harding's reasons for the Alaska visit included encouraging colonization of the sparsely populated territory. Harding hoped that, with completion of the Alaska Railroad, World War I veterans from Alaska would return to their home territory, and impoverished workers in the lower states could go to Alaska for employment. Harding brought along Secretary of Interior Hubert Work, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace—"the three bears", as Herbert Hoover called them—to cut through bureaucracy in their respective departmental jurisdictions.
According to author Douglas Brinkley, Harding came to the most northern U.S. territory to "open up Alaska lands" for oil, mining, timber development, and industry.
Harding arrived in Alaska on the Henderson on July 7, 1923. Harding and his presidential party first visited Metlakatla, Ketchikan (July 8), and Wrangell (July 9). They continued on to Juneau (July 10), Skagway, and Glacier Bay (July 11). The President then cruised to Seward (July 13). They then proceeded to travel by Presidential railway car and automobile. Harding visited Snow River on the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage (July 13), Chickaloon, Wasilla and Willow (July 14). The U.S. government had bought up the financially unstable Tanana Valley Railroad. The President continued his Alaska journey through Montana Station, Curry (July 14) Cantwell, McKinley Park and Nenana(July 15). On July 15, 1923, Harding drove in the golden spike on the north side of the steel Mears Memorial Bridge that completed the Alaska Railroad. The trip continued to Fairbanks (July 15) where it was decided (July 16) that the President and his wife would return to Seward (July 17) via the railroad. They spent a restful day at Seward (July 18). From there they took the Henderson to Valdez (July 19), Cordova (July 20), and Sitka (July 22). While in Sitka, Harding visited and shook hands with Alaskan Native Tlingit elder chief Katlean outside in a crowd of people. The information gathered by Harding's Alaska tour found that improving agriculture in south central Alaska, would require irrigation because of the low territory rainfall totals. By 1923, the Alaskan salmon population was being depleted from overfishing. Harvesting and transporting coal by ship from Alaska through the territory's panhandle would be very expensive.
On July 26, 1923, having departed Alaska on the Henderson, Harding toured Vancouver, British Columbia as the first sitting American President ever to visit Canada. Harding became exhausted while playing golf at the Shaughnessy Heights Golf Club, and complained of nausea and upper abdominal pain. His doctor, Charles E. Sawyer, believed Harding's illness was a severe case of food poisoning. Nevertheless, Dr. Joel T. Boone also examined the President and noticed an enlargement of his heart. Harding's pulse and breathing rate were rapid. The President was given digitalis. Harding met with British Columbia Premier John Oliver and Mayor of Vancouver Charles Tisdall at the Hotel Vancouver. Harding spoke in front of 50,000 people at Stanley Park with his voice projected by microphones. Harding inspected The Vancouver Regiment honor guard accompanied by Canadian Brig. Gen. V.W. Odlum. There is a monument to President Harding in Vancouver's Stanley Park.
Coming into Seattle, Washington, Harding's transport ship, the Henderson, accidentally rammed into the USS Zeilin, a U.S. naval destroyer, in the fog. Harding was not harmed in the incident. While in port, Harding reviewed the U.S. naval fleet and visited the Bell Street Pier. In Seattle, Harding greeted children and led 50,000 Boy Scouts in the Pledge of Allegiance. Harding gave his final speech to a large crowd of 25,000 people at the University of Washington stadium in Seattle. Harding spoke on the magnificence of Alaska's wilderness, conservationism, and "measureless oil resources in the most northerly sections." Sec. of Commerce Herbert Hoover wrote the Seattle speech and Harding claimed he would protect the territory from looters and profit seekers; a rebuff to former Sec. of Interior Albert Fall. Harding had rushed through his speech not waiting for applause by the audience. Harding traveled by train from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. Harding's scheduled speech in Portland was canceled.
