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.
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. 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.
 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).
 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.