Society

Warren G. Harding - US Presidents in History

An avid pro-business republican, Harding is credited with coining the word "normalcy" to describe the post-WWI America he envisioned.

5. Early Life

The eldest of eight children, Warren Gamaliel Harding was born on the 2nd of November, 1865, in Corsica (now Blooming Grove), Ohio. His father, George Tryon Harding, was a farmer, businessman, and doctor. Harding’s mother, Phoebe, was a midwife. Growing up in an idyllic small town environment was a life that Harding thoroughly enjoyed. He attended a one-room school house, and helped organized, and played in, the community band. At the age of 14, Harding attended college at Ohio Central College. While there, he gained his first editing experience with the campus newspaper until graduating in 1882. Harding then taught school for a short while, but quit before the end of the school year because he absolutely hated it. Selling insurance was also a temporary job until he and two friends purchased a fledgling local newspaper, called the Marion Daily Star in Marion, Ohio. The paper struggled at first, but prospered eventually, growing alongside the burgeoning town. Harding bought the shares of one friend and won the shares from the remaining partner in a poker game to become the paper's owner. Marrying a wealthy divorcee named Florence Ling de Wolfe in 1891 proved to be a fortuitous event for Harding's editorial career and that in politics to come. She brought with her a child from a previous marriage, along with an acute business mind and plentiful monetary resources. Harding and his wife, however, never had children of their own together.

4. Rise to Power

Warren's marriage to Florence marked the beginning of Harding’s rise to political power. She encouraged him to run for an Ohio Senate seat in 1898. He was an unwavering conservative Republican, who was able to write well and speak with a vibrantly expressive voice. He was also a man with a handsome appearance and congenial personality. After having won the seats and served two terms as State Senator, Harding was recruited to run for Lieutenant Governor which he won. After serving a two-year term in his first major executive role in government, he then returned to his newspaper business. Losing a bid for the Governorship in 1910, Harding continued to be active in political circles and, at the 1912 Republican National Convention, gave a speech nominating William Taft to run for his second term as US President. 1914 brought his election to the US Senate, where Harding remained until his own Presidential inauguration in 1921. Harding’s career as senator was said to be undistinguished, as he tended to be a peacemaker and conciliatory, and did not take forceful positions on many issues. In 1920, an admirer of Harding’s from Ohio began promoting him for the Presidential nomination because, as they put it, “he looks like a president.” Harding won the 1920 US Presidential Election by a landslide. In fact, it was the largest margin of victory up to that time, with Harding garnering 60% of the popular votes and a majority of 404 Electoral votes versus 127 for Democrat James Cox, who was also from Ohio. 1920 also saw the first US Presidential election in which women were allowed to vote.

3. Contributions

Harding’s achievements in office were characterized by a pursuit of the "pro-business" Republican agenda. Taxes for the corporations and the wealthy were decreased, as was the promotion of tight limits on immigration. Harding also signed off on the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. The act streamlined the federal budget system, and established the General Accounting Office, which audited government expenses. His nomination of former president William H. Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the only time in the history of the United States that a former Chief Executive has ever held this position. Harding managed to appoint a handful of very capable men to Cabinet posts, such as Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, Charles Evan Hughes, as Secretary of State and Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. However, many of the friends that he appointed, as it turns out, were accused of misconduct and corruption, though not while he was still alive.

2. Challenges

Most of the challenges that Harding confronted as President seemed to stem from personal issues. He had a fifteen-year-long extramarital affair with one of his neighbors in Marion, Ohio. She blackmailed him before his run for the US Presidency, and was given hush money and sent to Europe. Harding also had an affair with another woman from Marion as well. She gave birth to his daughter and, although he never acknowledged the child publicly, he sent $500.00 each month for child support. It was not until 2015 that the daughter was confirmed as his own, found to be Harding’s through DNA testing.

1. Death and Legacy

Although Harding had occasional bouts of illness, something that seemed to be stress-related and caused him to be admitted to a sanitarium many times in a short period of time while he was working at his newspaper, he always seemed healthy enough. However, during a cross-country policy promotion tour of the US, the 57-year-old Harding became ill, and died in a San Francisco hotel on the 2nd of August, 1923. There was no autopsy, but his death is believed to have been caused by a heart attack. Harding was well liked while he was president, but after his death a number of personal and political scandals surfaced. The infamous Teapot Dome Scandal topped the list. In that debacle, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, rented public lands to oil companies in exchange for gifts and personal loans. Many other cabinet members were found guilty of corruption and misconduct after his death as well. Added to that was the word of both of his homegrown affairs back in Ohio, which was leaked to the public. Unfortunately, Harding’s legacy and reputation was lost in a quagmire of deceit and betrayal, and many consider his term as setting precedents in economic policy that contributed to the Great Depression that began 6 years after his death.

More in Society