Death in San Francisco, state funeral and memorial
The President's train continued south to San Francisco. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover sent a telegram from Dunsmuir, California, to his friend Dr. Ray L. Wilbur, asking Wilbur to meet and to personally evaluate the President. Arriving at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Harding developed a respiratory illness believed to be pneumonia. Harding, severely exhausted, ordered that his planned speech be issued through the national press in order to communicate with the public. The President was given digitalis and caffeine that momentarily helped relieve his heart condition and sleeplessness. On Thursday, the President's health appeared to improve, so his doctors went to dinner. Harding's pulse was normal and his lung infection had subsided. Unexpectedly, during the evening, Harding shuddered and died suddenly in the middle of conversation with his wife in the hotel's presidential suite, at 7:35 p.m. on August 2, 1923. Dr. Sawyer (a homeopath, and friend of the Harding family), opined that Harding had succumbed to a stroke, but doctors there disagreed.
Immediately after Harding died, word of the event quickly spread to the San Francisco streets. People rushed into the Palace Hotel, and rapidly crowded into the hallways. The San Francisco chief of police, Daniel J. O'Brian, finally was able to clear the hotel of the unruly mob, and members of Harding's official party could come see him.
After some discussion, the doctors issued a release stating that the cause of death was "some brain evolvement, probably an apoplexy." Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy. In retrospect, scholars speculate that Harding had shown physical signs of cardiac insufficiency with congestive heart failure in the preceding weeks. Naval medical consultants who examined the president in San Francisco concluded he had suffered a heart attack. Dr. Wilbur included in his memoirs a letter from Dr. Charles Miner Cooper in support of their cerebral apoplexy diagnosis, based on Harding's last observed condition, while acknowledging that no final determination could be made.
Harding was succeeded as president by Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn in while vacationing at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, by his father, a Vermont notary public.
A story of Harding's body being laid in state in San Francisco City Hall before being returned to Washington is apparently false. The Examiner for Aug. 3, 1923, states that Harding's "remains will not be taken from the hotel except to go directly to the train." The Chronicle for Aug. 3 and 4, 1923, says the same thing, that Harding's body was taken from the Palace Hotel directly to the train depot at Third and Townsend. The funeral train made a four-day journey eastward across the country—the first such procession since Lincoln's funeral train. Millions lined the tracks in cities and towns across the country to pay their respects.
Harding's casket was placed in the East Room of the White House pending a state funeral, which was held on August 8, 1923, at the United States Capitol. Unnamed White House employees said that the night before the funeral, they heard Mrs. Harding talking to her dead husband. According to the historian Samuel H. Adams, Harding's death was mourned by the nation and the average citizen felt a "personal loss." Harding was entombed in the receiving vault of the Marion Cemetery, Marion, Ohio, on August 10, 1923. Following Mrs. Harding's death on November 21, 1924 (from renal failure), she was buried next to her husband. Their remains were re-interred December 20, 1927, at the newly completed Harding Memorial in Marion, dedicated by President Herbert Hoover on June 16, 1931. The delay between final interment and the dedication was partly because of the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal. Harding was survived by his father Dr. George Tryon Harding, who died on November 19, 1928. Harding and John F. Kennedy are the only two presidents to have predeceased their fathers. Harding's term of office was the shortest of any 20th-century U.S. president.
Speculation on cause of death
Harding's sudden death led to theories that he had been poisoned or committed suicide. Suicide appears unlikely, since Harding was planning for reelection in 1924. Rumors of poisoning were fueled, in part, by a book called The Strange Death of President Harding, in which the author (convicted criminal, former Ohio Gang member, and detective Gaston Means, hired by Mrs. Harding to investigate Warren Harding and his mistress) suggested that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband. Mrs. Harding's refusal to allow an autopsy on her husband only added to the speculation. According to the physicians attending Harding, however, the symptoms prior to his death all pointed to congestive heart failure. Harding's biographer, Samuel H. Adams, concluded that "Warren G. Harding died a natural death which, in any case, could not have been long postponed".
