Presidency of Warren G. Harding

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Presidency of Warren G. Harding
In office
March 4, 1921 – August 2, 1923
Preceded by Wilson presidency
Succeeded by Coolidge presidency
Seat White House, Washington, D.C.
Political party Republican

The presidency of Warren G. Harding began on March 4, 1921, when Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended when he died on August 2, 1923, a span of 881 days. Harding, the 29th United States president, presided over the country in the aftermath of World War I. A member of the Republican Party, Harding held office during a period in American political history from the mid–1890s to 1932 that was generally dominated by his party. He died of heart attack and was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge.

Harding took office after defeating Democrat James M. Cox in the 1920 presidential election. Running against the policies of incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Harding won the popular vote by a margin of 26.2 percentage points, which remains the largest popular-vote percentage margin in presidential elections since the end of the Era of Good Feelings in the 1820s. Upon taking office, Harding instituted conservative policies designed to minimize the government's role in the economy. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon won passage of the Revenue Act of 1921, a major tax cut that primarily reduced taxes on the wealthy. Harding also signed the Budget and Accounting Act, which established the country's first formal budgeting process and created the Bureau of the Budget. Another major aspect of his domestic policy was the Fordney–McCumber Tariff, which greatly increased tariff rates.

Harding supported the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, which marked the start of a period of restrictive immigration policies. He vetoed a bill designed to give a bonus to World War I veterans but presided over the creation of the Veterans Bureau. He also signed into law several bills designed to address the farm crisis and, along with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, promoted new technologies like the radio and aviation. Harding's foreign policy was directed by Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes. Hughes's major foreign policy achievement was the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, in which the world's major naval powers agreed on a naval disarmament program. Harding appointed four Supreme Court justices, all of whom became conservative members of the Taft Court. Shortly after Harding's death, several major scandals emerged, including the Teapot Dome scandal. Harding died as one of the most popular presidents in history, but the subsequent exposure of the scandals eroded his popular regard, as did revelations of several extramarital affairs. In historical rankings of the U.S. presidents, Harding is often rated among the worst.

1920 Election[edit]

Republican nomination[edit]

In 1918, when Theodore Roosevelt was entertaining plans (cut short by his death in January 1919) to run again for the presidency, he considered Harding as having strong potential to run and serve as Vice President, and discussed with Harry Daugherty the desirability of having Harding on his ticket.[1] In 1919, the first candidate to declare for the GOP nomination was General Leonard Wood. The GOP bosses were nevertheless determined to have a dependable listener, and were lukewarm toward the General.[2] Some in the party began to scout for such an alternative, and Harding's name arose, despite his reluctance, due to his unique ability to draw vital Ohio votes.[3] Also at the forefront in the spirited and complicated contest for the nomination were Illinois governor Frank Lowden, and Senator Hiram Johnson of California.[4][5] Harry Daugherty, who became Harding's campaign manager, and who was sure none of these candidates could garner a majority, convinced Harding to run after a marathon discussion of six-plus hours.[6] He then struck a deal with Oklahoma oilman Jake L. Hamon, whereby 18 Oklahoma delegates whose votes Hamon had bought for Lowden were committed to Harding as a second choice if Lowden's effort faltered.[7][8] Daugherty's strategy focused on making Harding liked by or at least acceptable to all wings of the party, so that Harding could emerge as a compromise candidate in the likely event of a convention deadlock.[9]

Harding's supporters thought of him as the next William McKinley. By the time the 1920 national convention began in June, a Senate sub-committee had tallied the monies spent by the various candidates, with totals as follows: Wood – $1.8 million; Lowden – $414,000; Johnson – $194,000; and Harding – $114,000; the committed delegate count at the opening gavel was: Wood – 124; Johnson – 112; Lowden – 72; Harding – 39.[10] Still, at the opening, less than one-half of the delegates were committed.[11] No candidate was able to corral a majority after nine ballots.[12] Republican Senators and other leaders, who were divided without a singular political boss, met in Room 404 of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago and after a nightlong session, tentatively concluded Harding was the best possible compromise candidate. According to Francis Russell, though additional meetings took place, this particular meeting came to be known as the "smoke filled room".[13] Before Harding received the formal nod, George Harvey summoned him. Harvey told him he was considered the consensus nominee, and asked if he knew, "before God," whether anything in his life would be an impediment. After mulling the question over for some minutes, Harding replied no, despite his alleged adulterous affairs.[14] The next day, on the tenth ballot, he was nominated. Delegates then selected Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge to be his vice-presidential running mate.[15]

General election[edit]

Harding's home in Marion, Ohio, from which he conducted his 1920 "front porch" campaign. (c.1918–1921)

Harding's opponent in the 1920 election was Ohio governor and newspaperman James M. Cox, who had won the Democratic nomination in a 44-ballot convention battle. His running mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harding rejected the "progressive" ideology of the Wilson administration in favor of the "laissez-faire" approach of the McKinley administration.[16] He ran on a promise to restore the nation's pre-World War I stride, and, through his use of the phrase "Return to normalcy", called for an end to the abnormal era of the preceding eight years - an era which he saw as tainted by war, internationalism, and government activism.[17] In envisioning the way for the American people to regain that former stride in the new decade, he stated:

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.[18]

On July 28, 1920, Harding's aide Albert Lasker, a top advertising executive from Chicago, unleashed a broad-based advertising campaign that used modern advertising techniques for the first time in a presidential campaign.[19] Lasker's approach included newsreels and sound recordings, all in an effort to enhance Harding's patriotism and affability. Farmers were sent brochures decrying the alleged abuses of Democratic agriculture policies. African Americans and women were also given literature in an attempt to take away votes from the Democrats. Professional advertisers including Chicagoan Albert Tucker were consulted. Billboard posters, newspapers and magazines were employed in addition to motion pictures. Five thousand speakers were trained by advertiser Harry New and sent abroad to speak for Harding; 2,000 of these speakers were women. Telemarketers were used to make phone conferences with perfected dialogues to promote Harding. Lasker had 8,000 photos distributed around the nation every two weeks of Harding and his wife.[20] Additionally, popular entertainer Al Jolson toured the nation on Harding's behalf, as did Lillian Russell, and numerous other celebrities.[21]

1920 electoral vote results

During the campaign, Democratic opponents spread rumors that Harding's great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black person and that other blacks might be found in his family tree.[22] In an era when the "one-drop rule" would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disfranchised, Harding's campaign manager responded, "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings', a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood."[16] Historian and opponent William Estabrook Chancellor publicized the rumors, based on supposed family research, but perhaps reflecting no more than local gossip.[23] The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, which he perhaps meant to be dismissive: "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence."[24] However, while there are gaps in the historical record, studies of his family tree have not found evidence of an African-American ancestor.[25]

The 1920 election was the first in which women could vote nationwide. It was also the first to be covered on the radio; KDKA (8ZZ) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 8MK (later WWJ) in Detroit, and the educational and amateur radio station 1XE (later WGI) at Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, all carried the election returns.[26]

Harding won a decisive victory, receiving 404 electoral votes, to Cox's 127, and garnering 60% of the nationwide popular vote, the highest percentage ever recorded up to that time, to Cox's 34%.[27] Campaigning from a federal prison, Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs received 3% of the national vote. Harding won the popular vote by a margin of 26.2%, the largest margin since the election of 1820. Harding swept every state outside of the "Solid South", and his victory in Tennessee made him the first Republican to win a former Confederate state since the end of Reconstruction.[28] At the same time, the Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives.[29] The incoming 67th Congress would be dominated by Republicans, but the party was divided among various factions, including an independent-minded farm bloc from the Midwest.[30]


Inauguration of Warren G. Harding, March 4, 1921.

