Warren G. Harding

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Warren G. Harding
29th President of the United States
Term of office
March 4, 1921 - August 2, 1923[1]
Political party Republican
Vice President Calvin Coolidge
Preceded by Woodrow Wilson
Succeeded by Calvin Coolidge
Born November 2, 1865
Near Blooming Groove, Ohio
Died August 2, 1923
San Francisco, California
Spouse Florence Kling Harding
Religion Baptist

Warren G. (Gamaliel) Harding (November 2, 1865 - August 2, 1923) was the 29th President of the United States of America, elected in a Republican landslide in 1920 and serving from 1921 until his sudden death in 1923. After the First World War. His conservative presidency was marked as a "return to normalcy", with an end to striokes and race riots, broad-scale prosperity, and peace abroad. He looked like a president, and was highly popular; after his deaths any number of scandals were blamed on him, by Democrats and by his Republican successor Calvin Coolidge, so that his reputation among both conservative and liberal scholars is near the bottom.


Harding's undeviating Republicanism and vibrant speaking voice, plus his willingness to let the machine bosses set policies, led him far in Ohio politics. He served in the state Senate and as Lieutenant Governor, and unsuccessfully ran for Governor. He delivered the nominating address for President Taft at the 1912 Republican Convention. In 1914 he was elected to the Senate. An Ohio admirer, Harry Daugherty, began to promote Harding for the 1920 Republican nomination because, he later explained, "He looked like a President." [2]


Key Accomplishments

  • Eliminated wartime controls
  • Slashed taxes
  • Established a Federal budget system,
  • Restored the high protective tariff
  • Imposed tight limitations upon immigration
  • Ended the Depression of 1921
  • Launched the Roaring Twenties
  • Fought the KKK.

Immigration Control

Mr. Harding signed into law the Emergency Quota Act[3] which sought to control immigration following World War I and preserve the distinctive American culture by ensuring the majority of immigrants came from the historically compatible cultures of Northern Europe. This law aimed to bring wages of hard working Americans under control by limiting immigration to 3% of the 1910 census. It was followed on by a similar act in 1924, after Mr. Harding's death.[4]

Tulsa Race Riot

Harding sought to calm race relations during the Tulsa Race Riot and events that followed. His wise words helped to calm the nation especially in the Tulsa area at this time of disturbance. His press secretary also sent a telegram to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People offering the president's support. [5]


Harding pardoned the socialist Eugene Debs who was imprisoned in 1918 for inciting resistance to the draft during World War I. Despite their political differences, Harding was cordial to him and met with him in the White House, "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally."[6]

Harding defined the Supreme Court for two decades, appointing four solidly conservative justices. Harding's appointments included former President William Howard Taft to be Chief Justice (1921), George Sutherland (1922), Pierce Butler (1923) and Edward Terry Sanford (1923). Two of these justices (Taft and Sanford) served until 1930. The other two (Sutherland and Butler) served until the late 1930s and stood up to the liberal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In selecting Pierce for the bench, Harding broke with tradition by picking a conservative Democrat even though Harding was a Republican.


The Bureau of the Budget was created during Harding's tenure. Harding attempted to restrain the federal budget and reduce expenses on wartime armaments. This stimulated the private economy and lead to a period of prosperity experienced in the United States during the 1920s known as the Roaring 20s. Shortly after taking office, Harding also successfully passed promotion of US Agriculture, repeal of the wartime "excess profits" tax and reduction of rail rates.[7] Due in part to Mr. Harding's conservative economic policies, the US experienced a period of profound economic growth in the early 1920s that continued through most of the decade.


Harding presided over modernization of the U.S. forces including the addition of the experimental aircraft carrier Langley and the T-2 submarine, as well as the creation of a merchant marine which was critical in early US involvement in WWII via the Lend-Lease Act.[8]


Harding avoided entangling alliances that lead to war and defended US interests. Mr. Harding outlined his policy in his inaugural address: "...every commitment must be made in the exercise of our national sovereignty. Since freedom impelled, and independence inspired, and nationality exalted, a world supergovernment is contrary to everything we cherish and can have no sanction by our Republic. This is not selfishness, it is sanctity. It is not aloofness, it is security. It is not suspicion of others, it is patriotic adherence to the things which made us what we are." [9]

Supported by his conservative colleagues in congress as well as the American people, Harding succeeded at continuing to keep the United States out of the League of Nations. [10]

Harding's administration was successful in negotiating the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited battleships.

