Twenty-Ninth President of the United States
Nickname: Charming Harding
Terms in Office: 1921-1923
- Born November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio
- Parents: George Tryon and Phoebe Elizabeth Dickerson Harding
- Died August 2, 1923, in San Francisco, California; age 57
- Age upon Start of Term: 55; Age upon Death: 57
- Religious Affiliation: Baptist
- Political Party: Republican
- Height: 6 feet
- Vice President: Calvin Coolidge
The Bottom Line
Warren Harding died from illness (possibly a heart attack) two years into his first term. During his time in office, Harding worked tirelessly to reverse the government takeover of the private sector in America, including reversing regulations on businesses, reducing taxes, and limiting government spending. He also worked to improve the status of blacks and women in American society.
What Was He Thinking?
Warren Harding very much wanted to please his constituents, listening to their needs and often compromising his own views to better serve the people. He won support from women in America by supporting their right to vote. As president during the era of alcohol prohibition, Harding outwardly supported the amendment, but he still drank at the White House by subtly bending the rules.
Harding was quite the party man. Besides bending the rules to serve alcohol in the White House, he also played golf and cards almost constantly. Once, Harding bet a set of White House china on a single hand in a card game … and lost.
America’s need is not heroics but healing, not nostroms but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity; not the dramatic but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise. – Warren G. Harding
Why Should I Care?
The Roaring Twenties were all about flapper girls, jazz music, crazy parties, and dancing out on the town. Warren Harding’s pro-business policies removed government regulation from the American private sector. Additionally, Harding worked hard to limit federal spending and balance the budget. As a result, the government was able to pass measures that enabled an economic boom and sense of stability that enhanced the American way of life.
Breakin’ It Down
Warren Harding was the first president to be born after the Civil War. The oldest of eight children. Warren attended school in small, one-room schoolhouses in rural Ohio, but he was soon working as an errand boy for the city newspaper. He attended Iberia College (now Ohio Central College) and after graduation became a teacher – a job he later claimed proved to be the most challenging of his life.
At age eighteen, Harding took on the job of reporter for one of the local newspapers, though his Republican political beliefs soon cost him his position. After unhappily selling insurance for a while, Warren attempted a risky business venture: he joined with two friends to buy the bankrupt Marion Star newspaper for three hundred dollars. Warren’s investment paid off, and soon the paper became well known and eventually overshadowed the other newspapers in the region. The key to his success lay in the publication’s content: instead of printing the same Democrat-leaning positions popular among newspaper owners, Warren played to his consumers by printing more Republican leaning views while still remaining cautious to not offend Democrats. Warren’s newspaper become the moderate voice that sought common ground for both parties. After success in the private sector, Warren decided to move into the public eye by entering politics.
In 1891, Warren Harding married Florence Mabel Kling DeWolfe. They met through Warren’s younger sister, who was Florence’s piano student. Florence was five years older than Warren, and at the time of their marriage, she was a divorced, single mother. Although the couple never had children together, it was rumored that Warren had two children with another woman during one of his two extramarital affairs. Florence forgave her husband for his unfaithfulness, and his affairs were not publicized until after his death. As first lady, Florence began a new tradition for future first ladies to follow: she held her own press conferences and openly displayed her own beliefs on issues, a rarity for that day.
Harding engaged in at least two extramarital affairs. Proof of these affairs was found in the dozens of love letters between the two women and Harding.
Previous Political Career
Spent twelve years campaigning for Republican candidates in national and state elections and speaking and promoting party unity.
1895: Lost his election for county auditor.
1899: Elected to the Ohio State Senate. He served two terms in the position and became known as a peacemaker who stuck to Republican ideals. He was appointed the state senate’s majority leader and even wrote the state eulogy after the assassination of sitting president William McKinley.
1903: Elected Ohio’s lieutenant governor, serving one term before he retired from the position to return to his newspaper business.
1910: Lost race for Ohio governor to Grover Cleveland’s former attorney general, Judson Harmon, after a three-year break from politics.
1914: Elected to the U.S. Senate, winning by 100,000 votes. He remained in the Senate until 1920.
1916: Asked to speak at the Republican National Convention in 1916.
Warren Harding was the first president to visit Alaska.