Harding was inaugurated as the nation's 29th president on March 4, 1921, on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Edward D. White administered the Oath of office. Harding placed his hand on the Washington Inaugural Bible as he recited the oath. This was the first time that a U.S. president rode to and from his inauguration in an automobile.[31]

In his inaugural address Harding reiterated the themes of his campaign, declaring.

My Countrymen: When one surveys the world about him after the great storm, noting the marks of destruction and yet rejoicing in the ruggedness of the things which withstood it, if he is an American he breathes the clarified atmosphere with a strange mingling of regret and new hope. ... Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it.[32]

Literary critic H.L. Mencken was appalled, announcing that:

He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.[33]



The Harding Cabinet
PresidentWarren G. Harding1921–1923
Vice PresidentCalvin Coolidge1921–1923
Secretary of StateCharles Evans Hughes1921–1923
Secretary of TreasuryAndrew Mellon1921–1923
Secretary of WarJohn W. Weeks1921–1923
Attorney GeneralHarry M. Daugherty1921–1923
Postmaster GeneralWill H. Hays1921–1922
Harry S. New1923
Hubert Work1922–1923
Secretary of the NavyEdwin Denby1921–1923
Secretary of the InteriorAlbert B. Fall1921–1923
Hubert Work1923
Secretary of AgricultureHenry C. Wallace1921–1923
Secretary of CommerceHerbert Hoover1921–1923
Secretary of LaborJames J. Davis1921–1923
Harding and his cabinet in 1921

Although Harding was committed to putting the "best minds" on his cabinet, he often rewarded those persons who were active and contributed to his campaign by appointing them to high federal department positions. Wayne Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League, was allowed by Harding to dictate who would serve on the Prohibition Commission.[34] Graft and corruption charges permeated Harding's Department of Justice; bootleggers confiscated tens of thousands cases of whiskey through bribery and kickbacks.[35] Harding, out of loyalty, appointed Harry M. Daugherty as Attorney General because he felt he owed Daugherty for running his 1920 campaign. After the election, many people from the Ohio area moved to Washington, D.C., made their headquarters in a little green house on K Street, and would be eventually known as the "Ohio Gang".[36] The financial and political scandals caused by these men, in addition to Harding's own personal controversies, severely damaged Harding's personal reputation and eclipsed his presidential accomplishments.[37]

Harding selected numerous prominent national figures for his ten-person cabinet. Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that Harding appoint Elihu Root or Philander C. Knox as Secretary of State, but Harding instead selected former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes for the position. Harding appointed Henry C. Wallace, an Iowan journalist who had advised Harding's 1920 campaign on farm issues, as Secretary of Agriculture. After Charles G. Dawes declined Harding's offer to become Secretary of the Treasury, Harding assented to Senator Boies Penrose's suggestion to select Pittsburgh billionaire Andrew Mellon. Harding used Mellon's appointment as leverage to win confirmation for Herbert Hoover, who had led the U.S. Food Administration under Wilson and who became Harding's Secretary of Commerce. Rejecting public calls to appoint Leonard Wood as Secretary of War, Harding instead appointed Lodge's preferred candidate, former Senator John W. Weeks of Massachusetts. Harding selected James J. Davis for the position of Secretary of Labor, as Davis satisfied Harding's criteria of being broadly acceptable to labor but being opposed to labor leader Samuel Gompers. Will H. Hays, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was appointed Postmaster General. Grateful for his actions at the 1920 Republican convention, Harding offered Frank Lowden the post of Secretary of the Navy. After Lowden turned down the post, Harding instead appointed former Congressman Edwin Denby of Michigan. New Mexico Senator Albert B. Fall, a close ally of Harding's during their time in the Senate together, became Harding's Secretary of the Interior.[38]

Press corps[edit]

According to biographers, Harding got along better with the press than any other previous President, being a former newspaperman. Reporters admired his frankness, candor, and his confessed limitations. He took the press behind the scenes and showed them the inner circle of the presidency. Harding, in November 1921, also implemented a policy of taking written questions from reporters during a press conference.[39]

Judicial appointments[edit]

Harding appointed four justices to the Supreme Court of the United States. After the death of Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, former President William Howard Taft lobbied Harding for the nomination to succeed White. Harding acceded to Taft's request, and Taft joined the court in June 1921.[40] Harding's next choice for the Court was conservative former Senator George Sutherland of Utah, who had been a major supporter of Taft in 1912 and Harding in 1920. Sutherland succeeded John Hessin Clarke in September 1922 after Clarke resigned. Two Supreme Court vacancies arose in 1923 due to the death of William R. Day and the resignation of Mahlon Pitney. On Taft's recommendation, Harding nominated railroad attorney and conservative Democrat Pierce Butler to succeed Day. Progressive senators like Robert M. La Follette unsuccessfully sought to defeat Butler's nomination, but Butler was confirmed. On the advice of Attorney General Daugherty, Harding appointed federal appellate judge Edward Terry Sanford of Tennessee to succeed Pitney.[41] Bolstered by these appointments, the Taft Court upheld the precedents of the Lochner era and largely reflected the conservatism of the 1920s.[42] Harding also appointed 6 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, 42 judges to the United States district courts, and 2 judges to the United States Court of Customs Appeals.

Domestic affairs[edit]

Revenue Act of 1921[edit]

Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon

Harding assumed office while the nation was in the midst of a postwar economic decline, known as the Depression of 1920–21. Harding strongly rejected proposals to provide for federal unemployment benefits, believing that the government should leave relief efforts to charities and local governments.[43] He believed that the best way to restore economic prosperity was to raise tariff rates and reduce the government's role in economic activities.[44] His administration's economic policy was formulated by Secretary of the Treasury Mellon, who proposed cuts to the excess profits tax and the corporate tax while leaving the income tax rate in place. Mellon proposed to make up for some of the lost revenue with new taxes on bank checks and automobiles.[45] Mellon favored the wealthy holding as much capital as possible, since he saw them as the main drivers of economic growth.[46] Congressional Republican leaders joined Hoover and Mellon in their advocacy for tax cuts, and Harding made tax cuts and an increase in the tariff the key legislative priorities of his first year in office. He called a special session of the Congress to address these and other issues, and Congress convened in April 1921.[47]

With the help of Senator Penrose, the Harding administration pushed Mellon's tax bill through Congress.[48] Despite opposition from Democrats and many farm state Republicans, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1921 in November, and Harding signed the bill into law later that month. The act greatly reduced taxes for the wealthiest Americans, though the cuts were not as deep as Mellon had favored.[49] The act also reduced the corporate tax from 65% to 50% and provided for ultimate elimination of the excess profits tax.[50][51]

Revenues to the treasury decreased substantially.[52] Libertarian historians Schweikart and Allen argue that Harding's tax and economic policies in part "... produced the most vibrant eight year burst of manufacturing and innovation in the nation's history,"[53] Wages, profits, and productivity all made substantial gains during the 1920s. Economist Daniel Kuehn has attributed the improvement to the earlier monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, and notes that the changes in marginal tax rates were accompanied by an expansion in the tax base that could account for the increase in revenue.[54]