Presidential papers destroyed
Immediately after Harding's death, Mrs. Harding returned to Washington, D.C., and stayed in the White House briefly with the Coolidges. For a month, former First Lady Harding gathered and burned President Harding's correspondence and documents, both official and unofficial. Upon her return to Marion, Mrs. Harding hired a number of secretaries to collect and burn Harding's personal papers. According to Mrs. Harding, she took these actions to protect her husband's legacy. The remaining papers were held and kept from public view by the Harding Memorial Association in Marion.
Cabinet and Supreme Court appointments
Harding appointed the following justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
- William Howard Taft—Chief Justice: 1921
- George Sutherland: 1922
- Pierce Butler: 1923
- Edward Terry Sanford: 1923
Other judicial appointments
Harding also appointed 6 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, 42 judges to the United States district courts, and 2 judges to the United States Court of Customs Appeals.
In a 1998 Washington Post article, journalist Carl S. Anthony wrote that Harding had extramarital affairs with four women. These women included Susie Hodder and Carrie Fulton Phillips, Mrs. Harding's personal friends; Grace Cross, Harding's senatorial aide; and Nan Britton. Anthony stated that Harding was the father of Hodder's daughter. In her 1927 book, The President's Daughter, Britton said that Harding fathered her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, as well, during a 1919 tryst in his senatorial offices. Britton, who had a profound obsession with Harding beginning in high school, also said that she was his mistress before and during his administration. Historian Henry F. Graff states that Harding was sterile and that Harding's affair with Britton ended after Harding assumed the presidency.
Historian Francis Russell indicates that, beginning in the spring of 1905, Harding had a 15-year relationship with Carrie Fulton Phillips, wife of businessman and friend James Eaton Phillips of Marion, Ohio. More than 100 intimate letters between Harding and Mrs. Philips were discovered in the 1960s, but publication of the letters was enjoined by court order in Ohio until 2024. Russell, however, viewed the letters upon their discovery and described them as very touching and naive in some respects, erotic in others. Russell also concluded from the letters that Phillips was the love of Harding's life—"the enticements of his mind and body combined in one person".
Before his death, Harding had established a margin account with stockbroker Sam Ungerleider. Before the broker could get authority from Harding's successors to liquidate the stocks purchased on loan, the account had a loss of more than $170,000. The broker was given the authority to sell, but the family refused to settle the loss and the broker declined to force collection.
The most sensational allegations include one that Harding and Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty participated in bacchanalian orgies at the Ohio Gang's Little Green House on K Street in Washington, D.C.; witnesses to this were considered unreliable and one was a convicted perjurer. Also, in his 1987 book The Fiery Cross, historian Wyn Craig Wade suggested that Harding had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps having been inducted into the organization in a private White House ceremony. Evidence included the taped testimony of one of the members of the alleged induction team; however, evidence beyond that is scanty. Other historians generally dismiss these stories.
Several historians deny claims of orgies and mistresses, such as Robert H. Ferrell and Paul Johnson. Johnson writes in Modern Times: "When in 1964 the Harding Papers (which had not been burnt) were opened to scholars, no truth at all was found in any of the myths, though it emerged that Harding, a pathetically shy man with women, had a sad and touching friendship with the wife of a Marion store-owner before his presidency. The Babylonian image was a fantasy, and in all essentials Harding had been an honest and exceptionally shrewd president."[page needed]
Historical ranking as president
Harding traditionally has been ranked as one of the worst presidents. In a 1948 poll conducted by Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., the first notable survey of scholars' opinions of the presidents, Harding ranked last among the 29 presidents considered. In a 1962 poll conducted by Schlesinger, he was ranked last again, 31 out of 31. His son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., conducted another poll in 1996; once again, Harding was last, ranked 39 out of 39. In 2010, a Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Harding 41st among the 43 men who had been president, between Franklin Pierce (40th) and James Buchanan (42nd); Andrew Johnson was adjudged the worst. Harding was also considered the third worst president in a 2002 Siena poll. Siena polls of 1982, 1990 and 1992 ranked him last.