Harding the Orator
Warren Harding was all about presentation. His speaking was known for two distinguishing characteristics his frequent use of alliterations and his knack for creating words on the spot. What is alliteration? Well, look at this line from one of Harding’s speeches and count the Ps: “Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on personal pronouns, not perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people, passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed.” One of the original words Warren created was bloviating, meaning speaking for a long time without really saying anything.
Government rests upon the body of citizenship; it cannot maintain itself on a level that keeps it out of touch and understanding with the community it serves. – Warren G. Harding
In 1920, during his address at the Republican convention. Warren Harding coined the phrase “Founding Fathers.”
George Harding was the first father to outlive his presidential son. The only other man to hold this wretched record remains Joseph Kennedy. John F. Kennedy’s father
Election of 1920: At the Republican convention, an underhanded private meeting occurred in a nearby hotel room, later referred to as “the smoke-filled room.” In this meeting, the political donors and “bosses” – as they were called – met to discuss the pool of candidates. Evidently, Warren Harding was declared the best possible option, and he won the nomination.
Travel campaigning was still rather unpopular during this time, and Harding was placed under further restrictions by the Republican Party to hush certain beliefs. He delivered prewritten speeches from his home in Marion, Ohio, a setting that avoided on-the-spot questions for which Harding was not prepared to answer. Harding spoke about a “return to normalcy,” which appealed to the war-weary American people.
Warren Harding was a people person. Almost everyone loved Harding, and Harding loved almost everyone. Throughout his life, he sought humility, and he sought approval from his peers. Additionally, Harding valued character, as evident during his presidential campaign, when he refused to attack his opponent and instead focused on his own campaign’s positive attributes.
Since the election of 1920 was the first in which women could vote, Florence Harding played a crucial role in garnering the women’s vote for her husband. Florence obviously appealed to the American woman, especially by talking about racial equality and religious tolerance as well as a possible increase in female executive appointments.
Harding’s presidency ushered in the period known as the Roaring Twenties because of the boom in economic growth, relatively peaceful foreign relations, and the generally excited mood of the American people. As his first act as president, Harding reversed many of the antibusiness regulations Wilson had placed on various corporations, leading to a new vitality in American enterprise. This was a part of Harding’s “America First” plan, which included five main points: (1) tariffs on imports would be raised; (2) immigration would be restricted; (3) the Budget Accounting Act would create a strict federal budget that would end in surplus; (4) taxes on businesses would be lowered; and (5) federal expenditures would be cut to rates lower than prewar levels. In addition, Harding also freed the socialist and labor leaders who had been imprisoned either under the Sedition Act of 1918 or during the Red Scare of 1919.
Red Scare of 1919: The Red Scare refers to the fear of communism threatening the stability of democratic governments worldwide. This first Red Scare occurred after the Bolsheviks (Communist Party) took over the Russian government in 1917.
In the international arena, Harding withdrew American participation in the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the European nations to resolve their disputes without American intervention. Second, Harding deployed his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, to negotiate the Washington Naval Treaty, which reduced arms in nearly all major countries across the globe (the United States, France, England, Japan, and Italy) and thus ended the quasi arms race erupting as a result of World War I.
To celebrate the halfway point in his term, Harding embarked on a nationwide-tour he pegged the “Voyage of Understanding.” The trip did not go as planned, for before long, Harding began complaining of fatigue and abdominal pain. The family’s personal physician was called and he refused to allow any other doctors to tend to Harding. After inspecting the president, the doctor diagnosed food poisoning as the culprit, but in fact the president had most likely suffered a heart attack. Because of lack of treatment, Warren Harding died in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, leaving his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, in control of the country.
Last Words: “That’s good. Go on. Read some more” in a response to his wife, who was reading a newspaper article favoring the president.
Thoughts on the Constitution
Ours is a constitutional freedom where the popular will is the law supreme and minorities are sacredly protected. – Warren G. Harding
Budget and Accounting Act of 1921: This act established the first modern-day federal budget. The act also created the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), which oversees and regulates the monetary transactions of the government and helps the president in forming a budget.
Federal Aid Highways Act of 1921: This act set aside funding for a large network of national highways. The plan for the highways was designed by the National Highway Commission.
Agricultural Appropriations Act of 1922: This act formed the Bureau of Agriculture Economics, which reported on foreign agricultural developments and trade.
Federal Narcotics Control Board of 1922: This board established the Federal Narcotics Control Board, which strictly regulated the import and export of opiates.
Washington Naval Treaty of 1922: This treaty was among the major powers of World War I, which established measures to prevent an arms race among those nations.
