Imagine, if you will, the United States in the midst of turmoil not seen since the days of civil war. The nation was in the throes of a decades-long period of progressive reforms that changed the relationship between citizen and government, with the new balance in favor of Washington.
A war in a distant, foreign land saw the loss of over a hundred thousand American soldiers and the passage of new laws to imprison those who dared to speak out against it. Coming in on the war tide was a horrific bout of a new strain of influenza that took the lives of nearly 700,000 Americans, while infecting as much as a quarter of the entire population, spreading fear across the country.
The following summer was one of discontent, as violence disrupted domestic tranquility, a tumultuous period that included labor strikes, bombings and other acts of terrorism, and the lynching of scores of citizens simply because of the color of their skin.
The economy fell into a serious depression, driving up unemployment and the cost of living significantly, while wartime taxes and government spending remained very high two years after the conflict ended.
Topping things off, the sitting President, who had been campaigning across the country to win support for an unpopular peace treaty in the midst of a nasty fight with the Senate, had suffered a debilitating stroke that remained hidden from the public for months, effectively bringing his administration to a screeching halt, leaving the nation, during the midst of the upheaval, a ship adrift at sea without a rudder.
Driven by the national uproar, the vast majority of the American people, already drenched by twenty years of change, had reached the breaking point and were more than ready for new leadership and a new direction. The recently concluded international crusade and its resultant problems had simply proven too much.
When the long-awaited national election day finally arrived, the people threw out the ruling party and selected a new President who came into office pledging a return to more normal times. The new chief executive vowed to enact no new reforms and to heal the nation of its economic and social disruptions. In a short period of time he succeeded more quickly than anyone thought possible.
After instituting a program of retrenchment, the economy rebounded rapidly, soon growing at a rate scarcely before seen in the history of the country, while unemployment eventually fell to a level no one thought possible. Much of the violence subsided, as the new President called for new laws and a new understanding that would crack down on vigilante justice and make American democracy as inclusive as it was boasted to be. Those who had suffered the loss of their liberty simply for having the audacity to exercise it were redeemed. For the most part, the nation was calm and at peace, even jubilant for the next decade.
Surely an American President able to calm such turbulent national waters and to achieve such extraordinary accomplishments should rightfully be regarded as one of the nation’s greatest.
Now imagine, if you will, the academic world and the political establishment slandering such a President as America’s worst. Hard to imagine but these things happened. And they happened to Warren G. Harding.
In just 882 days in the Oval Office, President Warren G. Harding’s accomplishments were quite impressive.
He inherited a major economic depression but quickly revived the American economy, leading to the most prosperous decade in US history, an expansion that aided every class of citizen. He massively reduced both taxes and government spending, thereby lessening the burdens on the people, and created the Budget Bureau, which gave the federal government a comprehensive budget for the first time.
He restored domestic tranquility, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity. He pardoned war resisters, pushed for anti-lynching legislation, and urged equal rights for black Americans, the first 20th century President to do so. He created the Veterans Bureau to help the hundreds of thousands of wounded American servicemen returning from the war in France.
He appointed four justices to the Supreme Court to safeguard the Constitution and began the process that transformed the Vice Presidency into its modern role in government.
He called the Washington Disarmament Conference to reduce the world’s deadliest weapons, formally ended World War One, withdrew US troops from the Caribbean and from the Rhineland in Germany, improved relations with Mexico and Latin America, called the World War Foreign Debt Commission to hammer out an agreement on war debt, and provided aid to millions of famine victims in Russia. For his achievements in foreign policy, Harding was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
And all of these things he accomplished in less time than John F. Kennedy was in office. It is a record of achievement that is worthy of respect and emulation.
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History.