Warren Gamaliel Harding (Blooming Grove, Ohio, November 2, 1865-San Francisco, California, August 2, 1923) was the twenty-ninth president of the United States, serving from 1921 until his death in 1923. A member of the Republican Party, he was one of the most popular sitting U.S. presidents. After his death, a series of scandals were exposed, including Teapot Dome, as well as an extramarital affair with Nan Britton, which diminished his reputation.
He entered politics after a successful career as a newspaper editor, in 1900 when he was elected senator in the state of Ohio, of which he was lieutenant governor between 1904 and 1906. In 1915 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio.
His conservatism, affable manner and “make no enemies” electoral strategy made him the candidate of choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention. During his presidential campaign, in the aftermath of World War I, he promised the nation’s return to “normalcy.” His “America First” campaign encouraged industrialization and a strong economy independent of outside influence. Harding departed from the progressive movement that had dominated Congress since President Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1920 election, Harding and his vice presidential candidate, Calvin Coolidge, defeated Democrat James M. Cox by a wide margin of 60.36% to 34.19%.
His presidential administration was characterized by granting greater freedom to private initiative, minimizing the intervention of the federal state in economic affairs (high tariffs, low taxes for large private companies, deregulation of any federal agency accused of “restricting” the free market, restrictions on the use of executive power in social affairs, etc.), and by the isolationism of the United States in European and world politics, a stance that was favored by the period of relative peace that had been inaugurated after the resolution of the First World War. …), and by the isolationism of the United States in European and world politics, a stance that was favored by the period of relative peace that had been inaugurated after the resolution of the First World War, which avoided giving reasons for American intervention.
In economic matters, Harding broke with what had been the traditional Republican program: protectionism and high taxes. His defense of non-interventionist government, which would be continued by his successors, made him the object of criticism by those who accused him of having put an end to the social and redistributive progressivism that had been defended by the Republicans Roosevelt, Taft and continued by the Democrat Wilson.
Another aspect of the Harding era was the restrictive anti-immigration policy, which in 1921 established all kinds of obstacles for the entry into the country of Easterners and Southern Europeans (Italians, Greeks, Serbs, Turks and Jews), managing to reduce the flow, although the number of people arriving from these places remained considerably high.
The other side of the coin of his presidency is the numerous corruption cases that surfaced, especially in the last years of his term, most of which involved friends and associates of his (known as the “Ohio gang”, because they were born in Ohio, like the president).
The main political corruption scandal was the Teapot Dome scandal, which arose from bribes received by a close collaborator of Harding, in connection with oil concessions. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. Navy was changing the fuel of its ships from coal to oil and its derivatives, so in the era of President William Howard Taft it was established that the Navy should have “oil reserves”, which consisted of oil-producing areas. In 1921, Harding issued a regulation transferring control of three of these “reserves” (Teapot Dome, Elk Hills and Buena Vista) to the Department of the Interior, taking it away from the Navy Department. At the head of the Interior Department was Albert B. Fall, a personal friend of Harding, who in collusion with Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, used his contacts to grant the respective concessions to E. L. Doheny’s and Harry F. Sinclair’s companies. In exchange for granting the concessions to the Dohey and Sinclair companies over the three “oil reserves,” Hall received bribes of about $400,000 (approximately $5.6 million at 2012 exchange rates). Eventually the concessions granted by Fall were annulled in 1927 and Fall himself was sentenced to one year in prison in 1929.
The scandal that occurred three years after the government enacted a law in 1921 to administer the pensions of war veterans, when it was discovered that most of these funds were stolen by their administrator (Colonel Charles Forbes), who also trafficked in liquor and narcotics, was also very well known. Moreover, the scandal grew when it was learned that Forbes had sold surplus medical supplies from World War I to private hospitals, for a very low value, but collecting kickbacks from the private buyers for these deals. Also, the major financier of Harding’s presidential campaign, Harry M. Daugherty, took advantage of privileged information to make large sums of money from the sale of state property.
Warren G. Harding had several extramarital affairs during his lifetime. One of them, Nan Britton, whose relationship with Harding had remained hidden and who was born in Marlon Ohio, the president’s home town, published The President’s Daughter four years after his death, in which she made public that Elizabeth Ann Blaesing was Hardling’s daughter. The book was sold from house to house in a semi-clandestine manner and its contents were considered practically pornographic because of the lurid details narrated about the sexual relations between Harding and Britton. Although his family always considered Harding to be a sterile man, in 2015 and through DNA analysis conducted by ancestry.com, it has been established that Harding was the father of Elizabeth Ann Blaesing.
Childhood and education
Harding was born on November 2, 1865 in Blooming Grove, Ohio, nicknamed “Winnie” by his family; he was the eldest of eight children of George Tryon Harding (usually referred to as Tryon) and Phoebe Elizabeth Dickerson (Tryon, farmer, and taught school at nearby Mount Gilead). Through apprenticeship, self-study, and a year’s attendance at a medical school, Tryon qualified as a doctor of medicine and opened a small practice. Some of Harding’s maternal ancestors were Dutch, including the famous Van Kirk family. Harding also had English, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors.
In Blooming Grove, it was rumored that one of Harding’s great-grandmothers had been of African descent. His great-great-grandfather Amos Harding claimed that the rumor was spread by a burglar whom the family had caught burglarizing their home, in order to get revenge on the family or blackmail them. Even after Harding’s death in 1923, there were African Americans who claimed to be related to the late president. The mystery was solved in 2015, when genetic tests were conducted on the late president’s descendants, which showed that the last four generations before Harding had no people of sub-Saharan origin, with a 95 % probability. The abolitionist Harding family moved to Caledonia (Ohio), where Tryon bought a local newspaper, The Argus. It was at this paper that Harding began learning the rudiments of journalism at the age of eleven.
In late 1879, at the age of fourteen, Harding entered his father’s alma mater – Ohio Central College, located in Iberia – where he excelled as an industrious student. Between him and a friend, he and a friend published a small newspaper his senior year at Ohio Central, the Iberia Spectator, aimed at both the college and the city that housed it. During that year, the family moved to Marion, about ten miles from Caledonia; when Harding graduated in 1882, he settled there with the rest of the family.
When Harding was young, most of the U.S. population lived on farms and in small towns. He himself spent much of his life in Marion, a small town in rural Ohio, with which his public image became associated. When he gained positions of responsibility, he proclaimed his affection for the town and its way of life; he told the story of the many young men from the town who had succeeded after emigrating and set it against that of the man, a former school valedictorian, who had stayed in Marion and was a cleaner, but who was the happiest of them all.
After graduating, he worked briefly as a teacher and insurance salesman and began studying law, but soon dropped out. He raised three hundred dollars with some investors to buy a declining newspaper, The Marion Star, the smallest of the city’s three newspapers and the only one published daily. At only eighteen years old, young Harding used the railroad bond held by the newspaper he had just purchased to attend the 1884 Republican convention, where he mingled with other older journalists and supported the candidate for President, former Secretary of State James G. Blaine. Harding returned from Chicago to find that his paper had been hijacked by the sheriff. During the election campaign, Harding worked for Marion’s Democratic Mirror, but did not like having to praise the Democratic challenger, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who ended up winning the election. Then, thanks to his father’s monetary assistance, Harding got his paper back.
In the late 1880s, Harding devoted himself to improving the Star’s situation. The city of Marion was primarily Republican (as was the state in general), but the eponymous county, by contrast, was overwhelmingly Democratic. Consequently, Harding adopted a moderate editorial line and proclaimed that his paper was nonpartisan; his weekly edition was actually moderately pro-Republican. This attitude attracted advertisers and ruined the Republican weeklies. According to Harding’s biographer, Andrew Sinclair.
Marion’s population increased from four thousand in 1880 to eight thousand in 1890 and twelve thousand in 1900. This growth favored the Star; Harding, in turn, tried to encourage local development by buying stakes in many of the township’s businesses. Although some proved bad investments, they generally made him money; when he died in 1923, he had an estate of eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. According to Harding biographer John Dean, a former advisor to the president, “Harding’s influence was that of an activist who used his newspaper editorial to participate in and influence all town activities.” Until the early twenty-first century, Harding has been the only American president to serve as a journalist. As such, he vehemently supported Republican Governor Joseph B. Foraker.
Harding’s wife, Florence Kling, was five years his senior and the daughter of a local banker and developer. Amos Kling was used to bossing, but Harding was acerbically critical of him in the newspaper. Amos had made Florence a part of his activities since she was a child. Stubborn like her father, she clashed with her father when she finished her studies at the conservatory. Florence eloped with Pete from Wolfe, but then returned to Marion without him, but with a child, Marshall; Amos agreed to raise the child, but not to support his daughter, who had to earn a living as a piano teacher. One of her pupils was Harding’s sister, Charity. By 1886, Kling had divorced her first husband and was having relations with Harding, although it is not known for certain who was courting whom.