Labor and economic issues

Labor unions were very weak in the Harding years. Under Andrew mellon the Treasuty systematically reduced federal income taxes, which had soared during the war, and sumultaneously paid off most of the wartime debt. Harding today has come under criticism by both liberal economists and free trade advocates for protectionist policies--high tariffs.


Fine (1990) explains why Harding's reputation took a nose dive, as the new president Calvin Coolidge blamed the troubles of the day on his dead predecessor. "Reputational entrepreneurs" attempt to control the memory of historical figures through motivation, narrative facility, and institutional placement, says Fine. Men remembered as great heroes or great vilains or evil are explained by the Durkheimian theory of consensus and cohesion, but this does not explain the memory of the "incompetent" like Harding. Reputational politics is an arena in which forces compete to control memory. Reputations are grounded in a social construction of character, subsequently generalized to policy and the character of the society. In the case of Harding, the president rated lowest by historians and the public, political opponents set the agenda, while potential supporters did not defend him, given their political interests, structural positions, and a lack of credible narrative.

Teapot Dome Scandal

Harding appointed Senator Albert B. Fall of New Mexico as his Secretary of the Interior, in charge of valuable oil lands that were for the long-term use of the Navy. Democrats in Congress, lead by Senator Thomas J. Walsh and Republican Senator Robert M. LaFollette (a former progressive), began an investigation with the support of the conservationist interests that backed them. They found that Fall had used his privatization efforts to benefit himself by over $400,000. Mr. Fall entangled other businessmen and politicians into his wrongdoing which lead to other indictments of both Democrats and Republicans and continued into the Coolidge administration. Harding did not know about these dealings until shortly before his death.

"The President's Daughter"

In 1928, Nan Britton published a book entitled "The President's Daughter" claiming that she and Harding had been lovers and had conceived a child in 1919. According to her, the affair continued for six years, and the lovers' meeting-places included a coat closet in the executive offices of the White House.[11]

Strange Death

Harding appeared to be in good health until his collapse and death. The surprise soon gave rise to a savage case of character assassination by insuations of murder, all thoroughly unfounded. [12]

Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, he began a tour on June 20, 1923 of the West and Alaska. He hoped to get out and meet people, to shake hands and explain his policies. Although suffering from high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, he seemed to enjoy himself and the food -- especially the seafood in Alaska. On his return journey, he became ill with what was then attributed to food poisoning. The Presidential train rushed to San Francisco, where his condition worsened. He developed pneumonia, and complicated by his heart ailment, died suddenly on August 23, he suffered a heart attack in the evening, while his wife was reading to him. He died quietly and instantaneously.

After Harding’s death, the reputation of his administration was tarnished by revelations of scandal, primarily the Teapot Dome scandal (mentioned above) and a scandal in the Veteran’s Administration which was particularly distasteful in that post World War I period. The scandals were pushed forward by congressional hearings, but were greeted by the public with what historian Frederick Lewis Allen concedes was brief resentment at both scandals and scandalmongers, followed by apathy.[13]

In 1926, author Samuel Hopkins Adams published the novel “Revelry”, with characters which appeared to be thinly disguised members of the Harding administration. The president in the novel, “Willis Markham” poisons himself by accident, but does not take an available antidote, because he realizes that his death “will wipe out the whole score” of soon to be revealed scandals involving oil and the Veteran’s Administration. The novel was later dramatized .[14]. Adams was a successful writer, and would go on to write the story which would become Frank Capra’s film “It Happened One Night”, and to share screenwriting credits with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on an unrelated film, “The President’s Mystery” in 1936. His fictional account of Harding’s death brought the issue of poison firmly into the public mind.

The publication of Nan Britton’s book "The President's Daughter" in 1928 portrayed the late President as a womanizer, which historians now unanimously agree was true, even if some disputes remain regarding the degree to which Harding was involved with Ms. Britton herself, and as to the paternity of her child.

In 1930, Gaston B. Means, a lifelong criminal who had nonetheless managed to get himself hired as an FBI agent for a brief time during the Harding administration, published The Strange Death of President Harding, by Gaston B. Means as told to May Dixon Thacker, in which he alleged that Mrs. Harding murdered her husband out of jealousy of Ms. Britton, and out of fear of the soon to be revealed Teapot Dome and Veteran’s Administration scandals. Means was later described by J. Edgar Hoover, who knew Means personally, as “the greatest faker of all time” and “the most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history”. Means, who had been previously acquitted of murder and had been involved in a number of other questionable situations such as possible insurance fraud, was convicted of bootlegging and mail fraud in 1925. While in prison he met May Dixon Thacker, who was interested in the rehabilitation of prisoners, and convinced her that he had been unjustly convicted. He convinced her to help him write a tell-all book about how he was railroaded, but as May Dixon Thacker herself wrote in a subsequent magazine article, he failed to provide her with any of the documentation of his account that he had promised. In the end, she made most of it up.[15] Means would go on to further criminal enterprise, and would finally be convicted of swindling Florence Harding’s close friend Evalyn Walsh McLean of over $100,000.00 which he was to use to ransom the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. Means was then sent to Leavenworth, where he died.

