What If Warren Harding Wasn’t a Terrible President?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
July 16 2014 12:40 PM

What If Warren Harding Wasn’t a Terrible President?

A much-maligned chief executive, reconsidered.

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Warren Harding’s racy letters should inspire us to take another look at his much-maligned presidency.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Until this week, most people knew little about the presidency of Warren G. Harding beyond the Teapot Dome scandal. Now they have learned something else. The Library of Congress has announced that on July 29, the once-sealed letters that Harding wrote to his mistress Carrie Phillips will be opened to the public and posted online. The letters are already creating a stir. The New York Times Magazine ran an article earlier this month by Jordan Michael Smith titled “The Letters That Warren G. Harding’s Family Didn’t Want You to See.”

Smith aptly describes the letters as “intimate and frank—and perhaps the most sexually explicit ever by an American president.” Even in the age of sexting, he writes, their graphic erotic content “still has the power to astonish.” What the letters do not reveal is the nature of Harding’s relationship with his wife, whom he refused to leave for Carrie, and with whom he stayed married until his death. As Florence Harding’s biographers, historians Katherine A.S. Sibley and Carl S. Anthony, both show, Harding’s commitment to their marriage and his love for Florence, whom he affectionately referred to as “The Duchess,” was meaningful and sincere. Obviously, Harding had a compartmentalized life. His relationship with Carrie Phillips was primarily a sexual one; his relationship with Florence Harding was more like a partnership, one that extended to all aspects of their life together.

By the time Harding met Florence, he was the publisher and editor of his hometown’s local Ohio newspaper, the Marion Daily Star. Harding had built the Star from scratch and through his hard work had made it a success, but it was not making much money. Florence, who had been trained in business methods by her father, went to work expanding the paper’s circulation and advertising base, which helped turn the Star into a highly profitable enterprise. Once in the White House, when Harding had an important decision to make he would say, “Let me run it by the Duchess.” He did not always take her suggestions, but he certainly valued her perspective. Theirs was what some might call a political marriage, not unlike the relationship of Bill and Hillary Clinton today.

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Unfortunately, Smith takes the release of the letters as an opportunity to repeat the old narrative that Harding was a “visionless” and “ineffectual” president. The assessment is far from fair. Few presidents have accomplished so much in such a short time—Harding served from March 1921 to August 1923, when he died of a heart attack. As we’ve argued before, the fiscal policies Harding instituted brought the country out of the economic depression occurring as a result of the Great War, a period in which the national debt climbed from $1 billion in 1914 to $24 billion in 1920. It was a dire time: The country was already experiencing rising unemployment just as soldiers were returning home from the war looking for work. Deflation led to bankruptcies and business closures. In urban areas where African-Americans lived in close proximity to whites, race riots broke out.

Harding’s pledge to restore America to a condition of “normalcy” led to his landslide victory in November 1920. In office, he cut government spending to the bone and reduced federal income tax rates across the board. As he said to Congress, the government acted during the war as if “it counted the Treasury inexhaustible”; if that pattern continued, it would result in “inevitable disaster.” To get government spending under control, Harding established the nation’s first Budget Bureau (the forerunner of today’s Office of Management and Budget) in the Treasury Department. As a result, federal spending dropped from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and then $3.3 billion in 1922.  He supported the Revenue Act of 1921, which eliminated the wartime excess-profits tax, lowered the top marginal income tax rate from 73 to 58 percent, decreased surtaxes on incomes above $5,000, and increased exemptions for families.

By the time Harding died, the signs of economic growth were evident. As the influential socialist historian William Appleman Williams wrote, Harding picked for his Cabinet “knowledgeable and impressive leaders [who] outfoxed the mundane and orthodox conservatives who thought they had him in their pocket.” Many people, he noted, benefited from the gains made “as a result of the economic measures he implemented.” Unemployment fell from 15.6 percent to 9 percent. The industrial side of the economy revived at a rapid pace. A boom took place in construction, clothing, food, and automobile sectors. From 1921 to 1923, the volume of manufacturing climbed 54 percent.

Courageously, Harding stood against popular sentiment and vetoed World War I veterans getting a bonus that had been promised by Congress. He did so because he believed that the national interest came first, and that the state of the economy demanded postponement of the payment. No longer could deficit spending, he argued, be used to finance government programs for which the government did not have the funds.

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