Robert Gordon, a Keynesian, notes, "government policy to moderate the depression and speed recovery was minimal. The Federal Reserve authorities were largely passive. ... Despite the absence of a stimulative government policy, however, recovery was not long delayed." Kenneth Weiher, an economic historian, notes, "despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction." He concedes that "the economy rebounded quickly from the 1920–1921 depression and entered a period of quite vigorous growth."[55]Paul Krugman argues that the monetary base expanded significantly from 1922 to 1925, and that this expansion was accompanied by a reduction in commercial paper rates.[56] Allan Meltzer agrees that the rising real money stock motivated wealth owners to invest.[57] Recovery did not last long. Another economic contraction began near the end of Harding's presidency in 1923, while tax cuts were still underway. A third contraction followed in 1927 during the next presidential term.[58] Some economists have argued that the tax cuts resulted in growing economic inequality and speculation, which in turn contributed to the Great Depression.[59]

Bureau of the Budget[edit]

Charles Dawes—the first budget director

Harding believed the federal government should be fiscally managed in a way similar to private sector businesses.[60] He had campaigned on the slogan, "Less government in business and more business in government."[61] President Taft had recommended the creation of a federal budget system, as the House Ways and Means Committee found it increasingly difficult to balance revenues and expenditures. Businessmen and economists coalesced around Taft's proposal during the Wilson administration, and by 1920, both parties favored it. Reflecting this goal, in June 1921, Harding signed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.[62]

The act established the Bureau of the Budget to coordinate the federal budgeting process.[63] The law created the position of presidential budget director, who was directly responsible to the president rather than to the Secretary of Treasury. The law also stipulated that the president must annually submit a budget to Congress, and all presidents since have had to do so.[64] Additionally, the General Accounting Office (GAO) was created to assure congressional oversight of federal budget expenditures. The GAO would be led by the Comptroller General, who was appointed by Congress to a term of fifteen years.[65] Harding appointed Charles Dawes as the Bureau of the Budget's first director. Dawes reduced government spending by $1.5 billion his first year as director, a 25% reduction, and presided over another 25% reduction the following year.[66]

Fordney–McCumber Tariff[edit]

Like most Republicans of his era, Harding favored protective tariffs designed to shield American businesses from foreign competition.[67] Shortly after taking office, Harding signed the Emergency Tariff of 1921, a stopgap measure designed to aid American farmers suffering from the effects of an expansion in European farm imports.[68] The tariff also protect domestic manufacturing, and included a clause designed to prevent dumping by European manufacturers.[69] Harding hoped to sign a permanent tariff into law by the end of 1921, but heated congressional debate over tariff schedules, especially between agricultural and manufacturing interests, delayed passage of such a bill.[70]

In September 1922, Harding enthusiastically signed the Fordney–McCumber Tariff Act.[71] The protectionist legislation was sponsored by Representative Joseph W. Fordney and Senator Porter J. McCumber, and was supported by nearly every congressional Republican.[70] The act increased the tariff rates contained in the previous Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913, to the highest level in the nation's history. Harding became concerned when the agriculture business suffered economic hardship from the high tariffs. By 1922, Harding began to realize that the long-term effects of tariffs could be detrimental to national economy, despite the short-term benefits.[72] The high tariffs established under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover have historically been viewed as a contributing factor to causing the Wall Street Crash of 1929.[50][73]

Immigration restriction[edit]

In the first two decades of the 20th century, immigration to the United States had increased, with many of the immigrants coming from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe. Many Americans viewed these new immigrants with suspicion, and World War I and the First Red Scare further heightened nativist fears.[74] The Per Centum Act of 1921, signed by Harding on May 19, 1921, reduced the numbers of immigrants to 3% of a country's represented population based on the 1910 census. The act had passed in the previous Congress but had been vetoed by President Wilson. The Act allowed unauthorized immigrants to be deported. Harding and Secretary of Labor James Davis believed that enforcement had to be humane, and Harding often allowed exceptions granting reprieves to thousands of immigrants.[75] Immigration to the United States fell from roughly 800,000 in 1920 to approximately 300,000 in 1922.[69] Though the act was superseded by the Immigration Act of 1924, it marked the establishment of the National Origins Formula.[76]


Many World War I veterans were unemployed or otherwise economically distressed when Harding took office. To aid these veterans, the Senate considered passing a law that gave veterans a $1 bonus for each day they had served in the war.[77] Harding opposed payment of a bonus to veterans, arguing that much was already being done for them and that the bill would "break down our Treasury, from which so much is later on to be expected."[78] The Senate sent the bonus bill back to committee,[78] but the issue returned when Congress reconvened in December 1921. A bill providing a bonus, without a means of funding it, was passed by both houses in September 1922. Harding vetoed it, and the veto was narrowly sustained.[79]

In August 1921, Harding signed the Sweet Bill, which established a new agency known as the Veterans Bureau. After World War I, 300,000 wounded veterans were in need of hospitalization, medical care, and job training. To handle the needs of these veterans, the new agency incorporated the War Risk Insurance Bureau, the Federal Hospitalization Bureau, and three other bureaus that dealt with veteran affairs.[80] Harding appointed Colonel Charles R. Forbes, a decorated war veteran, as the Veteran Bureau's first director. The Veterans Bureau later was incorporated into the Veterans Administration and ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs.[81]

Farm acts[edit]

Farmers were among the hardest hit during the Depression of 1920–21, and prices for farm goods collapsed.[82] The presence of a powerful bipartisan farm bloc led by Senator William S. Kenyon and Congressman Lester J. Dickinson ensured that Congress would address the farm crisis. Harding established the Joint Commission on Agricultural Industry to make recommendations on farm policy, and he signed a series of farm- and food-related laws in 1921 and 1922.[83] Much of the legislation emanated from President Woodrow Wilson's 1919 Federal Trade Commission report, which investigated and discovered "manipulations, controls, trusts, combinations, or restraints out of harmony with the law or the public interest" in the meat packing industry. The first law was the Packers and Stockyards Act, which prohibited packers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices. Two amendments were made to the Farm Loan Act of 1916 that President Wilson had signed into law, which had expanded the maximum size of rural farm loans. The Emergency Agriculture Credit Act authorized new loans to farmers to help them sell and market livestock. The Capper–Volstead Act, signed by Harding on February 18, 1922, protected farm cooperatives from anti-trust legislation. The Future Trading Act was also enacted, regulating puts and calls, bids, and offers on futures contracting. Later, on May 15, 1922, the Supreme Court ruled this legislation unconstitutional,[50] but Congress passed the similar Grain Futures Act in response. Though sympathetic to farmers and deferential to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, Harding was uncomfortable with many of the farm programs since they relied on governmental action, and he sought to weaken the farm bloc by appointing Kenyon to a federal judgeship in 1922.[84]

Highways and radio[edit]

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover listening to a radio

The 1920s were a time of modernization for America; use of electricity became increasingly common, and mass production of the motor car stimulated industries such as highway construction, rubber, steel, and construction.[85] Congress had passed the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 to aid states in road-building, and Harding favored a further expansion of the federal role in road construction and maintenance. He signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which allowed states to select interstate and intercounty roads that would receive federal funds.[86] From 1921 to 1923, the federal government spent $162 million on America's highway system, infusing the U.S. economy with a large amount of capital.[87]

Harding and Secretary of Commerce Hoover also embraced the emerging medium of the radio.[88] Harding's June 1922 speech in honor of Francis Scott Key was broadcast on the radio, making Harding the first president that the American public heard on the radio.[26] Secretary of Commerce Hoover took charge of the administration's radio policy, and convened a conference of radio broadcasters in 1922, which led to a voluntary agreement for licensing of radio frequencies through the Commerce Department. Both Harding and Hoover believed that something more than an agreement was needed, but Congress was slow to act, not imposing radio regulation until 1927. Hoover hosted a similar conference on aviation, but, as with the radio, was unable to win passage of legislation that would have provided for regulation air travel.[89]

