President Warren G. Harding “died twice, for there was his physical death, and then the death of his reputation.” But in reality, he was a man of achievement, and his two-and-a-half years in office boasted more accomplishments than other presidents have achieved in four. The revisionist scholarship of the past several decades has slowly seeped into the historical consciousness, but the well-worn clichés of a mediocre man who was over his head hold on tenaciously.

Warren G. Harding is the president for all unhappy seasons. Along with his successors Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, the man from Marion, Ohio shares historians’ wrath for the inequities of the Roaring Twenties. For some, Harding demonstrates the danger of electing mediocre unprepared leaders and represents the specter of lax government oversight and widespread corruption. For others, he symbolizes the rejection of progressivism and the return to the imaginary glories of pre-1914 America in the first hours of a decade-long party that ended in a hangover of crash and depression. Under the strains of the COVID crisis, Harding has been resurrected again to show that regaining normalcy is futile and dangerous, lulling Americans into a false sense of security. All these interpretations, however, distort Harding’s message of “Return to Normalcy” and the significance of his short administration. The centennial of his election marks an appropriate time for reconsideration.

Harding delivered the most memorable speech of his political career on May 14, 1920, when he spoke before the Home Market Club in Boston, Massachusetts. The Republican National Convention was only one month away and the staunchly protectionist business club invited several potential presidential nominees to speak, including then Governor Coolidge. Senator Harding used the venue to unveil his vision for America in the new decade and the Club printed the entire address, “National Ideals and Policies,” in its monthly magazine, The Protectionist. Wide-ranging and alternating between the practical and the aspirational, the “Normalcy” speech outlined the goals of his eventual administration.[1]

The nation Harding addressed faced a litany of miseries. President Woodrow Wilson failed to win Senate approval for the Versailles Treaty, including its controversial involvement of the US with the new League of Nations, and after traversing the country for popular support, collapsed from a massive stroke and remained an invalid the remainder of his term. Two years after the shooting stopped, America was still technically at war with the Central Powers. With the peacetime drop in demand, the economy collapsed into a brief but painful depression, with unemployment rates rising to 20%. Crop prices fell too, and a farming crisis gripped the country that would not abate for two decades. Violent labor strikes hit the shipping, steel, and coal industries, and Coolidge’s tough stand against a Boston police strike propelled him onto the 1920 Republican ticket, and with Harding’s death, the presidency. An anarchist bombing campaign led to a federal crackdown on radicalism and deadly race riots rocked Chicago. Adding another layer of pathos, the Spanish Flu killed half a million Americans by 1920. Postwar America experienced its greatest period of doubt and disorder since the Civil War.

Harding discussed these difficulties in turn and used women’s suffrage—1920 marked the first presidential election in which women could vote—to appeal for party government over Wilson’s “personal government.” By their vote, women would decide the direction of America, either towards restoration or autocracy:

You will like it best in the Republican party, I promise you that. But come into the parties and play the part, because it was the foundation of the fathers that ours should be a government through political parties. There isn’t any other agency, and the faddist of today who proclaims the abandonment of political parties is a greater menace to America than the agitator who preaches the overthrow of America by force; because through political parties we have the means of expressing our convictions and aspirations, and out of the composite view of the thinking people of America we write the covenant of party faith, which we translate into party action. Any other way leads us to the instability of the South American republics on the one hand and to personal dictation on the other. That is the trouble with the United States tonight—too much Wilson, that’s all!

Coming from a senator who helped block the Versailles Treaty, it was unsurprising he saw the US Senate as the key player in party government. It prevented the imposition of Wilson’s “super-government” and stood as “arbiter between ephemeral passion and passing whims on one side, and the deliberate judgment of the republic on the other.” The Senate, Harding proclaimed, had saved American independence.

