Two cheers for Harding
First black president
of the United States?




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Those who follow politics are hearing much talk about the possibility of Barack Obama's becoming the first black president of the United States. But if elected, Obama would probably be the second black president, with a much better claim for number one going to Warren Gamaliel Harding, who occupied the office from 1921 until his death from a heart attack in 1923. [1]

Although many black historians in recent years have alleged — often with little substantial evidence — that various important individuals or groups were members of their race, they have made no such claim about Harding. [2] That is probably because he has conventionally been presented as a failed and incompetent president. In all polls of historians that rate the presidents, Harding has come in last. [3] The historians base their negative assessment largely on the scandals of Harding's administration, which have served as the defining feature of his presidency. However, such a focus on scandals reflects the pro-big government, globalist mentality of Establishment historians more than it does the actual realities of the Harding regime. Essentially, Harding sought to rein in the federal government in both the domestic and international arenas, in contrast to his big-government, internationalist predecessor Woodrow Wilson and successors Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Clinton and George W. Bush. [4] Mainstream commentators have tended to view the scandals in those other administrations much less harshly.

In recent decades, the few historians who have specialized on Harding have attempted a rehabilitation, though without much success among the wider intellectual public or even among historians. [5] In reassessing Harding, it is first necessary to dispel the notion that his administration was rife with corruption — the "Harding scandals." The corruption was largely confined to bribery in the Teapot Dome oil-leasing affair and at the Veterans Bureau. The "Harding scandals" pale beside the multitudinous scandals of the Clinton administration, not to mention the torrent of lies on the part of the Bush II administration that pulled the United States into war.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Harding was personally involved in malfeasance. The historian Robert Ferrell writes: "The connection of President Harding with the scandals that have borne his name was undoubted in the sense that he was in the presidency when they took place but very slight in terms of what he could have known of them." [6] A similar non-complicity was not the case with many of the other aforementioned occupants of the White House.

In denigrating Harding's character, historians have made much of his sexual escapades, though they cite only two liaisons, with Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton. The standard applied to Bill Clinton — "Sex is a private affair unrelated to public duties" — has never obtained in the evaluation of Harding. Although there is written evidence for Harding's affair with Miss Phillips before his becoming president, the oft-heard allegation that he pursued an adulterous relationship with Miss Britton is based on her sensational book The President's Daughter and lacks corroboration. [7]

Looming large in the Harding myth is the notion that he lacked the intelligence to be president, being uninformed and indifferent to political issues. (The same has been said of the current occupant of the White House.) In reality, however, Harding held definite positions on various subjects and was not simply a figurehead. In the campaign of 1920, Harding referred to his program as "America First" (a term later used by the noninterventionists of World War II and eventually by Pat Buchanan), in contradistinction to Wilsonian internationalism. [8] Central planks of the America First program were immigration restriction and a protective tariff. Legislation to achieve both those goals was passed during Harding's tenure.

As historian Robert K. Murray points out, in contrast to most presidents Harding actually carried out his campaign promises:

In terms of honesty and frankness of purpose, the Harding administration was relatively unique.... Everything for which he stood he had articulated in his campaign speeches, and few presidents have so conscientiously attempted to translate campaign promises into reality. That many of these were "conservative" and at variance with the thinking of numerous "liberals" is beside the point. If a criterion for political success is that the electorate receive almost exactly what it has been told to expect, then in Harding's case the criterion was fully met. [9]
Despite advocating government intervention to restrict goods and people from entering the United States, and presiding over the Prohibition scheme imposed during the Wilson regime, Harding was in the main a firm advocate of limited government. During the two years of his presidency, Harding's austerity measures reduced the federal budget by more than a third. [10] A key factor in cutting expenditures was his creation of a Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), which established a more orderly process of analyzing spending requests from government agencies. Similarly, Harding sought to greatly reduce the exorbitantly high taxation of the Wilson era. The top income-tax rate had skyrocketed to 77 percent during the First World War and had only been reduced to 73 percent in 1919. Many Democratic and "Progressive" Republican members of Congress wanted to retain the high rates as an "equality" measure. Despite strong opposition, the Revenue Act, enacted November 23, 1921, cut tax rates, in particular reducing the highest rate from 73 percent to 58 percent. In addition, the excess-profits tax on corporations was repealed, and preferential treatment for capital gains was initiated. [11]

Harding inherited a sharp recession when he entered office. The economy shrank by a considerably larger percentage than it did in the Great Depression. [12] However, within a few months the economy was booming. It seems obvious that Harding's successful effort to cut marginal tax rates served to spur economic activity. Murray N. Rothbard has contrasted the rapid economic recovery under Harding with the prolonged Hoover-Roosevelt Depression:

In the 1920-1921 depression, government intervened to a greater extent [than it had under the more laissez-faire policies of 19th-century America], but wage rates were permitted to fall, and government expenditures and taxes were reduced. And this depression was over in one year — in what Dr. Benjamin M. Anderson has called "our last natural recovery to full employment." [13]
Harding also showed a strong respect for civil liberties in commuting the sentences of 21 political prisoners, including the noted leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, who was serving a ten-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The Wilson administration had imprisoned those individuals for opposing the war and had refused to release them after the war ended.

