Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Warren Gamaliel Harding

A conservative politician from Ohio, Warren G. Harding had few enemies because he rarely took a firm enough stand on an issue to make any. Who would have suspected that the man to succeed Woodrow Wilson, America's most visionary President, would be a man who saw the President's role as largely ceremonial?

Warren Harding was raised in a small town in Ohio. His wholesome and picture book childhood—farm chores, swimming in the local creek, and playing in the village band—was the basis of his down-home appeal later in life. As a young man, Harding brought a nearly bankrupt newspaper, the Marion Star, back to life. The paper became a favorite with Ohio politicians of both parties because of Harding's evenhanded reporting. Always well-liked for his good-natured manner, Harding won a seat in the Ohio State Senate, serving two terms before becoming a U.S. senator from Ohio in 1914. During his term as senator, Harding missed more sessions than he attended, being absent for key debates on prohibition and women's suffrage. Taking no stands meant making no enemies, and his fellow Republicans awarded Harding the 1920 presidential nomination, sensing the nation's fatigue with the reform agenda of Woodrow Wilson. Running with the slogan, "A Return to Normalcy," Harding beat progressive Democrat James M. Cox in a massive landslide.

Weak and Mediocre Presidency

Once in office, Harding admitted to his close friends that the job was beyond him. The capable men that Harding appointed to his cabinet included Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state, Andrew Mellon as secretary of the treasury, and Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. But he also surrounded himself with dishonest cheats, who came to be known as "the Ohio gang." Many of them were later charged with defrauding the government, and some of them went to jail. Though Harding knew of the limitations of men like Harry Dougherty, the slick friend he appointed attorney general, he liked to play poker with them, drink whiskey, smoke, tell jokes, play golf, and keep late hours.

Known as a "good fellow," Harding enjoyed being liked more than he prized being a good leader. Though Harding was never linked to any crooked deals, the public was aware of his affairs with at least two women. Carrie Phillips, who had been a German sympathizer during the war, tried to blackmail Harding and was paid hush money by the Republican Party. Nan Britton, a pretty blond thirty years younger than the President, was given a job in Washington, D.C., so that she could be near Harding. The two often met in the Oval Office, and their affair continued until Harding's death.

Decidedly conservative on trade and economic issues, Harding favored pro-business government policies. He allowed Andrew Mellon to push through tax cuts for the rich, stopped antitrust actions, and opposed organized labor.

Harding knew little about foreign affairs when he assumed office, preferring to give Secretary of State Hughes a free hand. Hughes was concerned with securing foreign markets for wealthy American banks, such as the one run by John D. Rockefeller. Hughes and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover used the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to secure oil markets in the Middle East, especially in modern-day Iraq and Iran. His administration revised Germany's war debts downward through legislation, passed in 1923, known as the Dawes Plan. Hughes also called for a naval conference with nine other nations to freeze naval spending in an effort to reduce spending.

Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, Harding and his wife, Florence "Flossie" Harding, organized a tour of the western states and Alaska in an attempt to meet people and explain his policies. After becoming ill with what was at the time attributed to ptomaine (food) poisoning, Harding had a heart attack and died quietly in his sleep. The rumors flew that Flossie had poisoned the President to save him from being engulfed in the charges of corruption that swept his administration. The Hardings never had any children; Flossie died of kidney disease in 1924.

Most historians regard Harding as the worst President in the nation's history. In the end, it was not his corrupt friends, but rather, Harding's own lack of vision that was most responsible for the tarnished legacy.

Warren G. Harding, called "Winnie" by his mother, was born on November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. When he was ten, his family moved to the small Ohio village of Caledonia where he was raised. Both his parents were doctors—an unusual distinction for Phoebe Harding, who was granted a medical license based upon her experience as a midwife and in assisting her husband, George Harding. Warren cherished his childhood memories that painted a wholesome and perfect picture book boyhood. An upbringing filled with farm chores, swimming in the local creek, and playing in the village band were the basis of his down-home appeal later in life. Like so many small-town boys in post-Civil War Ohio, Harding, along with his five younger siblings (four sisters and a brother) attended a one room schoolhouse where he learned to read, write, and spell from the McGuffey's Readers. At age fourteen, he entered Ohio Central College, from which he graduated with a B.S. degree in 1882, having achieved some distinction for editing the campus newspaper.

