Robert K. Murray
WITH these words, "I cannot hope to be one of the great presidents, but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved," Warren G. Harding began one of the most corruption-riddled and discredited administrations in the nation's history. Since his day, the name of Harding, rather than evoking praise and admiration, has conjured up scenes of smoke-filled rooms, evil machinations, and raucous poker parties. Few recall anything concrete about his administration except for the infamous Harding scandals. His performance has been rated consistently by American historians as the worst in the national experience, worse than that of Ulysses Grant, worse even than that of the one president who was forced to resign, Richard Nixon. There is both justice and injustice in this historical verdict.
Warren Gamaliel Harding was born on 2 November 1865 in a tiny clapboard house on the edge of the small village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. His ancestors had migrated from Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley years before. Harding's father was a self-educated veterinarian who in 1873 attended the Homeopathic Hospital College in Cleveland and thereafter turned his attention from animals to people. His mother, Phoebe Dickerson, who began as a Methodist but became a convert to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, provided the family with a fundamentalist background and devoutly read her Bible, as Warren's middle name suggests.
Little is known of Harding's boyhood, which was spent in and around Caledonia, Ohio. He was nicknamed Winnie by his family, attended the village school, swam in the local creek, played scrub baseball, and loved animals, especially dogs. As an adolescent, he served as a printer's helper and learned how to stick type, feed press, make up forms, and wash rollers. In 1882 he graduated from Ohio Central College in nearby Iberia. This college's major function was to prepare students for rural teaching, and its curriculum was as meager as its instruction was poor. The year Harding completed his work, there were just three graduates; no records exist to reveal whether he stood at the head, middle, or foot of his class. There is evidence that he did not take his studies too seriously. His main interest was in editing the school paper, the Iberian Spectator .
Finding rural teaching not to his liking, Harding left the battle against juvenile ignorance in 1883, tried selling insurance for a year, and then, with two partners, bought a decrepit five-column, four-page newspaper called the Marion Star . This paper rapidly expanded under Harding's direction and ultimately achieved an unchallenged position in the bustling Ohio community. Seven years after taking over the Star , Harding married Florence Kling De Wolfe, a divorcee with an eleven-year-old child. Flossie, as she was called, was five years older than Warren, plain-featured, somewhat ungraceful, and sharp-tongued. But what she lacked in beauty she compensated for in determination and ambition.
Moving into a wide-porched, gable-roofed house that Harding had built, Florence complemented her husband by further expanding his newspaper. While he concentrated on editorial policy and securing advertisements, she reorganized the carrier delivery system and introduced a streamlined bookkeeping plan. And as the Star prospered, so did the importance and influence of its editor. Harding's journalistic activities and his deep involvement in community matters provided an excellent base for launching a political career. Marion offered Harding a suitable background for the projection of his personality and his ideas. For Harding, this small midwestern town represented the common denominator of the nation. Here the farmer and the businessman met on equal ground; here there was no great gulf between employer and employee; here conflict was minimized and divisions were healed. Cooperation, friendship, and local pride constituted a splendid harmony—a harmony that Harding believed was essential for both economic and political success.
The Harding papers belong to the Ohio Historical Society and are housed in the Ohio Historical Museum Building in Columbus, Ohio. Samuel H. Adams, Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding (Boston, 1939), the best-known biography of Harding, is badly flawed because of its emphasis on the scandals and its frequent elevation of rumor to fact. Randolph C. Downes, The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding, 1865–1920 (Columbus, Ohio, 1970), is an exhaustive scholarly treatment of Harding's prepresidential career, based mainly on local Ohio primary sources. Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times (New York, 1968), a highly impressionistic biography, places undue emphasis on Harding's extramarital affairs and private traumas.
Andrew Sinclair, The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding (New York, 1965), is the first attempt to revise the image of Harding as a politician and president following the opening of the Harding papers in 1964. Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis, 1969), the most detailed and scholarly work on Harding's presidency, is based largely on manuscripts, including the Harding papers. Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (Lawrence, Kans., 1977), represents a relatively brief distillation of the latest scholarship on the Harding administration, relying especially on Sinclair and Murray. Harry M. Daugherty (in collaboration with Thomas Dixon), The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy (New York, 1932), is a sometimes factual, more often fanciful, defense of Harding and Daugherty and their activities, written in reply to Nan Britton's book and Hoover's dedicatory address of 1931. Also see Robert H. Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding (Columbia, Mo., 1996).
Recent works include Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President (New York, 1998), and John A. Morello, Selling the President, 1920: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding (Westport, Conn., 2001).
For further sources consult Richard G. Frederick, comp., Warren G. Harding: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1992).