The relationship between Florence and Harding frustrated the reconciliation between her and her father, as Amos believed that the Hardings had African ancestors and was angered by the criticism in Star editorials. Amos began spreading rumors about the African ancestry of some Harding ancestors and encouraged boycotts of Warren’s business.When Warren found out, he threatened him.Warren and Florence eventually married in their new home on Marion’s Mount Vernon Avenue-which they had designed together in Queen Anne style.The marriage was childless. Warren Harding affectionately called his wife “the Duchess,” after a character in a series published in The New York Sun, in which she kept an eye on both the Duke and his money and saw to it that all his activities were carried out efficiently.
Florence was heavily involved in her husband’s career, both at the Star and in politics. With her father’s business savvy and determination, she helped transform the Star into a profitable newspaper by handling distribution. It is believed that she played a crucial role in her husband’s career and may even have been the one who pushed him to become president of the country.
Shortly after acquiring the Star, Harding became interested in politics; he supported Foraker in his first campaign, which saw him win the governorship in 1885. Foraker belonged to the war generation that contested power in the state against an older generation of politicians such as Senator John Sherman. Harding, always loyal to the party, backed Foraker in the infighting among Ohio Republicans. Harding tolerated Democrats, but despised Republicans who left the party to join parties other than the traditional rival. He participated as a delegate to the Republican state convention in 1888, at the age of twenty-two, representing Marion County, and thereafter in almost every one that followed until he won the Presidency of the country. Harding’s political formation took place at a time, the last decades of the 19th century, of great economic development with little state regulation and great power of the Parliament and the states and not of the presidents, characteristics that later marked his way of governing.
Harding’s dedication to the paper eventually took its toll on his health. On five occasions between 1889 and 1901, he was admitted to the Battle Creek Sanitarium for fatigue, tension and nervous disorders, according to Sinclair. Dean, on the other hand, claims that he was actually admitted for treatment of the heart disease that eventually killed him in 1923. During one of his hospital stints, in 1894, the Star’s manager took leave and his position was taken over by Harding’s wife. From then on, she was her husband’s main collaborator in the business aspects of the paper, until the couple moved to Washington in 1915. Her help and competence enabled Harding to take time off to give speeches. Florence kept strict accounts and did not waste a penny of the business profits, sometimes sending her husband with buckets of coins to deposit in the bank. Of him she said, “He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he doesn’t.
In 1892, Harding traveled to Washington, where he met with Nebraska Democratic Congressman William Jennings Bryan, whose speeches in Congress he attended. Harding also visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Both trips were made without his wife.
Democrats usually won Marion County elections; thus, when Harding ran for auditor in 1895, he lost the vote, although he fared better than expected. The following year, he was one of many speakers who toured the state to campaign for Republican candidate William McKinley, who had been governor of Ohio. According to Dean, it was this campaign that made him known in the state.
Harding was interested in running for public office again. Although he had long endorsed Foraker (then a national senator), he had maintained good relations with the other faction of the party in Ohio, the one headed by fellow senator, Mark Hanna, a McKinley associate and chairman of the Republican National Committee (he was elected the party’s nominee and won a seat handily.
When Harding was elected, he was almost completely unknown, but by the time his term ended, he was one of the most popular party figures in Ohio. He was unassuming and humble in public, winning the favor of his co-religionists as he rose through the ranks of the party, and was consulted by congressional leaders on thorny issues. Although it was customary at the time for Ohio senators to serve only one term, Harding ran for office again in 1901. After McKinley’s assassination in September (he was succeeded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt), interest in politics waned in Ohio. In November, Harding was re-elected, with a majority greater than he had achieved in the previous election, 3563 votes.
Like most politicians of the time, Harding accepted that political favors had to be repaid through patronage and embezzlement and he also sinned in nepotism. Thus, he appointed his sister Mary (blind) a teacher at the Ohio school for the blind, although there were more suitable candidates for the position; he also offered advertising in his newspaper in exchange for railroad passes for himself and his family. According to Sinclair, it is unlikely that Harding thought he was doing anything wrong by taking advantage of the perks of the position; patronage and favors were the usual system of rewarding party service in Hanna’s day.
Shortly after winning the state senate seat, Harding met Harry M. Daugherty, who played an important role in his career. A veteran candidate who had twice served as a deputy in the state’s lower house in the early 1890s, Daugherty was an expert on the political intricacies of the state capital, Columbus. After meeting Harding, Daugherty exclaimed, “Gee, he would make a most attractive president.”
In early 1903, Harding declared his candidacy for governor of Ohio, taking advantage of the withdrawal of the front-runner, Congressman Charles Dick. Hanna and George Cox believed that Harding would not be elected because of his relationship with Foraker-at the beginning of the reform era in the United States, voters increasingly viewed the granting of political favors and the activities of leaders like Foraker in a negative light. As a result, they persuaded Cleveland banker Myron T. Herrick, a friend of McKinley’s, to run for office. Herrick could also take votes away from the Democratic rival, Cleveland’s reformist Mayor Tom L. Johnson. Since he had little chance of being elected as the Republican candidate for state government, Harding tried to get himself elected at least as a lieutenant gubernatorial aspirant; Herrick and Harding were eventually elected by acclamation. Both Foraker and Hanna (who died of typhoid fevers in February 1904) campaigned on the so-called, “four hatchet ticket.” Herrick and Harding eventually won by a landslide.
After taking office, Herrick made some notable mistakes that lost him the support of some important Republican voters; he antagonized farmers by opposing the founding of an agricultural school. According to Sinclair, Harding, on the other hand, had little work to do but performed brilliantly. He presided over the state Senate, which allowed him to increase his political contacts. Harding and others thought he might win the governor’s seat in 1905, but Herrick refused to withdraw. In early 1905, Harding announced that he would accept the gubernatorial nomination if offered, which displeased some party bosses such as Cox, Foraker, and Dick (because of this, he decided not to run for any public office in 1905. Herrick lost the election, but not his running mate, Andrew L. Harris, who won the governor’s seat when Democrat John M. Pattison died five months later. A Republican official then asked Harding if he did not regret that Dick had not allowed him to run for lieutenant governor.
In 1908 presidential and senatorial elections took place. Senator Foraker had fallen out with President Roosevelt because of the Brownsville scandal. Although Foraker had little chance of winning, he tried to get the party to choose him to run for President instead of Secretary of Defense William Howard Taft, who was supposed to succeed Roosevelt. On January 6, 1908, Harding’s Star proclaimed its support for Foraker and criticized Roosevelt for trying to destroy the senator’s career over an ethics issue. On January 22, the Star switched sides and endorsed Taft, believing that Foraker would be defeated in the contest for the nomination. According to Sinclair, Harding’s change of position was due to pressures he received and was not voluntary. In any case, the change of candidate allowed Harding not to go down with his former patron: not only was Foraker not a candidate for the Presidency, but he was also unable to keep his Senate seat, which he had enjoyed in two terms. Harding’s political survival was also due to the sympathies he aroused in the progressive current of the Republicans, who also owed him favors and who then dominated the party in Ohio.
In 1910 the party nominated him as a candidate for governor of the state. By then the party was very divided between the conservative and progressive currents and could not defeat the more cohesive Democrats; Harding lost to Governor Judson Harmon. Harry Daugherty had directed Harding’s campaign, but Harding did not blame him for the defeat. Despite growing differences between the two, both President Taft and former President Roosevelt came to Ohio to participate in Harding’s campaign, but their disagreements divided the party and paved the way for his defeat.
Internal differences grew so great that, in 1912, Taft and Roosevelt clashed over the nomination for the Presidency. The party convention was sharply divided. Harding presented Taft’s candidacy at Taft’s request; his speech was poorly received by the delegates. Taft won the convention, but could not prevent Roosevelt and his supporters from leaving the party. Harding, a staunch Republican, endorsed Taft. The traditionally Republican vote was split between the two candidacies: that of Taft, the party’s challenger, and that of Roosevelt, who ran for the Progressive Party. This allowed the Democratic candidate, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, to win the election.
Congressman Theodore Burton had been elected Senator in Foraker’s place in 1909, and announced that he would run for reelection in 1914. By then the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing direct election of senators, had been ratified, and Ohio had instituted primary elections for it. Foraker and former Congressman Ralph D. Cole had run in these. When Burton retired, Foraker was favored, but his old-school Republicanism had become stale, so some encouraged Harding to run against him. Daugherty took credit for persuading him. According to Randolph Downes, Harding’s biographer, Harding ran a campaign in which he avoided any friction with his Republican rivals, focusing instead on criticism of the Democrats. While Harding did not attack Foraker, his supporters did. Harding eventually won the primary with a twelve thousand vote lead over Foraker.
Harding’s rival in the state was Ohio Attorney General Timothy Hogan, who had won the seat despite the fact that hostility to Catholics was widespread in the rural areas of the state. In 1914, the outbreak of World War I and the possibility of a Catholic gaining the office of senator in Ohio accentuated “nativism.” Pamphlets with names like The Menace and The Defender claimed that Hogan was part of a plot by Pope Benedict XV to dominate Ohio through the use of the Knights of Columbus. Harding refrained from criticizing Hogan, with whom he had a long-standing friendship and with whom he agreed on most of the issues being discussed in the campaign, but he did not denounce the xenophobia his opponent suffered.