Release of political prisoners[edit]

Eugene Debs after release from prison by President Harding, visits the White House

On December 23, 1921 Harding released socialist leader Eugene Debs from prison. Debs, a forceful World War I antiwar activist, had been convicted under sedition charges brought by the Wilson administration for his opposition to the draft during World War I.[90] Despite many political differences between the two candidates Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served; however, he was not granted an official presidential pardon. Debs' failing health was a contributing factor for the release. Harding granted a general amnesty to 23 prisoners, alleged anarchists and socialists, active in the Red Scare.[50][91]

Labor issues[edit]

Union membership had grown during World War I, and by 1920 union members constituted approximately one-fifth of the labor force. Many employers reduced wages after the war, and some business leaders hoped to destroy the power of organized labor in order to re-establish control over their employees. These policies led to increasing labor tension in the early 1920s.[92] Widespread strikes marked 1922, as labor sought redress for falling wages and increased unemployment. In April, 500,000 coal miners, led by John L. Lewis, struck over wage cuts. Mining executives argued that the industry was seeing hard times; Lewis accused them of trying to break the union. As the strike became protracted, Harding offered compromise to settle it. As Harding proposed, the miners agreed to return to work, and Congress created a commission to look into their grievances.[93] Harding also sent out the National Guard and 2,200 deputy U.S. marshals to keep the peace.[94] On July 1, 1922, 400,000 railroad workers went on strike. Harding proposed a settlement that made some concessions, but management objected. Attorney General Daugherty convinced Judge James H. Wilkerson to issue a sweeping injunction to break up the strike. Although there was public support for the Wilkerson injunction, Harding felt it went too far, and had Daugherty and Wilkerson amend it. The injunction succeeded in ending the strike; however, tensions remained high between railroad workers and management for years.[95]

By 1922, the eight-hour day had become common in American industry. One exception was in steel mills, where workers labored through a twelve-hour workday, seven days a week. Hoover considered this practice barbaric, and got Harding to convene a conference of steel manufacturers with a view to ending it. The conference established a committee under the leadership of U. S. Steel chairman Elbert Gary, which in early 1923 recommended against ending the practice. Harding sent a letter to Gary deploring the result, which was printed in the press, and public outcry caused the manufacturers to reverse themselves and standardize the eight-hour day.[96]

African Americans[edit]

Notably in an age of severe racial intolerance during the 1920s, Harding did not hold any racial animosity, according to historian Carl S. Anthony.[97] In a speech on October 26, 1921, given in segregated Birmingham, Alabama Harding advocated civil rights for African Americans; the first President to openly advocate black political, educational, and economic equality during the 20th century.[97] In the "Birmingham speech," Harding wanted African Americans to have equal educational opportunities and greater voting rights in the South. The white section of the audience listened in silence while the black section of the segregated audience cheered.[98] Harding went further and viewed the race problem as a national and international issue and desired that the sectionalism of the Solid South and black membership of the Republican party be broken up.[99] Harding, however, openly stated that he was not for black social equality in terms of racial mixing or intermarriage.[99] Harding also spoke on the Great Migration, believing that blacks migrating to the north and west to find employment had actually harmed race relations between blacks and whites.[99]

Wilson had excluded African-Americans from several government positions they had previously held, and Harding reversed this policy. African-Americans were appointed to high-level positions in the Departments of Labor and Interior, and numerous blacks were hired in other agencies and departments.[100] Trani and Wilson note that Harding did not emphasize appointing African Americans to positions they had traditionally held prior to Wilson's tenure, partly out of a desire to court white Southerners.[101] Harding also disappointed black supporters by not abolishing segregation in federal offices, and through his failure to comment publicly on the Ku Klux Klan.[102]

Harding supported Congressman Leonidas Dyer's federal anti-lynching bill, known as the Dyer Bill, which passed the House of Representatives in January, 1922.[103] When it reached the Senate floor in November 1922, it was filibustered by Southern Democrats, and Senator Lodge withdrew it so as to allow a ship subsidy bill Harding favored to be debated. Many blacks blamed Harding for the Dyer bill's defeat; Harding biographer Robert K. Murray noted that it was hastened to its end by Harding's desire to have the ship subsidy bill considered.[104]

Sheppard–Towner Maternity Act[edit]

On November 21, 1921, Harding signed the Sheppard–Towner Maternity Act, the first major federal government social welfare program in the U.S. The law funded almost 3,000 child and health centers throughout the United States. Medical doctors were spurred to offer preventative health care measures in addition to treating ill children. Doctors were required to help healthy pregnant women and prevent healthy children from getting sick. Child welfare workers were sent out to make sure that parents were taking care of their children. The law was sponsored by Julia Lathrop, America's first director of the U.S. Children's Bureau. Although the law remained in effect only eight years, it set the trend for New Deal social programs during the 1930s. Many women who had been given the right to vote in 1920, were given career opportunities as welfare and social workers.[105][106]


As part of Harding's belief in limiting the government's role in the economy, he sought to undercut the power of the regulatory agencies that had been created or strengthened during the Progressive Era. Among the agencies in existence when Harding came to office were the Federal Reserve (charged with regulating banks), the Interstate Commerce Commission (charged with regulating railroads) and the Federal Trade Commission (charged with regulating other business activities, especially trusts). Harding staffed the agencies with individuals sympathetic to business concerns and hostile to regulation. By the end of his tenure, only the Federal Trade Commission resisted conservative domination.[107] Other federal organizations, like the Railroad Labor Board, also came under the sway of business interests.[108]

1922 mid-term elections[edit]

Entering the 1922 midterm congressional election campaign, Harding and the Republicans had followed through on many of their campaign promises. But some of the fulfilled pledges, like cutting taxes for the well-off, did not appeal to the electorate. The economy had not returned to normalcy, with unemployment at 11 percent, and organized labor was angry over the outcome of the strikes. From 303 Republicans elected to the House in 1920, the new 68th Congress would see that party fall to a 221–213 majority. In the Senate, the Republicans lost eight seats, and had 51 of 96 senators in the new Congress.[109]

Foreign Affairs[edit]

European relations[edit]

Much of Harding's foreign policy concerned the aftermath of World War I. The war had ended in November 1918, but several outstanding issues remained, including potential U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Harding made it clear when he appointed Hughes as Secretary of State that the former justice would run foreign policy, a change from Wilson's close management of international affairs.[110] Harding and Hughes frequently communicated, and the president remained well-informed regarding the state of foreign affairs, but he rarely overrode any of Hughes's decisions.[111] Hughes did have to work within some broad outlines; after taking office, Harding hardened his stance on the League of Nations, deciding the U.S. would not join even a scaled-down version of the League. With the Treaty of Versailles unratified by the Senate, the U.S. remained technically at war with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Peacemaking began with the Knox–Porter Resolution, declaring the U.S. at peace and reserving any rights granted under Versailles. Treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary, each containing many of the non-League provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, were ratified in 1921.[112]

This still left the question of relations between the U.S. and the League. Hughes' State Department initially ignored communications from the League, or tried to bypass it through direct communications with member nations. By 1922, though, the U.S., through its consul in Geneva, was dealing with the League, and though the U.S. refused to participate in any meeting with political implications, it sent observers to sessions on technical and humanitarian matters.[113]