The Senate’s actions against Wilson stopped the imperial presidency too. When Wilson traveled to Europe for peace talks in 1919, he claimed to represent the American people. He did so again when crisscrossing the country to condemn Senate intransigence in passing his treaty. This was not mixed government, but Caesarism: “America is in the position, I am sorry to say, of being misrepresented to the world, all because the President assumed, for himself to speak for America. I do not think one man is big enough to run the United States of America, much less the world.” The Allies ejected an “armed autocrat” from Europe in 1918 and “it ill becomes us to assume that a rhetorical autocrat shall direct all humanity.” His assertion of a more modest presidency was also a veiled critique of Wilson’s predecessor, the late Theodore Roosevelt, whose preference for presidential robustness helped defeat William Howard Taft and elect Wilson in 1912. Harding promised to restore shared authority between the White House and Congress—a position he came to regret when president. By 1923, Congressional bickering and foot-dragging taught him the necessity of presidential authority, so much so that some Republicans grumbled he resembled Wilson.

Harding took pains to stress he rejected isolationism. Americans wanted to engage with the world “in a new international relationship which shall tend to promote and preserve the peace of the world.” In the wake of World War One, he explained, “I would not have America hold aloof,” and contrary to many of his Republican Senate colleagues, he supported American membership in the World Court. Nonetheless, a Harding “Americanization” foreign policy would be more reserved:

We are resolved to cling everlastingly to the inheritance of American nationality, as against paralyzing internationalism, and to hold fast to our constitutional freedom. I want also to have it declared that from this time on, any American can go wheresoever he chooses on a lawful mission on land or on sea under the American flag and not be afraid. Then I want the Republican party to say that we are resolved to maintain this nationality and give some thought to our own affairs in the United States of America. In other words, we ought to put our own house in order before we assume to run the world.

Unlike Wilson, who he accused of impractical airy internationalism—a product of Wilson being a professor, taken with ivory tower theory and study, the Ohioan believed—he preferred the practical realism of protecting American national interests.

Harding spent the bulk of his time discussing the economic depression. The war generated greed in both American corporations and labor, with profits (and war profiteering) and excessively high wages. In its stead, he advocated a return to prudent peacetime economics illuminated by the virtues of conscience, sobriety, simplification, and the “gospel of thrift.” Harding preached austerity, not unrestrained acquisition, a helpful correction to accusations on the decade to come. Patch your overalls instead of buying new ones, he counseled. Tariffs should be raised in the near term, but as European markets recovered, American should prudently adjust to help both home and overseas industries. After all, Harding noted, a convincing argument could be made that trade disputes played a larger role in sparking World War One than Serbian terrorism.

Prudence also extended to immigrant workers and he accused corporations of abusing them. Industrialists “have thought of them only as a part of the great American machine of industry without due concern for their relation to citizenship, and you do not extend the hand of fellowship, and do not take them into your fraternity.” Not doing so left these new citizens to the wiles of socialist and anarchist radicals who capitalized on their disappointments. Emphasize home ownership, mobility and opportunity, and the stability of law to Americanize new citizens. The goal was “quality citizenship” to sustain self-government, he said.

Much of this has been forgotten in the haze of Harding criticism since his death. Instead, one aspirational paragraph of his speech is remembered:

Here in the United States, we feel the reflex rather than the direct wound, but we still think straight, and mean to hold firmly to all that was ours when the war involved us, and seek the higher attainment which are the only compensations that so supreme a tragedy may give mankind. 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.

Healing, normalcy, restoration, adjustment, serenity, dispassionate, equipoise—all of these terms marked what was needed in postwar America, and he returned to the theme in his 1921 inaugural: “we must strive for normalcy to reach stability” in regard to high wages, readjustment in the relationship between capital and labor, and restoration of overseas trade in the new era.[2]

Harding’s Boston aspirations are also a measuring stick for his administration and how well he lived up to his hopes. He tried mightily to launch an era of national healing. The Wilson-era sedition laws led to the imprisonment of socialist leader Eugene Debs and, despite fighting having ended three years earlier, he remained in prison when Harding entered the White House. Wilson refused any early release for the old man, but on Christmas 1921 Harding commuted his sentence. “I want him to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife,” the president remarked. After visiting the president, the Socialist Debs said of the Republican president, “Mr. Harding appears to me to be a kind gentleman, one whom I believe possesses humane impulses.” The Washington Star called Harding’s actions “a gracious act of mercy.”[3]