Harding’s conciliatory attitude on the campaign trail worked to his advantage, although one of his friends called his repetitive speeches “a bombastic and confusing mixture of platitudes, patriotism and nonsense. Dean, however, points out that he won because of his oratory and that he did so without making too many enemies. Harding won with a lead of more than 100,000 votes; the state also elected a Republican governor, Frank B. Willis.
When Harding entered the U.S. Senate in 1915, the Democrats held a majority in both houses, and the president, Woodrow Wilson, was also a member of the Democratic Party. As a novice in the opposition party, Harding was assigned to secondary tasks in the Senate committees, which he nonetheless performed with care. Loyal to the party in voting, he belonged to its conservative current. As had already happened during his term in the Ohio Senate, he won broad sympathy.
On two issues (women’s suffrage and liquor prohibition) that might have hurt his chances of running for president in 1920, Harding managed to emerge unscathed by taking a middle position. He claimed that, as a state senator-elect, he could not support enfranchising women until his state did so. As the electorate was increasingly in favor of granting it and so were Republican senators, by the time the issue came to a vote in Congress, Harding had become an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage. Harding, a drinker, at first voted against the liquor ban. He then voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after managing to impose a time for it to be ratified, a condition that was expected to nullify it. When it was ratified, Harding voted to override the president’s veto of the Volstead Act, which served to develop the amendment; thus winning the support of the Anti-Alcoholic League.
Because he enjoyed the respect of both Republicans and Progressives, Harding was asked to temporarily preside over the 1916 Republican convention and give the keynote address at the meeting. In it Harding urged delegates to support the party meeting. The convention chose Judge Charles Evans Hughes to run for president. Harding tried to reconcile Roosevelt with the party after the former president refused to run for the Progressives, which effectively sank the new party. In that year’s elections and despite the fact that the Republicans were beginning to gather strength again, Hughes lost to Wilson, although by a narrow margin.
Harding supported President Wilson’s declaration of war in April 1917, which brought the country into World War I. In August, he favored granting the president full powers, arguing that democracy was not a suitable system for a war. He voted for most war legislation, including the Espionage Act of 1917, which limited civil rights, but opposed the tax on war profits, which he considered detrimental to business. In May 1918, when he had already lost some of his initial enthusiasm for Wilson, he opposed granting him new powers. At the end of the war, however, he was among the first to advocate the abolition of the extraordinary control measures that had been passed during the war.
In the 1918 elections, held in the middle of Wilson’s term and just before the armistice was signed in Europe, the Republicans won a slim majority in the Senate. Harding was appointed to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but Wilson was not accompanied by any senator when he went to the Paris Peace Conference, confident that he could pass the peace treaty in the Senate thanks to the support of the people. However, Wilson was not accompanied by any senator when he left for the Paris Peace Conference, confident that he could pass the peace treaty in the Senate thanks to the support of the people. Indeed, when he returned to the United States, the vast majority of the population was in favor of the peace treaty, which established the peace treaty and founded the League of Nations. Many senators disliked Article X of the League’s charter, which obliged member states to defend any nation belonging to the organization that was attacked, as they understood that the country was thus committing itself to go to war without necessarily being approved by Congress. Harding was one of the thirty senators who signed the public statement against the new international organization. When the President invited the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to the White House to discuss the matter informally, Harding asked Wilson about Article X; the latter merely answered evasively. The Senate took up the peace treaty question in September 1919; Harding intervened to oppose it. By then the president had suffered a stroke while touring the country; with the president incapacitated and less popular support for the treaty, it was rejected by the Houses.
Since most Progressives had rejoined the Republican Party, it was thought that its former leader and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt would run for a third term in office in 1920; he was the clear favorite to capture the Republican nomination. But these plans were thwarted when Roosevelt died unexpectedly on January 6, 1919. Several contenders immediately emerged to replace him, including General Leonard Wood, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, California Senator Hiram Johnson, and others less likely to win the nomination, such as Herbert Hoover (famous for his civilian relief work during the World War), Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, and General John J. Pershing.
Harding’s candidacy was due to two main motives: the obvious one of trying to capture the Presidency of the country and the less obvious one of maintaining the party’s dominance in Ohio and its Senate seat. Several people longed for Harding’s Senate seat, including former Governor Willis (whom James M. Cox had defeated in 1916) and Colonel William Cooper Procter (president of Procter & Gamble). On December 17, 1919, Harding announced that he was running for president in a low-key speech. Some important party leaders did not like either Wood or Johnson, who came from the Progressive camp, or Lowden, whom they regarded as too independent. Harding, on the other hand, was much better regarded by the old guard of the Republicans.
Daugherty managed Harding’s campaign and saw to it that none of the other candidates got a majority on the ballot. His strategy was to make Harding an acceptable alternative for when the frontrunners had failed to win the presidential nomination. Daugherty set up campaign headquarters in Washington (managed by his associate Jess Smith) and built up a network of supporters and friends of the candidate, including Texan Frank Scobey, who had served in the Ohio Senate during Harding’s years as a senator in the state. Harding sought to win supporters through relentless correspondence to potential supporters. According to Russell, it was Daugherty’s “Mephistophelian” work, not his efforts, that won his candidacy.
Only sixteen primaries were held in 1920, the most important of which for Harding was Ohio. To win the presidential nomination, Harding needed supporters at the convention that would elect her, so Wood tried to win Ohio so that she would have to resign. Wood campaigned in his rival’s home state and his supporter Procter spent a great deal of money on it; Harding, for his part, adopted the same tactic of avoiding confrontations with his rivals, as he had already done in 1914. Harding and Daugherty were convinced that they would win all forty-eight delegates from Ohio, so they soon went on to campaign in neighboring Indiana, even before the Ohio balloting, which took place on April 27. In Ohio Harding defeated Wood, but only by fifteen thousand votes and less than half of the vote: he won thirty-nine of the state’s forty-eight delegates. In Indiana, Harding finished fourth with less than ten percent of the vote and ran out of delegates. Despite poor results that made him consider withdrawing from the race, he stayed in the race at his wife’s insistence.
After recovering from the shock of the poor primary results, he traveled to Boston to give a speech that marked the 1920 election. In it he asserted that the United States needed to regain normalcy and restore the pre-war situation. Harding’s position satisfied most voters.
The 1920 Republican convention met at the Chicago Coliseum on June 8; the attendees were very divided in their preferences and the disagreements had become more acute because of the results of a senatorial investigation on the expenses of the electoral campaigns, which had just been published. The report of the inquiry stated that Wood had spent $1.8 million, which seemed to confirm Johnson’s accusation that he was trying to buy the presidency. Part of the six hundred thousand dollars Lowden had spent had ended up in the hands of two convention delegates. Johnson had spent one hundred and ninety-four thousand dollars on the campaign and Harding, one hundred and thirteen thousand. Johnson was believed to have instigated the investigation, which deeply upset supporters of Lowden and Wood and prevented them from being able to compromise with each other. Of the nearly one thousand delegates, twenty-seven were women – the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting suffrage to women, was on the verge of passage, lacking only the endorsement of one state (it was endorsed in August). The convention lacked a chairman, so delegates voted according to their preferences; since the president was a Democrat, party leaders could not grant government favors to win their votes and elect their favorite.
Journalists believed Harding had little chance of being chosen because of his poor showing in the primaries. Harding, who was in Chicago like the other contenders for the nomination to oversee his campaign, had finished sixth in the public preference poll, behind both the three front-runners and former Judge Hughes and Herbert Hoover, and ahead of Coolidge by a slim margin.
After settling some questions, the convention moved on to the election of candidates for president on June 11. Harding had asked Willis to present his candidacy, and Willis did so in a short, popular speech that pleased the delegates, tired from the intense heat that gripped the city. Journalist Mark Sullivan, present at the speech, called it a splendid combination of oratory, opera and reclamation. Willis, pretending to make a confidence to the delegates, leaned over the podium and said: “Hey, boys -and girls too- why don’t we run Warren Harding? The laughter and applause with which Willis’ joke was received created a favorable atmosphere for Harding. He was considered a conciliatory politician, skillful and with great intuition to understand the feelings of the population.
In the afternoon four ballots were taken, which showed the deadlock in the choice of candidate. The winner needed to obtain four hundred and ninety-three votes, and Wood was the closest with three hundred and fourteen, followed by Lowdon with two hundred and eighty-nine. Harding, meanwhile, barely reached sixty-five. President Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, head of the delegation in the then Republican-dominated Senate, gave the delegates a break until seven o’clock in the evening.
The night of June 11 is known in the country’s history as the night of the “smoke-filled room,” when party notables are supposed to have decided that Harding should be chosen as their candidate. Indeed, party leaders spent that night visiting party committee chairman Will Hays’ room at the Blackstone Hotel to study the various potential candidates. Utah Senator Reed Smoot, before leaving early in the evening, advocated Harding, convinced that the Democrats would run Governor Cox and that with Harding they could beat the Democrats in Ohio. Smoot told The New York Times that an agreement had been reached to put Harding forward, but that he would not be chosen immediately, but after several more votes. In reality, there was neither agreement nor unanimity in Harding’s favor, nor did the Senators have sufficient power to impose their favorite, if they had had one. Two other participants in that night’s meetings at the Blackstone, Kansas Senator Charles Curtis and Colonel George Brinton McClellan Harvey, a close friend of Hays, predicted to the press that Harding would be elected, but for the weaknesses of the other contenders.
