The most maligned President in US history was Warren G. Harding, who served from his inauguration on March 4, 1921 until August 2, 1923, when he died while on a tour of the West Coast. But so much of what is known about Harding and his presidency is in the realm of myth, not fact.
His many detractors say he was not intelligent and even dumb, certainly not fit for the presidency, a fact he himself readily admitted.
Harding certainly never called himself dumb but he did not believe he was fit for the presidency. He once said, “I am unfit for this office and should never have been here.” At another time he said, “I have such a sure understanding of my own inefficiency that I should really be ashamed to presume myself fitted to reach out for a place of such responsibility.”
But is this really a bad mark against the man? Or was it more likely an open display of his humility? Writes Lew Rockwell, “Of course historians hate him. They say he was a do-nothing president. Harding himself admitted it. He said he was unqualified to be president. Indeed, no man is qualified to be president. Harding was honest enough to say it outright.”
But Harding was not a dumb or an anti-intellectual man. Anyone who would simply take the time to read through his private letters will see a man who had a grasp of the issues and a knowledge of the inner workings of government. This was especially true of politics. He was a superb politician who understood how the game was played and he played it well.
While in the US Senate, before he became president, he was a man of no accomplishments, a back-bencher.
As author Jared Cohen written, “While in the Senate, [Harding] made it his business to do nothing.” But out of his six years as a Senator, the Democrats were in control for the first four years, and by 1920, Harding was deep into a presidential campaign, leaving him only part of one year to get anything accomplished, and that year was taken up by the issue of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, which Harding helped to stop.
But in his time in the Senate while Republicans had control, he was a valued member of the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as other committees, and was given the lead speech in the Senate in the fight against the League of Nations, where he received sustained approval. In 1916, he chaired the Republican National Convention and was widely praised for his conduct. Harding was always very popular with his fellow Republicans.
As a “dark horse” candidate, he was nominated in a “smoke-filled room” by a select group of powerful Senators who chose him because he was pliable and could be easily led.
Harding biographer Robert K. Murray has written, “No myth has been more pervasive in American history than this one.” Presidential scholar Thomas Bailey has also noted, “Legend to the contrary, he was not the clear choice of the Senate bosses at Chicago in 1920; they did not control the convention; and he was not nominated in a smoke-filled hotel room but in an open assembly.”
Of course, a high-level meeting, or meetings, did take place in the Blackstone Hotel, and Harding’s name emerged as a potential nominee after some discussion. Senator James Watson, who was present at the meeting, called the whole sordid tale “pure bunk.” Harry Daugherty, who was the supposed mastermind of the scheme, “did not attend this conference and was not even invited to do so,” said Watson.
This was an era before the primacy of the presidential primary, so all presidential nominees were chosen, at least to some degree, by party bosses. But party bosses didn’t control the individual delegates, who voted to nominate Harding, and also called for the nomination of Coolidge for vice president, even though the bosses wanted someone else.
While president, he allowed his cronies, known as the “Ohio Gang,” to loot the public treasury, a plan that was put in place during the nominating process, well before the presidential election in November 1920.
The ilk known as the “Ohio Gang” was the name pinned on the powerful Republican political machine that controlled a large faction of state politics. But, at least as far as Harding’s White House is concerned, there was no “Ohio Gang.” This is a persistent myth about Harding and, like much of the rest, it just isn’t true. Harding did appoint a number of people to government positions from his native Ohio, and even from his hometown of Marion, but, aside from Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Daugherty’s underling, Jesse Smith, none of his Ohio appointees were implicated in wrong doing. Other corrupt figures, Charles Forbes, Albert Fall, and others were not from Ohio. This idea that Harding knowingly appointed a bunch of crooks to office so they could loot the US Treasury is nothing more than a smear.
During his tenure in the White House, some 882 days, he had no great achievements.
Harding accomplished more in less time than John F. Kennedy was in office. He revived the American economy that led to the most prosperous decade in US history, cut taxes and reduced government spending, restored domestic tranquility, pardoned those who were punished for opposing World War I, pushed for anti-lynching legislation and equal rights for blacks, created the Veterans Bureau, called the Washington Naval Conference, and withdrew US troops from Germany and the Caribbean, to name but a few of his major accomplishments.
A “notorious womanizer” all his life, Harding had relations with mistresses in a closet just off the Oval Office.
Harding had at least two extramarital affairs before he became president, including the infamous tryst with the young Nan Britton, which we now know, through DNA, produced a child. But Harding’s detractors have blown his affairs out of proportion and even made up stories to make him seem far worse than he was. He was nothing like JFK, LBJ, or even Bill Clinton. One completely made up story tells of Harding’s dalliances with Britton in the Oval Office itself, as well as in a closet nearby.
Interestingly, nothing about these so-called illicit Oval Office trysts leaked in the 882 days he was in office. But at least three first-hand accounts from inside the White House repudiate them all. White House doorkeeper Patrick Kenney, White House usher Ike Hoover, and Secret Service Agent Edmund Starling all refute the lies that women came to see Harding while he was president.
In fact, Agent Starling later wrote, “From the moment of his election until the hour of his death he was never free from our surveillance. His acts are things to which I can swear. He never did anything more reprehensible than cuss mildly at a golf ball and play poker with his friends. He was the kindest man I ever knew.”
He died in a mysterious way, possibly by poisoning, either by his wife or by his own hand.
Contrary to popular myth, Warren Harding did not take his own life, nor did his wife poison him because of his affairs. The basis of the story was a man named Gaston Means, a one-time federal agent, who authored a book entitled The Strange Death of President Harding. Most serious scholars find no truth to these allegations. William Ridings and Stuart McIver, who rated Harding as the nation’s worst president, wrote that the poison rumor was a “preposterous suspicion” and that Means was a “con man.”
Edmund Starling, Harding’s Secret Service agent, called Means “a man who would not have been caught dead telling the truth. His engagement as a G-man was a fatal mistake; later he smeared the President and the administration with vicious and scandalous lies which are still quoted as truth by most of the public.”
Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who didn’t have much good to say about Harding, bristled with hostility over the allegation. “No matter what Harding’s failings may have been, nothing more contemptible and distorted has ever been published about him” as the rumors that he was murdered or committed suicide.
Harding and his era of excess led directly to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Philip Abbott, in Bad Presidents: Failure in the White House, lays the blame for the Great Depression squarely at the feet of all three Republican presidents of the 1920s. “Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover together share responsibility for the Great Depression,” because each one “believed in lower taxes and less government,” he writes. “For if these Presidents were responsible for the apparent prosperity of the 1920s, how could they not be responsible for the 1930s?” Because they weren’t.
Harding and Coolidge’s policies, which did lead to the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, were reversed, first by Herbert Hoover, then continuing at the hands of FDR. But the primary culprit was the Federal Reserve’s policies.
As Ludwig von Mises has contended, almost every economic depression can be blamed on monetary policy. Throughout the 1920s, the Fed lowered interest rates, leading to increased speculation in the stock market, which created a bubble “fueled by the artificially cheap credit.” The Fed then began to raise interest rates in 1928 and 1929 in order to slow things down. They slowed them down too much. “In other words,” writes economist Robert Murphy, “when the Fed stopped pumping in gobs of new money that pushed up the stock market, investors came to their senses and asset prices plunged back towards their pre-bubble level.” The Great Depression had nothing to do with Warren Harding.
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.