Rescuing a Reputation: The Real Warren Harding (1921-1923)

Of all the smear campaigns leveled against good presidents, none confound me like those against Warren Harding. He usually ranks in the toilet of mainstream opinion, which is astonishing in light of how popular he was when he died. People saw him as a successful president who returned the country to the peace and prosperity everyone always wants. It was only posthumously that he became smeared — when his sex and graft scandals became highly public.

I won’t even acknowledge the sex scandals. They have no bearing on a presidential record. As for the graft, they are like the ones under Ulysses Grant: blown way out of proportion. There was Teapot Dome (Harding’s Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall, took bribes from oil company executives in return for the companies’ access to government oil reserves), shenanigans at the Department of Justice (Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, supposedly took bribes not to prosecute criminals, though he was acquitted), and hospital construction corruption (Harding’s Director of the Veteran’s Bureau, Charles Forbes, took kickbacks in the construction of hospitals). As in the Grant scandals, Harding wasn’t himself involved or implicated in any of them, and he did what he could to root them out. (In the case of the hospital construction thefts, Harding actually grabbed Forbes by the throat, slammed him against a wall in the White House, and called him a “double-crossing bastard”.) They involved petty money-grubbing greed, and were not constitutional violations that threatened peoples’ rights. Yet judging from the sanctimonious indictments of scholars, you would think that Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding deserve a lower circle in Hell than Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. No: Teapot Dome is not Watergate; Charles Forbes is not Oliver North. In my scoring, Harding gets only minimally docked for the graft scandals.

Some scholars do get Harding right. Ivan Eland ranks him the sixth best president of all time (I’d put him even higher), and the Washington Post had an excellent piece by James Robenalt, who says that our obsession with Harding’s sex life and corrupt underlings have obscured the plain truth: that the man was a damn good president. He was, in truth, an excellent executive, as I will show.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Foremost to Harding’s credit is his rejection of the League of Nations. His predecessor Woodrow Wilson — the most catastrophically interventionist president in U.S. history — had founded it, but Harding saw it was a recipe for ongoing warfare. The League required member nations to assist any other member who was a victim of “aggression”. Becoming part of the League would have thoroughly undermined Congress’s power to decide whether or not America went to war. After World War I, on his own, Harding reached separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

Harding also led negotiations for the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 — the first major arms control agreement in American history. Harding again undid the damage of his predecessor, scaling back U.S. naval buildup, which encouraged Britain and Japan to scale back the building of their own ships (saving a lot of money for all three countries).

With the world war aftermath out of the way, Harding began to heal relations with Latin America that had been soured by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He signed the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty of 1921, which granted Colombia $25 million, and then apologized for Teddy Roosevelt’s outrageous meddling in Colombia’s internal affairs and fomenting the Panamanian rebellion in 1903. He also worked to improve relations with Mexico.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Harding started an economic boom that produced the Roaring Twenties, by slashing taxes and becoming the only postwar president in American history to cut federal spending below prewar levels. (Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Clinton all reduced federal spending as a percentage of GDP, but as a post-war president Harding outdid even them.) Coolidge continued Harding’s programs of fiscal austerity, for the most part, straight through the decade. This was a long overdue remedy to  the disasters of the prior decade.

Woodrow Wilson had left Harding an economic wasteland. Inflation had risen by 56% from 1917 to 1920, leaving a deep recession. Wholesale prices dropped 37%, the most severe drop since the American Revolution. Unemployment was in the double digits, up to 12%. Harding and his Secretary of the Treasury (Andrew Mellon) responded by getting the Revenue Act of 1921 passed, which cut taxes, excess profits taxes, and raised the personal exemption by $1000 and exemptions for dependents from $200 to $400. He and Mellon then created the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), which helped keep spending under control. Harding cut federal spending from $6.4 billion in 1920 down to $3.1 billion in 1923. That’s important, because without cuts in federal spending, tax cuts are meaningless.

The result of this fiscal austerity was simple: Rather than a decade-long depression, as in the ’30s, there was a short recession followed by unprecedented growth. Unemployment dropped from 12% in 1921 to below 3% by 1923.

Not quite perfect: tariffs

But if Harding was a near fiscal saint, he wasn’t quite perfect. The one bad policy he (and Coolidge after him) maintained throughout the ’20s was tariffs (taxes on imports). The Emergency Tariff of 1921 imposed temporary duties on agricultural goods due to price collapses and loss of European markets, while the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 readjusted rates on a permanent basis. While those may seem like wise strategies, tariffs are almost never a good idea. They protect businessmen but are not ultimately good for business, and they are bad for free trade. This, however, is a very small mark against Harding given everything else he did for the cause of prosperity.

Bold actions

On other domestic fronts, Harding took bold actions, which some decried as welfare. He signed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, which gave funding to states to subsidize medical care for expecting women, and for prenatal and healthcare clinics. The following year he helped farmers by encouraging the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 (also known as the “Magna Carta” of cooperatives), which gave farm cooperatives exemptions from antitrust laws. Before this, antitrust acts had been used to break up farming cooperatives.

In the other direction, when Congress passed a bonus bill for World War I veterans, Harding vetoed it, because it provided no mechanism to fund it. But he wasn’t treating war vets contemptuously. This wasn’t the same thing as Grover Cleveland’s veto of the Dependent Pension Bill in 1887, which was uncompassionate in the extreme (and which Benjamin Harrison later remedied by signing in 1890). Harding was faced with a bonus bill. The Veterans Bureau had been established in 1921 and the World War I vets were already paid for their service. Harding should be commended for his fiscally responsible veto, despite the bill’s popularity.

