He was born a Seventh-Day Adventist, but later became a Baptist. He was a Mason of high degree, joined the Elk Lodge, the Rotary Club, the local Chamber of Commerce. He even played the sousaphone. He was, wrote journalist William Allen White, “the Prominent Citizen” in Marion, Ohio. One of his Secret Service agents said he was “the kindest man I ever knew.”
When Warren Gamaliel Harding began to climb the political ladder, he was unlike most other politicians. Ambition, long the potential vice that most-often turns ordinary men into ravenous political wolves, “did not stir him greatly,” wrote a New York reporter. Even though he was “always a popular figure” back home in Marion and “was the best known man in town,” everyone “called him Warren.” And no matter how high he climbed, he always “remained Warren.”
And that’s the way Harding wanted it, even as president. Harding loved to play golf and often played with members of Congress but he “insisted on being treated without respect for his office,” wrote Edmund Starling, head of his Secret Service detail. “Forget that I am President of the United States,” Harding would say. “I’m Warren Harding, playing with some friends, and I’m going to beat hell out of them.” His humility was so great that as president he refused to allow the US Shipping Board to name a merchant ship after him.
Charles Evans Hughes, who served as Harding’s Secretary of State, called him a “most kindly man.” Senator James E. Watson of Indiana admired him for “his lovable nature” and wrote that he “was as intensely human in his sentiments and emotions and sympathies as any man I ever knew.” Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler said he was “one of the kindest men who ever lived.” Journalist Edward G. Lowry also made note of Harding’s kind nature. He possessed a “kindliness and kindness that fairly radiate from him. He positively gives out even to the least sensitive a sense of brotherhood and innate goodwill toward his fellow man,” he wrote. These traits are the “strongest Mr. Harding makes upon every one.”
Perhaps no man captured the goodness of Warren Harding better than Charles Thompson, the Washington reporter for the New York Times. Harding had a “perpetual smile” and “his meaningless geniality,” which “came to grate on me more and more.” But he nonetheless conceded that he was “one of the kindest hearted of men. Never was there a man fuller of good feeling.” Harding spent hundreds of dollars every Christmas on gifts for the poor in Marion, Thompson related in his memoirs. Harding’s father told the reporter that his son had given the poor “more than any other man in this town.” Harding’s “generosities were so numerous,” wrote Thompson, “and so constant that in Marion you never heard the same story from any two men; they always had their own stories, all different.” Harding exhibited “kindness to everybody,” he continued, “a desire to do gracious little things to make life pleasanter.”
Two days after his presidential election in 1920, Harding responded to an article in the Literary Digest appealing to the American people to help the three-and-a-half million children who were victims of the great war in Europe. Harding sent a personal check for $2,500 ($32,000 in 2020 dollars) and wrote a gracious note in favor of their “splendid appeal,” which was published in the November 13, 1920 edition. “Because such a movement for relief reveals the true heart of America,” he wrote, “because it bespeaks an American desire to play a great people’s part in relieving and restoring God’s own children, I want to commend and support your noble undertaking.” The American people should “share our good fortunes in acts of sympathy and human fellowship. I wish you a success which will reveal anew the unselfishness of our great people.”
Harding also had a great love for animals and loathed those who mistreated them, attitudes that he often displayed on the pages of his newspaper, the Marion Star. In February 1885 he wrote of a man who did not treat his horses with proper care. “The man who will drive a team of horses for miles and then hitch them unblanketed to a post to shiver for hours in the cold, is less fit and less likely to get to heaven than the poor dumb brutes are.” On another occasion he wrote about the mistreatment of mules, not the most popular animal at the time, but he did not refrain from calling out the abuse and naming names. “If the report we have is true regarding the brutal manner in which J. H. Foster, the drayman, treated his mules this morning, the S.P.C.A. greatly neglects its duty if he is not arrested. It’s seldom a mule gets sympathy, but there is a limit to all things.”
Harding’s favorite pets were dogs and he often took them to work with him. In fact, he loved them so much that when one of them died, he published an obituary for the pup in the Star. His dog during his time as president, Laddie Boy, was the first White House pet celebrity.
These are contemporary opinions of the real Warren Harding, not the false caricature that has been portrayed in the pages of history. Perhaps no president was more beloved by the people and those around him. He was a man of great personal warmth and affection, who only sought to serve the American people. He is worthy of respect, not vilification.
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.