After college, Harding taught in a country school outside Marion, Ohio, for one term before trying his hand at law, insurance sales, and journalism for the local newspaper. In 1884, he raised $300 to purchase with two friends the nearly defunct Marion Star newspaper. They achieved moderate success over the next five years. In 1891, Warren, aged twenty-five, married a local divorcée, Florence "Flossie" Mabel Kling DeWolf, five years his senior. She had a ten-year-old son by her former husband and a sizable fortune from her wealthy family. She pursued Warren relentlessly, and he finally gave in, even though her father once stopped Warren on the street and threatened to kill him if he married his daughter. It was a match that her father objected to because of the rumor that Warren's family had black ancestors.

Publishing and Politics

For the next ten years, Harding's business prospered, in part due to Florence Harding's keen business eye, but principally to Harding's good-natured manner. His paper became a favorite with Ohio politicians of both parties because of his evenhanded reporting. He never ran a critical story if he could avoid it. His employees also loved and respected him for his willingness to share company profits with them. In his entire career, he never fired a single employee. In 1899, Harding won the first of two terms to the Ohio State Senate, serving as majority leader before his bid for the lieutenant governorship in 1903. After leaving office in 1905, he returned to his newspaper for five years, venturing again into state politics in a losing bid for governor in 1910.

So popular had he become with party regulars that he was given the honor of placing President William Howard Taft's name in nomination at the party convention in 1912. When the pro-Theodore Roosevelt delegates shouted him down, Harding went away from this experience offended by the display of loud and rude behavior. In 1914, Harding won the Ohio Republican primary for senator and beat Attorney General Timothy Hogan in the general election. Harding's supporters viciously attacked Hogan for being a Catholic intent on delivering Ohio to the pope. The religion issue dominated the election and gave Harding an overwhelming victory, though he never personally mentioned religion in his speeches. Still, the dirty election campaign was a smudged mark on his political record that never set easy with him.

Harding's undistinguished senate career made him few enemies and many friends. Always the "good fellow," he missed more sessions than he attended—being absent for key debates on the prohibition and suffrage amendments to the U.S. Constitution. As the man acceptable to almost all party regulars, Harding served as the keynote speaker and chairman of the 1916 Republican national convention. On the League of Nations, he stood solidly with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in opposing President Woodrow Wilson's version of the League. (Interestingly, when Harding was President, his position was not as clear.)

The Campaign and Election of 1920

No one expected Warren G. Harding to gain the Republican nomination for President when he arrived at the Chicago convention in 1920. No one, that is, except his close friend and political manager, Harry Daugherty, the wealthy corporate lawyer and lobbyist from Ohio. Daugherty believed that none of the front-runners would carry the nomination on the first ballots. Harding was known to all of them, had played poker with most of them, and was "right" on every important issue. He represented a critically important state in the election, had not opposed prohibition or suffrage, and had no political enemies. Finally, with his distinguished "presidential" profile, he was among the best-looking politicians in the nation—a sure plus, believed his friends, in an election when millions of women would vote for the first time in the nation's history.

The party leaders gave Harding the nomination on the tenth ballot. The popular governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, was nominated for vice president. Their Republican platform condemned the Wilson administration for its handling of World War I and opposed the League of Nations. On trade and immigration, Harding and Coolidge (who would succeed Harding in office) advocated a higher protective tariff and supported new immigration requirements. Overall, they promised to return the nation to more normal times—like those prior to all the out of control drives for reform that had begun in the 1890s.

The Democrats, who met in San Francisco, also turned to an Ohio newspaperman, James M. Cox, a liberal Democrat who had served as the progressive governor of the state during the Wilson years. But they were hardly united, and it took forty-four ballots to put him over the top. The second spot on the ticket went to the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, who would become the nation's thirty-second President. The Democratic nominees reflected the party's determination to continue Woodrow Wilson's progressive agenda at home and idealistic involvement abroad.

Returning to the political strategy associated with the pre-Roosevelt days, Harding conducted a front-porch campaign in which he spoke in overused clich�s (urging a "return to normalcy" after the hardships of the world war and the struggle over the League of Nations) to reporters and visitors from his home in Marion. Cox traveled twenty-two thousand miles making over four hundred speeches. The most popular entertainer in American, Al Jolson, stumped the nation for Harding, singing songs that compared the candidate to popular Republican President Abraham Lincoln. Harding won in a massive landslide, pulling over 7 million more votes than Cox. The Socialist Party candidate won 3 percent of the electorate, amassing ninety thousand votes. In the electoral college, Harding won thirty-seven states and 404 votes; Cox won only eleven southern states, with 127 electoral college votes, the traditional "Solid South" base of the Democratic Party.

As President, Warren G. Harding often seemed overwhelmed by the burdens of his administration. He frequently confided to his friends that the job was beyond him. But he worked at his duties intensely and tried to keep his campaign promise of naming the best men in the nation to his cabinet. Some of them were clearly men of talent and energy.

