The aura of scandal that has plagued Warren G. Harding, our 29th president, has almost obliterated the substance of the man as a senator and as president. Breaking news that DNA testing may now prove that Harding fathered a child with one of his paramours, Nan Britton, will no doubt play to the stereotype of Harding as a womanizer and reinforce his already miserable reputation as president — a reputation that regularly lands him at the bottom of historians’ lists of our worst leaders.
That’s a shame because, unlike the DNA samples from the Harding and Britton families, the reputation of Warren Harding the man and the record of Warren Harding the Republican politician do not match. At the time of his death, Harding enjoyed tremendous popularity. It was only later, when details of his infidelity scandalized the nation, that his legacy took a nosedive. Our obsession, past and present, with Harding’s sex life has obscured the truth: This man was a good president.
Among his more important accomplishments was stabilizing the country and the world after the catastrophic war in Europe, a true Armageddon that left most “civilized” nations in economic, political and social chaos. The United States alone was capable of steadying the world. Harding started by lifting our country out of a sharp postwar depression and then placed the federal government on a budget for the first time — establishing the Office of the Budget (the forerunner of the modern OMB).
He addressed severe racial tensions that the war stirred up, in part because of the great migration of African Americans to the North to work in war industries. Harding traveled to Birmingham, Ala., in his first year in office to deliver a courageous civil rights speech. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, without political equality for black citizens. He also supported a federal anti-lynching law.
Harding oversaw the first world arms limitation treaty, the Washington Conference, aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. He formally ended the war with Germany and its allies.
And he cooled anarchist and labor violence, the height of which included bombs exploding across the country at the homes of top political officials. Symbolically, during his first Christmas in the White House, Harding commuted the sentence of Eugene Debs, the tremendously popular socialist labor leader who had been imprisoned for 10 years merely for speaking out against the war in a workers’ rally in Canton, Ohio. (President Wilson had routinely denied a pardon for Debs, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the paragon of justice, wrote the Supreme Court opinion affirming the Debs’s conviction.)
Over time Harding freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918. Free speech was the victor.
Britton, 30 years younger than Harding and barely into her 20s when their affair began in 1917, wrote a book four years after Harding’s sudden death in office in 1923 that helped ruin his solid reputation. Her book, “The President’s Daughter,” was sold door-to-door in brown paper packages, almost as pornography. Britton’s direct accounts of her sexual encounters with Harding were beyond shocking to most, repugnant and bewildering to many. Britton was branded a “sex pervert” and a “degenerate.”
The appearance of the book at a time when Congress was investigating the Teapot Dome scandal, a bribery scheme to lease federal oil reserves in Wyoming to private parties (with which Harding had no involvement), only served as an early death blow to his legacy.
The tale of Harding’s descent to the bottom of the presidential rankings is more complicated than Britton’s book and the Teapot Dome scandal, to be sure, but these two events were, to use a pun, seminal.
Harding’s administration was attacked for scandals he had nothing to do with. He was maligned for his “Ohio Gang,” referring to his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, and his questionable entourage. Yet no proof exists that Harding had any involvement in the scandals that circulated about Daugherty. Moreover, the one grafter who Harding learned about, a man named Charlie Forbes, was immediately sacked. (Forbes had been appointed by the Wilson administration to build Pearl Harbor — so he hardly fell into the Ohio Gang paradigm).
And the man who was convicted in the Teapot Dome scandal, Albert Fall, was a respected member of the Senate, representing the West and the expert on Mexico, when Harding nominated him. Fall’s nomination was approved unanimously and enthusiastically by the Senate. If Harding misjudged him, so did the entire Senate.
Historians have been reexamining Harding in recent years. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, wrote a Harding biography for historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in which he provided a balanced and favorable look at the Harding administration and its accomplishments. Similarly, Ivan Eland published a book in 2009, “Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity and Liberty,” in which Harding was ranked sixth among the presidents.