The traditional notion that Harding lacked political conviction rests almost entirely on his position toward the League of Nations. During the campaign of 1920, Harding essentially straddled the issue. That was the expedient position to take, since many influential internationalist Republicans, such as Herbert Hoover and Elihu Root, supported American membership in a League of Nations of some kind. Thanks to his ambiguity, Harding was able to maintain party unity. However, he was personally opposed to an international organization that would infringe on American sovereignty. And his election served to keep the United States out of the League of Nations or any alternative organization. However, Harding was a supporter of the World Court as a means of adjusting conflicts among nations. [14]

Harding's record was not fundamentally "isolationist," if "isolationist" is taken to mean a refusal to engage in international diplomacy. For example, the Harding administration initiated the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, which was probably the first successful arms-reduction conference in history. [15] The most memorable agreement reached, the Five-Power Naval Treaty, limited naval construction — of battleships and aircraft carriers — among the major naval powers: the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. It was extremely popular at the time, though later critics attacked the agreement for its lack of enforceability. However, the treaty did serve to stop an impending battleship arms race — saving billions of dollars not only for American taxpayers but for the world at large. Naval authorities in the early 1920s had placed much faith in the prowess of large battleships; however, the rise of air power had greatly undermined their actual military value. Thus the relative dearth of battleships resulting from the treaty did not weaken either the United States or Great Britain when World War II actually came. [16]

Now, what is the evidence that the least-harmful American chief executive of the 20th century was partly of African descent? Harding did not possess any noticeably Negroid features except for a rather dark complexion. However, in Blooming Grove, Ohio, Harding's birthplace and the longtime residence of his family, the Hardings were widely regarded as possessing Negro blood. [17] Harding was nicknamed "Nig" in his childhood and youth, and his father-in-law detested him as a "nigger." [18] Innuendo that Harding was partly black would follow him all his life, emerging especially during his political campaigns. Harding himself never publicly denied the charge, once telling James Miller Faulkner, a political reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and an old friend, "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." [19] Some commentators have maintained that Harding's uncertainty regarding his racial heritage shaped his character. [20]

Although the belief that the Harding family possessed Negro blood existed from their very arrival in Blooming Grove, the explanations for the Hardings' black strain varied. (Of course, the black connection could have occurred through more than one ancestor.) The Blooming Grove area was a terminus for the Underground Railroad, with perhaps half the population having some black forebears. According to the most common explanation for Harding's black connection, the patriarch of the Harding clan, Amos Harding — who had moved the family from the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania to settle Blooming Grove, Ohio, in 1820 — was a mixed-race West Indian. [21]

A community belief in the Harding family's black ancestry is historically documented. In 1849, central Ohio was engrossed in a sensational murder trial that tangentially involved the racial background of the Hardings. In a quarrel over a small debt, Amos Smith taunted David Butler, his partner in a blacksmith shop, with having "a nigger wife." Thereupon, the enraged Butler hurled a wrench at Smith, killing him. Butler's wife was the sister of Warren Harding's great-grandfather, George Tryon Harding. At the murder trial, the defense sought to raise the issue of slander. The jury of that racially insensitive age found that it was not slanderous to apply a racial epithet to Mrs. Butler, because the Hardings were considered to be Negro. [22]

Rumors of Harding's mixed race surfaced during the 1920 presidential campaign. In part, they were connected with Harding's political position on black civil rights. More than previous Republican standard-bearers, Harding courted black voters in the North. (Since the Civil War the Republican Party had been more sympathetic to the condition of blacks than the Democrats had been. Woodrow Wilson in particular was a staunch believer in white supremacy. His scholarly writings show an admiration for the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, and as president, he extended segregation in the federal government.) In a speech to a racially segregated audience of blacks and whites in Montgomery, Alabama, Harding called for an end to economic, political, and educational discrimination. [23]

But Harding's position did not go as far as more radical, integrationist blacks demanded. Basically, Harding advocated legal and political equality but not government-enforced integration. As he told the pro-segregationist newspaper Daily Oklahoman: "I believe in race equality before the law. You can't give one right to a white man and deny it to a black man. But I want you to know that I do not mean that white people and black people shall be forced to associate together in accepting their equal rights at the hands of the nation." [24]

Harding supported a federal anti-lynching law, which was filibustered to death by Southern Democrats in the Senate, but he specifically stated that he would not use federal troops to enforce black voting in those Southern states where they were disenfranchised. [25]