Men of Competence and Corruption

His secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, the former presidential candidate, was one of the ablest of his choices. Andrew Mellon, the fabulously wealthy Pittsburgh financier, proved to be a powerful and effective though rigidly partisan secretary of the treasury. And the brilliant engineer Herbert Hoover, who had earned an international reputation for his work in feeding the starving millions of Western Europe after World War I, transformed the Department of Commerce into an efficient and effective support agency for U.S. business at home and abroad. All three cabinet members would stay on in the Coolidge administration. (Hoover would become the thirty-first President of the United States.)

Along with these distinguished men, Harding also surrounded himself with an unpleasant group of dishonest cheats known as "the Ohio gang." Many of them were later charged with defrauding the government, and a few of them went to jail. Harding clearly knew of their limitations, but he liked to play poker with them, drink whiskey, smoke, tell jokes, play golf, and keep late hours. Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the daughter of twenty-sixth President Theodore Roosevelt) once described the scene that she encountered at one of Harding's card games: "the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and spittoons alongside." (He once gambled away the entire White House china set in a card game.)

His close friend and political manager, Harry Daugherty, whom he named attorney general, was one of the worst—and one of the slickest. He survived impeachment attempts by Congress and two indictments for defrauding the government in the disposal of alien property confiscated by his office from German nationals. Another schemer, Albert Fall, secretary of the interior, secretly allowed private oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in return for least $300,000 paid to him in bribes. Fall was eventually sent to prison for his crimes. Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, diverted alcohol and drugs from Veterans hospitals to bootleggers and narcotics dealers and took payoffs from contractors building the hospitals. He went to jail for two years.

It is noteworthy to remember that Harding was a man who could not say "no" to his friends. In fact, his father once told him that it was good that he had not been born "a gal," or else he would have been "in the family way all the time." Apparently, the President was not unaware of his problem. He enjoyed being liked, and he tried to make up for his weakness by supporting a few reform measures.

Reforms to Regain the Presidency

Harding did accept some government reforms to improve its efficiency. After failing to pass during the Wilson presidency, Harding signed a revised version of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which allowed the President to present a unified budget for the first time (rather than have each cabinet secretary submit a budget to Congress), and which also created the General Accounting Office to audit government expenditures. He also supported bills assisting farm cooperatives and the liberalization of farm credit. Perhaps most importantly, unlike his predecessor Wilson, Harding was generally tolerant on civil liberties, honestly criticizing the unfair treatment of African Americans. He once lectured a segregated crowd of thirty thousand people at the University of Alabama on the virtues of racial equality and the evils of segregation.

Harding backed away from granting a general amnesty to the hundreds of Americans jailed for nonviolent antiwar protests during the Wilson years, but he did instruct the Justice Department to review each arrest on a case-by-case basis. Among those pardoned was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate, who was serving a ten-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Debs had won over ninety thousand votes from his prison cell in the 1920 election. As a condition for the pardon, Harding insisted that Debs come to the White House after being released from jail so the two men could meet.

Immigration Quotas and Pro-Business Stance

This generous and humane approach to healing domestic war wounds contrasted with Harding's support for the Johnson Immigrant Quota Act of 1921, which stipulated that the annual immigration of a given nationality could not exceed 3 percent of the number of immigrants from that nation residing in the U.S. in 1910. This quota made it more difficult for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, whose numbers had been smaller in 1910, to enter the country. It would be the first in a series of anti-immigrant steps in the 1920s that greatly favored northern Europeans and immigrants from the Western Hemisphere over Italians, Russians, and eastern and central Europeans. Republicans passed these laws in part because immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were more likely to enroll in the Democratic Party.

On most issues related to the economy and foreign trade, Harding was decidedly conservative—determined, actually, to make the federal government serve U.S. business interests. He supported efforts by Secretary Mellon, one of the wealthiest men in the nation, to push through substantial tax cuts for the rich and for corporations. By 1926, a person earning $1 million annually paid less than a third of the income tax he had paid in 1920. And Harding's stand-pat attitude helped bestow confidence among U.S. business interests during the sharp deflation in 1920, which lasted for about one year. During that downswing of the economy, wages dropped drastically, and over twenty thousand business failures occurred. Delivering on his campaign promise, Harding supported, moreover, the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act that reversed the downward movement in rates initiated by Wilson. The higher rates resulting from this piece of legislation were favored by industrialists who supported the Republican Party. Equally important in setting a pro-business tone were Harding's actions to encourage the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, and the Interstate Commerce Commission to cooperate with corporations rather than to regulate them or to instigate antimonopoly actions against them.