Harding’s bill-signings and vetoes show that for all his ultra-fiscal conservatism, he weighed things judiciously, and came down on the side of either labor or management, whichever seemed right.

3. Liberty

Here again there was a mountain of damage to reverse. Woodrow Wilson, a nasty racist, had re-segregated the federal workforce by firing blacks and replacing them with whites; Harding ended this policy, and made active efforts to find more positions for blacks, including at the high levels. He also advocated for an anti-lynching law. The Dyer Anti-lynching Bill passed the House in 1922, but in the Senate it was killed by Democrats. The law would have classified lynching as a federal felony.

Thanks again to Woodrow Wilson, the second KKK was born in 1915. Harding took the courageous and risky step of going down south to preach equal opportunity for African Americans. He spoke to a segregated crowd in Birmingham, Alabama (where African Americans were kept behind a chain link fence), and said to his audience, “Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for equality”. Harding put that equality in concrete terms of education, labor and voting.

In sum, Harding did much to reverse Wilson’s toxic racism. He did more than presidents before him, and the ones soon after, for the cause of racial justice. Not since Ulysses Grant had a president called for national actions to improve race relations; and Grant had been rather ineffective on that front anyway.

Immigration

One strike against Harding is the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which reduced immigration. Immigration is the lifeblood of America, bringing new ambition, talent, and ideas, but the aftermath of World War I produced a good deal of xenophobia. Congress passed the Act to restrict the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that country living in America (as of the 1910 census). Harding signed the law but believed it had to be enforced humanely, and he made plenty of generous exceptions, infuriating the xenophobes of his day. Still, he should not have signed the bill.

Eugenics

It may seem surprising that Harding would have signed Emergency Quota Act, given his solid stand for minorities like African Americans, but these were the dark days of eugenics, when “undesirables” were being managed according to perceptions of their gene pools. Foreigners, the crippled, the blind, the deaf, “mental-defectives”, orphans, and unwed women were all up for grabs. Sometimes even African American intellectuals supported modified versions of the theory. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all endorsed eugenics, and Harding spoke out in favor of it. One can hardly fault them too much since it was Harvard University itself that was promoting it. By the time the eugenics movement (1907-1939) had reached its high point in 1927, the medical establishment was on board, and the courts were upholding forced sterilizations — as the Supreme Court did to a “feebleminded” woman (who was not feebleminded at all: she had grown up in poverty, been taken in by a foster family, and raped by one of its members), in order to prevent her, as an “unfit” person, from reproducing. Eugenics declined in the 30s, especially with the rise of Nazism which embraced similar ideas. The only people in the ’20s who can be majorly faulted for endorsing eugenics are the eugenics “experts” themselves whose testimony others looked to as scientific.

Supreme Court Picks

In his mere two and half years as president, Harding picked four Supreme Court justices, and they were all excellent. One of them was the former William Taft, who was a far better justice than president. Another was Edward Sandford, who later wrote the landmark ruling of Gitlow v. New York (1925), which allowed the federal government to use the Due Process Clause to keep states from infringing on free speech and the free press.

Pardons

Last but not least: During the war Wilson had jailed hundreds of political prisoners under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, for speaking against the draft or against the war or against the U.S. government. Over the course of his term Harding pardoned or commuted the sentences of 548 victims of these acts, and when Harding died there were only 31 people still left incarcerated. Harding deserves serious credit for reversing the worst violations of free speech ever done by any president.

Conclusion

Thanks to Harding (and Coolidge after him), the 1920s were a time when peace, prosperity, and liberty reigned in a way that hasn’t been repeated in America. To be sure, it was a time of peace, prosperity, and liberty for white heterosexual males; this was, after all, a century ago. What we need today is a Warren Harding for the post-Civil Rights era, third-wave feminism, and government-protected gay marriage. But I doubt we’ll see his like again. Here’s how I score him:

Peace. A perfect record. He rejected the League of Nations, and brought the nation under a consistently applied military restraint.

Prosperity. Nearly a perfect record. He started a boom that would last for a decade. I dock him a point for supporting tariffs, and another point (and no more) for the graft scandals. (Most historians would, absurdly, take him down at least 15 points for the graft schemes.) He was more fiscally austere than most any other president in history, and yet he was not beyond helping those in need (pregnant women, farmers), even in the face of protests about welfare.

Liberty. Excellent here too. For campaigning in the south for blacks, giving them jobs in federal government (and high positions), urging the passage of anti-lynching legislation, appointing liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and for pardoning hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized, Harding deserves heaps of credit. I dock him 3 points for signing the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 (which reduced immigration) and an extra point for speaking out publicly in favor of eugenics, though that last is probably unfair. Practically everyone liked eugenics at this time, because the scientific community was defending it. All presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover approved it, and so Harding’s speaking out in its favor really doesn’t mean much. (If a post World War II president vocally supported eugenics, on the other hand, I would dock him at least 10 points off the bat.)

Peace — 20/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 16/20

TOTAL SCORE = 54/60 = Excellent

The time has come for the real Warren Harding to stand up and take his place among the best presidents of America. Or, to spin off a famous Albert Schweitzer passage:

… for the real Harding to overthrow the fantasy Harding, to rise up against the leftist spirit and show that he opposed the sword and stood for peace. He was not a sleaze, not a do-nothing. He was an effective leader. He comes to us as one unknown, because we haven’t been allowed to know him. And to those of us who study him, whether we be left or right, he will show himself as he plainly was.

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