Here is my case for Warren Harding to be chosen to replace a pre-Civil War Ohio governor in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.
I submitted the following to a committee of the Ohio Legislature, which will hold hearings this week and next:
The Case for Warren G. Harding.
National Statuary Hall
Replacement of Ohioan William Allen
Looking Beyond the Myths
As shown by the attached article from the bi-monthly national magazine, The American Interest (Winter, 2010), Warren Harding has been unfairly maligned by history. In fact, as demonstrated by recent books, including my own, Harding was a “skillful and astute politician who called the shots when it came to his career, had a keen understanding of the issues of the day, and was a key figure in unifying the Republican Party that lay shattered by the progressive/conservative schism created by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose challenge to President William Howard Taft.” “You Can Keep a Good Man Down,” The American Interest (Winter, 2010), 128.
Indeed, his record of accomplishments in the United States Senate and as the nation’s 29th President far outshine the charges that have dogged his reputation. Many of these long-held and largely unexamined beliefs about Harding are simply untrue. For example, the allegations that he was created out of whole cloth by Republican fixers and power-brokers (based principally the myth of the smoke-filled room at the Republican convention in Chicago in 1920, and further perpetrated by Malcolm Gladwell in his thinly-researched but popular book Blink) are not at all accurate. Harding was a well-recognized presidential contender long before the 1920 convention. Close study shows he was viewed as a presidential possibility from the time he won his Senate seat in Ohio by an astounding-for-the-time 100,000 votes in 1914. Harding was one of the great speakers of his day, highly sought after by prestigious groups such as the Gridiron Club in Washington (where he was asked to speak the same night as President Woodrow Wilson). Moreover, Harding’s correspondence reveals his particularly keen political insight, which he employed to develop his own political agenda, write his own speeches, and create his own political base. On the strength of this foundation, he won the presidency by the largest margin of votes in modern American history.
Other issues and scandals of his administration had nothing to do with him personally, and in the grand scheme were minor by comparison to scandals faced by other American presidents. Consider the most notorious of these, Teapot Dome. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was responsible for selling oil reserves and profiting from the sales. Harding had nothing to do with this activity. He died before the wrongdoing was uncovered. Fall had been selected by Harding as part of a careful balancing of his cabinet and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate when his name was suggested by President Harding (Fall was a colorful but respected member of the Senate who represented the West). If Harding was wrong in his selection, so was every senator in the United States Senate at the time. Certainly few presidents can say their appointments have been without fault. But Harding also appointed Herbert Hoover, Charles Evans Hughes, and Andrew Mellon—all sterling appointments. His careful consideration of candidates has been nicely preserved for posterity by a long letter written by former president William Howard Taft to his spouse after a Christmas Eve visit by Taft to Marion to meet with the president-elect. Indeed, Taft would become another important Harding appointee—the first and only president to be appointed chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
In light of the unfair treatment Harding has suffered at the hands of agenda-driven historians, just a short listing of some of his most important accomplishments (remembering he died in office after only 2 1/2 years as president) will come as a surprise to many:
Ending the War.
Harding ended the First World War with treaties that built on the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson left the country and the world in a stalemate and in chaos from his mishandling of the peace process. The world needed the war to end officially so it could begin to recover. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands were starving in a broken Europe and Harding as president made sure the war ended and the rebuilding process began.
Bringing Financial Stability to the U. S. and the World.
It is hard for us to conceive how unstable the world was in 1920. Harding started the worldwide recovery by careful attention to the U. S. economy (which was mired in high taxes and a post-war depression). He cut taxes and established the first Office of the Budget (today the OMB) to help restrict and plan government spending. He also courageously vetoed the veteran’s bonus bill, a political bill that threatened an already stretched federal budget. (He did support veterans, though, with the establishment of the much-needed Bureau of Veterans Affairs).
The First World Arms Limitation Treaty.
A good argument can be made that Harding deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the first world arms limitation treaty, known as the Washington Naval Conference. “It was the first international conference held in the United States and the first disarmament conference in history, and is studied by political scientists as a model for a successful disarmament movement.” Kaufman, Arms Control during the Prenuclear Era: The United States and Naval Limitation between the Two World Wars (Columbia University Press, 1990), 289.