According to Colonel Harvey’s account of what happened that night, he called Harding in the wee hours of the morning to tell him that he would be the Republican nominee for President. Harvey asked him if there was anything in his past that could hurt his candidacy, to which Harding, despite the fact that he had had at least one affair, replied that there was not. Murray, the president’s biographer, points out that there is no evidence other than Harvey’s claim that Harding went to the famous room that night, yet others who were in the room deny that Harding visited it. Harding had so little confidence of being elected that he applied to run for the Senate again, even though Daugherty was still campaigning for him among the delegates.
When the delegates reconvened on the morning of June 12, a false rumor spread that a group of senators supported Harding, which favored Harding. Over the next four ballots, Harding’s number of votes steadily increased, while those of the favorites stagnated. Lodge gave a three-hour break, which irritated Daugherty, who confronted him. Lodge and others tried to take advantage of the break to slow Harding down and tried to give the nomination to party committee chairman Hays, who refused to participate in the maneuver. On the ninth ballot, a majority of the delegates, 374, voted for Harding; 249 voted for Wood and 121 for Lowden, while Johnson was left with only 83. Lowden then ceded his support to Harding; this meant that on the tenth ballot, held at 6 p.m., Harding received 672 votes to Wood’s 156 and was elected candidate for the Presidency. The delegates, who wished to leave the city as soon as possible to avoid having to pay for their lodging expenses, then hurried to choose the candidate for vice-president. Harding wanted Senator Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin, who, however, did not wish to run; before he could withdraw, a delegate from Oregon proposed Governor Coolidge, a suggestion that the delegates hailed. Coolidge, who enjoyed sympathy for his thwarting of the Boston police strike of 1919, was elected with even greater support than Harding.
The pro-Republican press supported the candidacy of Harding and Coolidge, which was not well received by other media. The New York World claimed that Harding was the least prepared candidate for the Presidency since James Buchanan, and called the Ohio Senator “weak and mediocre” and completely lacking in original ideas. Hearst’s newspapers called the candidate “the standard-bearer of senatorial autocracy. The New York Times described him as a “highly respectable, second-rate Ohio politician”.
For its part, the Democratic Party convention began in San Francisco on June 28. The meeting began with problems over Woodrow Wilson’s desire to run for a third term. The delegates believed that the president was too ill to complete it, and preferred to present another candidate. One of the leading contenders was former Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo who, being Wilson’s son-in-law, refused to accept the nomination as long as Wilson was willing to run. Despite McAdoo’s attitude, many chose him; the balloting resulted in a tie between him and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. On the 44th ballot, the Democrats finally chose a candidate: Governor Cox, who was to be joined in the nomination by Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cox was editor of his own newspaper, so in the end the campaign was contested by two Ohio journalists with paradoxically similar positions. Both rivals were conservative on economics and hardly progressive in other respects.
Harding opted for a low-key campaign like McKinley’s of 1896. A few years earlier, Harding had remodeled the porch of his house to resemble McKinley’s; to his neighbors, the work was a sign of Harding’s presidential ambitions. Harding remained in Marion and limited himself to giving a few speeches to visiting delegations. Meanwhile, Cox and Roosevelt toured the country, giving hundreds of speeches. For his part, Coolidge made a tour of the northeast before moving to the south, but his speeches did not have a great influence on the elections.
Harding ran his campaign from Marion. As a journalist, he was able to maintain good relations with the reporters who covered it, far better than most presidents have had with the press. His slogan of “back to normal” seemed to be reflected in the atmosphere of Marion, a situation longed for by many voters. The candidate’s goal was to recapture the era of development of his youth at the turn of the previous century and to recover a governmental system of collaboration between the president and Parliament, which had been lost during the Roosevelt and Wilson presidencies. Harding’s strategy allowed him to avoid making certain mistakes typical of an itinerant campaign and improved his chances of election, which increased as the campaign progressed. The tours of his rivals, however, eventually forced him to do some traveling, but he continued to hold the bulk of his campaign events in Marion. Harding asserted that the country did not need a second Wilson, but a president close to the man on the street.
The vagueness of Harding’s oratory displeased some; McAdoo described a typical speech by the Republican candidate as “an army of pompous phrases scouring the ground in search of an idea. Sometimes these wandering words capture a thought and ride it triumphantly, captive, until it perishes from overwork. “H. L. Mencken concurred with him in disqualifying Harding’s speeches.Sinclair, 1969, p. 165 The New York Times gave a more favorable assessment and stated that most voters saw their vague thoughts reflected in the candidate’s oratory.
Wilson had stated that the 1920 election would be a “great and solemn referendum” on the League of Nations, which deprived Cox of leeway on this issue-although Roosevelt was a strong advocate of the new international organization, Cox was less supportive of it. Harding opposed the country’s membership on the terms Wilson had negotiated and preferred an “association of nations,” based on the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. This vagueness satisfied most Republicans. By October, it had become clear to Cox that there was great opposition to Article X of the Society’s statutes, so he stated that certain legal reservations to the text of the treaty might have to be approved; this caused Harding to drop the matter.
The Republicans hired Chicago publicist Albert Lasker to handle Harding’s campaign publicity; Lasker launched an extensive campaign employing methods that later became typical of U.S. election campaigns, but were novel at the time. Among them, he used newsreels and sound recordings. Those who visited the aspirant in Marion had their portraits taken with the Harding couple and copies of the photographs were sent to the newspapers in their cities. Lasker also used posters and advertisements in newspapers and magazines, as well as films. He even hired telephone operators who called voters to praise Harding and had scripted conversations.
During the campaign, his opponents resurrected rumors of the black ancestry of Harding’s great-great-grandfather and other ancestors. Harding’s campaign manager denied the allegations. Professor William Estabrook Chancellor of Wooster College, however, gave credence to the rumors, which he claimed were based on certain research-which probably did nothing more than repeat the old rumors.
By the time the polls finally opened on November 2, the Republicans were the clear favorites to take over the government. Harding won 60.2% of the vote, the highest percentage since the emergence of the two-party system in the country, and 404 electoral votes. Cox got just 34% of the vote and 127 electoral votes. Eugene V. Debs, the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, who had to campaign from jail for opposing the world war, got 3% of the vote. In addition to winning the Presidency, the Republicans significantly widened the lead they already enjoyed in the Houses of Parliament.
Investiture and appointments
Warren Harding was sworn in as president – the twenty-ninth in the country’s history – on March 4, 1921, in the presence of his wife and father. Harding chose a low-key inauguration, without the traditional parade, limited to the oath of office and a brief reception at the White House. In his inaugural address, he stated, “Our worst tendency is to expect too much of the government and to do too little for it.”
After the election, the new president announced that he would go on vacation and postpone the necessary administrative appointments until his return to Marion in December. He traveled to Texas, where he took up fishing and golfing with his friend Frank Scobey (whom he soon afterward appointed director of the mint) and then sailed for the Panama Canal Zone. When he returned to Washington, he received a hero’s welcome at the opening of Congress in early December; he was the first sitting senator to achieve the presidency. Back in Ohio, he decided to consult what he considered to be the eminences of the country for advice on government appointments, who came to Marion to do so. Branded a puppet of Republican senators and party notables by his opponents, he flatly refused to accept their recommendations on government appointments.
For Secretary of State, Harding chose Charles Evans Hughes, a supporter of the League of Nations, despite the anti-League views of Senator Lodge and other prominent Republicans. After Charles G. Dawes declined the Treasury portfolio, Harding offered it to Andrew W. Mellon, a Pittsburgh banker and one of the wealthiest people in the country, who accepted it. As Secretary of Commerce, he appointed Herbert Hoover, later President. Party committee chairman Will Hays was given the post of director general of the U.S. Postal Service, then under the Cabinet; a year later he left to assume the post of director of censorship of the national motion picture industry.
Two ministers who later tarnished Harding’s tenure by their appearance in scandals were Senator and friend of the President Albert B. Fall of New Mexico, whom he appointed Secretary of the Interior, and Daugherty, who got the post of Attorney General. Fall was a western rancher and former miner, a developmentalist. He was opposed by conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot, who said of him that he was one of the worst choices for the job. The New York Times derided Daugherty’s appointment and claimed that he owed his new position to his close friendship with the president. Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, in their book on the Harding presidency, assert that the appointment, however, made sense, since Daugherty was a competent lawyer who was well versed in the dark side of politics, was an excellent problem solver, and enjoyed the confidence of the president.