Warren Harding gave his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, a free hand in foreign affairs. A leading internationalist, Hughes worked with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon to design a foreign policy enabling the U.S. to participate in the world's economic life while retaining a free hand in international relations. They hoped to use American banks, such as the John D. Rockefeller-backed Chase National Bank, to replace British financiers in the handling and financing of world trade. Hoover established a corps of commercial attach�s to work with career Foreign Service officers in the pursuit of foreign markets. Hughes and Hoover used the reciprocity provisions of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act to secure minor concession on rubber in Malaya and on oil in the Middle East—especially in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Persia (modern-day Iran). Hoover and Hughes encouraged seven American oil companies to form a consortium, led by Standard Oil of New Jersey, to seek participation in Iraqi oil concessions, thus inaugurating an "open door" policy for U.S. investment in energy resources in the Middle East.

In Europe, Treasury Secretary Mellon attempted to direct financial affairs in the face of the massive U.S. investments and loans during World War I. Resisting efforts to forgive European indebtedness to America, which stood at about $12 billion in 1920, Mellon secured the appointment of Charles G. Dawes, a midwestern Republican banker, to head a commission to revise the amount owned by Germany for reparations. In March 1923, the Dawes Plan scaled down Germany's payments to 2.5 billion marks over the next fifty years. The German economy then took off like a rocket, fueled by a massive injection of American loans ($2 billion over the next five years) that were used to pay reparations. The Europeans, in turn, used part of the reparation payments to fund debts (drastically reduced by the Dawes Plan) owed to the U.S. in a curiously circular flow of capital. In total, the actual debt paid to the U.S. never equaled more than a mere fraction of the original debt and interest due (about $22 billion).

Washington Armament Conference

High on Mellon's and Hughes's agenda was their desire to curb the arms race that had spun out of control prior to 1914. Committed to reducing spending, Mellon did not want to continue expensive naval development. The U.S. now rivaled England as a naval power, with Japan close behind. Fearful of a costly naval rivalry in the Pacific, Hughes called for a naval conference in Washington to negotiate freezing the present status. Hughes shocked the delegates with his proposal for scrapping fifteen American capital ships built during the war. His plan called for rough equality between England and the U.S., with a Japanese navy 60 percent as strong as the two leaders. Since Japan used its fleet only in the western Pacific while England and the U.S. had a two-ocean navy, the Japanese actually would be the premier naval power in its home waters. France and Italy were held at a ratio far below the other three. Moreover, a Nine Power Treaty emerged out of the conference, in which all of the signature states with interests in the Far East guaranteed the territorial integrity of China and an "open door" to trade and investment there.

Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, Warren and Florence Harding 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—especially in Alaska. On his return journey, he became ill with what was then attributed to a touch of ptomaine (food) poisoning. The presidential train rushed to San Francisco, where his condition worsened. On August 2, he most likely suffered a heart attack in the evening, while his wife was reading to him. He died quietly and instantaneously.

Word quickly spread that Mrs. Harding, the last person to be with him that evening, had poisoned him to prevent him from being brought up on charges of corruption that soon engulfed his administration. A sensationalist book published in 1930 detailed the allegations against her. Her refusal to allow an autopsy of the President only fed the rumors. Harding left the bulk of his estate, valued at $850,000, to his wife.

Warren and Florence Harding had no family life in the White House to speak of. Although Florence had a son by a prior marriage, her marriage with Warren did not produce any offspring. Thus, their social affairs were limited to elegant garden parties and typical affairs of state. They loved to entertain special friends, however, in the upstairs quarters of the White House with ample supplies of liquor (obtained as medical supplies) in private defiance of prohibition. For Harding, social life revolved around the twice-weekly poker games with his cronies, golf games at the Chevy Chase Country Club, yachting, and fishing. He was the first President to have a radio in the White House, and the first to broadcast a presidential message via radio.

Extramarital Affairs

Harding's two publicly known affairs came to light in 1927 with a book published by one of his lovers, Nan Britton, and in 1963, when love letters written by Harding to Carrie Phillips were uncovered. His affair with Carrie Phillips, wife of his longtime friend James Phillips, ran for more than fifteen years, beginning in Marion, Ohio in 1905. At one point, Phillips, a tall attractive woman ten years younger than Harding, had tried to blackmail him into voting against a declaration of war on Germany. As a German sympathizer who had lived in Berlin off and on, she had fallen under the surveillance of the U.S. Secret Service. In 1920, the Republican National Committee bribed Mr. and Mrs. Phillips with a free, slow trip to Japan, $20,000 in cash, and the promise of monthly payments to keep them quiet. She lived until 1960.

