William Estabrook Chancellor

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William Estabrook Chancellor
Born (1867-09-25)September 25, 1867
Dayton, Ohio, United States
Died February 12, 1963(1963-02-12) (aged 95)
Wooster, Ohio, United States
Occupation Novelist
Language English
Nationality American
Citizenship American
Alma mater Amherst College

William Estabrook Chancellor (September 25, 1867 – February 12, 1963) was an American academic and writer. An opponent of the Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, Chancellor wrote a study of his family just prior to the 1920 election alleging that Harding had an African-American ancestor, in the hopes of turning voters against him based on prejudices of the time.


Chancellor was born in Dayton, Ohio. After graduating from Amherst College, he went into teaching. In 1906 he was the superintendent of schools of Paterson, New Jersey.[1] He wrote prolifically, publishing around 40 books and hundreds of articles between 1904 and 1920. He married into the family of Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] He was a Democrat.[2]

When Chancellor was a professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, he began to research the background of Republican candidate Warren G. Harding. He wrote two pamphlets about this subject prior to the 1920 presidential election, unleashing a major scandal as he alleged Harding was of mixed-race descent.[3] The college dismissed Chancellor from his post four days before the election.[4] Copies of Chancellor's pamphlets were confiscated by federal agents and destroyed; only five are thought to be in existence, three of which are owned by rare book collectors, the other two owned by museums.


Chancellor's theory on Harding's lineage was based upon affidavits provided by aged Crawford County, Ohio residents that Harding was of mixed race. Chancellor claimed that Harding had a great-grandmother, Elizabeth Madison, who was black.[3] The affidavits by elderly residents in Galion, Ohio, served as the basis for Chancellor's book. Unless Chancellor's sources had intimate knowledge of Harding's genealogy, the rumor is probably untrue.

Harding was born in 1865 near Corsica (now Blooming Grove), Ohio. Harding's father, Dr. George Tryon Harding, was a homeopathic physician; Harding's mother Pheobe Dickerson Harding was a midwife who later qualified for an Ohio medical license. Dr. Harding relocated his family to Caledonia in eastern Marion County when the younger Harding was a young boy.

Relying upon the affidavits, Chancellor moved forward with his book, which lacked primary source records to validate his claim. Chancellor could not produce an Ohio birth record for Harding (who was born in 1865) because Ohio did not mandate the recording of births until 1867. Furthermore, Chancellor could find no court records, deeds, or other legal documents that could prove that Harding was of mixed race. Chancellor also could not verify his position through U.S Census records because popular schedules made prior to 1850 did not provide a complete enumeration by name and race of all people in a given residence. Instead, 1840 and earlier census records only listed the name of the head of household and counted by "hash-mark" the age-group and sex of other persons living with that head of household.

After Harding was elected, Chancellor published his biography of the president; however, federal agents acted immediately to suppress the distribution of the book.[citation needed] Chancellor was also monitored by federal agents.[citation needed] Unable to research or find a teaching position, Chancellor moved to Canada.[citation needed]

In the spring of 1922, Chancellor was in Dayton, Ohio (his hometown as well as that of 1920 Democratic Presidential candidate and prominent newspaper publisher James Cox) long enough to publish a biography of Warren Harding. In it Chancellor developed the race rumors at great length. He included some additional research, including the first notice of Harding's poor cardiovascular health. The book is normally credited to Chancellor, although no explicit claim of authorship is made, nor is the additional research obviously Chancellor's. After it was published, a statewide organization sold the book door-to-door during the midterm election year.

In 1927 Chancellor was hired by the University of Cincinnati, and he taught there until his retirement. He died in Cincinnati in 1963, aged 96, having given several interviews to journalists over the years in which he denied writing either book or pamphlet. He never suggested who might have been responsible.[2]


In 2015, press reports indicated that DNA analysis showed Harding had no recent Black ancestors. [5]

According to Harding biographer John W. Dean, Chancellor's theories were partly based upon a rumor spread by Amos Kling, Harding's father-in-law, who opposed him politically. Dean, who lived in Marion as a teenager, claimed that Kling spread the rumor as retribution for positions taken by Harding in his newspaper The Marion Star. Dean characterized Chancellor as racist.[6]

Following Chancellor's death, the author Francis Russell attempted to research the theory that Harding was of mixed race. His book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove noted he was unable to substantiate Chancellor's conclusions beyond circumstantial evidence.[2] Further discussion of Chancellor's claims appears in the book The Strange Deaths of President Harding by Robert H. Ferrell, published in 1998. (This work should not to be confused with the book by Gaston Means's The Strange Death of President Harding, which uses the singular "Death"). Russell wrote, "To anyone who tracks it down today, Chancellor’s book comes across as a laughable partisan screed, an amalgam of bizarre racial theories, outlandish stereotypes and cheap political insults. But it also contains a remarkable trove of social knowledge — the kind of community gossip and oral tradition that rarely appears in official records but often provides clues to richer truths."[3]

The objective significance of Chancellor's attempts at research into Harding's racial background weighs far less heavily than does their perceived significance in the context of Harding's times. At a period when widespread prejudice existed about racial issues even in 'polite' society, Chancellor's weak and speculative claims may have seemed more relevant than they would have in later decades.[citation needed]


Further reading[edit]

  • John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding, The American Presidents Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, General Editor (Times Books, 2004)
  • Robert Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding (University of Missouri Press, 1998)
  • John A. Murphy, The Indictment (2000)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "New School Head Named". Washington Post. August 12, 1906. Retrieved 2009-01-20. Dr. William Estabrook Chancellor, superintendent of schools of Paterson, N.J., an educator of national repute, has been appointed superintendent of schools of Washington, has accepted the position, and will assume the active duties of his office at once. 
  2. ^ a b c d Russell, Francis (1968). The Shadow of Blooming Grove. McGraw Hill. 
  3. ^ a b c Gage, Beverly (April 6, 2008). "Our First Black President?". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-20. In the early 1920s, Chancellor helped assemble a controversial biographical portrait accusing President Warren Harding of covering up his family’s "colored" past. According to the family tree Chancellor created, Harding was the great-grandson of a black woman. Under the one-drop rule of American race relations, Chancellor claimed, the country had inadvertently elected its "first Negro president." 
  4. ^ "College Ousts Professor Chancellor". New York Times. October 30, 1920. Retrieved 2009-01-20. The Board of Trustees of College of Wooster by unanimous vote tonight requested and secured the immediate resignation of Professor William Estabrook Chancellor, teacher of political science at the institution. 
  5. ^ Baker, Peter (18 August 2015). "DNA Shows Warren Harding Wasn't America's First Black President". New York Times. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  6. ^ Dean, John W. (2004). Warren G. Harding. Macmillan. ... disclosing that Kling had repeatedly declared on the streets of Marion that his daughter was marrying a Negro. 
  7. ^ "American History". New York Times. November 26, 1904. Retrieved 2009-01-20. The first part of a voluminous work on American history by two comparatively unknown writers, Messrs. Chancellor and Hewes, has just appeared. It is prefaced by a publisher's announcement in which we are told that the purpose of the work is "to present in a comprehensive and carefully proportioned narrative an account of the beginnings of the National existence and of the successive stages in the evolution of our distinctive National qualities and institutions."