In just his first year as president, Harding went to Birmingham, Alabama, to deliver a searing speech on the need for political equality for blacks in America. The speech was groundbreaking and gutsy and consistent with his call in his first address to Congress for an anti-lynching bill to finally be passed by Congress. When the name Harding is mention, all remember “Teapot Dome,” but none will say “Birmingham.” It is telling that one of his most important moments as president would be overshadowed by a scandal of a fairly limited nature with which he had nothing to do. See the New York Times from October 27, 1921 (“Harding Says Negroes Must Have Equality in Political Life”).
Freeing Political Prisoners.
Just as remarkable, Warren Harding pardoned Eugene Debs and scores of other political prisoners, who had been jailed during the war for simply exercising their First Amendment right to Free Speech. The action was incredibly daring given the backlash that the President knew it would engender, both from his party and war hawks across the country. But it was also an extraordinarily skillful move. He used it as a way to lessen tensions in the country and to try to heal the rift between labor and capital, which had become violent after the war and with the advent of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Debs was a respected if controversial labor leader, four times a candidate for president (the last from prison in Atlanta), who was as beloved by the common man as he was vilified by big business. The Wilson administration jailed Debs for violating the espionage and sedition act when Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, criticizing the draft.
Why Harding is Particularly Deserving of a Statue in the National Statuary Hall.
The genesis of the current move to replace Governor William Allen centers around his backwards views on race. Harding, more than any other prominent Ohioan, felt the sting of racist slurs. Arguably, his negative reputation results in large part from racist historians and other whisperers who believed he was of mixed blood and judged him harshly according to racial stereotypes of the day.
Harding was plagued by rumors that he had an African ancestor in his father’s line. The most-read Harding biography furthers the myth, even taking its name from the race rumor: The Shadow of Blooming Grove by Francis Russell. Modern scholarship has now shown that Russell was looking for scandal about Harding in large part because of his obsession with Harding’s alleged racial history. His biography is thus highly injurious, reflecting Russell’s beliefs that as a black, Harding must have been functionally illiterate, lazy, controlled by others, etc. Warren Harding never had a chance for a fair biography from Francis Russell and others like him who believed the race rumor and viewed it as the most important, and entirely negative, determinant of Harding’s fitness for office and his place in history.
Of course today, we try to judge people solely on their talents and accomplishments, and diversity is a cherished social value (though certainly serious and disturbing racial problems and thinking still exist). Though likely untrue, the race rumor about Harding could not be the issue today that it was in 1920. Harding, to his credit, never sunk to the level of the racists attacking him. He held his tongue, allowing the attacks to burn out of their own rancidness.
Just as importantly, he made civil rights a priority at a time of high racial tension. Following the war, race riots broke out across the country over the great migration of blacks from the South to the North (including Ohio), caused in part by the need for labor in war factories in the North. His Birmingham speech alone is justification for installing him in Statuary Hall.
But his record, as noted above, is one of which Ohio should be exceedingly proud. Harding was the critical bridge from the worst war in history up to that time to the peaceful and prosperous 1920s, and his basic Ohio common sense, decency and leadership should be recognized. It is past time for Ohio to throw off its traditional squeamishness about its native-son presidents in general, and Warren Harding in particular. Taken as a whole, Ohio presidents helped save the nation after the Civil War and guide it to international influence and responsibility. If Virginia can boast of being the home of the Founding Fathers, Ohio certainly gave birth to the Saving Fathers. And Warren Harding was the culmination of that tradition, last in the line and decidedly Ohioan in all respects. As significantly, Harding more than any of his predecessors from Ohio worked on a world stage, dealing with world problems and solving world problems. He took the country and therefore the world back from the precipice of disaster, with order and compassion.
James D. Robenalt
January 14, 2010.
Recent scholarship on Harding has shown his accomplishments were many and that the negative view of him is either based on myth, shoddy scholarship, partisanship or, at times, underlying and latent racist stereotyping. See
James David Robenalt, The Harding Affair
(Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009); John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding
(The American Presidents Series, Arthur Schlesinger, ed., Times Books, 2004); Robert Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996).
 Similarly, Harding’s personal life has been the subject of much criticism. The Harding Affair shows that Harding had a long-term affair (spanning 15 years) with Carrie Phillips, a woman he deeply loved. The book also pokes serious holes in the claims of Nan Britton, author of The President’s Daughter, a book that severely damaged Harding’s reputation after his death. The Phillips love affair was no short-term Lewinsky-type scandal. And certainly it has not been uncommon in American history for our presidents to have had extra-marital affairs—including those ranked among our finest presidents (FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, to name a few). Personal lives should be just that—personal lives. Only hypocrites can use Harding’s personal life as a basis to judge him on his political merits.