While seeing Carrie Phillips, Harding also was deeply involved with his so-called "niece" Nan Britton, a pretty blonde thirty years younger than himself. Their affair began in 1917, when the moonstruck teenager from Harding's hometown of Marion wrote him asking for a job. Harding put her to work in a clerical position at the U.S. Steel Corporation in Washington, D.C. They continued their affair (often seeing each other in the Oval Office) until his death. Nan gave birth to a baby girl on October 22, 1919, named Elizabeth Ann Christian. Harding never saw the child but made generous child support payments that were hand delivered by the Secret Service. After his death, Britton sued Harding's estate to gain a trust fund for her daughter. Failing that, she wrote a best-selling book (ninety thousand copies), The President's Daughter, dedicated "to all unwed mothers, and to their innocent children whose fathers are usually not known to the world." It recounted the specific logistics of the affair in great detail.

The Warren G. Harding years ushered in a new era of prosperity for the American electorate. After a brief recession in 1920, prosperity returned with a burst of buying by Americans eager to make up for their wartime deprivations. The gross national product (GNP) increased by 16 percent between 1921 and 1922. By 1923, unemployment had dropped to a low of 2 percent. Most workers in manufacturing were fully employed, and their average paycheck reached $22 per week—an all-time high.

Prosperity, Bootlegging, and Nativism

It was a time of fundamental change, a time when American business leaders launched a new wave of advertising aimed at getting Americans to consume new products. Listerine was plugged as the way to increase one's romance with the opposite sex by fighting halitosis (bad breath). General Foods put the image of Betty Crocker on its baking products. An average of 883,000 new homes were built each year of the 1920s beginning in 1922. And some cities, like Los Angeles, had one automobile for every three residents. Radios became a household word, and young men and women began to "date," a new term in the American vocabulary.

Most Americans simply ignored the new prohibition laws against drinking, following the example set by President Harding. In 1923, a federal agent reported that it took a newcomer only thirty-five seconds to get an illegal drink in New Orleans, three minutes in Detroit, and three minutes and ten seconds in New York City. And Al Capone, the Chicago bootlegger, was just getting started during the Harding years. By 1926, his gang numbered one thousand members.

The war, prosperity, and the new morality—symbolized in part by the country's easy acceptance of "the Ohio gang" in the White House and the talk about Harding's "girlfriends"—produced the early signs of a reactionary upheaval in response to the changes all around. A wave of nativism swept the land, producing a new immigration quota (the Johnson Act) and bloody race riots. The new Ku Klux Klan, revived by its glorification in the film Birth of a Nation and a recruiting scheme that profited local organizers, grew from five thousand members in 1918 to over 1 million by 1923. Klan members hailed themselves as "Puritans" doing battle with "a corrupt and jazz-mad age." In Oregon, the Klan pushed legislation that would eliminate Catholic schools because they were perceived as "un-American." It took a Supreme Court case decided in 1925, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, to uphold the Klan's continued existence.

The Harding years also witnessed the introduction of the so-called "American Plan," whereby American businessmen launched antiunion drives by offering workers something known as "Welfare Capitalism." The plan provided workers with benefit programs such as insurance, pensions, cheap lunches in company cafeterias, paid vacations, and stock purchase options in return for leaving—or not joining—labor unions.

Most historians rank Harding as the worst of all American Presidents. Recently, some revisionists see him as an important transitional figure whose easy-going ways helped bridge the gap between Wilsonian idealism and the business prosperity of the Coolidge and Hoover years. Harding is also given some credit for his progressive views on race and civil rights.

Neither a deep thinker, nor a decisive President, Harding failed, in most opinions, to impact the nation simply because he saw the role of President as largely ceremonial. He saw himself as neither a caretaker nor as a leader. He just avoided issues whenever possible.

Unlike other modern Presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, who possessed conventional minds and who thought simply, Harding never understood where he wanted to take the nation. Nor could he communicate his message effectively, because he had none to communicate. He spoke about a "return to normalcy," but he had no idea what this slogan meant. Lacking the moral compass of a Reagan, Harding had no guide to follow. He was lucky to have had a few good men in his cabinet who generally ran fiscal and foreign affairs well.

In the end, it was not his corrupt friends that tarnished his legacy and undermined his historical impact. Rather, it was his own lack of vision and his poor sense of priorities that positioned him so low in the ranking of U.S. Presidents. Then, too, it was Harding's sad fate to have followed in office the most visionary of all our Presidents, Woodrow Wilson, the man whom historians generally rank among the top five or six Presidents in the nation's history.