However, Harding's biographer John W. Dean in 2004 believed that Harding was underrated. Authors Marcus Raskin and Robert Spero, in 2007, also believed that Harding was underrated, and admired Harding's quest for world peace after World War I and his successful naval disarmament among strongly armed nations, including France, Britain, and Japan. In his 2010 book The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, presidential historian Alvin S. Felzenberg, ranking presidents on several different criteria, ranked Harding 26th out of 40 presidents considered.
As a career politician, Harding exhibited an ability to grow, and had a desire to get along with political enemies rather than alienate them. As a prior journalist, Harding was the first President to realize the importance of an ever growing powerful media, and even ordered his cabinet to organize their own respective press staff. He knew that radio would eventually dominate American commerce and promoted two Radio Conferences to give government power to regulate the industry. Harding also sensed the importance of oil in terms of national security and prosperity, signing an executive order that gave the U.S. a giant oil reserve in Alaska. Harding staunchly protected American business interests. He also signed America's first child welfare program designed to protect children's health and ensure that they would grow up without neglect from their parents. Harding was also the first president that pursued world security through arms reduction and regulation during the Washington peace conference.
Harding's generosity and loyalty to friends was a liability as president. Multiple scandals evolved during his administration that damaged his reputation throughout the nation. His successes as president were over shadowed by the "Ohio Gang" criminal exploits, the detrimental image of his social drinking, and his alleged extramarital affairs. His sudden death in 1923 only intensified unanswered questions concerning his knowledge of, and potential involvement in, the scandals—and if he would have reformed his administration. In fact, his reputation was so controversial, it was not until 1931 that Harding's marble memorial colonnade in Marion was dedicated by Herbert Hoover. According to Hoover, Harding's legacy was one of tragic betrayal.
Harding's legacy began to improve during the 1970s, however. The truth behind the many presidential scandals and his personal controversies may never be known. To protect her husband's damaged legacy, Mrs. Harding only left 1/7 of Harding's personal papers for posterity. She destroyed the rest. The remaining papers, except for Harding's speeches, are currently unpublished. Harding has been one of the most historically challenging American Presidents in terms of finding private letters and paper documents. Historian Hazel Rowley writes that because the Harding administration and the Republicans were seen associated with prosperity, prominent Democrats were reticent of running for president in 1924.
Due to his untimely demise, Warren G. Harding is among the relatively few American Presidents who have been honored on a U.S. postage stamp more than the usual two times. Harding has appeared on US postage for a total of five issues, more than that of most Presidents. Harding's election provided a short burst of popularity for the name Warren.
- Warren G. Harding High School, Warren, Ohio
- Warren G. Harding Middle School, Steubenville, Ohio
- Warren G. Harding High School; Bridgeport, Connecticut
- Warren G. Harding Middle School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Harding Senior High School, Saint Paul, Minnesota
- Harding Middle School, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
- Harding Elementary School, Santa Barbara, California
- Harding Elementary School, El Cerrito, California
- Warren G. Harding Elementary School, Hammond, Indiana.
- Harding Memorial, Marion, Ohio, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Marion Harding High School, Marion, Ohio
- Harding County, New Mexico is named in his honor.
- Ohio Northern University's College of Law was once named after him but was later renamed.
- Harding Park Golf Club in San Francisco is named after him.
- Peace Treaty Marker in Somerville, New Jersey. In 1921, at the estate of New Jersey Governor Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, Warren Harding signed the peace treaty that ended America's involvement in World War I. Today, the estate has been replaced with mini-malls. The marker remains in a patch of grass near a Burger King parking lot along Route 28, just north of the Somerville traffic circle.