Harding made it clear when he appointed Hughes as Secretary of State that he would be in charge of managing the country’s foreign policy, which contrasted with the tight control that the previous president, Wilson, had exercised in this area. Hughes received, however, certain general guidelines; Harding became increasingly opposed to the League of Nations and decided that the country would not join it, even if its statutes were changed so that it would have less influence on the organization’s member countries. Since the Senate had not yet ratified the Treaty of Versailles, the United States was still officially at war with Germany, Austria and Hungary. To resolve this anomaly, the first step was to approve the Knox-Porter Declaration, which proclaimed peace and indicated that the country reserved the exercise of its rights under the Treaty of Versailles. In 1921 separate treaties were ratified with Germany, Austria and Hungary, containing clauses similar to those approved in Paris, but without those relating to the League of Nations.
The relationship between the United States and the League of Nations was still pending. At the beginning, the State Department, headed by Hughes, limited itself to bypassing the League’s communiqués and maintaining bilateral contacts with the member states, avoiding the mediation of the international organization. In 1922, however, the country was already maintaining contacts with the League through its consul in Geneva, although it continued not to participate in political meetings and limited itself to sending observers to those dealing with technical or humanitarian matters.
By the time Harding took office, several governments had already requested partial cancellation of the enormous debt they had contracted with the United States, and Germany had also asked for a reduction in the war reparations it had to pay. The United States refused to negotiate a multinational pact in this matter. Harding tried to get a plan submitted by Mellon approved which was to grant the Government the power to reduce the debts of other nations through bilateral negotiations, but Congress only passed part of the bill, in 1922. Hughes negotiated an agreement with the United Kingdom so that it could pay what it owed in installments over sixty-two years, at low interest, which effectively reduced British debts. This pact, which Congress approved in 1923, served as a model for subsequent negotiations with other countries. Moreover, talks with Germany on the reduction of war reparations concluded with the signing of the Dawes Plan of 1924.
Another important issue Wilson left to his successor was relations with the Soviet Government. The United States had sent military units to Russia after the Russian Revolution, as had other countries, and Wilson had subsequently refused to recognize the Russian Communist government that had emerged from the October Revolution. During Harding’s term, it was Secretary of Commerce Hoover, who had considerable experience in Russian affairs, who imposed the government’s attitude toward Russia. When the Russian famine of 1921 occurred, Hoover, former director of the American Relief Administration, ordered the Administration to deal with the Russians to send aid. The Soviet leaders (the Soviet Union had been proclaimed in 1922) hoped that the negotiations would lead to official recognition of their government by the Americans, but they did not. Hoover was in favor of trading with Russia, fearing that otherwise American business would lose this market, but Hughes opposed this, and the government failed to reach a common position during Harding’s term.
Harding had advocated disarmament and reduced spending on armaments during the election campaign, but this had not been one of the central issues of the campaign. In an address to both Houses of Parliament in April 1921, Harding outlined his priorities for the term of office. Among the international issues, he mentioned disarmament and the desire to reduce government spending on armaments.
Idaho Senator William Borah had proposed a conference of the naval powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan primarily) to reduce the size of the navies. Harding approved the project and representatives of nine nations met accordingly in Washington in November 1921.
Hughes presented the American proposal in the opening speech of the conference on November 12: the United States would reduce its fleet by thirty ships (between those it would withdraw from service and those it would stop building) if the United Kingdom would get rid of nineteen and Japan of seventeen. The Secretary of State’s proposal was well received and accepted; other issues were also agreed upon, such as the possession of certain Pacific islands and limits on the use of gases in conflicts. The disarmament agreement, however, was limited to battleships and aircraft carriers and did not prevent further rearmament by the powers. The press, however, extolled the work of Harding and Hughes. The President had appointed Senator Lodge and opposition leader Oscar Underwood of Alabama as the country’s representatives to the conference; their cooperation facilitated the subsequent passage of the agreement in the Senate with little change, although with some reservations added to the ratified treaty.
The country had acquired more than a thousand ships during the war, which it still owed when Harding took office. Congress had approved their sale in 1920, but the Senate rejected President Wilson’s nominees to the Naval Board, stalling the process. Harding appointed Albert Lasker chairman of the Board, and efforts were made to reduce as much as possible the expenses generated by the fleet until it could be sold. Most of the ships, however, could not be sold at the price necessary to recover the investment made by the government. Lasker requested that a generous subsidy be granted to the merchant marine to facilitate the sales and Harding advocated this in Congress, to no avail. The subsidy was frowned upon in the Midwest, so although it was approved in the Lower House, it was rejected in the Senate; in the end most of the ships ended up in the scrapyard.
U.S. interventions in Latin America were hardly discussed during the electoral campaign; Harding had opposed the occupations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, decided by Wilson, and criticized the Democratic candidate for vice-president, Franklin Roosevelt, for the role he had played in that of Haiti. After the inauguration, Hughes tried to improve the relations of the United States with Latin America, whose countries feared the application of the Monroe Doctrine to invade the southern nations of the continent; at that time, in addition to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the United States had troops in Cuba and Nicaragua. Those dispatched to Cuba to protect U.S. economic interests on the island were withdrawn in 1921, but those deployed in the other three nations remained throughout Harding’s term of office. In April 1921, Harding succeeded in ratifying the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty with Colombia, which granted the latter twenty-five million dollars to settle the secession of Panama, encouraged by the United States. The pact did not fully satisfy the Latin American nations, since the United States did not renounce to intervene again in the region, although Hughes stated that the new military operations would be limited to the nations near the Panama Canal and always making it clear which were the U.S. objectives that motivated them.
The country had intervened several times in Mexico during Wilson’s term of office, and had withdrawn recognition from the country’s government. The government presided over by Álvaro Obregón wanted the Americans to officially recognize him before negotiating with them, but both Wilson and his last Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby, refused to do so. Both Hughes and Fall were opposed to recognizing Obregón; Hughes merely sent a draft treaty to the Mexicans in May 1921, calling for the payment of compensation for U.S. property losses in Mexico since the 1910 revolution. Obregón was reluctant to sign any treaty before he was recognized, but he worked to improve relations between U.S. businessmen and Mexico; he reached an agreement with creditors and undertook a propaganda campaign in the United States. This bore fruit and, in mid-1922, Fall lost influence, which undermined opposition to the recognition of Obregón’s authority in the neighboring country. The two presidents appointed representatives to enter into negotiations, which led to the recognition of Obregón’s government on August 31, 1923, less than a month after Harding’s sudden death, essentially with the conditions that Mexico had requested.
When Harding took office on March 4, 1921, the nation was in the throes of the postwar depression, the worst the country had suffered since the 1890s. After entering the world war in 1917, wartime demand had increased corporate profits and reduced unemployment, but in 1920 the economy began to go into crisis. The decline in demand reduced production and caused some bankruptcies, and the return of the soldiers increased unemployment, which that year reached 4% of the active population (one and a half million people). In 1921, the unemployed already numbered five million. To this was added the post-war inflation, which increased the cost of living and favored public aid campaigns, which affected the State Treasury.
On the initiative of party spokesmen, the president called an extraordinary session of Congress on April 11, 1921. The following day, he addressed both Houses of Congress to request that the income tax (which had increased during the war) be reduced, that tariffs on agricultural products be raised to favor American farmers, and that a series of measures be implemented, including the construction of highways and the promotion of aviation and radio. On May 27, Congress effectively approved the increase in agricultural tariffs by means of an emergency law. On June 10, the creation of a budget office was approved, which was headed by Charles G. Dawes; the president charged him with reducing government expenditures.
Treasury Secretary Mellon also recommended to Congress that income tax rates be reduced and that the corporate income tax be abolished for the windfall profits they had earned during the world war. Mellon’s plans actually coincided with those of former President Wilson and his later Treasury secretaries, to whom Treasury officials had recommended the same measures then advocated by Mellon. Both Republicans and Democrats had put forward vague tax measures in their 1920 election programs, although both parties agreed in advocating lower taxes, which they believed would facilitate economic recovery, if not wealth distribution. The House Ways and Means Committee supported Mellon’s proposals, but some Members, who wanted to raise corporate taxes, opposed them. Harding hesitated over whether to support one or the other, as the arguments of both seemed to him to be correct. He attempted a compromise between the parties that allowed him to pass a bill in the lower House that kept the war profits tax in place for another year. In the Senate, on the other hand, the bill was stalled because of the controversy over the payment of bounties to World War veterans, which dragged on from July 1921 to September 1922. Disgusted by the delay in passing the measure, the president went to the Senate on July 12 to urge it to do so independently of the payment to veterans. Despite this the bill was not passed until November, and at higher tax levels than Mellon had suggested. During his long tenure at the helm (until 1932), Mellon had to contend with the reluctance of Parliament to implement his plans, which, however, hardly changed.
Harding had opposed the payment of a bounty to the veterans, claiming that they were already receiving sufficient compensation from the country for their actions and that the measure would ruin the national treasury. The award would mean an added outlay at a time of economic recession and the government was advocating spending restraint. It could also derail Mellon’s tax cut plans on which Harding was banking the economy’s recovery. The Senate left consideration of the measure to a committee after Harding’s personal intervention, but the issue resurfaced when Congress reconvened in December 1921. A bill granting veterans a bounty was finally passed in September 1922, but it did not include funding for it. Harding vetoed it, and the Houses did not override the veto, although narrowly. In 1924, with Coolidge in office, non-cash compensation to soldiers who had fought in the war was passed; Coolidge vetoed the measure, but the Houses overrode his veto.