By the time Harding took office, there were calls from foreign governments for reduction of the massive war debt owed to the United States, and the German government sought to reduce the reparations that it was required to pay. The U.S. refused to consider any multilateral settlement. Harding sought passage of a plan proposed by Mellon to give the administration broad authority to reduce war debts in negotiation, but Congress, in 1922, passed a more restrictive bill. Hughes negotiated an agreement for Britain to pay off its war debt over 62 years at low interest, effectively reducing the present value of the obligations. This agreement, approved by Congress in 1923, set a pattern for negotiations with other nations. Talks with Germany on reduction of reparations payments would result in the Dawes Plan of 1924.[114]

During World War I, the U.S. had been among the nations that had sent troops to Russia after the Russian Revolution. Afterwards, Wilson refused to recognize Russia, which was led by a Communist government following the October Revolution. Under Harding, Commerce Secretary Hoover, with considerable experience of Russian affairs, took the lead on policy. Hoover supported aid to and trade with Russia, fearing U.S. companies would be frozen out of the Soviet market.[115] When famine struck Russia in 1921, Hoover had the American Relief Administration, which he had headed, negotiate with the Russians to provide aid. According to historian George Herring, the American relief effort may have saved as many as 10 million people from starvation. U.S. businessman such as Armand Hammer invested in the Soviet economy, but many of these investments failed due to various Soviet restrictions on trade and commerce. Russian and (after the 1922 establishment of the Soviet Union) Soviet leaders hoped that these economic and humanitarian connections would lead to recognition of their government, but Communism's extreme unpopularity in the U.S. precluded this possibility.[116]

Harding stunned the capital when he sent to the Senate a message supporting the participation of the U.S. in the proposed Permanent Court of International Justice (also known as the "World Court"). This was not favorably received by Harding's colleagues; a resolution was nevertheless drafted, in deference to the President, and then promptly buried in the Foreign Affairs Committee.[117]


Charles Evans Hughes, former Supreme Court Justice and Harding's Secretary of State

At the end of World War I, the United States had the largest navy and one of the largest armies in the world. With no serious threat to the United States itself, Harding and his successors presided over the disarmament of the Navy and the Army. The Army shrank to 140,000 men, while the U.S. pursued a policy of naval parity with Great Britain.[118] Seeking to prevent an arms race, Senator William Borah won passage of a congressional resolution calling for a 50% reduction of the American Navy, the British Navy, and the Japanese Navy. With Congress's backing, Harding and Hughes began preparations to hold a naval disarmament conference in Washington.[119] The Washington Naval Conference convened in November 1921, with representatives from the U.S., Japan, Great Britain, France, Italy, China, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Secretary of State Hughes assumed a primary role in the conference and made the pivotal proposal—the U.S. would reduce its number of warships by 30 if Great Britain decommissioned 19, and Japan 17 ships.[120] A journalist covering the conference wrote that "Hughes sank in thirty-five minutes more ships than all of the admirals of the world have sunk in a cycle of centuries.[121] The delegation of nations also worked out security issues and promoted cooperation in the Far East.[122]

The conference produced six treaties and twelve resolutions among the participating nations, which ranged from limiting the size or "tonnage" of naval ships to custom tariffs.[123] The United States, Britain, Japan, and France reached the Four-Power Treaty, in which each country agreed to respect the territorial integrity of one another in the Pacific Ocean. Those four powers as well as Italy also reached the Washington Naval Treaty, which established a ratio of battleship tonnage that each country agreed to respect. In the Nine-Power Treaty, each signatory agreed to respect the Open Door Policy in China, and Japan agreed to return Shandong to China.[124] The treaties only remained in effect until the mid-1930s, however, and ultimately failed. Japan eventually invaded Manchuria and the arms limitations no longer had any effect. The building of "monster warships" resumed and the U.S. and Great Britain were unable to quickly rearm themselves to defend an international order and stop Japan from remilitarizing.[125][126]

Harding, in an effort to improve U.S. relations with Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean Islands implemented a program of military disengagement. On April 20, 1921, the Thomson–Urrutia Treaty with Colombia was ratified by the Senate and signed by Harding; that awarded $25,000,000 as indemnity payment for land used to make the Panama Canal.[50]

Latin America[edit]

Intervention in Latin America had been a minor campaign issue; Harding spoke against Wilson's decision to send U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and attacked the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Franklin Roosevelt, for his role in the Haitian intervention. Once Harding was sworn in, Hughes worked to improve relations with Latin American countries who were wary of the American use of the Monroe Doctrine to justify intervention; at the time of Harding's inauguration, the U.S. also had troops in Cuba and Nicaragua. The troops stationed in Cuba to protect American interests were withdrawn in 1921; U.S. forces remained in the other three nations through Harding's presidency.[127] In April 1921, Harding gained the ratification of the Thomson–Urrutia Treaty with Colombia, granting that nation $25,000,000 as settlement for the U.S.-provoked Panamanian revolution of 1903.[128] The Latin American nations were not fully satisfied, as the U.S. refused to renounce interventionism, though Hughes pledged to limit it to nations near the Panama Canal and to make it clear what the U.S. aims were.[129]

The U.S. had intervened repeatedly in Mexico under Wilson, and had withdrawn diplomatic recognition, setting conditions for reinstatement. The Mexican government under President Álvaro Obregón wanted recognition before negotiations, but Wilson and his final Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby, refused. Both Hughes and Fall opposed recognition; Hughes instead sent a draft treaty to the Mexicans in May 1921, which included pledges to reimburse Americans for losses in Mexico since the 1910 revolution there. Obregón was unwilling to sign a treaty before being recognized, and worked to improve the relationship between American business and Mexico, reaching agreement with creditors, and mounting a public relations campaign in the United States. This had its effect, and by mid-1922, Fall was less influential than he had been, lessening the resistance to recognition. The two presidents appointed commissioners to reach a deal, and the U.S. recognized the Obregón government on August 31, 1923, just under a month after Harding's death, substantially on the terms proffered by Mexico.[130]

Administration scandals[edit]

When Harding assembled his administration following the 1920 election, he appointed several longtime allies and campaign contributors to prominent political positions in control of vast amounts of government money and resources. Some of the appointees used their new powers to exploit their positions for personal gain. Although Harding was responsible for making these appointments, it is unclear how much, if anything, Harding himself knew about his friends' illicit activities. No evidence to date suggests that Harding personally profited from such crimes, but he was apparently unable to prevent them. "I have no trouble with my enemies", Harding told journalist William Allen White late in his presidency, "but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!"[117] The only scandal which was openly discovered during Harding's lifetime was in the Veteran's Bureau.[131] Yet the gossip became rampant after the suicides of Charles Cramer and Jess Smith. Harding responded aggressively to all of this with a mixture of grief, anger and perplexity.[citation needed]

Teapot Dome[edit]

Albert B. Fall, Harding's first Secretary of the Interior and the first former Cabinet member sent to prison

The most notorious scandal was Teapot Dome, most of which came to light after Harding's death. This affair concerned an oil reserve in Wyoming that was covered by a teapot-shaped rock formation. For years, the country had taken measures to ensure the availability of petroleum reserves, particularly for the Navy's use.[132] On February 23, 1923, Harding issued Executive Order # 3797, which created the Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4 in Alaska. By the 1920s, it was clear that petroleum was important to the national economy and security. The reserve system was to keep the oil under government jurisdiction rather than subject to private claims.[133] Management of these reserves was the subject of multi-dimensional arguments—beginning with a turf battle between the Secretary of the Navy and the Interior Dept.[134] The strategic reserves issue was also a debate topic between conservationists and the petroleum industry, as well as those who favored public ownership versus private control.[135] Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall brought to that office significant political and legal experience, in addition to heavy personal debt, incurred in his obsession to expand his personal estate, Three Rivers, in New Mexico. He also was an avid supporter of the private ownership and management of reserves.[136]

