U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Poker Player and the Priest: Harding and Wilson

Wilson and Harding at the 1921 Inauguration

Wilson and Harding at the 1921 Inauguration

Let me begin with a little heresy. Had Randolph Bourne lived into 1920, I believe he would have seen Warren Harding as a preferable candidate to James Cox, the Democratic candidate for President that year. In doing so, Bourne would have joined in the widespread view that the election of 1920 was not really between Harding and Cox at all, but between Wilsonianism and anti-Wilsonianism. And I do not believe that, given that choice, Bourne would have opted for four more years of what Wilsonianism had come to mean by November 1920.

I call this heresy because I believe that most of us have been taught that the electorate—an unprecedented majority—turned to Harding in 1920 as a repudiation of the dynamism of Progressivism. They got tired of reform; they got tired of crusades; they got tired of fixing their problems or striving for a better world. Harding, we have been taught, promised them not only a relaxed standard of government, but no standard of government—peek through the slats of the 1920 “normalcy” platform, and you could already see the corruption that would infest Harding’s administration. Bourne, of course, with his uncompromising intellectual rigor and abundant energy for radical change, could not have supported such a program, or rather such a non-program. But what if we simply have 1920 wrong?

Harding is back in the news because of his sex life. Last Saturday, L. D. eloquently asked what that fact means: why some journalists and scholars find this essentially private matter not just titillating or amusing but of professional concern, a revelation to be compared (in some obtuse and harmful way) with the fact that Thomas Jefferson had sex with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and had children with her.

But as L. D. further pointed out, the revelations about Harding and Nan Britton have also reignited what is by now a quite old debate about whether or not Harding was really, as the title of one recent study of Harding’s reputation has it, “dead last” among Presidents, the very worst.[1]

One of the most interesting lines in this new iteration of the debate comes from Heather Cox Richardson, who was quoted along with Kevin Kruse in an Atlantic article making the case that, yes, Harding was that bad. (It is rebutting a Washington Post op-ed by James Robenalt arguing for a revision.) Richardson argues that the attempt to “resurrect” Harding is part of “a broader effort to reassess the legacy of his successor, Calvin Coolidge, who presided over an economic boom and who has recently been held up by the right as an exemplar of small-government conservatism.”

If Richardson is referring to the push for Coolidge following the 2013 publication of Amity Shlaes’s biography, then I would disagree with the connection she draws, as there has been a steady and relatively consistent line of defense for Harding dating back to the late 1960s among academic historians. But Richardson’s grouping of Harding and Coolidge is a traditional one, even if that is one of the more basic points that Harding defenders have attempted to revise. The effort to defend Harding, rather than a purely partisan and opportunistic cause, resembles in many ways the politically idiosyncratic and academically serious revisionist arguments about Herbert Hoover that were grounded in the work of William Appleman Williams. These arguments tend defiantly to separate Hoover from the “Republican Ascendancy” of the 1920s and emphasize the ways that Hoover’s response to the Great Depression presaged (albeit tentatively) many of the policies for which FDR’s New Deal has received credit. Harding’s defenders, in a similar manner, tend to deny (usually tacitly, not explicitly) the narrative framework of the “Republican Twenties” and to play up the real innovations and departures of the Harding Presidency. Instead of focusing on the tariff or immigration—where Harding did share much in common with the conservative wing of the Republican Party and was continuous with Coolidge—they emphasize the unique or distinctive features of the Harding administration. And most of those features rest on an explicit and pointed contrast with Wilson.

