Warren G. Harding and His Boss


A self-made successful newspaper owner from Marion, Ohio, affable, handsome Warren Harding had always been interested in politics.  Born in 1865 into a family noted for their abolitionism, and rumored to have black ancestry, although recent DNA testing in regard to Harding disproves that rumor, political success eluded Harding until he won a State Senate election in Ohio in 1899.  He got started relatively late for a politician in those days but his rise was then swift.  In 1903 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Ohio.  Defeated in the race for Governor of Ohio in 1910 he was elected to the Senate in 1914.  Harding throughout his political career had a talent for making friends in the Republican party and few enemies.  A conservative Republican, he went out of his way to conciliate the Progressive wing of the party.  In the Senate he made many friends, few enemies and no waves, not a small achievement in a time when the Republican party was recovering from the split of 1912.  In most ways he was completely a politician of his time.  In other ways, most notably on civil rights for blacks, he was decades ahead of his day.  Whatever his positions he doubtless would be completely forgotten today but for the woman he married.

Throughout his political career his wife Florence ran his business interests with competence.  A childless couple, Florence fully supported her husband’s political career.  Her husband’s long time affair with Carrie Phillip nearly ended his marriage, with Florence demanding that he break off the affair, which he did, with Phillips and her husband and children taking up residence in Europe.

In 1919 Harding announced that he was a candidate for President.  This was a classic favorite son candidacy initiated by Harding mainly to help solidify his support within the Republican party of Ohio to support his re-election campaign to the Senate in 1920.  A potential ticking time bomb was that Mrs. Phillips was in possession of hundreds of love letters from Harding, which, if revealed, would end his political career.  Since he didn’t expect to be the nominee, Harding wasn’t too worried about the letters as he made ready to attend the Republican national convention in Chicago in June.  However,  Florence Harding was determined that her husband was going to be the next President, and, in her words, she would make him stay in the race until “Hell freezes over!”  Stay tuned.

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  1. Too bad Florence wasn’t able to control Interior Secretary Albert Fall of the Teapot Dome scandal.

  2. Harding’s reputation deserves to be rehabilitated. The fact that he still remains at or near the bottom of those stupid presidential polls of historians and political scientists every February, while his racist, war mongering, anti-Founding predecessor remains in or near the “top 10”, is a product of sheer intellectual laziness and partisan score settling.

    When my about-to-be-a-high-school-graduate son was in 4th grade, he drew Harding’s name out of a hat for his Ohio History class project. In putting together his project and presentation, his/our goal was to engage in an exercise in “revisionist” history (of the right sort — that corrects the historical record) in attempting to restore Harding’s legacy. Return to normalcy, strong economy, ahead of his time on race / civil rights, key player in women’s suffrage. Most importantly, in his VP, he gave us his successor — the best President of the 20th century not named Reagan.

  3. Well said Jay. Quite a bit of the negative image of Harding was created by journalist William Allen White. The Sage of Emporia was a much better stylist than he was a historian. A liberal Republican, he was completely out of sympathy with what Harding and Coolidge were seeking to accomplish. Until recently the scholarship on both Harding and Coolidge was weak. The balance has been somewhat redressed as to Coolidge. Harding still awaits a first rate modern study.

  4. Dunno. The historiography of the period for a long time has been variations on themes expounded by Arthur Schlesinger and the like. I think the publication of Friedman / Schwartz’ Monetary History and the development of economic history since then have incrementally (if incompletely) discredited the notion that the Harding-Coolidge Administration could be held responsible for the Depression.

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