Fall contracted Edward Doheny of Pan American Corp. to build storage tanks in exchange for drilling rights. It later came to light that Doheny had made significant personal loans to Fall.[137] The Secretary also negotiated leases for the Teapot Dome reserves to Harry Sinclair of the Consolidated Oil Corp. in return for guaranteed oil reserves to the credit of the government. Again, it later emerged that Sinclair had personally made concurrent cash payments of over $400,000 to Fall.[136] These activities took place under the watch of progressive and conservationist attorney, Harry A. Slattery, acting for Gifford Pinchot and Robert La Follette.[138] Fall was ultimately convicted in 1931 of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates.[139] In 1931, Fall was the first cabinet member in history imprisoned for crimes committed while in office.[140] Paradoxically, while Fall was convicted for taking the bribe, Doheny was acquitted of paying it.[141]

Justice Department[edit]

Harding's appointment of Harry M. Daugherty as Attorney General received more criticism than any other. As Harding's campaign manager, Daugherty's Ohio lobbying and back room maneuvers with politicians were not considered the best qualifications.[142] Historian M. R. Werner referred to the Justice Department under Harding and Daugherty as "the den of a ward politician and the White House a night club". On September 16, 1922, Minnesota Congressman Oscar E. Keller brought impeachment charges against Daugherty. On December 4, formal investigation hearings, headed by congressman Andrew J. Volstead, began against Daugherty. The impeachment process, however, stopped, since Keller's charges that Daugherty protected interests in trust and war fraud cases could not be substantially proven.[143]

One alleged scandal involving Daugherty concerned the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corp., which supposedly overcharged the Federal government by $2.3 million on war contracts.[144] Capt. Hazel Scaife tried to bring the company to trial, but was blocked by the Department of Justice. At this time, Daugherty was said to have owned stock in the company and was even adding to these holdings, though he was never charged in the matter.[145]

Daugherty remained in his position during the early days of the Calvin Coolidge administration, then resigned on March 28, 1924, amidst allegations that he accepted bribes from bootleggers. Daugherty was later tried and acquitted twice for corruption. Both juries hung—in one case, after 65 hours of deliberation. Daugherty's famous defense attorney, Max D. Steuer, blamed all corruption allegations against Daugherty on Jess Smith, an aide at the Justice Department who had committed suicide.[146]

Harding's Attorney General hired William J. Burns to run the Justice Dept.'s Bureau of Investigation,[147] Burns was said to be unabashed in his willingness to conduct unauthorized searches and seizures of political enemies of the Justice Dept. A number of inquisitive congressmen or senators found themselves the object of wire taps, rifled files, and copied correspondence.[148] Burns' primary operative was Gaston B. Means, a reputed con man, who was known to have fixed prosecutions, sold favors, and manipulated files in the Justice Dept.[149] Means, who acted independently, took direct instructions and payments from Jess Smith, without Burn's knowledge, to spy on Congressmen. Means hired a woman, Laura Jacobson, to spy on Senator Thaddeus Caraway, a critic of the Harding administration. Means also was involved with "roping" bootleggers.[143]

Narcotic trafficking was rampant at the Atlanta Penitentiary while Daugherty was Attorney General. The appointed warden, J.E. Dyche, made internal prison reforms by firing two guards while two other officers were indicted by the Justice Department. Daugherty, however, was slow to follow up on these indictments. As Dyche began to investigate the drug supply ring outside the prison, Daugherty fired him and replaced him with a close friend, A. E. Sartain. Daugherty stopped the investigation into the drug ring until the two indicted officers were brought to trial. The Superintendent of Prisons, Heber Votaw, allegedly interfered and suppressed Dyche's attempted investigation into the narcotic ring outside the prison. Votaw, was Harding's brother-in-law, and had been appointed by the President in April 1921. Harding sent Charles R. Forbes, Director of the Veterans Bureau, to privately investigate the matter. This upset Daugherty, who said the Atlanta prison situation was none of Forbes' business.[150][151]

Daugherty, according to a 1924 Senate investigation into the Justice Department, had authorized a system of graft between aides Jess Smith and Howard Mannington. Both Mannington and Smith allegedly took bribes to secure appointments, prison pardons, and freedom from prosecution. A majority of these purchasable pardons were directed towards bootleggers. Cincinnati bootlegger, George L. Remus, allegedly paid Jess Smith $250,000 to not prosecute him. Remus, however, was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to Atlanta prison. Smith tried to extract more bribe money from Remus to pay for a pardon. The prevalent question at the Justice Department was "How is he fixed?"[152]

Jess W. Smith[edit]

Daugherty's personal aide, Jess W. Smith, was widely viewed as the Attorney General's (and therefore the President's) spokesman and henchman. Smith was considered Daugherty's proxy, and a central figure, in government file manipulation, paroles and pardons, influence peddling—and even served as bag man.[153]

During Prohibition, pharmacies received alcohol permits to sell alcohol for medical purposes. According to Congressional testimony, Daugherty allegedly arranged for Jess Smith and Howard Mannington to sell these permits to drug company agents who really represented bootleggers. The bootleggers, having obtained a permit could buy cases of whiskey. Smith and Mannington split the permit sales profits. Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 cases of whiskey were sold to bootleggers at a net worth of $750,000 to $900,000. Smith supplied bootleg whiskey to the White House and the Ohio Gang house on K Street, concealing the whiskey in a briefcase for poker games.[35][154]

Eventually, rumors of Smith's abuses—free use of government cars, going to all night parties, manipulation of Justice Department files—reached Harding. Harding withdrew Smith's White House clearance and Daugherty told him to leave Washington. On May 30, 1923, Smith's dead body was found at Daugherty's apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. William J. Burns immediately took Smith's body away and there was no autopsy. Historian Francis Russell, concluding this was a suicide, indicates that a Daugherty aide entered Smith's room moments after a noise awoke him, and found Smith on the floor with his head in a trash can and a revolver in his hand. Russell also states that Smith had purchased the gun (though he was said to have detested guns), that a bullet had entered Smith's temple, exited the forehead, and lodged in a doorjamb. Smith allegedly purchased the gun from a hardware store shortly before his death, after Daugherty verbally abused him for waking him up from a nap.[155][156]

Veterans' bureau[edit]

Charles R. Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau and convicted of defrauding the government

Charles R. Forbes, the energetic Director of the Veterans Bureau, disregarded the dire needs of wounded World War I veterans to procure his own wealth.[157] To limit corruption in the Veterans' Bureau, Harding insisted that all government contracts be by public notice, but Forbes provided inside information to his co-conspirators to ensure their bids succeeded.[81] After his appointment, Forbes was quick to have Harding issue executive orders that gave him control over veterans' hospital construction and supplies.[131] Forbes defrauded the government of an estimated $225 million through hospital construction, after increasing construction costs from $3,000 to $4,000 per bed.[158] Forbes' main task at the Veterans bureau, having an unprecedented $500 million yearly budget, was to ensure that new hospitals were built around the country to help the 300,000 wounded World War I veterans.[159]

In the Spring of 1922, Forbes went on tours, known as joy-rides, of new hospital construction sites around the country and the Pacific Coast. On these tours, Forbes allegedly received traveling perks and alcohol kickbacks, took a $5,000 bribe in Chicago, and made a secret code to ensure $17 million in government construction hospital contracts with corrupt contractors. On the tours, Forbes allegedly went to parties, drank bootleg liquor, and played craps.[160]

Intent on making more money, on his return to the U.S. Capitol Forbes immediately began selling valuable hospital supplies under his control in large warehouses at the Perryville Depot.[161] The government had stockpiled huge amounts of hospital supplies during the first World War, which Forbes unloaded for a fraction of their cost to the Boston firm of Thompson and Kelly. In exchange for the deal, J.W. Thompson of the firm added $150,000 to the contract for Forbes, who also received a percentage of the profits realized.[162][163] The check on Forbes' authority at Perryville was Gen. Charles E. Sawyer, chairman of the Federal Hospitalization Board, who represented controlling interests in the valuable hospital supplies.[164]

Dr. Charles Sawyer (pictured) and Forbes were rivals at the Veterans Bureau.