Of course, Coolidge’s policies were also starkly different from Wilson’s, but with Coolidge the difference is really not with Wilson the president, but with progressivism en bloc. Historians often assume the same is true about Harding, but that’s really not the case—Harding was not anti-progressive in that all-encompassing way, but he was anti-Wilson tout à fait. And what is most curious about Harding’s anti-Wilsonism is that it entailed a surprisingly astringent critique of A. Mitchell Palmer’s trampling of the civil liberties of dissenters during the war, and of Wilson’s own eagerness to use state power and to abuse the Senate-granted expansion of executive privilege to evade Constitutional guidelines regarding not just property rights, but basic personal freedoms, describing Wilson over and over again as a dictator or as desiring autocratic powers. It was not an empty nor a sentimental gesture when Harding commuted Eugene Debs’s sentence in December 1921 but rather the culmination of Harding’s repudiation of the Wilson administration’s conduct during the war.[2] One might be surprised to find that one side abused the other with the title of “reactionary”… and that it was the Republicans who were warning the nation of the dangers of reaction in 1920.

Harding took real steps to reverse what he believed was a wartime slide into statism. Historians who see Harding as a failure dismiss accomplishments like his establishment of an agency which would become the Office of Management and Budget or the Washington Naval Conference, but both were deliberate attempts to reverse Wilson: in the first case, to prevent the administrative apparatus under the executive from expanding pell-mell, and in the second, to turn back Wilson’s desire to reorder the geopolitical balance of power to favor the U.S. Moreover, Harding intentionally appointed highly qualified individuals to the most important posts in the Cabinet—Hoover, Henry C. Wallace, Andrew Mellon, and Charles Evans Hughes—a move which critics have characterized not as the creation of a “team of rivals” but as Harding’s realization that he didn’t know what he was doing and knew just enough to appoint men competent enough to tell him what to do. (On the other hand, Harding’s appointment of unqualified men to other posts is taken as a sign that Harding didn’t care at all for competence—critics like to have it both ways.) Harding placed what he called “the best minds” in the critical posts of his Cabinet—Commerce, Agriculture, Treasury, and State—because he wanted to be totally unlike Wilson: in the campaign he railed over and over again against the idea of “one-man government,” a government where one man assumed he knew enough to manage all the salient aspects of governance with little consultation with “lesser” experts.

Harding was a conservative, there is no question about that. He was also an effective conservative—most of the key campaign promises he made he accomplished in less than a term. However, while he deliberately and effectively erased some of Wilson’s progressive policies, he also liquidated many of Wilson’s most illiberal, imperial, and, to some nontrivial degree, genuinely autocratic policies.

I think historians take one of two Wilsons as their totem, and which one you take determines entirely your opinion of Harding. Let’s be crude and call it first-term Wilson and second-term Wilson. If you favor first-term Wilson as the “real Wilson” or something of that nature, you’ll probably see Harding as a failure, as a pre-Coolidge, and you’ll emphasize his scandals and the corruption in his administration. (As if there wasn’t prosecutable corruption in the conduct of World War I—or in any wartime administration.) If you find the second-term Wilson unforgivable—as Randolph Bourne did—you will find redeeming characteristics in Harding. As a citizen and as a historian, the Red Scare frankly worries me more than Teapot Dome… and a lot more than The President’s Daughter.

[1] The title I’m referring to is Phillip G. Payne, Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009).

[2] It is important to note that Wilson refused to accept the Republican Senate’s request to make a separate arrangement with Germany and the other remaining Central Powers to end the war, a step which would have put an end to Wilson’s expanded wartime powers. Republicans argued that this refusal was due both to Wilson’s arrogance and stubbornness (he wanted his Treaty and wouldn’t consider other arrangements) and his avidity for what they argued were near dictatorial powers.

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy–Great piece on Warren G. Harding. My view of Harding is similar to yours. While not a great President, he does not deserve to be ranked dead last. His record on civil liberties and civil rights is much stronger than that of Woodrow Wilson and deserves much more attention. Wilson too often gets a pass from students on these issues.

    The best book on Harding is still Robert K. Murray’s The Harding Era. One interesting point he makes in the book is that Harding was not the lazy President of conventional wisdom. Instead, he argues that one reason Harding died prematurely as President was that he overworked himself. He insisted on reading every document and answering every letter. Too often, historians buy into cliches about Harding. The writer Bill Bryson in his book One Summer portrays Harding as a weak and brainless leader.