- Harding Charter Preparatory High School, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- Harding Memorial, Seattle, Washington. In 1925, a memorial was erected in Seattle at Woodland Park to commemorate the site of Harding's next-to-last public address. In 1977, the memorial was demolished and buried under the Woodland Park Zoo's African Savanna exhibit. The memorial's only surviving elements—two life-sized bronze statues of Boy Scouts that once saluted the image of Harding—were relocated to the headquarters of the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts.
- Montana Highway 2 over Pipestone Pass near Butte, Montana is named "The Harding Way" in his honor.
- Harding Icefield in Southcentral Alaska
- Harding Elementary in Kenilworth, New Jersey.
- Harding Township, New Jersey—Named in 1922 for the incumbent president.
- Harding Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa
- In a neighborhood of Ketchikan, Alaska, north of the original townsite (or present-day downtown), three adjoining streets were named Warren, G and Harding following Harding's visit to the city.
- The railroad car in which Harding toured Alaska's "Westward" is on display at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, Alaska, directly inside the main entrance to the park. The car is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- The railroad car that returned Harding's body to Washington, The Superb, is on display at the Southeastern Railway Museum and, as of 2013, is undergoing restoration for public viewing. The car is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Backstairs at the White House: Television episode 1.2, Warren G. Harding played by George Kennedy, 1979.
- The Prez: A Ragtime Scandal: A musical centered on the historial life events of Warren G. Harding: played by Larry Marshall. Hosted by Capital Style Magazine at the National Press Club on C-SPAN, February 18, 1999.
- The American President: Season One, Episode 8, Voice of President Harding: Benjamin C. Bradley, 2000.
- Carter Beats the Devil: A novel by Glen David Gold wherein, at the climax of his latest touring stage show, Carter invites United States President Warren G. Harding on to stage to take part in his act hours before the President's death, 2001.
- Boardwalk Empire: Television episode 1.8, Warren G. Harding played by Malachy Cleary, 2010.
- Momma's Boys: A historical play that centers around eight previous Presidents of the United States from Ohio in a humorous and dramatic discussion of their lives. Warren G. Harding played by Matthew Parker. 2011
- Mentioned in the SyFy TV show Sanctuary (episode "Requiem") when Helen Magnus says that he was an abnormal ("You don't think a normal person would choose a job that impossible?").
- Al Stewart's song "Warren Harding" (from his 1973 album Past, Present and Future) satirizes the predicament of the President by contrasting his fall with the rise of an immigrant bootlegger.
- In a 1975 episode of Bob Newhart's show, the condition known as Montezuma's Revenge is referred to as "Warren Harding's Revenge."
- Ki Longfellow, China Blues, Eio Books 2012, ISBN 0-9759255-7-1 Warren Harding looms large in this story of 1920s San Francisco, in which Harding dies during his visit to the city by the Bay.
- The Bloviator, 2012, ISBN 978-1475279535 a comic novel by Jim Yoakum that tells the semi-fictional story of Harding's last six months on earth.
- Cronkite Remembers 1997 Part 1: Walter Cronkite describes his early years growing up in Missouri selling newspapers. In 1923, Cronkite showed a Kansas City newspaper to a friend that announced Warren G. Harding had died in office.
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- Warren G. Harding at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia,
Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865–1923)
- White House, 29. Warren G. Harding 1921–1923
- Warren G. Harding's Inauguration March 4, 1921
- Memorial U.S. postage stamp issued after Harding's death
- Warren G. Harding at C-SPAN's American Presidents: Life Portraits
- Warren Gamaliel Harding at Find a Grave
- Booknotes interview with Robert Ferrell on The Strange Deaths of President Harding, January 12, 1997.
- Booknotes interview with John Dean on Warren G. Harding, March 14, 2004.
- "Return to Normalcy" Speech, May 14, 1920
- 1920 Presidential Campaign; "Front Porch"; Marion, Ohio.
- Wearing cowboy hat
- Playing golf during Jazz Age
- Inaugural Address
- First State of the Union Address of Warren Harding
- Second State of the Union Address of Warren Harding
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