Race relations worsened during the Wilson years and Harding worked to improve them. He supported anti-lynching laws progressing through Congress, and visited Birmingham, Alabama in October 1921 to deliver a pointed address supporting black civil rights, “the most controversial delivered by any President between the 1870s and 1940s,” one historian recently noted. Speaking before a large segregated audience, he declared that economic equality between the races was desperately needed: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality… equality proportioned to the honest capacities and deserts of the individual.” A lack of political equality shamed America, North and South:

I want to see the time come when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship; when they will vote for Democratic candidates, if they prefer Democratic policy on tariff or taxation, or foreign relations, or what not; and when they will vote the Republican ticket only for like reasons. We can not go on, as we have gone for more than a half century with one great section of our population, numbering as many people as the entire population of some significant countries of Europe, set off from real contributions to solving our national issues, because of a division on race lines.

The address thrilled black listeners (although his reluctance to advocate for social equality disappointed them) and dismayed white southerners, who condemned him for ignorant meddling. The elderly Georgia Senator Tom Watson told reporters it was “a great pity that a Northern man holding the highest office on earth should go down in the South and plant there fatal germs in the minds of the black race.” If Harding could not heal race relations, he still drew a sharp contrast with the unreconstructed Wilson.[4]

The economy recovered on Harding’s watch. He and his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon pushed taxes lower by securing passage of the Revenue Act of 1921, the first of several major tax reforms in the decade. The federal budget, which grew six-fold between 1914 and 1920 was slashed by two billion dollars under the supervision of Budget Director Charles Dawes. Dawes credited his success to Harding: “In all my life I have had no more satisfying an experience than I have had under President Harding. This work could not have been done under a weak, vacillating, or irresolute man.” By spring 1923, unemployment was falling (hitting 6% by the time of Harding’s death) and the Dow Jones began its roaring recovery. The “first glow of returning prosperity” augured well for his reelection.[5]

Harding’s realignment of the US with the world helped solve problems left by Wilson. War with the Central Powers finally ended with a simple cessation of hostilities signed by Harding in 1921. He partially healed relations with Central and South America too. Colombia was finally reimbursed for Teddy Roosevelt’s land grabs to build the Panama Canal and American troops began withdrawing from Santa Domingo, ending an occupation begun by Wilson in 1916. The Washington Naval Conference and its resulting disarmament treaties marked the administration’s greatest success, one Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes credited to President Harding. The oft-critical journalist Mark Sullivan remarked:

[Harding’s] unruffled serenity is one of the most striking things that appeal to those of us who make the daily rounds of events here… There can be no doubt of the fact that his equanimity and his personal armor against the infection of excitement have much to do with the success of the Conference, and especially with the creation of the spirit and atmosphere of it… These serene, unhurried, and unexcited qualities of Harding’s personality are most certainly a highly important part of the Conference.

The Naval Conference, attended by seasoned European leaders like former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and French Premier Aristide Briand, also marked restoration of stable relations with the world after the rejection of the Versailles Treaty.[6]

While reducing the size of world navies on one hand, the Harding administration also played a central role in modernizing the American navy. Navy historian Maury R. Irwin recently called Harding’s naval policy “remarkably forward looking, if not prophetic.” Harding and Navy Secretary Edwin Denby created the Bureau of Aeronautics to promote naval aviation and this, combined with the Washington Treaty cutting the number of battleships, helped shift the American navy toward the carrier warfare central to Pacific victory in World War Two. Harding and Denby also moved the Pacific fleet’s base of operations to Pearl Harbor, and arranged for the acquisition and construction of fuel oil tanks there (and the storage of 1.5 million gallons of fuel refined from government oil reserves) in case of a long-term Japanese blockade of Hawaii. Japanese planes failed to destroy these tanks in their 1941 attack and the fuel supply was key to the American naval effort thereafter.[7]