    Two other works that I would recommend are The Strange Deaths of Warren G. Harding by Robert Ferrell (though he turns out to be wrong about Nan Britton). http://www.booknotes.org/Watch/77425-1/Robert+Ferrell.aspx The other book I highly recommend is A Companion to Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover edited by Katherine Sibley. http://www.amazon.com/Companion-Coolidge-Blackwell-Companions-American/dp/144435003X This is a great collection of essays on the 1920’s that offer a nuanced examination of the decade. I wrote the essay on Calvin Coolidge and the Historians.

    • Thanks, Jason, I will definitely check out the Blackwell Companion, and especially your essay on Coolidge.

      I am familiar with Ferrell’s book (and with Murray’s), but I found Ferrell often went too far in trying to discredit those who have held negative opinions of Harding. For instance, he insists that William Allen White’s dislike of Harding was due to jealousy. Harding, like White, was a small-town Republican newspaper editor, and Ferrell believes that White was so enraged that Harding, and not he, ascended to the White House that he got his revenge by smearing Harding after his death. I don’t really buy that. Despite that, though, I really enjoyed reading it–Ferrell has an enormous amount of verve. I probably just wouldn’t go so far in sticking up for Harding as he does!

      • Andy–I agree with you on White. I am not ready to put Harding on Mount Rushmore, but feel that he does not belong at the bottom of the presidential rankings.

        My essay on Coolidge is ok. I am not a Coolidge fan but do try to be fair to him. The Wiley series is worth the read.

    • Thanks for these thoughtful articles.

      Since this debate revolves around my defense of Harding in the WaPo, I hope you won’t mind if I give some perspective on my perspective.

      My great-grandfather, William W. Durbin, was the head of the Democratic Party at various times. He ran Bryan’s 1896 campaign, helped Wilson get the nomination in 1912 and the election in 1916, and he bolted from the Ohio delegation in 1932 to vote for FDR. In thanks, Roosevelt named him the register of the Treasury, a post he held until his death in 1937.

      So I am a New Dealer in my blood, literally.

      I voted for Obama twice and I consider myself a moderate Democrat.

      But my journey with Warren Harding is deep.

      When I wrote my first book, Linking Rings, William W. Durbin, and the Magic and Mystery of America (Kent State University Press, 2004), I had a dim view of Harding.

      But then something happened. I read much about the campaign in 1920 for the presidency. My great-grandfather had been James Cox’s campaign manager in 1918, when Cox won (barely) the governor’s race in Ohio. Two years later, with Wilson disabled by stroke, the Democrats chose Cox on the 42nd ballot. My grandfather and great-grandfather spoke to Cox late that night and recommended a very young Franklin Roosevelt for VP.

      And so it was.

      But as I hit the Harding Papers in the Ohio Historical Society (isn’t it a good idea to read original papers before opining on someone?), I came across the “Durbin Circular.” What? My great-grandfather wrote a piece for the 1920 campaign that attacked Harding and Republicans for courting African-Americans (then the term was Negroes), who had migrated North during the Great War. He warned of “Negro domination.”

      As you can imagine, this hit me in the stomach. I knew a Democratic Party that was for diversity and opportunity. My mother, Durbin’s granddaughter, was a liberal’s liberal.

      And then I saw how Harding handled these vile slurs. He refused to deny, for example, a campaign launched by an Ohio professor from Wooster that the Hardings had black blood in their line.

      While I continued to buy into the terrible presidency myth of Harding, I knew enough to know I had to look more closely at Harding.

      Then, strangely enough, his love letters to a neighbor named Carrie Phillips, came into my hands. Too long a story to explain, but John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, had something to do with it.

      Now I had to transcribe, date, and put into context almost 900 pages of love notes. It took five years and a lot of original research.

      An entirely new picture of Harding appeared. Yes he was having an affair–but it was hardly a one-night stand. The affair lasted 15 years and had much to do with Harding’s unsatisfactory marriage to a woman who was very sick–and expected to die from a diseased kidney.

