Early Years and the Newspaper
Born on November 2, 1865, Warren Gamaliel Harding was the oldest of eight children born to Dr. George Tryon Harding and Phoebe Dickerson Harding in Blooming Grove, Ohio. Early in Warren’s childhood, his family moved to the small town of Caledonia, Ohio, where Dr. Harding established a medical practice. As a child in Caledonia, Warren worked as an apprentice in the office of the Caledonia Argus newspaper, an experience which would influence him for the rest of his life.
While Warren attended Ohio Central College in Iberia, Ohio, his family moved to Marion. After his graduation in 1882, Warren joined his family in Marion and attempted to start a career. He briefly taught school in a small schoolhouse just north of the town, considered being a lawyer, and even tried selling insurance. But none of these things appealed to him for very long. During this time, his love of the newspaper business never subsided, and at the age of 19, with two partners, Warren purchased the Marion Daily Star, one of several newspapers in the small town. The Star was struggling and losing money, and soon Warren’s friends decided to leave the business. But Warren continued on, and eventually The Star began making money. Through the articles that he wrote for the newspaper, Warren promoted new businesses in Marion, supported the town’s progress and growth, and generally became an important voice in the city as it grew in population and importance. Harding owned The Star for nearly forty years.
Warren married Florence Kling DeWolfe on July 8, 1891 in the reception hall of their new home on Mount Vernon Avenue in Marion. He was 25 and she was 30 at the time of their marriage. Florence was the daughter of the richest man in Marion, Amos H. Kling. The Hardings had no children of their own, but Mrs. Harding had a son, Marshall DeWolfe, from her first marriage, which had ended in divorce in 1886. The Hardings were married for 32 years until his death in 1923.
Politics and The 1920 Convention and Campaign
Warren Harding entered politics in 1899, winning a seat as State Senator in the Ohio Legislature, where he would serve two terms. As an ardent Republican, Harding began to advance in Ohio politics, and in 1903 became Lieutenant Governor. He served in that capacity for two years before returning to the newspaper business. In 1910, Mr. Harding conducted an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Ohio. Undaunted by this loss, and encouraged by his friends and colleagues, four years later, Mr Harding launched a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate. This time, he was successful, becoming Ohio’s first senator elected by direct vote of the citizens. He took office in 1915, and in 1916 received the honor of being chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Soon, his supporters began to urge him to make a run for the presidency in 1920.
America in 1920 was beset with many problems. World War One had just ended. Returning veterans had trouble finding work. Farmers were in financial trouble. Both inflation and prices of goods were high. Many of the peace treaties to end the war had not yet been settled. Many voters blamed President Wilson for some of these problems. With all of these issues as a backdrop, the Republican Party met in Chicago that summer to choose their presidential candidate. Several candidates, including Warren Harding, were being considered for the nomination. But through several ballots, none were receiving enough votes to become the party’s nominee. Then, in the early morning hours of June 12, on the tenth ballot, Harding finally gained enough support to win the nomination. Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge was chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate. Later that summer, the Democrats, meeting in San Francisco for their Convention, chose Ohio Governor James Cox as their presidential candidate and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their Vice-Presidential candidate. Interestingly, Mr. Cox, like Mr. Harding, was also a newspaperman and owned the Dayton Daily News.
After the nomination process was completed, Senator Harding returned to Marion where he decided to conduct almost his entire 3-month campaign from the front porch of his home on Mount Vernon Avenue. His choice to campaign in this style was not a new concept. His campaign was actually the fourth such front-porch-style campaign–with all three previous ones having been successfully conducted by Ohio Presidents Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield, and William McKinley. During the campaign, delegations of citizens came from all across the country to hear Mr. Harding speak on the important topics of the day. In addition, many interest groups came to hear him speak: Civil War veterans, women’s groups, Native American and African-American delegations, and even famous Broadway stars of the day. All in all, approximately 600,000 people came to Marion that summer for Mr. Harding’s campaign. By contrast, Governor Cox conducted more of modern campaign (by today’s standards) by criss-crossing the nation over a two-month period of time and speaking to as many people as possible. His running mate, Mr. Roosevelt, who himself would become president a little more than a decade later, also traveled across the country giving speeches.
On election day, November 2, 1920–which was also Mr. Harding’s 55th birthday–the voters spoke very clearly about their choice for President. Mr. Harding won with slightly more than sixty percent of the vote. When all the votes were counted, it was evident that the 1920 presidential election was the biggest landslide in United States history. This election was also notable in that it was the first in which women could vote. The 19th Amendment has just been ratified on August 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote for the first time. Because of this fact, Mrs. Harding became the first woman to be able to cast a vote for her husband for president.
The vote count of the 1920 election were as follows:
Popular vote: 16,144,093 9,139,661
Electoral vote: 404 127
Percentages: 60.3% 34.1%
States won: 37 11
The Inauguration and the Start of the New Administration
On March 2, 1921, President-Elect Harding and Mrs. Harding stood on the porch of their home in Marion saying goodbye to their fellow citizens who had helped elect Mr. Harding as the 29th President of the United States. As it turned out, that was the last time that they would set foot on their porch. Later that day, they would depart for Washington, D.C., where Mr. Harding would be sworn in as president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on March 4th. His inauguration speech would be the first to be given with the aid of an amplification system so that the thousands in attendance could better hear what was being said.
