Warren G. Harding (1865-1923)

Figure 1.--President Harding is commobly tanked as America's worst presidents. Actually there are other comprtitors for that detinction. There were some accomplishments during his brief presidency. The thing about harding was that he looked like what most Americans thought a president should look. His private life was aifferent matter. Here he meets with some newly minted Eagle Scouts at the White House, we think in 1921.

Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality...." A Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding's speeches "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea." Their very murkiness was effective, since Harding's pronouncements remained unclear on the League of Nations, in contrast to the impassioned crusade of the Democratic candidates, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thirty-one distinguished Republicans had signed a manifesto assuring voters that a vote for Harding was a vote for the League. But Harding interpreted his election as a mandate to stay out of the League of Nations. The verdict of history has been severe on Harding. One historian writes, "The presidency of Warren G. Harding began in mediocrity and ended in corruption."


Harding may have had a Native Ameriucan great-grandmother. Harding's mother, Phoebe Elizabeth Dickerson, was the head of their household. She assisted her husband as a midwife and eventually obtained a medical license. His father, Dr. George Tryon Harding, failed as a country doctor. He taught in a rural school. He always looked on his mother as the most saintly woman that he ever knew. Warren was the oldest of eight children. Two died in infancy. He had had four surviving sisters and one brother.


Harding was born in a farmhouse in Corsica, Ohio near Marion (1865). When he was 10 years old, the family moved to the small village of Caledonia where he spet the rest of gis childhood. He grew up in small town rural America, essentially on a small farm despite the fact his parents were doctors. His childhood was unevenful. Like other rural boys, he performed chores. He recalls an idelic boyhood. He swam in a local creek and playing different instruments in the village band. Here he acqwuired his down-home appeal that stood him well in both the newsapaper trade and politics. He cherished his childhood which as an adult he saw a bothe wholesome and perecect. Like other farm boys, however, he decided that he did want to be a farmer. His father bought a weekly newspaper, Here he learned the basics of journaslism.


His mother at first home schooled him. He attended along with his siblings a one-room schoolhouse like many boys in rural America. They still used the McGuffey's Readers. He entered Ohio Central College at age 15 years. He was best known for editing the campus newspaper. He graduated with a B.S., giving the commencement address (1882).


Garding adter graduating from college taufgr school for a single term. He sold insurance for a short period. Then he began working as a reporter. Harding and two pasrtners raised $300 and purchased the Marion Star newspaper. He quickly bought out his partners. Harding became the publisher of a newspaper. He married a divorce, Mrs. Florence Kling De Wolfe. He was a trustee of the Trinity Baptist Church, a director of almost every important business, and a leader in fraternal organizations and charitable enterprises. He organized the Citizen's Cornet Band, available for both Republican and Democratic rallies; "I played every instrument but the slide trombone and the E-flat cornet," he once remarked.

Political Career

Harding was a success in Ohio politics. He looked like a staresman. He was a staunch Republican and had a forceful speaking voice to match his good looks. He had little interest in actual issues and was more than willing to allow the state Republican machine bosses to determine policies. He was elected to the state state Senate which led to Lieutenant Governor and then Governor. From there he began to make a name for himself in national Republican citcles. He remained loyal to Presudent Taft in the Rooselvelt insurection during1He was choosen to delivered the nominating speech for President Taft at the 1912 Republican Convention. Harding ran for the U.S. senate inn 1914 and was elected. He found the cluby atmosphere of the Senate to be a very congenial place. He described the Senate as "a very pleasant place." An Ohio political opperator, Harry Daugherty, affter Wilson's 1916 victory, began to conceive of Harding as an attractive Republican candiadte in 1920. Daugherty explained, "He looked like a President." The front running Republican candidates in 1920 deadlocked the Convention. A group of Harding's Senate colleagues promoted Harding as a compromise candidate. Here Harding was acceptable to many delegates, in part because as he had done very little, he hadv few enemies and he had proven a staunchly loyal Republican.


Harding proved a popular choice. He won the Presidential election by an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote, a Reoublican landslide after 8 years out of office. Harding's presidency was in keeping with his previous public service. He had little interest in policy. Harding bis best known for appointed crooked cronies. Actual he appointed some very impressive people to important cabinent posts. His Secretary of State was Charles Evan Hughes. The washington Naval Conference was an important foreign affairs achievement. He appointed Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce--a man of impeccable honesty. Hoover had worked during the war in providing relif supplies forst to Belgium and then other countries--saving the lives of millions of Europeans. Republicans who controlled Congress had no difficulty getting the President's support for their legislative program. Congress quickly eliminated wartime controls and cut taxes. Two major initiatives was reinstituting a high protective tariff and a new policy of severe restrictions on immigration. Until World war I there were very minor limits on European immigration. World war I had largely stopped imimigration in 1914. The new immigration laws sharply changed U.S. immigration policy. The post-War economic recession affected the first 2 years of the Harding presidency. Economic expansion began in 1923 and with it a surge in Harding's popularity. Harding was lauded in thev national press. Harding was seen as a successful, statesman-like president. Editorial writers lauded the oresident for delivering on his campaign promises -- "Less government in business and more business in government." Hsrding had, however, by 1923 began to learn of the inproprities and criminal behavior of the friends he had appointed to positions in his administration. He exclaimed to a colleague, "My ... friends ... they're the ones that keep me walking the floors nights!" Harding decided on taking a train journey westward during the Summer (1923). With him he took Secretary of Commerce Hoover. Harding during the trip asked Hoover, "If you knew of a great scandal in our administration,would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?" Hoover advise Harding to expose any such wrondoing. Harding could not face up to exposing his friends with the resulting political consequences. As fate would have it, he never had to take the difficult step . Harding while still on his western trip suffered a heart attack in San Francisco and died (August 1923). Surely the wrongdoing of his friends must have been a factor in his death. An it is the resulting scandals, especially Teapot Dome that the Harding presidency is today best remembered.