      The letters were bawdy, graphic, silly–all that. But there was much, much more. The letters were profound, deep, soulful. And they were political. Phillips likely became a German spy during the war–very long story. And Harding stood his ground with her in voting for war.

      But he also said Wilson was wrong about making war to change Germany’s government to a democracy. Not our business.

      Profound stuff.

      And about Wilson, the one I so admired, for historical and family reasons? He became a bit of a tyrant during the war. There was a huge difference between the Progressive of the first term and the Retrogressive of the second term.

      One of the reasons I found out about the German spy angle was because Wilson’s attorney general sponsored The American Protective League after we entered the war–2500 ordinary businessmen in towns around the country who spied on neighbors, opened mail, broke into homes. All to root out German spies.

      The Eugene Debs story also shows the repressive nature of the Wilson administration. Debs was arrested for making a speech against the war–pure free speech. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, it was Harding who had to commute his sentence.

      And on it goes.

      So I know a bit about this time and this story.

      Read The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War, if interested.

      By the way, Wilson was a complete racist. And give Harding his due on his courageous Birmingham speech. Lincoln also spoke against “racial almagimation” and social equality. (Did John Kennedy support gay marriage in the 1950s?) Harding’s speech for political equality in the Deep South cannot be waived off. It was at the height of “Jim Crow” as we like to euphemistically call it–or as we more commonly say about South Africa “apartheid.”

      My point: don’t accept the myths of poor historians of the past. Think for yourself. Look at the original materials. And then make your arguments.

      • Mr. Robenalt,
        Thank you so much for these reflections and amplifications of your Post article. The background on William Durbin is especially fascinating, and I look forward to reading *both* your books! Also, your point about the real significance of Harding’s Birmingham speech and the racial tensions of the election of 1920 is very important.

        For the Birmingham speech, one particularly useful document for me was a pamphlet by the Howard academic Kelly Miller, “Is Race Difference Fundamental, Eternal, and Inescapable?” He appreciated Harding’s courage in going into “enemy territory” (Miller’s words, IIRC) but also, very much like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, took him to task for not accepting the necessary connection between social equality and formal political rights or freedoms. It’s a very rich document, and I think can be read in its entirety here.

  2. Andy: Thanks for the substantive post. Well done. First, I appreciate the notion of analysts developing their view of Harding based on assumptions about Wilson. Second, I also appreciate being made to look up the meaning of tout à fait.

    A question regarding the title of your post: Is that your own figurative dichotomy, or does it derive from another historian or contemporary critic of Harding? – TL

    • Tim–The title of the post might be borrowed from John Milton Cooper’s book The Warrior and the Priest about Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

    • Thanks, Tim! Jason’s right–it was just my attempt at a sort of play on Cooper’s title. I think Harding preferred bridge, in fact. On the cross-country train ride that he took before he died, he forced his companions to play so much bridge that Hoover–who was one of those companions–swore off the game for the rest of his life.

      But of course, “bridge player” isn’t alliterative with “priest.”

  3. For what it’s worth, many fundamentalists and evangelicals thought Harding was an ideal “Christian President.” This insight courtesy of Matt Sutton’s American Apocalypse.

    • Thanks, Mark! I haven’t gotten around to reading Sutton’s new book, and am very glad you pointed out the take on Harding there. It’s highly ironic that evangelicals (or at least some evangelicals) would have rated Harding so well, and not just in hindsight. From what I can tell, while references to God peppered Harding’s speech, he was not a churchgoing man, and didn’t try very hard to hide that he wasn’t.

  4. I enjoyed your post. Harding certainly had his faults, but I agree that many historians have been a little rough on him. I also think that the portrayal of his campaign on Normalcy as a vague vacuous appeal to voter apathy miss the point that his election represented more than the electorate collectively tossing in the proverbial towel of progressivism. With strikes, Palmer Raids, radicalism, economic readjustment, uncertainty, post-war letdown, Allied squabbling, and government gridlock in the background, Harding’s campaign of lower taxes, privatization, reduced regulations, and pro-business policies resonated with the voters who gave him a whopping victory. Of course, these policies led to examples of gross corruption, but you make a good point about comparing Teapot Dome to the Palmer raids of the previous administration. Harding set a pattern of campaigning that conservative candidates since 1920 have used. Ronald Reagan modernized but repeated many of the themes of Normalcy. At the very least Harding was better than James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, and a couple more.

