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What If Warren Harding Wasn’t a Terrible President?

A much-maligned chief executive, reconsidered.

Warren Harding’s racy letters should inspire us to take another look at his much-maligned presidency.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Until this week, most people knew little about the presidency of Warren G. Harding beyond the Teapot Dome scandal. Now they have learned something else. The Library of Congress has announced that on July 29, the once-sealed letters that Harding wrote to his mistress Carrie Phillips will be opened to the public and posted online. The letters are already creating a stir. The New York Times Magazine ran an article earlier this month by Jordan Michael Smith titled “The Letters That Warren G. Harding’s Family Didn’t Want You to See.”

Smith aptly describes the letters as “intimate and frank—and perhaps the most sexually explicit ever by an American president.” Even in the age of sexting, he writes, their graphic erotic content “still has the power to astonish.” What the letters do not reveal is the nature of Harding’s relationship with his wife, whom he refused to leave for Carrie, and with whom he stayed married until his death. As Florence Harding’s biographers, historians Katherine A.S. Sibley and Carl S. Anthony, both show, Harding’s commitment to their marriage and his love for Florence, whom he affectionately referred to as “The Duchess,” was meaningful and sincere. Obviously, Harding had a compartmentalized life. His relationship with Carrie Phillips was primarily a sexual one; his relationship with Florence Harding was more like a partnership, one that extended to all aspects of their life together.

By the time Harding met Florence, he was the publisher and editor of his hometown’s local Ohio newspaper, the Marion Daily Star. Harding had built the Star from scratch and through his hard work had made it a success, but it was not making much money. Florence, who had been trained in business methods by her father, went to work expanding the paper’s circulation and advertising base, which helped turn the Star into a highly profitable enterprise. Once in the White House, when Harding had an important decision to make he would say, “Let me run it by the Duchess.” He did not always take her suggestions, but he certainly valued her perspective. Theirs was what some might call a political marriage, not unlike the relationship of Bill and Hillary Clinton today.

Unfortunately, Smith takes the release of the letters as an opportunity to repeat the old narrative that Harding was a “visionless” and “ineffectual” president. The assessment is far from fair. Few presidents have accomplished so much in such a short time—Harding served from March 1921 to August 1923, when he died of a heart attack. As we’ve argued before, the fiscal policies Harding instituted brought the country out of the economic depression occurring as a result of the Great War, a period in which the national debt climbed from $1 billion in 1914 to $24 billion in 1920. It was a dire time: The country was already experiencing rising unemployment just as soldiers were returning home from the war looking for work. Deflation led to bankruptcies and business closures. In urban areas where African-Americans lived in close proximity to whites, race riots broke out.

Harding’s pledge to restore America to a condition of “normalcy” led to his landslide victory in November 1920. In office, he cut government spending to the bone and reduced federal income tax rates across the board. As he said to Congress, the government acted during the war as if “it counted the Treasury inexhaustible”; if that pattern continued, it would result in “inevitable disaster.” To get government spending under control, Harding established the nation’s first Budget Bureau (the forerunner of today’s Office of Management and Budget) in the Treasury Department. As a result, federal spending dropped from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and then $3.3 billion in 1922.  He supported the Revenue Act of 1921, which eliminated the wartime excess-profits tax, lowered the top marginal income tax rate from 73 to 58 percent, decreased surtaxes on incomes above $5,000, and increased exemptions for families.

By the time Harding died, the signs of economic growth were evident. As the influential socialist historian William Appleman Williams wrote, Harding picked for his Cabinet “knowledgeable and impressive leaders [who] outfoxed the mundane and orthodox conservatives who thought they had him in their pocket.” Many people, he noted, benefited from the gains made “as a result of the economic measures he implemented.” Unemployment fell from 15.6 percent to 9 percent. The industrial side of the economy revived at a rapid pace. A boom took place in construction, clothing, food, and automobile sectors. From 1921 to 1923, the volume of manufacturing climbed 54 percent.

