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Warren Gamaliel Harding, twenty-ninth President of the United States, was born on November 2, 1865, on the family farm at Blooming Grove, Morrow County, Ohio. His parents were Dr. George Tryon Harding and Phoebe Dickerson Harding, descendants of pioneer Ohio families of English and Dutch ancestry. Warren was the first of their eight children—two boys and six girls. The Hardings were followers of the Baptist faith.
In 1870, Dr. Harding moved his family to the village of Caledonia in Marion County. Here Mrs. Harding, a highly intellectual young woman (she eventually studied and practiced medicine with her husband) of a deeply religious nature, found time to take an active part in the social life of the community. During these years, in the office of the Caledonia Argus, the local newspaper, of which Dr. Harding was part owner, the future president became interested in journalism and served an apprenticeship in printing.
As a student at Ohio Central College in the nearby town of Ibernia, Harding served as editor of the college paper and showed rich promise as a public speaker. In 1882, at the age of 16, he received the degree of Bachelor of Science and was “orator,” political and literary representative of his class at the graduation ceremony.
By this time, the Harding family had moved to Marion, and it was there that Harding returned after his graduation, armed with a degree, a printer’s rule, and determination to make his own living. He briefly tried teaching school, studying law, and selling insurance; all with limited success and gratification.
At the age of nineteen, Harding encouraged his father to purchase a one-third interest in the Marion Star, which he published until he sold it in 1923. It was during the presidential campaign of 1884 that this future president became interested in politics. Despite the Republican defeat of that year, he courageously declared the editorial policy of the Star as Republican.
Harding became sole owner of the Star in 1886. Faced with the task of building up a circulation for a Republican newspaper in a predominately Democratic community, financial difficulties, and a pitiful inadequacy of equipment, he proved himself capable to meet the challenge. Slowly but surely, he put the Star on a sound financial basis. The quality of common sense and the fairness of his editorials rapidly became recognized throughout the state. He also gained a reputation both as a political speaker and a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, where he chose such subjects as his political hero Alexander Hamilton to entertain and inform audiences. It was during this time that he formed a habit of keeping in close touch with the public he served.
In 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of one of Marion’s leading citizens. That year they had planned and built the house that is now known as the Harding Home and Museum, at 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue.
Mrs. Harding was her husband’s partner and a source of inspiration and helpful criticism to her husband during the years that followed. Her energy and enthusiasm increased circulation of the Star, until its daily issue surpassed that of any other newspaper in a town of equal size in the country.
Harding began his political career with his election to the Ohio Senate, where he served two terms, from 1900-1904. In 1903, he was elected lieutenant governor, and his political skills matured as presiding officer of the upper house of the state legislature and brought even national recognition. A split in the Republican Party led to his defeat in his campaign for governor in 1910. He remained active in Republican politics and was selected to give the nominating speech for President William Howard Taft at the party’s convention in 1912. He won the 1914 Republican primary election as a candidate for the United States Senate, and he was elected by a majority of 100,000 for the term 1915-1921. He had an honorable record in the Senate, broadening his knowledge of foreign affairs while serving as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In 1916 he presided as chairman of the Republican national convention in Chicago, and was selected to give the keynote address.
It was during this time that he was introduced to golf. He was attracted to the tradition, competition and sportsmanship it offered and it became a passion during the remainder of his life. He played regularly at the Chevy Chase Golf Club with what came to be known as the “senatorial foursomes” that included, among others, President Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As president, he continued to play and promote the game by serving as an honorary member of the United States Golf Association’s executive committee, was a Founder Life Member of the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, and in 1923, donated the Harding Cup, awarded annually to the team champion at the United States Public Links Championships.
Backed by a group of Marion friends and other Ohio supporters, Harding became a candidate for his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1920. The convention in Chicago was one of the most stirring in the history of the Republican Party because of the uncertainty of its outcome. On the first ballot Harding received sixty-five and one-half votes, thirty-nine of which were from his own state. On the tenth ballot, he won the nomination with six hundred, ninety-two and one-half; only four hundred being necessary for his nomination. The slogan of his campaign was “A RETURN TO NORMALCY.” He believed in “America First” on which he based his decision not to support entry into the League of Nations as proposed by President Wilson. He did not travel much, but rather conducted his campaign from the front porch of his own home, where scores of delegations and thousands of individuals gathered to hear him speak. In the November election he won an overwhelming victory over the Democratic nominee, Ohio Governor James Cox, with 60% of the popular vote.