    • Thanks, Greg! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t know that I’d compare Harding’s normalcy with Reagan’s 1980 campaign, though. Reagan was seeking to re-infuse a sense of grand national purpose then, while Harding, at least in my reading, was arguing that that kind of exceptionalism was dangerous. Harding believed in American exceptionalism, but not in the sense of the US having a mission to change the world or spread democracy.
      Of course, now that I think about it, I may have misunderstood what you meant by your comment on Reagan. If so, my apologies!

  5. A fascinating post, and one that made me think a great deal — well done! While I think you’re really onto something regarding Harding’s repudiation of every aspect of Wilsonianism (including the parts we don’t care for today), I’m not sure I buy the idea that American voters knew, or necessarily cared, what they were getting in that regard. If they were, wouldn’t there have been a higher vote total for Prisoner #9653 (Eugene Debs), who admittedly did see a spike in vote total, but not a very large one? Similarly, though Harding did commute Debs’ sentence, why would he wait nine months to do so if repudiating the Sedition Act and the Palmer Raids were a central part of his campaign? I agree that Harding cared about civil liberties, but I’m not as convinced that a large portion of the electorate felt as strong a kinship with Randolph Bourne as modern scholars do, or that they were as able to separate Wilson’s abuses of power from Progressive ideals as many scholars are today. I’m inclined to think they voted for Harding as much for his promise of “normalcy” as for his advocacy of civil liberties. While Harding himself may have been better than we remember him, I’m not sure we can say the same about his voters.

    • Hi Jeremy,
      Thanks for this great and challenging comment! I think I may have come across too enthusiastically about the comparison between Bourne and the broader electorate that voted for Harding. I don’t think Bourne would have voted for Harding had he lived. But I do think he would have seen Harding as having many redeeming qualities vis-à-vis Wilson (and in 1920, Cox accepted quite dutifully the perception that he was effectively running for Wilson’s third term). So I’m not equating Bourne and the average Harding voter, but I am saying that we should recognize that they would have been closer than the standard narrative would allow for; Bourne’s disillusionment with Wilson was not a wholly different beast from the reasons someone may have voted for Harding.

      That said, I totally take your point that we shouldn’t praise Harding voters for virtues we’d like to find in ourselves today. That wasn’t what I was trying to do here, but I can see how I might have given that impression.

      However, while the average Harding voter likely would not have given “civil liberties” a thought, I do believe that he (and for the first time she) very likely experienced firsthand the aggressions of bond drives and enforced patriotism, and even if he or she may have joined in to some extent, between April 1917 and November 1920 a lot of people had a chance to reflect on how frighteningly coercive the war fever was and how large a role the state played in stoking it. Particularly for anyone with German or Irish heritage, the felt experience of this coercion remained potent even in the absence of more concrete repressions or a more theorized argument for civil liberties. I think 1920 was more of a referendum not so much on the League but on the conduct of the Wilson administration “over here” during wartime (which, as I noted, technically included the whole 1920 campaign, as the U.S. was still officially at war through 1921). I think that’s a different emphasis for “normalcy” than is often the case in histories of Harding’s election.

      As for Debs, well, we could turn the question around: if Harding had already waited until late 1921 to do anything about Debs, why bother then? He certainly wasn’t courting votes for the midterm elections, and if there was any pressure on him to release Debs and other political prisoners, why would he have held out for almost 9 months and then cave? Just because he didn’t act immediately doesn’t mean it wasn’t important to Harding.

      My feeling is that Harding really saw himself as correcting Wilson’s bad policies, and that commuting Debs’s sentence and the sentences of other political prisoners was about fulfilling that role. It’s true that no one voted for Harding because they thought he’d release Debs, but I didn’t argue that–what Harding did run on was a critique of Wilson as a “dictator” bent on “one-man government,” and that included the suppression of dissent.