Courageously, Harding stood against popular sentiment and vetoed World War I veterans getting a bonus that had been promised by Congress. He did so because he believed that the national interest came first, and that the state of the economy demanded postponement of the payment. No longer could deficit spending, he argued, be used to finance government programs for which the government did not have the funds.

In his Times article, Smith chastises Harding for moving away from what he calls “the famously reform-minded eras of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.” What he does not say is that Wilson’s “reforms” included introducing segregation into the federal government and promoting mechanisms like the War Industries Board, which put commerce and industry under the total control of one single government agency and led to government price-fixing and the end of competitive bidding for government contracts. The Wilson administration also indicted scores of radicals and anti-war dissenters, sentencing them to long jail terms for violation of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act.

Harding stood, as the head of the party of Lincoln, for civil rights. That included support for a federal anti-lynching law, something that even FDR would not back out of fear of losing support for the New Deal from the all-white Southern Democrats. As expected, the Democrats in the House and Senate continually voted to defeat it, as well as Harding’s proposal for the establishment of a biracial commission that would have investigated lynching and abuses of electoral law, such as literacy tests for blacks and “white primaries” used to disenfranchise black voters. That proposal died in committee.

Harding also instructed his Cabinet members to make a place in their departments for black Republicans. He announced that he wanted to appoint “leading Negro citizens from the several states to more important official positions than were heretofore accorded to them,” although not to federal positions in the South. (He received protests for one exception—his appointment of a black collector of the customs in New Orleans.) Admittedly, his actions fell far from what was needed. He appointed five African-Americans to jobs in the State Department; three in Treasury, one in the Justice Department, four in Interior, and one each in the Navy, Post Office, and Commerce Department. These meager numbers disappointed many of the black leaders who had endorsed him. Yet his attempts were far better than the openly segregationist policies of Woodrow Wilson.

Harding also supported equality before the law for all Americans. In October of 1921, he gave his “Birmingham speech,” in which he called for equal educational opportunity and an end to disenfranchisement of black voters. The white section of the audience received it in silence, while black Americans, standing in a roped-off segregated section, cheered his remarks.

True, Harding did not advocate social equality. Like other moderates of the day, he opposed the policies of W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP, who called for social equality between whites and blacks. Nevertheless, the progressive journal of opinion, The Nation, proclaimed that Harding’s proposals were “in marked contrast … to the attitude of the Wilson administration, which sought, ostrich-like, to evade the whole question.”

Harding also acted to free the political prisoners incarcerated by the Wilson administration, thus putting an end to what was called by historians the First Red Scare. On the day before Christmas in 1921, he freed from prison the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who had run for president the year before, inviting Debs to come to the White House before returning home, where he would be welcomed to celebrate his freedom on Christmas Eve with his wife. On the 26th, Debs was received by Harding in his White House office.

Harding had always believed, as he put it in letters written in August of 1921, that “we cannot punish men in America for the exercise of their freedom in political and religious belief.” He had no sympathy with the socialist ideology of Gene Debs, he told Ben Myers, a citizen who wrote to him demanding clemency for Debs and other radicals, “but I recognize his right to his belief and I think him wholly sincere.”

Writing a few years later to his close friend Malcolm Jennings, Harding revealed that not only did his attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty, oppose clemency for Debs, so did his wife. But Harding recognized that he stood to gain nothing by making Debs a martyr, and furthermore he felt freeing the dissident “was the right thing to do.” Debs, Harding wrote, had been “a presidential nominee” who received 900,000 votes. Harding found him to be “a lovable character” and noted that he had “heard men in Congress say things worse than the utterances upon which he was convicted,” while “the men in Congress, of course, went scot free.”

It’s understandable that Harding’s racy love letters are causing a bit of a stir. Would that the renewed interest in Harding’s personal life extend to his presidency. A focus on more substantive letters might provide a more realistic picture of Harding’s brief time in office, and would certainly challenge the standard view that Warren Harding was the worst president in our history.