Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding

Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923) was the 29th President of the United States, from 1921 until his death in 1923. A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential self-made newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate (1899–1903), as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio (1903–1905) and as a U.S. Senator (1915–1921). He was also the first incumbent United States Senator and the first newspaper publisher to be elected President.[1][2]

His conservativism, affable manner, and 'make no enemies' campaign strategy enabled Harding to become the compromise choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention. During his presidential campaign, in the aftermath of World War I, he promised a return of the nation to "normalcy." This "America first" campaign encouraged industrialization and a strong economy independent of foreign influence. Harding departed from the progressive movement that had dominated Congress since President Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1920 election, he and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, defeated Democrat and fellow Ohioan James M. Cox, in the largest presidential popular vote landslide in American history (60.36% to 34.19%) since first recorded in 1824.[3]

President Harding rewarded friends and political contributors with financially powerful positions. Scandals and corruption eventually pervaded his administration; several of his cabinet members, referred to as the Ohio Gang, were eventually tried, convicted and sent to prison for bribery and fraud.[4] Harding did however make some notably positive appointments to his cabinet.[5]

In foreign affairs, Harding spurned the League of Nations, and signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and Austria, formally ending World War I. He also strongly promoted world Naval disarmament at the 1921–22 Washington Naval Conference, and urged U.S. participation in a proposed International Court. Domestically, Harding signed the first child welfare program in the United States and dealt with striking workers in the mining and railroad industries. The nation’s unemployment rate dropped by half during Harding’s administration.[6] In August 1923, President Harding suddenly collapsed and died during a stop in California on a return trip from Alaska.[7] He was succeeded by Vice President, Calvin Coolidge.

Polls of historians and scholars have consistently ranked Harding as one of the worst Presidents. His presidency has been recently evaluated in terms of presidential record and accomplishments in addition to the administration scandals. The most recent Presidential rankings have had various low results for President Harding.

Childhood and Education

Warren Gamaliel Harding was born November 2, 1865, in Marion, Ohio.[8] His paternal ancestors, mostly ardent Baptists, hailed from Clifford, Pennsylvania and had migrated to Ohio in 1820.[9] Nicknamed "Winnie", he was the eldest of eight children born to Dr. George Tryon Harding, Sr. (1843–1928) and Phoebe Elizabeth (Dickerson) Harding (1843–1910).[10] His mother, a devout Methodist, was a midwife who later obtained her medical license. His father, never quite content with his current job or possessions, was forever swapping for something better, and was usually in debt; he owned a farm, taught at a rural school north of Mount Gilead, Ohio and also acquired a medical degree and started a small practice.[11] It was rumored in Blooming Grove that one of Harding's great-grandmothers may have been African American.[12] Harding's great-great grandfather Amos claimed the rumor was started, as an attempted extortion, by a thief caught in the act by the family.[13] Eventually, Hardings family moved to Caledonia, Ohio, where his father then acquired The Argus, a local weekly newspaper. It was at The Argus where, from the age of 10, Harding learned the basics of the journalism business. He continued to study the printing and newspaper trade as a college student at Ohio Central College in Iberia, during which time he also worked at the Union Register in Mount Gilead.[14] In college Harding became an accomplished public speaker and graduated in 1882 with a Bachelor of Science degree at the age of 16. [15] As a youngster he also became an accomplished cornet player and played in various bands.[16] In 1878 his brother Charles and sister Persilla died, presumably from typhoid.[17]

Career in Journalism

Upon graduating, he had stints as a teacher and insurance man, and made a brief attempt at reading the law. He then raised $300, in partnership with others, for the purchase of the failing Marion Daily Star, the weakest of the growing city's three newspapers; Harding was complete owner of the Star by 1886.[18] Harding revamped the paper's editorial platform to support the Republican Party, and enjoyed a moderate degree of success. He became an ardent supporter of Governor "Fire Alarm Joe" Foraker; however, his political stance put him at odds with those who controlled local politics in Marion.[19] When Harding moved to unseat the Marion Independent as the official daily paper, he was met with strong resistance from local figures, such as Amos Hall Kling, one of Marion's wealthiest real estate speculators. The editorial battle with the Independent became so heated that, at the inevitable mention of Harding's questionable bloodline, father and son proceeded, with shotgun in hand, to demand, and get, a retraction.[20]

While Harding won the war of words and made the Marion Daily Star one of the most popular newspapers in the county, the battle took a toll on his health. In 1889, at age 24 he suffered from exhaustion and nervous fatigue. He spent several weeks at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to regain his strength, ultimately making five visits over fourteen years.[21] Harding later returned to Marion to continue operating the paper. He spent his days promoting the community on the editorial pages, and his evenings "bloviating" (a word meaning "informally conversing", which Harding frequently used) with his friends over games of poker.[22] In 1893 the Star supplanted the Independent as the official paper for Marion's governmental notices, after Harding exposed the rival paper for overcharging the city.[23] In 1896 the Independent ceased doing business and Amos Kling wasted no time in financing and launching another rival paper, the Republican Transcript, in a failed attempt to derail his son in law.[24]Harding also made political speeches on the Chautauqua circuit and expressed admiration for his ideal American patron, Alexander Hamilton.[25]

In 1900, a political opponent, J.F. McNeal, with the help of Amos Kling, secretly bought up $20,000 in loans owed by Harding, and immediately called them due in full. Harding just barely succeeded in securing the funds to pay off the debt in order to save the Star.[26]

In the last year of his Presidency, when he foresaw no reprisal of his journalism career, Harding sold the Star to Louis H. Brush and Roy D. Moore for $550,000.[27]

Marriage

On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of his nemesis (and hers as well), Amos Hall Kling. Florence Kling DeWolfe was a divorcée, five years Harding's senior, and the mother of a young son, Marshall Eugene DeWolfe.[28] "Flossie's" first, and compulsory, marriage, to an alcoholic, had been soundly condemned by her father, to the point of her disownment. Her mother remained loyal and provided support nevertheless.[29] She pursued Harding persistently, until he reluctantly proposed. On his part, according to noted biographer Russell, true love was missing, but the prospect of social acceptance, and standing, was the compelling reason for his proposal.[30] Florence's father was incensed by his daughter's decision to marry Harding, prohibited his wife from attending the wedding (she snuck in long enough to see the vows exchanged) and refused to speak to his daughter or son-in-law for eight years. Her mother continued to provide support on the sly.[31]

The couple were complementary, with Harding's affable personality balancing his wife's no-nonsense approach to life. Florence Harding, exhibiting her father's determination and business sense, turned the Marion Daily Star into a profitable business in her management of the circulation.[32] She has been credited with helping Harding achieve more than he might have alone; some have speculated that she later pushed him all the way to the White House.[33] Early in their marriage Harding dubbed her with the lasting nickname "Duchess", as a nod to her autocratic (and alienating) nature, a legacy from her father.[32]