Dr. Sawyer and Forbes were at odds with each other over authority at the Veterans Bureau.[165] Sawyer, a homeopathic doctor who was Harding's personal physician, told Harding that Forbes was selling valuable hospital supplies to an insider contractor.[166] After issuing two orders for the sales to stop, Harding finally summoned Forbes to the White House and demanded Forbes' resignation, since Forbes had been insubordinate in not stopping the shipments.[167] Harding, however, was not yet ready to announce Forbes' resignation and let him flee to Europe on the "flimsy pretext" that he would help disabled U.S. Veterans in Europe.[168][169] While in Europe, Forbes submitted his resignation to Harding on February 15, 1923.

Harding placed a reformer, Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, in charge of the Veterans Bureau. Hines immediately cleared up the mess left by Forbes. When Forbes returned to the U.S., he visited Harding at the White House in the Red Room. During the meeting, Harding angrily grabbed Forbes by the throat, shook him vigorously, and exclaimed "You double-crossing bastard!"[170] A guest who had an appointment with the President interrupted this physical encounter and Forbes was allowed to leave. Harding was bitter over Forbes' "betrayal" and the two never saw each other again.[171] In 1926, Forbes was brought to trial and convicted of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. He received a two-year prison sentence and was released in November 1927.[172]

Charles F. Cramer, Forbes' legal council to the Veterans Bureau, rocked the nation's capital when he committed suicide in 1923.[173][174] Cramer was found dead by a maid in his bathroom on the morning of March 14 with a bullet wound to the head. Previously, in the fall of 1922 Cramer had been "bitterly assailed" by the American Legion at Indianapolis over alleged corruption at the Veterans Bureau. Cramer, at the time of his death, was being investigated by a Senate committee and had been criticized and personally attacked. Cramer, himself, had denied charges of corruption and said he had given his "whole-hearted and patriotic service" to the Bureau. Cramer had paid $40,000 in Veteran funds to a private landholder to lease land to build a Veterans Hospital in Camp Kearny, California. The estimated value of the 325-acre land tract was only $8,000. Maj. Gen. John F. O'Ryan conducted the investigation into the Veterans' Bureau. In addition to replacing Forbes with Hines, Harding dismissed or transferred a number of subordinates at the Veteran's Bureau.[175][176]

Other agencies[edit]

Harding as he appears at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

On June 13, 1921, Harding appointed Albert D. Lasker chairman of the United States Shipping Board. Lasker, a cash donor and Harding's general campaign manager, had no previous experience with shipping companies. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 had allowed the Shipping Board to sell ships made by the U.S. Government to private American companies. A congressional investigation revealed that while Lasker was in charge, many valuable steel cargo ships, worth between $200 and $250 a ton, were sold for as low as $30 a ton to private American shipping companies without an appraisal board. J. Harry Philbin, a manager in the sales division, testified at the congressional hearing that under Lasker's authority U.S. ships were sold, " is, where is, take your pick, no matter which vessel you took." Lasker resigned from the Shipping Board on July 1, 1923.[177]

Thomas W. Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Miller's citizenship rights were taken away and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. After Miller served 13 months of his sentence, he was released on parole. President Herbert Hoover restored Miller's citizenship on February 2, 1933.[178]

Roy Asa Haynes, Harding's Prohibition Commissioner, ran the patronage-riddled Prohibition bureau, which was allegedly corrupt from top to bottom.[179] The bureau's "B permits" for liquor sales became tantamount to negotiable securities, as a result of being so widely bought and sold among known violators of the law.[180] The bureau's agents allegedly made a year's salary from one month's illicit sales of permits.[179]

Life at the White House[edit]

President Harding with his dog Laddie Boy. Photo: 1922

Katherine Marcia Forbes, wife of Harding's Veterans Bureau appointment Charles R. Forbes, had unprecedented access to the White House. Mrs. Harding and Katherine had become close friends since meeting in Hawaii, when Senator Harding and his wife were on vacation. In 1921, Katherine Forbes wrote a series of articles for the Washington Post describing the daily life of President Harding and the First Lady. President Harding and Mrs. Harding wanted to be known as, "...just home folks." At dinners, Harding's dog Laddie Boy, was allowed to beg guests for food and play with children. Red velvet upholstery covered much of the furniture. Harding's informal dress included a plain tuxedo, pleated shirt, and pearl studs. Mrs. Harding herself was able to talk with many guests at the same time. Inside the White House, the Hardings had a great grandfather clock, a gold fish bowl, a French vase with pussy willows, neutral color rugs, and a grand piano. Harding sometimes gave children private tours of the White House that included the conservatories and kennels.[181]

Harding's lifestyle at the White House was fairly unconventional compared to his predecessor. Upstairs at the White House, in the Yellow Oval Room, Harding allowed bootleg whiskey to be freely served to his guests during after-dinner parties at a time when the President was supposed to enforce Prohibition. One witness, Alice Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, stated that trays, "...with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about."[182] Some of this alcohol had been directly confiscated from the Prohibition department by Jess Smith, assistant to U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Mrs. Harding, also known as the "Duchess", mixed drinks for the guests.[154] Harding played poker twice a week, smoked and chewed tobacco. Harding allegedly won a $4,000 pearl necktie pin at one White House poker game.[183] Although criticized by Prohibitionist advocate Wayne B. Wheeler over Washington, D.C. rumors of these "wild parties", Harding claimed his personal drinking inside the White House was his own business.[184] Though Mrs. Harding did keep a little red book of those who had offended her, the executive mansion was now once again open to the public for events including the annual Easter egg roll.[185]

Western tour and death[edit]

Western tour[edit]

Harding aboard the presidential train in Alaska, with secretaries Hoover, Wallace, Work, and Mrs. Harding

Though Harding wanted to run for a second term, he may have been aware of his own health decline. He gave up drinking, sold his "life-work," the Marion Star, in part to regain $170,000 previous investment losses, and had Daugherty make him a new will. Harding, along with his personal physician Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, believed getting away from Washington would help relieve the stress of being President. By July 1923, criticism of the Harding Administration was increasing. Prior to his leaving Washington, the President reported chest pains that radiated down his left arm.[186][187]

In June 1923, Harding set out on a journey, which he dubbed the "Voyage of Understanding".[188] The president planned to cross the country, go north to Alaska Territory, journey south along the West Coast, then travel by Navy ship through the Panama Canal, to Puerto Rico, and to return to Washington at the end of August.[189] Harding loved to travel and had long contemplated a trip to Alaska.[190] The trip would allow him to speak widely across the country, to politic and bloviate in advance of the 1924 campaign, and allow him some rest[191] away from Washington's oppressive summer heat.[188]

Harding's political advisers had given him a physically demanding schedule, even though the president had ordered it cut back.[192] In Kansas City, Harding spoke on transportation issues; in Hutchinson, Kansas, agriculture was the theme. In Denver, he spoke on Prohibition, and continued west making a series of speeches not matched by any president until Franklin Roosevelt. Harding had become a supporter of the World Court, and wanted the U.S. to become a member. In addition to making speeches, he visited Yellowstone and Zion National Parks,[193] and dedicated a monument on the Oregon Trail at a celebration organized by venerable pioneer Ezra Meeker and others.[194]