In his first State of the Union address, Harding sought to be allowed to change the level of taxation. Various pressure groups participated in the heated discussions about the bill in both the Senate and the joint committee that studied it. Harding enacted the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act, raising tariffs, on September 21, 1922, but it did not satisfy the wishes of the president, who wanted greater autonomy to adjust taxes. According to Trani and Wilson, the act was a blunder that severely damaged international trade and complicated the payment of debts incurred during the World War.
In the 1920 campaign, the Republican party had advocated a reduction in government spending, taxes and public debt, which had gone from $1.2 billion in 1914 to $24 billion in 1921. This position had pleased the voters, the stock market and conservatives of both parties, who believed that these were the measures necessary to promote economic recovery, but left the government without funds to undertake new projects involving large expenditures. Mellon requested a report on the evolution of state revenues according to the level of taxation: the historical evolution indicated that higher tax levels increased tax evasion and the remittance of income abroad. Mellon was convinced that lower taxes would consequently increase revenue. The minister’s objective was to implement a tax system dependent on the level of income, but which would not – in his opinion – harm business in an industrial capitalist system. Harding followed his minister’s advice and reduced taxes from 1922 onwards. The maximum tax rate was gradually reduced in four years from 73% in 1921 to 33% from 1921 onwards. From 1923 onwards, the taxation of the lower income brackets was also reduced. Revenue actually increased considerably (the national budget was in surplus during Harding’s term). The government also deregulated many sectors and reduced the contribution of federal public spending to GDP from 6.5% to 3.5%. By the end of 1922, the economy began to grow. Unemployment fell from 12% in 1921 to an average of 3.3% for the subsequent years of the decade. The poverty rate, which measured unemployment and inflation, declined markedly; during Harding’s tenure it was one of the times in the country’s history when it declined the most. Profits and productivity grew; GDP growth averaged more than 5% over the decade. Average wages, however, stagnated throughout the decade. Liberal historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen argue that Mellon’s tax cuts allowed the country’s economy to grow the fastest so far.
The 1920s was a period of modernization in the United States. The use of electricity spread and automobile manufacturing grew, which in turn stimulated other industries and activities, such as highway construction, the production of rubber (for tires) and steel (for car bodies), and the construction of hotels for the new tourists who traveled the highways. This economic activity helped to end the post-war economic crisis. This economic activity helped to end the post-war economic crisis. To improve and expand the highway network, Harding enacted the Highway Relief Act in 1921. Between 1921 and 1923, the federal government spent one hundred and sixty-two million dollars on the highway system, which was an enormous capital infusion into the national economy. In 1922, Harding claimed that the country was in the age of the automobile, a reflection of the standard of living of the citizens and the speed at which it was developing.
The president also made regulation of radio broadcasting more expensive in his April 1921 address to Congress. Secretary of Commerce Hoover took up the project and convened a conference of radio broadcasters in 1922, which ended with a voluntary agreement to share broadcast licenses, which was handled by the national Department of Commerce. Both Harding and Hoover agreed that the organization of this new broadcast medium needed more than the agreement reached, but Congress was slow to act and did not pass corresponding regulatory legislation until 1927.
Harding also wanted to promote aviation, and again it was Hoover who set the government’s plans in motion, with another national conference on commercial aviation. The sessions focused on flight safety, aircraft inspection and licensing of pilots. Although the president tried to enact legislation, it was not passed until 1926, when the Commercial Aviation Act established the Bureau of Aeronautics under Hoover’s Department of Commerce.
Harding wanted to help business as much as possible from the government. He distrusted labor unions, which he saw as a conspiracy against business. He did, however, try to get employers and unions to work together at a conference on unemployment which he convened in September 1921 on Hoover’s recommendation. Harding, however, made it clear that the government would not contribute funds to any decision made at the conference. The conference did not result in any major legislation, but it did serve to expedite some public works projects.
In general, Harding allowed each of his ministers to run his ministry autonomously as he saw fit. Hoover expanded the Department of Commerce to make it more useful to business, believing that the private sector should dominate the economy. The president, who greatly respected the secretary of commerce and said he was the smartest person he knew, often sought his advice and strongly supported him in his actions.
In 1922 there were major strikes in the country as unions tried to improve wages and combat unemployment. In April, half a million coal miners, led by John L. Lewis, went on strike because their wages had been reduced. The managers of the mining companies justified it by claiming that the coal industry was in crisis; Lewis accused them of trying to destroy the union. When the strike dragged on, the president offered to mediate between the parties. The miners accepted Harding’s request to return to work and in exchange a congressional commission was created to study their claims.
On July 1 of that year, four hundred thousand railroad workers also went on strike. Harding proposed arbitration that included acceding to some of the workers’ demands, but the companies refused. Attorney General Daugherty convinced Judge James H. Wilkerson to intervene to end the strike. The judge’s award was well received by the public, but the president thought it was too harsh and forced Daugherty and Wilkerson to modify it. The award ended the strike, but not the tension between the railroaders and the railroad employers, which lasted for years.
By 1922, the eight-hour workday was common in U.S. industry. It was not, however, in the steel mills, whose workers generally worked twelve-hour days with no weekly breaks. Hoover believed this situation to be barbaric and encouraged Harding to call a conference of steel producers to put an end to it. The conference served to create a committee chaired by U.S. Steel President Elbert Gary; in early 1923 the committee opposed ending long hours in the steel mills. Harding wrote to Gary regretting the committee’s conclusions, a letter that was published in the press; the public’s displeasure with the committee’s decision caused the employers to relent and finally implement the eight-hour workday.
Although in his first address to Congress Harding had called for the passage of an anti-lynching law, early in his term it appeared that he would merely follow the lead of the other Republican presidents of the era in dealing with the black population: asking his ministers to employ some in their ministries. Sinclair claims that Harding’s winning two-fifths of the Southern states’ votes in 1920 led him to believe that the party could finally gain a foothold in the Southern states. On October 26, 1921, Harding gave a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, to a racially segregated crowd: twenty thousand whites and ten thousand blacks attended. The president, while asserting that the racial and social differences between the two groups had no solution, called for equal political rights for African Americans. Many African Americans were then voting Republican, especially in the traditionally Democratic-dominated Deep South, but Harding said he was prepared to lose this black support if a real two-party system was introduced in the South. He was willing to continue to require passing literacy tests for suffrage, as long as they were applied equally to blacks and whites. The president said, “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a fallacy, you must stand for equal treatment. The white audience listened quietly to Harding, while the blacks gave him a standing ovation.
Harding condemned lynching in his April 1921 address to Congress and then supported Rep. Leonidas Dyer’s bill opposing it, which passed the lower house in January 1922. When the bill was debated in the Senate in November, however, it was blocked by Southern Democratic senators; Lodge withdrew it in order to pass the ship sales subsidy the president wanted to pass, although this too was blocked. Blacks blamed the president for Dyer’s bill not being enacted; Harding biographer Murray claimed that the president’s interest in getting the boat sales subsidies smoothed its rejection in the Senate.
The population’s rejection of immigrants, especially socialists and communists, led Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1921, which the president signed into law on May 19 and which served as an emergency measure to limit immigration. The law reduced tolerated immigration to 3% of the population of the same origin already residing in the United States, according to the 1910 census data. This meant that there was no real limit to immigration of German or Irish origin, but it did prevent the arrival of Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe. Harding and Secretary of Labor James Davis believed that the law had to be applied with consideration and, on his recommendation, the president allowed a thousand people whom the law forced to be deported to remain in the United States. Harding’s successor, Coolidge, enacted a law in 1924 that permanently limited the number of immigrants admitted to the country.
Harding’s socialist opponent in the 1920 election, Eugene Debs, was in jail in Atlanta, sentenced to ten years in prison for publicly opposing the war. Wilson had refused to grant him amnesty during his term in office. Daugherty went to see Debs, and was very impressed. Pardoning him was opposed by some veterans and the American Legion, as well as by the president’s own wife. The President felt that he could not allow Debs to be released from prison until the war was formally concluded with the signing of peace treaties; when this happened, he commuted Debs’ sentence on December 23, 1921. Debs visited him at the White House before returning to his Indiana home at the President’s invitation.
Harding released twenty-three other opponents of the war at the same time as Debs, and continued to review and pardon other political prisoners throughout the remainder of his presidency. He defended these measures by claiming that they were necessary for the country to return to normalcy.
Harding appointed four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Chief Justice Edward Douglass White died in May 1921, Harding hesitated between giving the vacancy to former Republican President Taft or former Utah Senator George Sutherland, both of whom he had promised a seat on the court. After fleetingly weighing whether another vacancy would arise to appoint both at the same time, he opted to give Taft the presidency of the court. Sutherland joined the court in 1922; he was followed by two other conservative justices, Pierce Butler and Edward Terry Sanford, in 1923.
