In the rankings of the Presidents of the United States from Worst to First we are still in the failures- at #37 the 29th POTUS- Warren G. Harding. Harding was POTUS from 1921 until his death on August 2, 1923.
Warren Harding was born on November 2, 1865 in Blooming Grove, Ohio. When Warren was 11 his father bought a newspaper and Warren learned the newspaper business. Before becoming involved in elective politics he was a teacher, reporter and newspaper publisher of the Marion Star newspaper.
In 1899 Warren Harding was elected to the Ohio State legislature and served until 1903 when he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Ohio from 1904-06 In 1910 he ran for governor but lost. He would win the 1914 election for U.S. Senator from Ohio and serve one term before being elected president.
Going into the 1920 presidential election the Republican nomination was up in the air with no clear front runner. Former President Theodore Roosevelt would have most likely had gotten the nomination but he died in 1919. At the convention in Chicago, after the first ballot Harding was sixth, the two with the most votes were General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. Twelve candidates received votes during the nomination process including future presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. On the 9th ballot Harding got the most votes for the first time and on the 10th ballot there was a voting shift and Harding achieved the number needed to win.
Harding’s opponent in 1920 would be the Democratic nominee Governor James Cox of Ohio. Cox chose as his Vice Presidential candidate a young man named Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the campaign Harding rarely mentioned his opponent, he was running against President Wilson’s unpopular policies. Harding’s campaign slogan was “Return to Normalcy.” Harding would win easily with 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127. In the popular vote Harding won just as convincingly with 60.3 to 34.2. The victory margin of 26.2% in the popular vote remains the largest popular vote margin, not counting Monroe’s unopposed election in 1820.
What was Warren Harding like as a person? He liked people and liked being liked. He always seemed to be wanting the approval of others and would avoid taking a stand on an issue that would offend others. In his over 30 years as a newspaper publisher he never once first anyone. He was a humble man, who even as president seemed to know his limitations and that he was over his head.
Before his presidency he had been involved in two relationships with women which could have ended his presidential hopes had it been known. Carrie Phillips was the wife of his friend James Phillips. The affair with Carrie Phillips would start in 1905 and last until Harding won the GOP presidential nomination in 1920. The relationship ended when Harding won the nomination and the Republican Party would send the Phillips [Carrie’s husband now knew of the affair} on a long, slow trip to Japan, give them $20,000 to keep their mouths shut, and also give them a monthly payment which lasted until Harding’s death in the summer of 1923. The Harding-Phillips relationship would be a secret until 1963 when dozens of letters Harding sent to Phillips were found.
Harding also in the later years of his affair with Carrie Phillips, have a relationship with a much younger [by 30 some years} woman named Nan Britton. This affair began in 1917 and would result in Harding fathering a daughter by Britton in 1919. Harding would take care of the child financially but never see her.The Britton affair would end in January 1923 about seven months before Harding’s death. This affair didn’t become known to the public until the mid-1920’s -after Harding’s death when Miss Britton wrote a best selling book about the relationship. Nan Britton would live to the age of 94, dying in 1991. The Harding-Britton ‘love child” lived until the age of 86 dying in 2005. In 2015 DNA testing proved Nan Britton’s claim that the girl was Harding’s.
President Harding was a popular president during his time in office. It wasn’t until after his death [and in the Phillips case, 40 years later} that his personal scandals were known. It wasn’t until after his death that the scandals going on by his friends in the administration became known. Although there is no evidence at all that Harding benefited or was involved in any of it, his reputation would suffer.
The most famous scandal was the Teapot Dome scandal in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sold the natural oil resources at Teapot Dome, Wyoming for his personal gain. This became one of the biggest scandals in American political history. There were also other scandals involving friends that Harding had brought into the government. It is generally believed that towards the end of his life Harding finally found out what was going on and that his presidency was going to suffer greatly for it.
Harding’s cabinet did have some big names in it- future President Herbert Hoover was Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury-Andrew Mellon, future Vice President under FDR- Henry Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of State- Charles Evans Hughes- a former Justice and future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who barely lost in 1916 as the GOP candidate for POTUS against Woodrow Wilson.
During Harding’s 2 1/2 years as president he appointed four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, the most notable selection was his first- naming former President William Howard Taft to the court as Chief Justice.
President Harding died on August 2, 1923 in San Francisco. He had been on a western speaking tour [during which be became the first president to visit Alaska} when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was also suffering from heart disease. He was fifty-seven years old. The American public deeply mourned his passing. His wife Florence wouldn’t allow an autopsy. Mrs. Harding would be dead herself within a year and a half. Vice President Calvin Coolidge on Harding’s death took over as POTUS. Harding’s reputation would suffer after his death, with all the scandals that went on during his time as POTUS breaking, and later those women issues of his coming out. In some presidential polls he would be ranked at the bottom, the worst president but recently in some polls although he is certainly not ranked high, his reputation has rebounded a little.
Rumors would later spread and a book was even written claiming that the death of President Harding was due to poisoning by Mrs. Harding. The story went that she found out about his affairs and had him poisoned. This is generally considered by historians to be a bunch of bunk. The fact that Mrs. Harding didn’t allow the autopsy helped get that rumor started.
Some trivia to tell your friends about President Warren Harding.
- In 1920 Harding beat fellow Ohioan Governor James Cox in the general election. There have only been four times when the opposing candidates were both from the same state. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt beat Alton Parker- both from New York, the 1920 Harding vs Cox, 1944 Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey and the most recent election Donald Trump vs Hillary Rodham Clinton.
- President Harding liked to host twice a week poker games with his friends while he was in the White House. Even thought it was during Prohibition, Harding served liquor in the White House. As a U.S. Senator, Harding voted for Prohibition.
- The 19th Amendment passed in 1919, the 1920 election was the first election in which women had the right to vote.
- President Harding was the first president whose father survived him.
- Harding in 1920 became the first setting U.S. Senator to win the presidency. Since then Kennedy in 1960 is the only other one.
- When Harding rode to the U.S. Capitol to his inaugural in an automobile he became the first POTUS to do so.
- As President, Harding dedicated the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Lincoln’s only surviving son Robert Todd Lincoln was also at the dedication.
- The term “Founding Fathers’ was first coined by President Harding.
- Harding is the first POTUS to broadcast over the radio.