Warren G. Harding

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Warren G. Harding (1920)
Warren G. Harding's signature

Warren Gamaliel Harding (born November 2, 1865 in Corsica, now Blooming Grove , Morrow County , Ohio , † August 2, 1923 in San Francisco , California ) was an American politician and the 29th President of the United States from 1921 to 1923 . The Republican won the 1920 presidential election  - the first to allow women to vote - by the largest percentage advantage since census suffrage was abolished1830, 60.3% to 34.1%. Harding died unexpectedly in August 1923 after almost two years and five months in office.

Harding was an influential newspaper publisher with a knack for public appearances. His political career began in 1899 in the Ohio Senate . As a result of numerous scandals involving members of his administration , he has been given the reputation of being one of the least successful presidents of the United States.

Life to the presidency

Childhood and adolescence

Warren G. Harding was born in Corsica (now Blooming Grove), Ohio. He was the oldest of eight children of Dr. George Tryon Harding (1844-1928) and Phoebe Elizabeth Dickerson Harding (1843-1910). His father taught at a rural school north of Mount Gilead for a while ; his mother was a midwife who was later licensed to practice medicine. In his youth, the family moved to Caledonia , Marion County , where his father bought a local weekly newspaper called The Argus . In the editorial office, Harding learned the basics of the newspaper business. He graduated from Ohio Central College in Iberia (later renamed Muskingum College ). During his student days, he worked for Union Register magazine in Mount Gilead.

Entry into politics

Warren G. Harding in 1882

After graduating from college, Harding moved to Marion , where he raised $ 300 to buy the then unsuccessful Marion Daily Star newspaper with two friends . It was the city's weakest circulation newspaper. Harding exchanged the editorial team and supported the Republicans, with which, however, he had only moderate success. His political views were very different from those of Marion local politics. When Harding set out to overtake rival Marion Independent , he drew the wrath of Amos Kling, one of the wealthiest local real estate speculators. Harding won the following contests, and the Marion Daily Star became the district's top-selling newspaper. One of Harding's news boys was Norman Thomas , who later became a noted journalist and leader of the socialists in New York City .

The battle for the newspaper market had affected Harding's health. At the age of 24 he suffered from exhaustion and anxiety; In 1889 he spent several weeks in a sanatorium in Battle Creek , Michigan .

In 1891, after much hesitation, Harding married Florence Kling , a divorced woman and mother of a young son. Her father Amos Kling was Harding's greatest adversary. When he heard of his only daughter's plans to marry, he dismissed her from the family and forbade his own wife to attend the wedding. Kling did not speak a word to his daughter or son-in-law for the next eight years.

In the aftermath, enterprising Florence helped turn the Marion Daily Star into a profitable newspaper. It is believed that her drive led Harding to go into politics. Harding was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1899 . From 1903 to 1905 he was lieutenant governor of the state. After his tenure, he withdrew into private life.

When he returned to politics in 1910, he lost the race for governor to Judson Harmon . In 1914 he was finally elected to the United States Senate.

Harding was a Freemason and was born on June 28, 1901 at Marion Lodge No. 70 initiated in Marion. On August 27, 1920 he reached the master's degree, on January 5, 1921 he received the 32nd degree of A. u. A. Scottish Rite in Columbus . On 22 September 1921 he became the 33rd degree gekugelt , but he died before they could give him the degree.

Presidential candidacy in 1920

Republican election poster for the 1920 election
Portrait of Hardings from 1920

Harding was relatively unknown outside of Ohio and therefore a clear outsider at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago . Due to the political scheming of his party friends, he nevertheless won the nomination in front of Leonard Wood , who initially led the ballots for a long time .

In advance, he was asked whether there were "unpleasant episodes" in his past that could be used against him. Harding said no. However, after the nomination, an affair with a married woman became known. Since it was too late to nominate a new candidate, the woman's family was bribed to silence.

In the 1920 presidential election , Harding ran against Democrat James M. Cox , governor of Ohio. The Democratic candidate for the office of Vice President was the Vice Secretary of the Navy and later President Franklin D. Roosevelt . The Democrats stood for a continuation of the progressive policies of President Woodrow Wilson .

Harding's election campaign, on the other hand, ran under the motto “Back to normal”, picking up on three popular trends of his time: back to a policy of isolationism as a reaction to the First World War , a restriction on immigration and a return to the politics of non-interference ( laissez-faire ) of the William McKinley era .