Harding also appointed six judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeals, forty-two to the U.S. District Courts and two to the U.S. Customs Court.
The large majority obtained in the legislative chambers by the Republicans did not, paradoxically, favor Harding. Since it was not necessary for the parliamentarians to vote in consensus to maintain the party’s advantage over the Democrats, the emergence of interest groups and regionalist groupings was reinforced. One of the most important groupings was that of the parliamentarians representing the rural areas, which were losing importance with the urbanization and industrialization of the country and which were seriously affected by excess production and the decline in the prices of agricultural products. This group, which usually mustered at least 120 votes in the Senate, advocated farm subsidies and increased tariffs to hinder imports and often opposed measures advocated by Wall Street and big business in the Northeast. The attitude of the conservative Southern Democrats was similar. The Republicans, on the whole, tended to defend the interests of financiers and industrialists. The progressive Republican group, however, had lost power by the beginning of the decade, although it strenuously opposed the conservative program of its former co-religionists.
Harding’s attempts to collaborate with Parliament failed.The latter saw any intervention by the president as an intrusion reminiscent of the attitude of his predecessor Wilson.Despite the wide advantage the Republicans enjoyed in the Houses, Harding could not count on clear and automatic support for his measures in Parliament.In fact, party bosses in Parliament hoped to undermine presidential power and strengthen parliamentary power.When the president died unexpectedly in August 1923, relations between the government and Parliament were strained.
Last months of life
By the time the 1922 congressional elections came around, halfway through the president’s term, the Republicans had fulfilled many of their promises. Some of them, such as the reduction of taxes on the rich, did not appeal to the electorate. The economy had not yet returned to normal, unemployment still affected 11% of the working population, and the unions were displeased with the outcome of the strikes. Of the three hundred and three deputies in 1920, the party was only able to keep two hundred and twenty-one, compared to the two hundred and thirteen of the Democrats. In the Senate, they lost eight seats and were left with fifty-one seats out of ninety-six in the House.
In a session of the outgoing Parliament that met a month after the elections, the president tried in vain to get approval for the naval subsidy he wanted to obtain to facilitate the sale of ships built during the war. When the parliamentary sessions ceased in March 1923, the popular perception of the president improved again. The economy was recovering and the projects of the best ministers (Hughes, Mellon and Hoover) were beginning to bear fruit. Most Republicans believed that Harding was the only party candidate with a chance of winning the following year’s election.
In the first half of 1923, two acts by Harding later made it possible to affirm that he knew he was dying: he sold the Star (although he would remain a contributor to the paper for the ten years following the end of his tenure) and he wrote a new will. Harding had a long history of illness, and when he was in good health he tended to eat, drink and smoke to excess. By 1919 he knew he had a heart condition. The strain of office and concern for his wife’s ill health (she suffered from chronic kidney disease) weakened him, and he never fully recovered from a flu he contracted in January 1923. Harding, an inveterate golfer, was already unable to complete a round without exhausting himself. In June, Ohio Senator Willis met with the president, but was only able to discuss two of the five items he wanted to discuss with him, as he was exhausted.
That same month, Harding embarked on what he called a “comprehension” tour. The president intended to cross the country, travel to the Alaskan territory, travel down the west coast to the south, cross the Panama Canal, visit Puerto Rico, and be back in the capital by the end of August. The president was enthusiastic about travel and had long considered visiting Alaska. The tour would allow him to make speeches around the country, get a head start on the 1924 campaign, and at the same time rest away from the heat of the capital.
The President’s schedule was quite tight, even though he had asked his advisors to cut back on planned activities. In Kansas, Harding spoke on transportation problems; in Hutchinson, Kansas, on agriculture. In Denver, on the prohibition of alcoholic beverages; the trip continued with a series of speeches matched only later by Franklin Roosevelt. In addition to the series of speeches, the president visited Yellowstone National Park and Zion National Park, and unveiled a monument on the Oregon Trail dedicated to the pioneers.
On July 5, he boarded the USS Henderson in Washington State, bound for Alaska. He was the first president to visit the territory, which he viewed at length from the ship. After several stops, he disembarked at Seward and boarded the Alaska Central Railroad for McKinley Park and Fairbanks, where he gave a speech before fifteen hundred people on a sultry day. The presidential party was scheduled to return to Seward via the Richardson Trail, but the president’s fatigue caused him to return by train.
On July 26, Harding visited Vancouver, British Columbia; he was the first U.S. president to visit Canada. He was received by the prime minister of the region and the mayor of the city and gave a speech in front of fifty thousand people. Two years after his death, a monument was dedicated to him in Stanley Park. Harding went to a golf course near the city, but after six holes he had to abandon the game, exhausted. He tried to hide his fatigue by playing the last holes of the circuit, but he did not succeed; a journalist commented that he looked so exhausted that a few days of rest would not be enough for him to recover.
The next day, Harding was in Seattle, again overwhelmed with activities: he gave a speech in front of twenty-five thousand people in the city’s stadium, at the University of Washington. In the last speech of his life (the one planned for San Francisco was later published in the press), Harding predicted that Alaska would obtain statehood. He tried to finish the speech as soon as possible and left before receiving the applause of those who listened to him.
Harding went to bed early on the night of July 27, 1923, but during the night he called his physician, Charles E. Sawyer, complaining of pains in his abdomen. Sawyer thought it was digestive problems, which he had suffered previously, but Dr. Joel T. Boone suspected a heart problem. The next day, on his way to San Francisco, the president was feeling better and insisted on walking from the train to the car waiting at the station to take him to the Palace Hotel, where he suffered a relapse. Doctors then found out that Harding was not only suffering from heart problems, but was also sick with pneumonia, then a serious illness, due to lack of antibiotic treatment. He was given caffeine and digitalis and Harding seemed to feel better. Hoover took it upon himself to send to the press the President’s speech on the advisability of joining the International Tribunal, which was well received, much to the President’s satisfaction. On the afternoon of August 2, the sick man seemed in better condition and the doctors allowed him to get into bed. That evening, while his wife was reading a laudatory article about him from The Saturday Evening Post, Harding began to experience convulsions and died of heart failure, despite the doctors’ attempts to revive him.
Harding’s death sent shockwaves through the nation. The president was loved and admired, and the press and the public had followed his illness closely and believed he had overcome it. Harding’s casket traveled on the same train he had ridden in life, back to the East Coast, a journey that was covered in detail by the press. Nine million people turned out to watch the train pass on its long journey from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and then to Marion, where the late president was laid to rest.
Upon arrival in Marion, the coffin was placed in an armagon that traveled through the city, past the Star headquarters to the city cemetery; in the funeral procession, in addition to the deceased’s wife and father, were President Coolidge and Chief Justice and former President Taft. In 1931 Harding’s body and that of his wife-who died in 1924-were moved to the mausoleum dedicated to them by then-President Hoover.
Harding granted positions to a number of friends and acquaintances. While some, such as Charles E. Sawyer, his physician at Marion who remained so in Washington, performed their duties conscientiously, this was not the case for all of them. Sawyer warned the president of the VA scandal. Others, however, performed much less brilliantly, such as Daniel R. Crissinger, a Marion lawyer whom Harding appointed Comptroller of the Currency, the governor of the Federal Reserve, or Mint Director Frank Scobey. The president’s brother-in-law, Heber H. Votaw, superintendent of federal prisons, was unable to eliminate drug trafficking from them. Others close to the president turned out to be corrupt individuals who were later dubbed the “Ohio gang.”
Most of the scandals that marred Harding’s term in office actually became known after Harding’s death. The Veterans Bureau scandal became known to the president in January 1923, but, according to Trani and Wilson, he failed to handle it properly. Harding allowed the corrupt director of the bureau, Charles R. Forbes, to flee to Europe; Forbes later returned home and was sent to prison. Harding also knew that Daugherty’s representative in the Justice Department, Jess Smith, was involved in corruption. He ordered Daugherty to expel Smith from the capital and not to allow him to participate in the impending presidential trip to Alaska. Smith committed suicide on May 30, 1923. It is not known, however, what exactly the president knew of his criminal activities. Murray indicates in his work on Harding that the president had not participated in them and did not tolerate them.
Hoover accompanied Harding on his trip west and later wrote that during the trip Harding asked him what he would do if he discovered a possible major scandal, whether he would hush it up or make it public. Hoover replied that he should go public and thus earn a reputation for integrity, and asked for details. Harding confided that the scandal involved Smith, but when Hoover asked if Daugherty was implicated, the president refused to answer.
The scandal that perhaps did the most damage to Harding’s reputation was the Teapot Dome scandal. Like almost all of the scandals of his tenure, it came to light after his death and he was unaware of the illegal activity of the offenders. This scandal centered on land in Wyoming, Teapot Dome, which had oil fields and belonged to the Navy’s strategic reserves. For years, it had been debated whether to exploit them, even though they were theoretically saved for national crisis; President Wilson’s first Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Knight Lane, wanted to do so. When Harding took office, his Secretary of the Interior, Fall, adopted the position of his predecessor in office; consequently, the President gave orders in May 1921 that the Navy reserves were to be placed under the Department of the Interior. Secretary of the Navy Edwin C. Denby approved the transfer.