Britton, in her defense, felt she had no choice but to write her book. She had pleaded privately with Harding supporters and members of his family to take responsibility for Elizabeth Ann Harding, the president’s only child. One sister, Daisy, who had been Britton’s English teacher in Marion, Ohio, supported her and provided some financial backing, but others in the family thought Britton was a gold-digger. After several years, Britton finally gave up and decided, rather than instituting a paternity suit, to publish a book on behalf of her daughter and “all unwedded mothers” and “their innocent children whose fathers are usually not known to the world.”
Britton made money with her bestseller but was rocked when a libel lawsuit she brought against those who peddled a vicious book known as “The Answer to the President’s Daughter” resulted in a jury award of $0. She withdrew and tried to find peace in obscurity.
In 1964, when the country became aware of a stash of love letters that Harding had written to yet another mistress, a neighbor by the name of Carrie Phillips, Britton’s claim was resurrected.
I came into possession of a microfilm of the Phillips letters in 2004 and wrote the book “The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War” in 2009. The letters — more than 900 pages — were formally released by the Library of Congress when they came out from under a litigation seal in the summer of 2014, 50 years after they had been discovered in Marion. Phillips died in 1960.
When I compared the overly sentimental, steamy and often graphic love letters that Harding wrote to Phillips (some 40 pages long) to the letters Britton described in “The President’s Daughter,” I had to admit they sounded as if they were written by the same man. Moreover, Britton knew of details — dates and places — that were direct hits with the correspondence with Phillips. Britton either had read the Phillips collection or her story was probably true. I was unsure, leaning toward skeptical. Unfortunately, Britton, at the request of Harding, destroyed his love letters and a diary she kept of all their encounters.
But the start of Harding’s relationship with Britton holds a greater significance, as it played out against the backdrop of President Wilson’s request that the United States enter the European war to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Phillips had run away to Berlin in September 1911 with her daughter to escape the small-town gossips in Marion and to punish Harding for not leaving his wife, Florence. She stayed in Berlin for three years, twice sailing back to meet secretly with Harding. When she came back for good in the summer of 1914, general war had broken out in Europe and Harding was running in Ohio for the Senate. Phillips was radically pro-German. Harding would need to decide on whether to vote for war.
In April 1917, when the United States declared war, Phillips was furious with Harding for voting in favor of war, actually threatening him with exposure to the Germans. The momentary break was a stroke of luck for Britton, who, at that very instant, wrote to Harding seeking help in finding a job. Harding’s letters to Phillips express a “strange freedom” he felt during trips we now know were tete-a-tetes with Britton.
Harding’s war message is one of the victims of the fog of scandal that envelops his historiography. He argued strongly that Wilson’s “war to make the world safe for democracy” was a grave mistake. America had the right to defend itself, Harding agreed, but it had no right to dictate to another sovereign people what form of government they should have. The United States had no right to force a democratic form of government on another nation. At the time, Theodore Roosevelt agreed with Harding.
Sound familiar? It shouldn’t, because no one has studied or championed Harding. He was a womanizer, a terrible president, a do-nothing senator, according to the popular view of Harding today.
One of Harding’s problems was that he died in office and that his wife died a year later. Imagine JFK’s legacy had there been no Jackie to burnish the image before the sex scandals emerged? Imagine Bill Clinton dying before the Monica Lewinsky scandal was revealed and no Hillary to answer the charges of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”?
And if you want to really unbundle Harding’s negative reputation, you have to understand that he was charged in the 1920 campaign with having an African American ancestor. This allegation was not meant to be flattering. The race rumor haunted most of Harding’s popular biographies. The best-known, “The Shadow of Blooming Grove,” gave the race accusation great play. (The title itself shows the importance — the “shadow” was the persistent rumor that his family from Blooming Grove, Ohio, had black blood.)
Harding’s actual record disproves that he was a poor executive. But his personal scandals have left him vulnerable to unscrupulous biographers, who wanted to sell sleaze and rumor. (By the way, the recent DNA testing shows no African blood in the Harding line, despite the whispering campaign in 1920 that one of his ancestors was African American).
Now that Britton’s claims have seemingly been proven, it’s time to move on and look at Harding’s actual political statements and record. Ironically, Britton’s descendants are named Blaesing. Perhaps the blessing of their being recognized and joined with their family will move the question of sex to the background, where it belongs.