The verdict of history has been severe on Harding. Despite Harding's landside victory, he is considered by many historians to have been the worst Ameican president. A recent biographer thinks that Harding should be related higher. He thinks the affair with Nan Britton, which he disputes, was responsible to a great extent for Harding's reputation. [Dean] HPC might put Bucannan and Hoover ahead of him. Despite the financial scandals, there is no evidence that Harding was personally involved. While Harding was undeniably a poor president, he did little actual damage -- unlike Bucannan and Hoover. Precisely where Hardingb ranks in the Pantheon of American presidents is debateable. That he ranks near the bottom most historians would agree. One historian writes, "The presidency of Warren G. Harding began in mediocrity and ended in corruption." [Fass]

Florence Kling Harding (1860-1924)

Florence grew up in a privlidged family. Amos Kling was the wealthiest man in town. Florence Mabel Kling was born in Marion, Ohio in 1860. In many ways she was similar to her strong-willed father. Her self-confidence and assertiveness were not common for young women in the 19th cenbtury. She studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory which she completed about 1879. Faced with her father's oposition to a sutor, she eloped with Henry De Wolfe, a neighbor. Her father was outraged. The marriage failed. He was both a spendthrift and a drinker and deserted her. She returned to Marion with her baby boy. Estrained from her father, she rented a room and supported herself by offering piano lessons to local children. She started using her maiden name again. Warren G. Harding arrived in Marion as a teenager. He showed some talent with newspapers. He bought a small paper, the Daily Star. The two met and soon decided to marry. Her farther again opposed the marriage. The two married (1891). The new Mrs. Harding dove into the newspaper business. Her area became the circulation department, which she ran as a well ordered fiefdom. She established herself as a boss to be reconned with. She even spanked newsboys when she thought it was necessary. necessary. She closed monitored expenses. Largely as a result of her management, the Star became a real success. Harding began to get involved in Republican politics and rose through the ranks, eventually getting elected as U.S. senator. Florence devoted the same energy she had applied to the Start to her husban's political campaign. Harding referred to Florence as "The Duchess". After Harding was nominated by the Republicans, Florence worked diligently in his election campaign. She is reported to have said, "I have only one real hobby--my husband." With her husband's election, Florence Harding became First Lady. One of her first steps was to opened the White House and grounds to the public again. They had been closed because of President Wilson's illness. She was impaired by a kidney ailment, but she became an active First Lady to support her husband's presidency. She took a special interest in World war I veterans and held garden parties for them. She joined her husband in White House porker parties. Liquor was served despite the fact that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) made it illegal. Mrs. Harding enjoyed traveling with the president. She was at his side when on a western trip he suffered a heart attacked in California and soon died (1923). This occurred before the scandals associated with Harding's administration were disclosed. She acompanined the presidenbt's body back to Washington and oversaw the state ceremonies. Mrs Harding died only a year after her husband (1924).


T he Hardings had no children together together, but each had had one child with another partner.

Eugene Marshall DeWolfe (1880-1915)

The First lady, Florence King, as a teenager had a son with a friend Henry DeWolfe. They may have eloped, but there is no record of any formal marriage. The father eventually abandoned Florence and the baby. Florence was forced to go back to her unforgiving father. He offered to support the boy known as Marshall, but only if she gave him up. She did. Marshall came to be a hard drinker and gambler. Harding after marrying Florence paid many of his debts. Marshall developed tuberculosis and went to live in Colorado where the muntain air was considered healthful. He married Esther Neely and had two children. He died before Harding became president.

Elizabeth Ann Christian Blessing (1919- )

Many historians believe that Elizabeth was Harding's child, conceived in his Senate office and born a few weeks before Harding was elected president. Her mother was a very young Nan Britton, a woman 30 years younger than Senator Harding. They got together in the Senator's office, public parks, and cheap hotel rooms. Harding tried to get Nan to abort the baby, but she refused and Elizabeth Ann was born about 1 year before Harding was elrected president. The American public had no knowledge of Elizabeth until after the President's death. Harding used the secret Service to sneak Ann into the White House and to deliver child support payments, but refused to ever meet Elizabeth. After Harding's death, his wife refused to continue the child support payments. Britton than wrote a book, The President's Daughter making the affair public, much to Mrs. Harding's embarassment. Britton published the book privately as no publisher would handle it. At first it was little noted, until H.L Menken reviewed it. Sales soared. [Dean] The whole affair was especially unseeming as Mrs. Harding herself had been an ummarried mother. Republicans tried to descredit Britton and block publication of the book, but every examination of the account simply confirmed it and added to the public notirity. The book when published became a best seller, Royalties from the book supported mother and daughter. Some of the book royalties were used to fund the Elizabeth Ann League to provide for unmarried mothers. Elizabeth Ann entered Lake Forrest College in 1938 as Elizabeth Ann Harding planning to teach. She married Henry Blaesing. They moved to California where they raised three children. One biographer believes that Nan Britton's claim of an affair with Harding is false and that she was blackmailing him over another affair. [Dean]


Britton, Nan. The President's Daughter.

Dean, John. Warren G. Harding.

Fass, Paula.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: July 29, 1999
Last changed: 5:14 PM 3/30/2010