Harding, Warren Gamaliel

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Harding, Warren Gamaliel

Warren G. Harding. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Warren G. Harding.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Warren Gamaliel Harding served as the twenty-ninth president of the United States, from 1921 to 1923. Harding, who also served one term in the U.S. Senate, presided over an administration that achieved little and that was tainted by political corruption.

Harding was born November 2, 1865, on a farm at Caledonia (now Blooming Grove), Morrow County, Ohio, the eldest of eight children. He attended Ohio Central College. Harding then tried teaching, reading the law, selling insurance, and working as a journalist. He became the editor and publisher of the Marion Star, in Ohio, in 1884.

In 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of a prominent Marion banker. DeWolfe was a divorcée, five years Hard-ing's senior, with great ambitions for Harding. She helped build the Marion Star into a prosperous newspaper and encouraged Harding to enter Republican Party politics.

Harding was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1898, and was elected lieutenant governor of the state in 1903. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1910. His national political standing rose over the next decade. At the Republican National Convention in 1912, he was selected to nominate President William Howard Taft for a second term. (In 1921, he would nominate Taft to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) In 1914, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Regarded as a fine public speaker, he gave the keynote address at the 1916 Republican National Convention.

As a U.S. senator, Harding was well liked by his colleagues but demonstrated little interest in the legislative process. He introduced no major bills during his six-year term, and was frequently absent. His politics followed the Republican mainstream: favoring high tariffs on imports and opposing the League of Nations and the federal regulation of commerce.

At the 1920 Republican National Convention, in Chicago, most of the delegates favored Governor Frank O. Lowden, of Illinois; Major General Leonard Wood, formerly army chief of staff; or Senator Hiram W. Johnson, of California, for president. After four ballots, the convention was deadlocked. Early in the morning, in what Harding campaign manager harry m. daugherty called a smoke-filled room, the party leaders agreed on Harding as a compromise candidate. The convention agreed to the selection and nominated Governor Calvin Coolidge, of Massachusetts, as Harding's vice presidential running mate.

Harding defeated the Democratic Party nominee, Governor James M. Cox, of Ohio, in the November 1920 election. Harding campaigned from the front porch of his home in Marion, avoiding any specifics on his domestic political agenda. Instead, he promised the United States a return to "normalcy."

Harding's presidency was marked by the delegation of responsibilities to his cabinet chiefs. Rejecting the strong executive leadership style of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and woodrow wilson, Harding relied on a distinguished group of men, including Secretary of Commerce herbert hoover, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace. These and other cabinet heads helped lead the government away from wartime emergency conditions. In 1921, Secretary Hughes convened the Washington Conference on Naval Disarmament. The members of the conference—England, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States—agreed to limit their naval warships in fixed ratios. In June 1923, Harding began a cross-country speaking tour, in hopes of reviving Republican party fortunes, which had taken a beating in the 1922 congressional election. On the trip, he received a secret telegram that disclosed an impending scandal for his administration concerning a Senate investigation of oil leases. In Seattle, Harding fell ill, presumably of food poisoning. His train stopped in San Francisco, where doctors reported Harding had pneumonia. On August 2, Harding died. No autopsy was made, leaving the exact cause of death unknown. Vice President Coolidge succeeded Harding as president.

"Americans ought ever be asking themselves about their concept of the ideal republic."
—Warren G. Harding

The scandals that stained the Harding administration largely became public after Harding's death. One involved Attorney General Daugherty, who in 1926 was tried twice on charges he had committed improprieties in administering the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Both trials ended in a hung jury.

The Teapot Dome Scandal was the most troubling. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, a wealthy New Mexico attorney, had left the U.S. Senate in 1921 to join Harding's cabinet. In 1924, he was indicted for criminal conspiracy and Bribery. It was alleged that he accepted a $100,000 bribe from oil producers Harry F. Sinclair and Edward Doheny in exchange for leasing government-owned oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to the pair's oil companies at unusually favorable terms. Fall was acquitted of the conspiracy charge in 1926, but was convicted of accepting bribes in 1929. He served two years in prison and paid a fine.

President Harding's short term of office and the scandals that befell his political appointees have left his administration remembered more for its corruption than for its achievements.

Further readings

Dean, John W. 2004. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books.

Watkins, T.H. 1990. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes, 1874–1952. New York: Holt.

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