From the beginning, the Harding Cabinet featured many capable and well-known individuals:
Vice-President Calvin Coolidge
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes
Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon
Secretary of War John Weeks
Attorney General Harry Daugherty
Postmasters General William Hays, Hubert Work, and Harry New
Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby
Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1921-23), Hubert Work (1923)
Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace
Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover
Secretary of Labor James J. Davis
Upon entering the White House, the Hardings were very popular among Americans. They were outgoing and friendly and enjoyed chatting with average American citizens. The Hardings immediately opened the White House to visitors, and Mrs. Harding even conducted some of the tours of the building.
President Harding’s administration inherited several daunting national and international issues that had been left over from the Wilson administration in a transition to the post World War One era: Inflation was high. Former soldiers were returning from the war and having trouble finding jobs. American industry was reverting from wartime production back to domestic production. Some peace treaties remained unsigned. Many people feared that there would be a rush to re-arm in the wake of the end of the war. These and several other issues created a very full plate of responsibilities for the new president.
Accomplishments of the Harding Administration
Mr. Harding was willing to face the many responsibilities that came along with his new position, and in his short twenty-nine-month administration, he was able to accomplish many of his goals. The following is a list of the Administration’s accomplishments:
Established a Budget Bureau to streamline government spending and keep track of federal money more efficiently (previously, each department had submitted its own budget)
Supported restrictions on immigration, resulting in quotas
Signed the Treaty of Berlin to formally end hostilities with Germany after World War One
Convened the Washington Conference to limit naval armaments
Restored high protective tariffs.
Vetoed veterans’ bonus bill because of insufficient federal money
Reduced federal deficit by 25 percent in two years
Dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.
The Western Trip and Harding’s Death
During the summer of 1923, President and Mrs. Harding embarked on an ambitious trip through the western states of the United States, north through Canada, and then into Alaska. The purpose of this trip was for the President to meet the people, listen to their opinions and concerns, and to visit Alaska in an attempt to learn more about the resources and needs of our future 49th state. The trip was an arduous, months-long excursion which would also bring the presidential entourage on a return trip south through the Panama Canal, over to Puerto Rico, and eventually home to Washington D.C. The trip proved to be a very taxing endeavor that took its toll on President Harding’s health. At a stop in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, the President took ill and was confined to bed for several weeks. The doctors in attendance gave the Press frequent updates on the President’s health, and for awhile it seemed that the worst of his illness had passed. In the early evening hours of August 2, 1923, the doctors issued an announcement that Mr. Harding had turned a corner in his illness and that they were confident of a full recovery. But later that evening, another announcement was issued that the President had died unexpectedly of what was then assumed to be a “stroke of apoplexy” (often shortened to “stroke”). Modern doctors who have looked at the medical records of Mr. Harding’s doctors at the time have since concluded that he died of a massive heart attack.
President Harding’s body was brought back across the country from California to Washington by train to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol Building. Along the way, tens of thousands of American citizens lined the railroad tracks to watch the funeral train pass by. Newspapers across the country covered the trip back to the nation’s capital, and churches in numerous cities, towns, and rural areas held services to mourn and honor the deceased chief executive. While the body lay in state in Washington, thousands of mourners filed past to pay their respects.
After the funeral services were finished in the nation’s capital, President Harding’s body was loaded back on the train for the trip to Marion. On August 9, 1923, the body was brought to the home of Dr. George T. Harding, the President’s father, for public viewing by the Marion friends and neighbors who knew him best. In addition, many thousands of people from outside of Marion came to the city for the viewing and the funeral services, including many famous individuals, both from inside the national government and beyond. Mr. Harding’s remains were then laid to rest in the Marion Cemetery in a small receiving vault, where they would rest–eventually alongside the remains of Mrs. Harding, who would pass away fifteen months after her husband in 1924–for four years until a grand tomb could be constructed on the outskirts of the city. In 1927, the bodies of President and Mrs. Harding were interred in the Harding Memorial, where they remain today.
Legacy and Scandals
At the time of his death in 1923, Warren G. Harding enjoyed widespread popularity with the American people. Some estimates have shown that he may have been the most popular president since Abraham Lincoln. Many of the goals that Mr. Harding had set out to accomplish had been realized, while others were still to be completed. The outpouring of nationwide grief upon his death gave ample proof of how well he was loved throughout the country. Unfortunately, after his death, a few scandals came to light involving members of his cabinet, including the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Veterans’ Bureau Scandal. Although it was never proven that Mr. Harding was directly involved in the misdeeds associated with these scandals, his reputation was severely tarnished and his popularity declined. In addition to the scandals involving his administration, allegations arose after his death that he had had extramarital affairs with two local women, Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton. Through the subsequent years, these rumors proved to be true, and his reputation and popularity continued to fall.
In recent years, however, historical researchers have begun to undertake a deeper examination of President Harding’s administration, his accomplishments, and his legacy. In light of these renewed studies, many authors, such as Robert K. Murray, John Dean, and David H. Stratton, among others, have re-examined Harding’s place in history, and his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated.
Further research and examination continues to be undertaken and will likely further improve his standing amongst the other chief executives of the United States.