Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923) came to the office of the President of the United States in 1920 because Americans were tired of "wartime restraints and world problem" and hoped he could somehow bring back the pre-World War I days. His campaign slogan of "Back to Normalcy" encouraged this hope. Americans were so desperate to rid themselves of the policies of President Woodrow Wilson that they probably would have elected any Republican to the office of President. The people were especially opposed to Wilson's "definition of American ideals, and his unwillingness to accept any changes in his plan for a League of Nations." Americans were tired of their responsibilities in world affairs and wanted to go back to normal activities.
"Normal" was difficult to produce in the Roaring Twenties because different people thought of it differently. At one end of the spectrum there were the "rebels" who drank bootleg gin and danced in cabarets. At the other end were those who wanted more standardized thought and behavior; they included those who tried to enforce Prohibition as well as tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the schools. There were so many different ideas of how to get back to normal that Harding would be cross-wise with somebody no matter what his policy.
Harding was an easygoing newspaper publisher and Senator before becoming President, and his Administration was a popular one until the short and severe depression of 1921. Faith in his administration was destroyed within the first two years because of corruption in government agencies and the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Harding is unanimously ranked by historians as one of the weakest Presidents. His failure came because he "was weak-willed and a poor judge of character." His death was probably hastened by anxiety over the corruption in government circles. He was the sixth President to die while in office.
Harding was born on November 2, 1865, on a farm near present-day Blooming Grove, Ohio, and was the eldest of eight children. His father was a farmer and a homeopathic doctor who also owned half of the Caledonia Argus, a weekly newspaper. His English ancestors settled at Plymouth in 1624 and moved to Ohio in 1820. Harding attended local grammar schools, learned to set newspaper type and attended a high school called Ohio Central College where he was editor of the school newspaper.
Harding passed a test to become a school teacher in 1882. He taught school for one term in a one-room schoolhouse and later called teaching "the hardest job I ever had." He studied law and sold insurance and returned to journalism working for the Marion Democratic Mirror. After he was fired in 1884 for supporting the wrong presidential candidate, he and two friends purchased the bankrupt Marion Star for $300.
He married divorcee Florence Kling DeWolfe in 1891. The Hardings had no children. Florence had great ambitions for her husband as well as a dominating personality. With her help, Harding built the Star into a prosperous newspaper. He served as a director of several corporations as well as a trustee for the Trinity Baptist Church.
After becoming known as both an editor and a skillful speaker, Harding was elected as a state senator in 1898 and as lieutenant governor in 1903. He lost a 1910 campaign for governor, but was chosen to nominate President William Howard Taft for a second term at the Republican National Convention in 1912. He later commented that this honor gave him a greater thrill than his own nomination. He gave the keynote speech at the 1916 national convention as well as served at permanent chairman.
Harding was elected to the United States Senate in 1914 where he was genial and popular and enjoyed the fellowship and prestige of the Senate. He introduced no major bills, spent much time finding jobs for friends, and usually voted with the Republican leadership. He was nominated as a compromise candidate for President at the 1920 Republican National Convention and chose Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts to run as Vice President. He campaigned, gave speeches, and met visiting delegations from his front porch. He won an "overwhelming victory" as the first President to be elected while serving as a Senator. This was also the first presidential election where all women were allowed to vote and the results were broadcast over radio.
Harding's view of his constitutional powers was very narrow because he, like most Republicans, thought President Wilson had usurped powers originally belonging to Congress; therefore, he relied on his Cabinet and Congress to lead the nation.
Harding signed peace treaties that did not include the League of Nations covenant with Germany and other Central Powers, but Congress lead in domestic legislation when it placed the first quotas on immigration and reduced taxes in 1921 and raised tariffs in 1922.
Harding brought so many friends from Ohio to Washington that they became known as "the Ohio gang." His poor judgment of character was evident in the friends that were untrustworthy but given jobs in government because he enjoyed socializing with them. There was a tide of corruption that began to rise soon after he entered the White House. ”The Teapot Dome scandal was the most shocking case" and involved the Secretary of the Interior accepting "a bribe for leasing government-owned oil reserves to private companies." He was sentenced to prison in 1929. The Attorney General was tried in 1926 but freed when two juries failed to agree on a verdict. A friend of the AG committed suicide after the revelation that he was involved in arranging settlements between the Department of Justice and law breakers. Misuse of funds at the Veterans Bureau resulted in its legal adviser committing suicide and his director being sent to prison.
As if the scandals were not enough for the electorate to lose faith in Republicans, a depression in the farm region occurred. Harding - with his wife and a large official party - went on a speaking tour in June 1923 to revive confidence in his Administration. He traveled across the United States and made the first presidential visit to Canada and Alaska. During this trip he received a long message in code from Washington about a Senate investigation of oil leases. "Reporters later said that the depressed Harding asked them what a President could do when his friends betrayed him."
Harding became ill, presumably from food poisoning, while his train was passing through Seattle. The tour stopped in San Francisco where doctors said Harding had pneumonia. He had a short rally and died on August 2. No autopsy was performed and so no exact cause for his death is known.
Sorrowing Americans gathered to show honor to their President as the train carrying his body back to Washington. The public did not yet know about the scandals, and Mrs. Harding burned as much of his correspondence as possible to protect his memory. She died the following year and was buried beside Harding in Marion.
Facts and quotes for this post came from an article by George H. Mayer in World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, pp 56-59.
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