Harding's program caught the zeitgeist of many Americans. It received massive support from the press, and for the first time movie stars were hired for an election campaign. Conservative celebrities like Al Jolson , Lillian Russell , Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford traveled to Ohio. Financial greats like Thomas Alva Edison , Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone supported Harding's campaign. His commitment to women's rights met with approval from many female voters. A total of over 600,000 people made a pilgrimage to the small town of Marion during the election campaign.

Harding's wife Florence took an active part in the election campaign and contributed to her husband's popularity. She gave interviews and posed for photos in a bungalow set up in the garden of the house that served as a press office. Harding also used a campaign hit with the succinct title Harding .

The 1920 election was the first in which women were eligible to vote nationwide. Harding scored a landslide victory : he received 60.3 percent of the electoral vote; his rival Cox 34.1 percent (404 to 127 votes on the Electoral Committee ). In addition, the fourth-highest share of votes was achieved in an election behind 1964 , 1936 and 1972 . Socialist Eugene V. Debs , who campaigned from a federal prison cell, received 3.4 percent of the nationwide vote. When Harding became president in March 1921, he pardoned Debs and other political prisoners .

Presidency (1921–1923)


Harding (2nd from left) shortly after the inauguration. On the left his presidential predecessor Woodrow Wilson
Harding inauguration public ceremonies, 1921
Filming by Warren Harding (commentary in English)

Harding's advisory staff and cabinet corresponded to the team presented at the 1920 Republican party meeting. Harding was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1921 at a solemn ceremony in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC .

Under Harding, a policy of non-interference in the economic and social areas was pursued. The nation's economic development should not be hampered by government surveillance. Harding was an advocate of the clear separation of state powers. He gave the Supreme Court a high priority and appointed former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice.

With the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the Bureau of the Budget was created, the successor of which is today's Office of Management and Budget . This law also stipulated that the president had to submit an annual budget to the US Congress . Furthermore, with the Government Accountability Office, an audit office was put into service to audit government spending, which is subordinate to Congress.

During Harding's tenure, a peace treaty was signed with the German Empire , Austria and Hungary , which formally ended the First World War for the USA. Colombia was compensated for the loss of Panama and the Washington Naval Conference was launched. Harding had the Veterans Bureau set up, which looked after the needs of World War II veterans and was thus the forerunner of today's War Veterans Ministry.

The President made numerous public speeches. In October 1921 in Birmingham , Alabama , he addressed the prevailing race problem, stating that the nation should not enjoy economic growth until racial equality was established (the latter was initiated in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson 's Civil Rights Act of 1964 ).

He was open to the technical revolutions of his time, especially the radio that started during his tenure. He was the first US president who, at that time still from the Navy, had a radio receiver placed in the White House.

Harding's speeches often contained slip-ups or mistakes in meaning. However, he insisted on writing his speeches himself. Initially, he handled much of the correspondence himself, including complaints from citizens addressed to the President. Critics accused him of having a terrible English that was full of mistakes. When his health deteriorated in 1923, he had the correspondence handled by a staff of assistants.

Scandals, affairs, rumors

After his inauguration, Harding helped many of his political friends to lucrative offices. A group known as the "Ohio Gang" used their position to evade government funds. It is not known to what extent Harding knew about these machinations.

In early 1923, a large-scale corruption affair involving Harding's closest advisory team was uncovered. Thomas W. Miller , chief of the Foreign Property Bureau, was accused of taking bribes. Jess Smith , Assistant Minister of Justice, had destroyed documents and then suicide committed. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty himself was later forced to resign over taking bribes and the Daugherty Burns scandal . Charles R. Forbes , director of the Bureau of Veterans Affairs , embezzled profits, raised large sums of money in bribes, and organized the illegal distribution of alcohol and other drugs ( the United States was prohibited from 1920-1933 ).

The best known was the Teapot Dome scandal , in which Interior Minister Albert B. Fall was involved. After paying bribes, valuable oil fields were given to two companies. In 1931, Fall was the first member of a US cabinet to be sentenced to prison.

Harding himself was not involved in these machinations, but did not play a happy role in uncovering and coming to terms with the scandals. The following saying by Harding has been handed down: “My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, my God-damned friends… they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights! ” ("My God, this job is hell! I don't have any trouble with my enemies, but my goddamn friends, my goddamn friends ... they are the ones giving me sleepless nights!")

Harding had several extramarital affairs, including a longstanding relationship with Carrie Fulton Phillips, ten years his junior and the wife of an old friend. To prevent a scandal in the run-up to the presidential election, the Phillips family received an amount of US $ 50,000 from the Republican Party and was paid for a multi-week trip to Japan . Mrs. Phillips also received a monthly "salary" from the Republicans for several years.