In July, the Department of the Interior announced that Edward Doheny had been granted a permit to exploit the lands bordering the Elk Hills Naval Reservation in California. The announcement caused no opposition, because if oil had not been extracted from the reserve, it would have flowed into wells on adjoining private estates. Wyoming Senator John Kendrick had been informed by some of his constituents that a concession had also been made to develop the Teapot reserve, although this had not been officially announced. The Department of the Interior refused to provide him with any documentation on the alleged concession, so the senator had to obtain a Senate warrant to get it. The ministry sent a copy of the concession to Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company and clarified that there had been no competition because the concession included certain quid pro quos for the Navy that the concessionaire had undertaken to perform (build oil tanks for the Navy). While the information satisfied some, others, including conservationists Gifford Pinchot and Harry A. Slattery, demanded a detailed investigation of Fall’s performance. They succeeded in getting Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr. to launch Senate inquiries into the ministry’s oil concessions. La Follette persuaded Montana’s Democratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh to lead the investigation, and Walsh took it upon himself to review the ministry’s copious documentation, which included a letter in which the president claimed to know about and approve the drilling concessions.
Testimony on the case began in October 1923, after the president’s death. Fall had left office that same year and maintained that he had received no money from either Sinclair or Doheny; a claim that Sinclair confirmed. In November, however, Walsh learned that Fall had lavishly expanded his New Mexico ranch. Fall testified again and claimed that the money he was spending came from a loan he had received from the late president’s friend and Washington Post editor Edward B. McLean, but McLean denied it. Doheny, for his part, testified before the committee that he had given Fall cash as a personal loan because of their long-standing relationship; when Fall was called again, he shielded himself behind the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions that might have incriminated him.
Investigators discovered that both Fall and a relative of his had received some $400,000 from Doheny and Sinclair, and the money deliveries coincided with oil concessions. Fall was eventually sentenced to prison for bribery in 1929; in 1931 he became the first U.S. minister to be jailed for crimes committed in office. Sinclair was convicted only of contempt of court and corruption of the jury. Doheny was tried in April 1930 for bribing Fall, but was acquitted, despite Fall’s conviction.
Harding’s choice of Harry M. Daugherty for the position of attorney general drew the most criticism of all his appointments. Daugherty’s record in Ohio politics, as a stump, did not seem the right one for the job. When scandals broke out in 1923 and 1924, his many enemies thought they could implicate him in them, and assumed he had been involved in the Teapot Dome dealings, despite the poor relations between him and Fall. In February 1924, the Senate approved investigating the Ministry of Justice, to which Daugherty belonged as attorney general.
Montana Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler was on the investigating committee and served as prosecutor in the testimony that began on March 12, 1924. Jess Smith had traded favors with the help of two other Ohio natives, Howard Mannington and Fred A. Caskey; they had accepted bribes from bootleggers to protect them and give them seized merchandise. Mannington and Caskey’s house became known as the “little green house on K Street,” a center of government corruption. Some of the witnesses who testified before the committee, such as Smith’s ex-wife Roxy Stinson and former FBI agent Gaston Means, who was disbarred for corruption, claimed that Daugherty had participated in the rigging. Coolidge called for Daugherty’s resignation when he refused to turn over ministry documents to the investigating committee; Daugherty effectively resigned on March 28, 1924.
The crime that caused Daugherty the most trouble was a pact Smith had made with Colonel Thomas W. Miller, a former Delaware deputy whom Harding had appointed as custodian of the property of citizens of enemy nations (Alien Property Custodian). Smith and Miller had received a bribe of nearly half a million dollars in exchange for obtaining possession of a German company, the American Metal Company. Smith deposited fifty thousand dollars in a joint account with Daugherty, which was used for political work. Daugherty and his brother destroyed the account records. Miller and Daugherty were charged with fraud. At the first trial, held in September 1926, the jury reached no verdict; at the second, which occurred in early 1927, Miller was convicted and sent to prison, but again the jury could not agree on Daugherty’s guilt or innocence. The charges against him were dropped and he was never convicted of any crime, but his refusal to testify at the inquest sank his reputation. The former attorney general, however, continued to admit no guilt and blamed his troubles on the unions and the Communists.
Charles R. Forbes, director of the new Veterans War Office – created in August 1921 through the merger of other agencies – sought to have this agency administer the management and construction of the new veterans’ hospitals needed to care for the war wounded. At the beginning of Harding’s term, the Treasury Department was in charge of these activities. The American Legion, very influential in American politics, supported Forbes and sharply criticized his opponents, such as Mellon; in April 1922, Harding agreed to transfer control of the hospitals to the Veterans Bureau. Forbes’ main task in this regard was the construction of new hospitals throughout the country that could care for the three hundred thousand wounded of World War I.
In early 1922, Forbes met Elias Mortimer, a representative of the Thompson-Black Construction Company of St. Louis, which wanted to build the new veterans’ hospitals. The two forged a close friendship, and Mortimer paid for Forbes’ travels throughout the West, which Forbes undertook to find sites for the hospitals. Forbes was also a friend of Charles F. Hurley, owner of the Hurley-Mason Construction Company in Washington State. Harding had ordered the hospitals to be awarded by public bidding, but Forbes, Mortimer and Hurley agreed that the latter’s companies would be awarded the contracts and the three of them would share the profits from the work. Some of the money was received by the chief consultant to the Veterans Affairs Office, Charles F. Cramer. Forbes committed fraud and bribery in the awarding of the contracts by increasing the cost per bed from three to four thousand dollars. The criminals kept ten percent of the inflated bills and Forbes received a third of this amount. The trio also profited from the fraudulent purchase of the land needed to build the hospitals: Forbes authorized the purchase of a parcel of land in San Francisco that cost less than twenty thousand dollars for one hundred and five thousand. At least $25,000 of it went to Forbes and Cramer.
Determined to continue to fraudulently enrich himself, in November 1922 Forbes began selling hospital medical supplies to businesses in Perryville, Maryland. The government had built up large stocks of hospital supplies during the World War, which Forbes illegally misappropriated from the Boston firm Thompson and Kelly, while his office purchased the same items at much higher prices.
It was Dr. Sawyer, Harding’s physician and chairman of the Federal Hospitalization Board, who blew the whistle on Forbes’s criminal activity. Sawyer alerted Harding that Forbes was illegally selling hospital supplies. At first the president was incredulous, but in January 1923 Sawyer obtained evidence of Forbes’ embezzlement. Harding, shocked – his reaction to corruption in his government ranged from anger to resignation – summoned Forbes to the White House and demanded that he resign. Harding did not want a scandal to break out and allowed Forbes to flee to Europe; once there, he resigned on February 15, 1923. Despite the president’s efforts, rumors circulating about Forbes’ activities prompted the Senate to order an investigation two weeks later; in mid-March, Cramer committed suicide.
Mortimer, outraged by the relationship Forbes had maintained with his wife, agreed to confess to the criminal arrangement with the head of the Veterans War Office. The construction company executive was the key witness in the case, which was held in late 1923, after Harding’s death. Forbes returned from Europe to testify, but proved unconvincing; in 1924, both he and John W. Thompson of Thompson-Black were tried in Chicago for fraud and bribery. They were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Forbes went to prison in 1926; Thompson, who suffered from heart problems, died before he could be imprisoned. According to Trani and Wilson, one of the most controversial aspects of Harding’s tenure was that he was more concerned with the political impact of the scandals than with their resolution.
- Warren G. Harding
- Warren G. Harding
- Kling estaba decidido a que su hija pudiese ganarse la vida por sí misma si llegaba el caso y para ello le había pagado los estudios en el Conservatorio de Cincinnati. Tras su distanciamiento, Florence tuvo efectivamente que poner en práctica sus estudios.Dean, 2004, p. 15.
- Harding parece ser que nunca llegó a saber con certeza si tenía o no antepasados negros.
- Lo que los estadounidenses denominan una campaña «de porche» por las visitas que en este recibe el candidato, que apenas se desplaza.
- Eugen Lennhoff, Oskar Posner, Dieter A. Binder: Internationales Freimaurerlexikon. Herbig Verlag, 5. Auflage 2006, ISBN 978-3-7766-2478-6.
- William R. Denslow, Harry S. Truman: 10,000 Famous Freemasons from A to J, Part One. Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-4179-7578-4.
- The Washington Herald vom 19. Februar 1922, S. 24 
- (en) « Warren G. Harding | Facts, Accomplishments, & Biography », sur Encyclopedia Britannica (consulté le 18 avril 2020)
- (en-US) « Warren Gamaliel Harding | Encyclopedia.com », sur www.encyclopedia.com (consulté le 18 avril 2020)
- (en-US) « Warren G. Harding », sur The White House (consulté le 18 avril 2020)
- 1 2 Warren G. Harding // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
- Warren Gamaliel Harding // Энциклопедия Брокгауз (нем.) / Hrsg.: Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus, Wissen Media Verlag
- Carnegie Hall linked open data (англ.) — 2017.