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What is the Real Story about President Harding’s Papers?

By Sherry Hall, Site Manager of the Harding Presidential Sites

With the recent media coverage about former President Trump and presidential papers at Mar- a-Lago, you may have caught a couple of references to the Harding Presidential Papers. The references centered around the persistent, 100- year rumor that Florence Harding burned all of the Harding Presidential Papers in the days when each president owned his own papers (prior to the Reagan Administration).

Let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?

First of all, the Harding Presidential Papers most certainly do exist — 350,000 pages of them. In fact, the Ohio History Connection is in the midst of a mammoth project to digitize many of them to allow greater access. The Papers will make their way back to Marion once the research wing is completed on the Harding Presidential Library & Museum.

When President Harding died in August 1923, his Papers — including personal and government-related documents — were loaded into seven-foot-long wooden crates. They were placed in the basement of the White House until arrangements could be made to ship them to Marion. By law, they were the property of Florence Harding.

Examples of letterhead from the 1890s and early 1900s found amongst the records of the Marion Daily Star

The Library of Congress contacted Florence shortly after Warren’s death, asking for her to donate all of the president’s papers. Undecided about where she wanted the Papers to reside, she put off giving the LOC an answer.

Over the winter of 1923-24, Mrs. Harding sat in her husband’s office at the Star and went through five boxes of personal papers. A “trusted Star employee,” according to a Star editorial, burned the papers in the newspaper’s furnace upon her direction.

We don’t know exactly how many papers Mrs. Harding directed to be burned, but we do know from Harding’s personal secretary, George Christian Jr., that they included correspondence among family members, Star employees and family friends.

Mrs. Harding died in November 1924. On Christmas Day 1925, frustrated Library of Congress officials publicly lamented the “loss” of the personal papers. Newspaper headlines, such as, “Harding’s Widow Burned All His Papers,” and “Papers of Late President Burned by Widow,” conveyed to the public that ALL Harding documents had vanished.

Florence willed her Marion home, most of her belongings and furnishings, and the crates of Presidential Papers to the Harding Memorial Association. The HMA was formed shortly after the President’s death to fundraise for the Harding Memorial construction. The group also operated the Harding Home as a museum for 54 years.

To compound the misunderstood situation, the HMA essentially went underground with the Papers, not allowing researchers any access. That decision only perpetuated the story in the public’s mind that the Papers did not exist and fueled speculation that they must have contained “a smoking gun.”

When the HMA finally donated the Papers to OHC in the early 1960s and they became public, interest in Harding had waned. Unfortunately, the rumor about the Papers did not.

Project archivist Wendy Korwin stands with boxes of President Harding’s papers kept in the Manuscripts and Audiovisual Vault at the Ohio History Center

Presidential Papers Reside in Many Different Archives

The papers of the President and Vice President of the United States are not the personal property of him or her. They belong to the people of the United States — at least they have since 1978.

So, picture this: Our first through 39th President — starting with George Washington and ending with Jimmy Carter — could do with their Papers what they wanted. The National Archives, which one news story referred to as the country’s filing cabinet (we like that image!), has jurisdiction over the documents generated by a presidential administration. There are LOTS of rules about how the documents have to be handled by both a President and the Archives as both entities balance preservation with public access.

FDR started the “modern” chain of presidential libraries in 1938 when he privately built a library and donated it to National Archives. That model was followed by 13 other presidents, but private, state and locally managed presidential sites and libraries have rich resources of Papers, as well. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museum, in fact, was the first presidential library in 1916. It is part of the Ohio History Connection network.

Soon to be the newest of the presidential libraries, the Barack Obama site in Chicago currently is working with the National Archives to organize and digitize his Papers. The site currently is under construction.

No presidential library has every scrap of paper pertaining to a president. Papers can be at universities or the Library of Congress, for example. One of the deepest repositories of presidential papers, in fact, is the Massachusetts Historical Society. It has letters pertaining to 37 presidents (including Harding)! But, again, it’s had a long time to collect so many papers — it’s been open since 1791.

Loading spreadsheets of data for MSS 345, Warren G. Harding papers, into ArchivesSpace