On July 5, Harding embarked on USS Henderson in Washington state. The first president to visit Alaska, he spent hours watching the dramatic landscapes from the ship's deck.[195] After several stops along the coast, the presidential party left the ship at Seward to take the Alaska Central Railway to McKinley Park and Fairbanks, where he addressed a crowd of 1,500 in 94 °F (34 °C) heat. The party was to return to Seward by the Richardson Trail but due to Harding's fatigue, it went by train.[196]

On July 26, 1923, Harding toured Vancouver, British Columbia as the first sitting American president to visit Canada. He was welcomed by the Premier of British Columbia and the Mayor of Vancouver and spoke to a crowd of over 50,000. Two years after his death a memorial to Harding was unveiled in Stanley Park.[197] Harding visited a golf course, but completed only six holes before being fatigued. After resting, he played the 17th and 18th holes so it would appear he completed the round. He was not successful in hiding his exhaustion; one reporter deemed him so tired a rest of mere days would not be sufficient to refresh him.[198]

In Seattle the next day, Harding kept up his busy schedule, giving a speech to 25,000 people at the stadium at the University of Washington. In the final speech he gave, Harding predicted statehood for Alaska.[199] The president rushed through his speech, not waiting for applause by the audience.[200]


The funeral procession for President Harding passes by the front of the White House.

Harding went to bed early in the evening of July 27, 1923. Later that night, he called for his physician, Charles E. Sawyer, complaining of pain in the upper abdomen. Sawyer thought it was a recurrence of a dietary upset, but Dr. Joel T. Boone suspected a heart problem. The next day, as the train rushed to San Francisco, Harding felt better, and when they arrived on the morning of July 29, 1923, he insisted on walking from the train to the car, which rushed him to the Palace Hotel[201][202] where he suffered a relapse. Doctors found that not only was Harding's heart causing problems, but he also had pneumonia, a serious matter in the days before effective antibiotics. When treated with caffeine and digitalis, Harding seemed to improve. He was pleased when his planned foreign policy address advocating membership in the World Court was released to the press by Hoover and received a favorable reception. By the afternoon of August 2, 1923, doctors allowed Harding to sit up in bed. That evening, about 7:30 pm, he was listening to his wife read him a flattering article about him from The Saturday Evening Post, "A Calm Review of a Calm Man". When she paused to plump his pillows, he said, "That's good, read some more". As Florence Harding resumed, her husband twisted convulsively and collapsed, and she raced to get the doctors. They attempted stimulants, but were unable to revive him, and President Harding died of a heart attack on August 2, 1923, at the age of 57.[203] Although initially attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage, doctors at the time did not generally understand the symptoms of a heart attack.[201]

Harding's death came as a great shock to the nation. The president was liked and admired, and the press and public had followed his illness closely, and been reassured by his apparent recovery.[204] Harding was returned to his train in a casket for a journey across the nation followed closely in the newspapers. Nine million people lined the tracks as Harding's body was taken from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and after services there, home to Marion, Ohio, for burial.[205]

In Marion, Warren Harding's body was placed on a horse-drawn hearse, which was followed by President Coolidge and Chief Justice Taft, then by Harding's wife and father.[206] They followed it through the city, past the Star building where the presses stood silent, and at last to the Marion Cemetery, where the casket was placed in the cemetery's receiving vault.[207][208] Harding's body, along with that of his wife who died in 1924, rests today in the Harding Tomb, which was dedicated in 1931 by President Hoover.[209]

Disposition of presidential papers[edit]

Immediately after Harding's death, Mrs. Harding returned to Washington, D.C., and stayed in the White House briefly with the Coolidges. In 1963 Francis Russell, writing in American Heritage, stated that former First Lady Harding gathered and burned as much of President Harding's correspondence and documents, both official and unofficial, as she could get. Russell also wrote that Mrs. Harding hired secretaries upon returning to Marion, to help her collect Harding's personal correspondence to others and that Mrs. Harding then in turn destroyed these letters.[210]

However, John Dean, in Warren G. Harding:The American Presidents Series, states that Mrs. Harding's efforts were in vain and that George Christian, President Harding's private secretary, disobeyed Florence Harding's instructions, only sending a few boxes of materials to her in Marion after she left the White House. The papers were instead stored in the White House's basement and not found until 1929. Christian also kept all of the papers from Harding's time in the Senate, along with records of Harding's Presidential campaign, and stored them in the basement of his own home in Marion. According to Dean, by 1935 the Presidential papers were all under the purview of the Harding Memorial Association which in late 1963 transferred the papers to the Ohio Historical Society and that the substantial collection was opened to the public in April 1964. The papers were subsequently microfilmed in the 1970s and can be accessed at various libraries.[211]

Historical reputation[edit]

Historical 2-cent stamp with Harding's profile.
On September 1, 1923, the U.S. Post Office issued a 2-cent Postage stamp commemorating the life of Warren G. Harding.[212][213]

Energized by his 1920 landslide victory, Harding felt the "pulse" of the nation and for the 28 months in office he remained popular both nationally and internationally.[214] Herbert Hoover, while serving in Harding's cabinet, was confident the president would serve two terms and return the world to normalcy. Later, in his own memoirs, he stated that Harding had "neither the experience nor the intellect that the position needed."[214] Trani and Wilson describe Harding as "an ineffective leader who suffered both personal and political scandal."[215]

Harding has been traditionally ranked as one of the worst presidents. In a 1948 poll conducted by Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., the first notable survey of scholars' opinions of the presidents, Harding ranked last among the 29 presidents considered. In a 1962 poll conducted by Schlesinger, he was ranked last again, 31 out of 31. His son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., conducted another poll in 1996; once again, Harding was last, ranked 39 out of 39. In 2010, a Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Harding 41st among the 43 men who had been president, between Franklin Pierce (40th) and James Buchanan (42nd); Andrew Johnson was judged the worst.[216] Harding was also considered the third worst president in a 2002 Siena poll. Siena polls of 1982, 1990 and 1992 ranked him last. A 2008 study of presidential rankings for The Times placed Harding at number 34[217] and a 2009 C-SPAN survey ranked Harding at 38.[218] A 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Harding as the fourth-worst president,[219] as did a 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section.[220]

Some historians have defended Harding, with many arguing that he was merely below average rather than a total failure.[221] Historian Robert K. Murray wrote that, "in establishing the political philosophy and program for an entire decade, [Harding's] 882 days in office were more significant than all but a few similar short periods in the nation's existence."[221] Authors Marcus Raskin and Robert Spero, in 2007, also believed that Harding was underrated, and admired Harding's quest for world peace after World War I and his successful naval disarmament among strongly armed nations, including France, Britain, and Japan.[222] In his 2010 book The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, presidential historian Alvin S. Felzenberg, ranking presidents on several criteria, ranked Harding 26th out of 40 presidents considered.[223]

See also[edit]


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Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Murray Robert K. The Harding Era 1921–1923: Warren G. Harding and his Administration. University of Minnesota Press, 1969
  • Payne, Phillip. "Instant History and the Legacy of Scandal: the Tangled Memory of Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon, and William Jefferson Clinton", Prospects, 28: 597–625, 2003 Issn: 0361-2333
  • Sibley, Katherine A.S., ed. A Companion to Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover (2014); 616pp; essays by scholars stressing historiography

External links[edit]



Media coverage