The Presidential Times
Women at the Polling Booth!
November 2, 1920 – as printed in the Pittsburgh Press – “A storming of the polling places by men and women in the early hours was the response to the appeals for early voting. The belief in political circles is that probably a larger percent of the registered women than of registered men will cast ballots today, due to the enthusiasm among women over their first opportunity to vote. […]
The crowd extended so far that it backed into Oliver Avenue for half a block, [with] hundreds being forced to crane their necks for a glimpse at the lighted bulletin board. […] Nearby at the Republican Women’s headquarters, “Every available inch of space was taken. [A] woman telegraph operator handled returns over a special wire […] From a platform in front of a building, the sang campaign songs; then they wheeled down Smithfield street, making the thoroughfare resound with the strains of ‘John Brown’s Body.’ […] When the Republican men swarmed about their headquarters, their red torchlights flaring and their band blaring its loudest marches, the women [again’ hurried outside, [and] joined in the cheers for Harding and Coolidge.
December 4, 1923 – Scandals keep emerging from the late Warren Harding’s administration. Although Harding served as president for only two years, three scandals have now been released to the press. The situation reminds many of Grant’s term in office, when he struggled to keep his cabinet in line.
Today, in the third scandal to come to light, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty awaits trial for illegal activities in bootlegging and accepting bribes. President Coolidge is forced to clean up the mess. The first scandal surrounded the director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes. He illegally sold government medical supplies to private businesses in return for money on the side. As a result, Forbes will spend more than a year in prison.
The second scandal came from the secretary of the interior Albert Fall and became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall leased federal oil deposits in California to businesses in Wyoming. Fall was convicted of conspiracy, bribery, and defrauding the government and served a year jail sentence and paid $100,000 in fines. Fall was the first cabinet member to serve time in jail for political actions.
Harding’s “Frayed Nerves”
July 24, 1920 – The Times recently investigated President Harding’s past medical records, and shocking new developments on Harding’s health have been revealed. Starling in the 1890s, it is documented that Harding began to complain about experiencing nervous breakdowns or suffering from “frayed nerves.” Harding actually checked himself into a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Ohio, after his first major nervous breakdown in 1890. Over the course of his lifetime, he returned to the sanitarium five times.
State of the Union
(1) States: 48
(2) U.S. Population: (1921) 109,314,579
(3) U.S. Debt (1921) $23,470, 416,130
(4) Value of the Dollar: $1 in 1921 would be worth $12.99 today. $1 in 1923 would be worth $13.70.
- 1921 – William Howard Taft is appointed Supreme Court chief justice
- 1921 – The German economy begins to collapse because of war reparations
- 1921 – A bomb explodes on Wall Street
- 1922 – The Lincoln Memorial is dedicated
- 1922 – The White House police force is established
- 1922 – The USSR is formed in Russia by the First Congress of Soviets
- 1922 – Benito Mussolini occupies Rome, Italy
- 1923 – U.S. Secretary of State Charles Dawes forms a plan for restructuring Germany’s war debt
- 1923 – Adolf Hitler fails to overthrow the German government
- 1923 – An earthquake destroys a third of Tokyo, Japan
- 1923 – Warren Harding dies and Vice President Calvin Coolidge becomes president, August 2, 1923
[I]n the mutual tolerance, understanding, charity, recognition of the interdependence of the races, and the maintenance of the rights of citizenship lies the road to righteous adjustment. – Warren G. Harding
Warren Harding spoke these words in a special session of Congress in 1921. He understood that the nation could not survive or thrive while still divided along racial lines. United, we would be stronger.
What Has He Done for Me Lately?
Because Warren Harding released many of the American citizens who had been imprisoned during the Wilson administration, he inadvertently proved the illegality of much of Wilson’s legislation. Consequently, the Constitution and American’s rights and freedoms were reinforced. Harding was also influential in the creation of the Budget Accounting Office, which is still in existence in our government today, charged with the task of balancing the budget of the United States government.
Juliette Turner is the National Youth Director of Constituting America, and the author of three books: Our Constitution Rocks, Our Presidents Rock and the novel, based on life at her ranch with her mom, actress Janine Turner, That’s Not Hay In My Hair (all published by HarpersCollins/Zondervan).
Our Presidents Rock, HarpersCollins/Zondervan, 2014. Reprinted with permission.