Harding resigned from the United States Senate in December 1920, and was inaugurated twenty-ninth President of the United States on March 4, 1921. He was the seventh President born in Ohio. During the campaign he had promised to work for peace and prosperity, and he followed through on that promise. He believed in the ability of all Americans—regardless of race, color or creed—to take care of themselves if given the opportunity to do so.
The Harding administration’s accomplishments during the brief two and one-half years of his Presidency can be put in perspective by using the analogy that the great historian Henry B. Adams proposed in 1870. Adams suggested that the American president could be compared to the captain of a ship at sea, whose voyage required a helm to grasp, a course to steer and a port to seek. Harding’s port to seek was a return to normalcy after the chaos and turbulence of the World War, and the frenzied, self-righteous, reform-minded interventionism of the Wilson years.
His “course to steer” can be divided into foreign and domestic policy. He helped assure peace for all Americans through (1) normalizing relations with former adversaries, concluding separate treaties of peace with Germany, Austria and Hungary; (2) calling and securing the treaties of the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments in 1921 and 1922*; and (3) advancing our entry into the World Court. Domestic policy successes to enhance opportunity for prosperity included (1) lowering taxes; (2) reducing the national debt by $26 billion; and (3) promoting economy in government by creating the Department of the Budget and balancing the budget. (He wanted more business practice in government and less government interference in the nation’s businesses.)
Under his administration, the Vice President became important in the workings of government. To Calvin Coolidge, his successor, Harding left a well-planned program. The Harding administration may well be characterized as wholly constructive, and Harding was one of the few leaders of his time who possessed the political qualifications to guide the United States through the dangerous period of reconstruction following World War I.
For cabinet and judicial appointments President Harding selected a group of able and distinguished citizens. They included two future Presidents—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—and a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—Charles Evans Hughes—whom Harding believed would go down in history as notable for statesmanship. In his short tenure, Harding appointed four justices of the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the only person ever to serve both as President and Chief Justice.
As many Presidents before and after him, he had to deal with corruption within his administration. Veterans Bureau director Charles Forbes was convicted and jailed for financial dishonesty in the building of hospitals. The full story came to light only after Harding’s death, but the president knew enough to quickly and responsibly request Forbes’s resignation on learning of his misdeeds.
One of his former cabinet members, Albert B. Fall was later convicted of accepting a bribe to lease naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hills, California to oil entrepreneurs, and was sent to prison—the first, but not last, former cabinet member to receive this fate.
Harding’s death in 1923 prevented him from defending himself from personal and political attacks. His legacy has been chronicled for the most part by writers who repeat misstatements, observations and interpretations of an earlier era without consideration of source. They often rely on most questionable materials—notably newspaper accounts and journalistic books of the period. It has been rightly said that they have adhered to the “Progressive Era” point of view, that of writers who have praised the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, without looking at the very real achievements of Republican presidents of the 1920’s and early 1930’s.
Throughout his political career, President Harding retained the wholehearted generosity of his youth, an element in his character that made him a beloved figure at home as well as abroad. He was a kind and friendly person, more likely to compliment than to criticize. Of all his presidential duties, he most enjoyed meeting people and shaking their hands. He was by nature a man who brought people together.
In June 1923, desiring to get out and meet the American people (and looking ahead to a campaign for reelection in 1924), President and Mrs. Harding undertook a trip by train across the continent to Alaska. The trip ended in his untimely death after a heart attack, on August 2, 1923, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. (His five attending physicians incorrectly diagnosed the cause of death as a stroke—an easily understood error at that time, when the medical specialty of cardiology was in its infancy.) A grief-stricken nation marked the progress of the funeral train from California to Washington. After the President’s body lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, the coffin was transported to Marion and placed in a temporary tomb. Florence Harding lived only a few months longer than her beloved husband. The bodies of both the President and Mrs. Harding were reinterred on December 21, 1927 in the beautiful Harding Memorial.
Warren G. Harding was a calm, reserved, and internally focused man, with a strong sense of humility, respect, fair play, honesty, loyalty, honor and patriotism. He was a skillful and dedicated politician. If faults are to be ascribed, he was limited more by his conception of his office, rather than ability. It was a time of belief in limited government, a belief long shared by most Americans; it was not until later, during the era of the Great Depression and more notably during World War II, that the presently held ideas of government participation in public (and perhaps private) matters affecting all Americans gained currency. His record as president deserves far more respect than the categorical dismissals that Progressive writers have given him, dismissals that unfortunately persist to the present day.