No forensic evidence has ever been found to suggest that Harding had been poisoned by any person, let alone his wife. The suggestion that she had a motivation to kill the president because of Florence Harding’s jealousy over an affair with Nan Britton makes little sense since she had long known her husband was a womanizer. The suggestion that she would murder the President to somehow deflect scandals that would be met by public apathy is similarly unlikely. Yet despite the source of these charges, their utter lack of factual support, and the unlikeliness of the alleged motives of the First Lady, Frederick Lewis Allen repeated these charges in his very successful book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s in 1931. Coming as it did in the deepest part of the Great Depression, Allen’s book, which depicted all of the Republican presidents of the 1920s as bumbling incompetents, was eagerly accepted by a public looking for someone to blame.


  • Out of all of the Presidents of the U.S. he had the largest feet.
  • He was the first president to visit Alaska.
  • He was the first President to speak on the radio and the first to have a radio in the White House.
  • Harding and John F. Kennedy are the only two sitting United States Senators elected to the Presidency, though they will be joined by either John McCain or Barack Obama in 2008.


  • Anthony, Carl S. Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President. (1998)
  • Downes Randolph C. The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding, 1865-1920. (1970), standard biograpohy to 1920
  • Fine, Gary Alan. "Reputational Entrepreneurs and the Memory of Incompetence: Melting Supporters, Partisan Warriors, and Images of President Harding." American Journal of Sociology 1996 101(5): 1159-1193. Issn: 0002-9602 Fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Grant, Philip A., Jr. "President Warren G. Harding and the British War Debt Question, 1921-1923." Presidential Studies Quarterly 1995 25(3): 479-487. Issn: 0360-4918
  • Grieb, Kenneth J. The Latin American Policy of Warren G. Harding 1976 online
  • Irwin, Manley R. "Harding Policies Foster Future Naval Success." Naval History 2003 17(4): 28-31. Issn: 1042-1920 Fulltext: at Ebsco
  • Malin, James C. The United States after the World War 1930. online detailed analysis of foreign and economic policies by a conservative historian
  • Morello, John A. Selling the President, 1920: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding. Praeger, 2001. online review
  • Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era 1921-1923: Warren G. Harding and his Administration. (1969), the standard academic study; by a conservative historian
  • Payne, Phillip. "Instant History and the Legacy of Scandal: the Tangled Memory of Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon, and William Jefferson Clinton." Prospects 2003 28: 597-625. Issn: 0361-2333
  • Rader, Benjamin G. "Federal Taxation in the 1920s: a Re-examination." Historian 1971 33(3): 415-435. Issn: 0018-2370
  • Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove , 1968. biography
  • Sinclair, Andrew. The Available Man: The Life behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding (1965) online full-scale biography
  • Winters, Donald L. "Ambiguity and Agricultural Policy: Henry Cantwell Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture." Agricultural History 1990 64(2): 191-198. Issn: 0002-1482

Primary sources

  • Warren G. Harding, Our Common Country: Mutual Good Will in America. 2003; essays written in late 1920; online edition


  1. http://home.comcast.net/~sharonday7/Presidents/AP060301.htm
  2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/wh29.html
  3. http://tucnak.fsv.cuni.cz/~calda/Documents/1920s/QuotaAct1918.html
  4. http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/faculty/hodgson/Courses/so11/Race/quota_acts.htm
  5. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3812/is_199911/ai_n8854233
  6. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/vodebs.htm
  7. http://ap.grolier.com/article?assetid=0193620-00
  8. http://ap.grolier.com/article?assetid=0193620-00
  9. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=25833
  10. http://ap.grolier.com/article?assetid=atb037b09&templatename=/article/article.html
  11. Allen, Frederick Lewis (1931), Only Yesterday, ch. VI, "Harding and the Scandals"
  12. Ferrell, Robert H. (1996), The Strange Deaths of President Harding, University of Missouri Press p.31
  13. see Allen, Only Yesterday
  14. Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding, p.33
  15. Ferrell, Robert H. (1996), The Strange Deaths of President Harding, University of Missouri Press pp. 42-43