Harding had an illegitimate daughter, Nan Britton, the daughter of a friend, who was born in 1919. Harding never saw his daughter Elizabeth Ann Blaesing; however, he paid large sums of support. The paternity contested by Harding's family after his death was confirmed by a DNA test in 2015.

Harding's opponents, including his father-in-law Amos Kling, started a rumor in the 1880s that his ancestors were African American and that “black blood” ran through his veins. In a time that was marked by racist prejudice, a character assassination campaign was carried out. Later research found no evidence of African ancestors.

The second Ku Klux Klan gained increasing popularity and political power after its founding, especially in Ohio, the home of Harding, and was at the height of its social influence during the Roaring Twenties . The new clan saw itself as a moral force for the restoration of white, Protestant America and now had all other population groups alongside the Afro-Americans as an enemy, especially the numerous Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy and also the Jewish Eastern Europeans, who did not meet this ideal. According to very controversial statements by the clan itself and some historians, Harding joined the clan during a private ceremony conducted by Grand Wizard William Joseph Simmons in the White House. Despite intensive research, no evidence could ever be found for these statements. Most historians reject this claim and view it as an afterthought. In contrast to other politicians of his time, Harding spoke out against racist theories and condemned violence against minorities without explicitly mentioning the name of the KKK. So it is possible that the rumor was started by disgruntled members of the Klan.

Death in office

Procession to Harding's funeral outside the White House, August 1923
Harding Memorial

In July 1923 Harding made an extensive trip through the Alaska Territory and the western United States, where he attended, among other things, the opening of the Alaska Railroad . On this “Voyage of Understanding” (“Journey of Understanding”) he wanted to bring the goals of his politics closer to ordinary people in particular. At this time the corruption affair began to become known to his cabinet members. He received a notice in Alaska detailing illegal activities, which Harding was visibly shocked.

While traveling through British Columbia , Canada , he developed symptoms that suggested a severe case of food poisoning . When he got to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, he showed signs of pneumonia . On the evening of August 2, 1923, he died as a result of a heart attack or a stroke . Harding was the sixth US president to die during his tenure. He was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge .

Since Harding's widow refused to perform an autopsy , rumors soon arose that he had been the victim of a conspiracy.

The body was transferred to Washington, DC and laid out in the East Room of the White House . After a state ceremony at the Capitol , the burial took place in Marion's cemetery. Since 1931 Harding and his wife, who died in 1924, have rested in the Harding Memorial in Marion , donated by President Herbert Hoover .

In numerous polls of historians Harding is listed as one of the worst presidents of the United States; in rankings from 2017/18 it ranks fourth to sixth from bottom. In contrast, John Dean came to the conclusion in his Harding biography in 2004 that his presidency had some achievements to show that clearly speak against an extremely negative evaluation.

Appeals to the Supreme Court

President Harding (center) with Chief Justice and ex-President William Howard Taft (left) and former Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln , a son of Abraham Lincoln (1921)

Although Harding was only president for around two and a half years, during that time he appointed four of the nine judges on the US Supreme Court :

With the appointment of William Howard Taft, for the first and only time a previous US president has been appointed the country's highest judge. To date, he is also the only person who has held these two positions. Taft, whose lifelong dream was to become Chief Justice , held the presidency from 1909 to 1913. He headed the Supreme Court until shortly before his death in 1930.

Further appeals were made to lower federal courts.


  • Peter Schäfer : Warren G. Harding (1921–1923): Back to normality. In: Christof Mauch (Ed.): The American Presidents: 44 historical portraits from George Washington to Barack Obama. 6th, continued and updated edition. Beck, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-406-58742-9 , pp. 291-296.
  • John W. Dean: Warren G. Harding (= The American Presidents Series. Ed. By Arthur M. Schlesinger , Sean Wilentz . The 29th President). Times Books, New York City 2004, ISBN 978-1-4299-9751-5 .
  • Robert K. Murray: The Harding Era. New edition of the first edition from 1969. American Political Biography Press, Newton 2000, ISBN 0-94-570727-4 .
  • Robert H Ferrell: The Strange Deaths of President Harding. University of Missouri Press, Columbus 1996, ISBN 0-82-621093-7 .

Web links

Commons : Warren G. Harding  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: Warren G. Harding  - Sources and full texts (English)


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  2. Eugen Lennhoff, Oskar Posner, Dieter A. Binder: Internationales Freemaurerlexikon . Herbig Verlag, 5th edition 2006, ISBN 978-3-7766-2478-6 .
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