  6. Andy: A good post (as usual).

    On the reference to Harding opposing “Wilson’s desire to reorder the geopolitical balance of power to favor the U.S.”: I think of Wilson’s foreign policy as a mixture of (1) interventionism (not just WW1 but also mil. intervention in south and central America, notably Mexico) and (2) internationalism, in ways that I don’t think need to be detailed. Even if one rejects, as I usually do, the simplistic ‘idealist’/’realist’ dichotomy that puts Wilson in the former camp, I don’t think of him as being preoccupied with reordering the balance of power to favor the U.S. But maybe I’m wrong there. The Washington Naval Conference, iirc without recalling the details offhand, put limits on the growth of navies of the major naval powers. Is your point that Wilson would not have accepted the limits that the Washington Naval Conference imposed? (p.s. This whole comment is intended more as a question than a disagreement.)

    • Louis, this is a great question. My characterization of Wilson’s intentions is based on Adam Tooze’s recent book, The Deluge. Tooze writes, “Only a peace without victory, the goal that [Wilson] announced in an unprecedented speech to the Senate in January 1917, could ensure that the United States emerged as the truly undisputed arbiter of world affairs” and elsewhere, “the world he wanted to create was one in which the exceptional position of America at the head of world civilization would be inscribed on the gravestone of European power.” (Sorry, I read it on Kindle and don’t have a page number citation at the moment.) That, to me, was the major argument of the book, and although Tooze argues that this remained the basic policy of all US presidents and foreign policy elites through the 1930s, he spends relatively little time on Harding. He does read the Washington Naval Conference as a bid to assert U.S. global leadership, which is undeniable, but I think he is wrong to see this as effectively a continuation of the same kind of leadership as Wilson meant to exert. Arms limitation was a vastly different approach to international relations than anything contemplated at Versailles, and the nature of leadership in pursuing this new departure was by necessity also immensely different.

  7. FWIW, my understanding of Harding and the way voters responded to him comes from the leaders who controlled the Republican Party at the time. Harding was not his own man; they chose him to run for president quite deliberately as a repudiation of Progressivism. (The convention speeches and platform debates were quite clear on that.) The important man on that ticket was Coolidge, fresh from the 1919 Boston police strike.

    That professional historians separate the administrations of Harding and Coolidge is only fair and right (although of course the overlap of the cabinets is important) but it seems to me that today’s popular understanding still links the two very closely (if for no other reason than that virtually no one outside the academy actually knows anything about Harding). Hence my reflection that attempts to resurrect Harding is part of the recent popular effort to elevate Coolidge (and Hoover), which is not just in popular history books, but all over Wikipedia, blogs, and comment boards on politics.

    • Dr. Richardson,
      Thank you for clarifying your quotes in that article. I’ve also read your chapter on the 1920s in To Make Men Free, which helped me understand the background of your comments in the Atlantic piece.

      But I would argue that there is more than one way to characterize the speeches in the published transcript of the convention. I would also disagree that Coolidge was the important man on the ticket; while he was riding high off the police strike, he was an afterthought as a VP candidate, inserted literally at the last second. If he were the more important man, why did he not become a dark horse candidate for President?

      I also should say that I’m very convinced by the case made by Wesley Bagby’s The Road to Normalcy, which is the only full-length, archivally-based study of the 1920 election. Bagby argues that Harding’s nomination had more to do with avoiding a split in the party like 1912, rather than Harding’s supposed tractability. The fact that both Borah and Taft, both La Follette and Penrose stood behind Harding’s candidacy in 1920 (which would not at all be the case in 1924) despite the tensions over the League and the still raw wounds of TR’s secession, is actually rather remarkable. The particular candidates who were strongest at the time (apart from Lowden, who was mired in a scandal) were ones who were certain to cause a split; Harding was not so much the available man, therefore, as the best hope of avoiding a three-legged general election.

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