The fulfillment of administration promises, of course, was obscured by accusations of scandal after Harding’s death in August 1923, but the nature of these scandals has come under scrutiny. The Pearl Harbor fuel oil came from government reserves in Wyoming and California, one of which was called Teapot Dome because of a teapot-shaped rock outcropping on the land. These reserves suffered from a host of problems, particularly the presence of adjacent oil wells on private land that siphoned oil from them. The Navy also began to shift from coal to oil and as early as 1912, the federal government earmarked certain public lands for extraction. Harding’s Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall solved both problems and, with cooperation from the Navy, leased these reserves to two private oil companies, who would refine a percentage of the oil for the Navy and build storage facilities like those at Pearl Harbor. Thereafter, investigations showed that Fall received money from the interested companies, which he and the company owners—Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair—claimed were loans, investments, and consulting fees. Congressional hearings and trials over Teapot Dome continued the entire decade with acquittals, until a jury in 1930 convicted Fall of taking a bribe. At the same time, another jury cleared Doheny of offering the bribe, a nonsensical set of results. In the end, the Harding administration’s decision to lease the reserves was upheld by history. FDR leased the same California lands to Standard Oil and placed a company executive in charge of coordinating oil policy during World War Two. In 1997, the Clinton administration went further than Fall ever dreamed and sold those California reserves to a private company.[8]

The hounding of Attorney-General Harry M. Daugherty out of office was generated from progressive bitterness over his anti-unionism and lingering animus from the 1912 Republican civil war, in which his relentless promotion of Taft left enemies among the Roosevelt wing. He was tried twice for corruption without success—the first time with a hung jury, the second with charges dropped after another hung jury—and the presiding trial judge later confessed in his memoirs that he found the evidence “not conclusive.” The Veterans Bureau Director Charles Forbes spent two years in Leavenworth after conviction for fraud, but University of Pennsylvania public health scholar Rosemary Stevens cast serious doubt on his guilt in her 2016 book A Time of Scandal. “Charles R. Forbes was found guilty of a crime (conspiracy to commit fraud) he almost certainly did not commit,” she concluded. The reality of the “Harding scandals” was a partisan-driven hurricane against a dead president who could not defend himself.[9]

As the late Robert H. Ferrell wrote, President Warren G. Harding “died twice, for there was his physical death, and then the death of his reputation.” The first came from overwork and a bad heart, the second at the hand of partisans operating in bad faith. He was a man of achievement, and his two-and-a-half years in office boasted more accomplishments than other presidents have achieved in four. The revisionist scholarship of the past several decades has slowly seeped into the historical consciousness, but the well-worn clichés of a mediocre man who was over his head hold on tenaciously. The established historiographical narrative is tough to crack. In this Boston address, Harding optimistically predicted a bright future for America, in terms Ronald Reagan would echo sixty years later: “Let us cling to the things which made us what we are. We are eminent in the world, and self-respecting as no other people are. Yet America has just begun. It is only morning in our national life.” As the centennial of his election and presidency approaches, Harding’s reputation will hopefully see the light again.[10]

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Notes:

[1] The full address can be found here: “National Ideals and Policies,” The Protectionist, XXXII (June 1920), 71-81.

[2] For Harding’s inaugural address, see here.

[3] Robert K. Murray. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis, 1969) 168; Washington Star, December 24, 1921.

[4] Niall Palmer, “More Than a Passive Interest,” Journal of American Studies, 48 (2014) 418; New York Tribune, October 27, 1921; New York Times, October 28, 1921.

[5] Murray, Harding Era, 178; Robert K. Murray. The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era (New York, 1973) 94.

[6] Murray, Harding Era, 151, 157, 328-339.

[7] Maury R. Irwin, “The Naval Policies of the Harding Administration: Time for a Reassessment?” International Journal of Naval History, Volume 1 (April 2002).

[8] Ibid.

[9] James N. Giglio. H. M. Daugherty and the Politics of Expediency (Kent. OH, 1978) 191-192; Rosemary Stevens. A Time for Scandal: Charles R. Forbes, Warren G. Harding, and the Making of the Veterans Bureau (Baltimore, 2016) 311. For an excellent commentary of the Harding scandals, see Robert H. Ferrell. The Strange Deaths of President Harding (Columbia, MO, 1996).

[10] Warren G. Harding. Our Common Country: Mutual Good Will in America. Ed. Warren G. Harding III (Columbia, MO, 2003) 5.

The featured image is a photograph of Warren G. Harding from the Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress and has no known copyright restrictions. It appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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