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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Twenty-Ninth President • 1921-23
Warren Harding
Warren G. Harding

Harding, the only newspaper editor who ever rose to the Presidency, closely allied himself with the conservatives in his party. In foreign affairs, he rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations, but hosted the international Washington Conference, which fostered naval disarmament. Domestically, to ease the social and economic dislocations created by the end of World War I, he advocated "normalcy"—a return to the simplicity and quietude of an earlier America. But the corruption of a number of his appointees tarnished his administration. Feeling perplexed and betrayed, he died in the middle of his term before the scandals were fully exposed.

Harding was born in 1865 on a farm at Corsica (Blooming Grove Township), a rural town in north-central Ohio, the region that was to be his home until he entered national politics. Five years later, the family moved to Caledonia. There, Warren's father, who had been a teacher as well as a farmer, practiced homeopathic medicine. The youth, who was the eldest of eight children, attended public schools. His employment included work as a printer's devil for the Argus.

Florence Harding
Florence Harding

Harding won his B.S. degree from Ohio Central College at Iberia (1879-82). During these years, besides holding temporary jobs, he edited the school newspaper and yearbook, played in the band, and participated in debates. In 1882 his parents moved to Marion, where he soon joined them. He taught one term at a rural school, briefly studied law, sold insurance, and then went to work as a reporter and general assistant at the weekly Democratic Mirror. In 1884 he and two partners purchased for $300 the Star, a four-page weekly that was close to bankruptcy. Inside of 2 years, Harding bought out his associates.

At first, Harding participated in all phases of newspaper production. But, as his paper turned into a daily and circulation grew along with the town, he became a prosperous publisher and influential civic leader. He held directorships in a bank, lumber company, and telephone exchange; served as trustee of a Baptist church; and figured prominently in local charities and fraternal organizations.

During the 1920 Presidential election, Democrat James M. Cox waged a vigorous campaign, while Harding used basically a "front-porch" approach. (Cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman, in the Washington Star, 1920, Library of Congress.)

In 1891 Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the divorced daughter of a local banker. They moved into a home they had constructed the year before in anticipation of their marriage, which proved to be childless. About this time, Harding became seriously interested in politics and joined the Republican Party. In 1892 the voters rejected him as county auditor, but 3 years later awarded him the office. He next sat in the State senate (1899-1903), where he became floor leader, and then held the position of Lieutenant Governor (1904-6).

For the next 4 years, Harding concentrated mainly on his newspaper business. In 1910, by a wide margin, he lost a bid for the governorship. Two years later, he presented the nominating speech for President Taft at the Republican national convention. Harding next served in the U.S. Senate (1915-21). In 1916 he chaired the Republican convention and delivered the keynote address.

Harding, Edison, Ford
President Harding (just right of rear center) picnics with Thomas Edison (second to left of Harding), Henry Ford (second to right of Harding), and other notables. (Library of Congress.)

When the 1920 convention deadlocked, party leaders picked Harding, who was backed by Ohio politician-lobbyist Harry M. Daugherty, as the compromise Presidential nominee. Conducting essentially a "front-porch" campaign, he offered voters a soothing formula for a return to "normalcy" and the restoration of peace and prosperity from the tumult of World War I and the 1920 economic panic. Democrat James M. Cox crusaded for U.S. participation in the League of Nations, but Harding's vague pronouncements on the subject could appeal to both its supporters and enemies. He and running mate Calvin Coolidge won more than 60 percent of the popular vote.

Many administration programs were directed by Republican congressional spokesmen and such able Cabinet members as Secretaries of State, Commerce, and Treasury, Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert C. Hoover, and Andrew W. Mellon. Unfortunately, some of Harding's Cabinet appointees and other officials proved to be corrupt. He signed measures that ended wartime economic controls; cut taxes, particularly for corporations; created the Bureau of the Budget and Veterans' Bureau; reimposed protective tariffs; and strictly limited immigration.

Harding addressing Washington Conference
One of the highlights of foreign affairs in Harding's administration was the Washington Conference (1921-22). He is shown here addressing the delegates. (Library of Congress.)

In international affairs, Harding and Secretary of State Hughes viewed his election as a mandate against membership in the League of Nations or European collective security arrangements. Yet, in response to a Senate resolution urging an international disarmament meeting, Harding convened the Washington (D.C.) Conference (1921-22). Five of the major powers in attendance—the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, and France—set a ratio of capital warships, restricted their tonnage and armament, and limited the use of submarines. Other agreements reached among representatives of the various Nations present outlawed gas warfare, affirmed territorial claims in the Pacific, and guaranteed the "Open Door" policy in China and her territorial integrity and independence.


Harding Home

By 1923, though many people praised Harding for these diplomatic achievements and for reviving prosperity, his administration faced mounting difficulties. Democratic gains in the 1922 midterm elections and Republican party schism cost him effective control of the Congress. Worse, insistent rumors that high officeholders were using their positions for personal enrichment began to spread. These complaints eventually centered on graft in the Veterans' Bureau and in the Office of Alien Property Custodian; and Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall's leasing of naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and Elk Hills, Calif., to private interests.

Harding apparently felt responsible for the wrongdoings of his appointees, but he died before the full extent of the scandals became public knowledge. During a tour of the West in 1923, he received information detailing the magnitude of the corruption. But he became ill in Alaska and passed away at San Francisco on the return trip. Later, several key administration figures were fined, imprisoned, or forced to resign.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004