According to Joseph Tumulty, private secretary to President Wilson, the Democratic National Committee was offered documentary evidence of Harding's black racial ancestry early in the 1920 presidential campaign. Tumulty said that he turned it down because he feared the consequences if Harding were elected: "What a terrible thing it would be for the country if it came out that we had a president alleged to be part negro!" [26]

Although the Democratic National Committee refused to spread the rumor, toward the end of the campaign leaflets on Harding's alleged black ancestry began to appear in Ohio and the border states. [27] Many of the leaflets were based on the genealogical research of William Estabrook Chancellor, professor of economics, politics, and social sciences at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Far from being a crank on society's fringes, Chancellor was a scholar and educator of some note. He received his undergraduate and master's degrees at Amherst College, studied at Harvard Law School, and completed his postgraduate education in Europe. He had taught history, sociology, political science, education, and economics at prestigious universities, including Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago. He had served as superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. Finally, Chancellor was the author of numerous works in history and education, published by such major firms as Houghton Mifflin, Putnam's, and Macmillan. [28]

An ardent admirer of Wilsonian internationalism, Chancellor was also an unabashed exponent of racial differences and segregation, which to some historians is sufficient reason to invalidate his genealogical findings. For example, in an effort to discredit Chancellor's research, Harding biographer Randolph C. Downes points out that Chancellor had elsewhere "shown his anti-Semitic feelings by claiming that the high commissars of the Soviet Union were all Jews seeking revenge for the pogroms and other discriminations of the past." [29]

In his earlier writings, Chancellor had expressed a belief in innate racial differences, which was common at the time, but he had not been explicitly anti-black. For example, in A Theory of Motives, Ideals and Values in Education (1907), he wrote: "Our Negro is literally 'a new nation,' a mixture, in some instances a blend, of many peoples. With a superb physical basis, this 'nation' may yet achieve notable things in world-history. The beauty of some of the women, the unusual maternalism of all of them, and the precocity of the children indicate biologically singular promise for the future." Similarly, Chancellor acknowledged the great wrong done to blacks in the slave trade and emphasized the need for an academic-oriented schooling for them, not just manual training. [30]

Chancellor based his findings about Harding's ancestry on firsthand information, having spent a number of weeks interviewing longtime residents of Blooming Grove and its environs. Since the campaign leaflets included his name and college affiliation, a storm of protest arose against Wooster College. As a result, the college's board of trustees demanded that Chancellor deny Harding's black ancestry in writing. When Chancellor refused to issue such a denial, the trustees forced his resignation. [31]

Regarding it as too hot to handle, most newspapers refrained from publishing much on the Chancellor story. Historian Samuel Hopkins Adams writes:

In the annals of American journalism there has never been another case where so much was left unpublished on a topic of major and sensational interest. Special correspondents at Marion [Harding's residence in 1920] were daily sending out on the wires from five hundred to a thousand words for publication, and from fifteen hundred to six thousand words for the private information of their editors. If the confidential data of the great dailies were preserved, history would be altered, supplemented, and illuminated at many points. [32]
Instead of delving into the black-ancestry issue, many newspapers publicized Harding's purported Anglo-Saxon pioneer forebears, promoted in genealogies widely distributed by the Republican Party. [33] Ultimately, Harding won an overwhelming victory at the polls in November 1920, swamping the Democratic nominee James Cox by 404 to 127 electoral votes.

Chancellor's incendiary leaflets led to his being threatened by the federal government once the Republicans gained control of the executive branch. Representatives of the U.S. Post Office intimidated him to the extent that, in their presence, he burned a manuscript of his biography of Harding. But that did not terminate his public dissemination of taboo biographical information on Harding. Chancellor spent the next year in Canada and then returned to Ohio, living under assumed names. He carried a manuscript copy of his work on Harding that he had not burned. It was published in 1922 by two Dayton lawyers using the imprint "Sentinal [sic] Press" and titled Warren Gamaliel Harding, President of the United States. On the title page, it was claimed that the book was based on Chancellor's research (and his was the only name listed), but Chancellor was not actually identified as the author of the book. [34]

Explicitly racialistic, the book asserts that "the differences between men and the races of men concern everything that man is." [35] "A people threatened by contamination of the blood," it intones, "ought to care for the truth about its head man." (p. 23) The book contends that definite psychical differences exist between the white and black races, ascribing mainly negative traits to blacks, such as antipathy toward work, sexual promiscuity, love of ease, and preference for the mellifluousness of words rather than their meaning. Although acknowledging that Harding was mostly white, the book attributes to him negative traits alleged to be characteristic of blacks, describing him as "big, lazy, slouching, confused, ignorant, affable, yellow, and cringing like a Negro butler to the great." (p. 51)

As proof for its claim of Harding's black racial ancestry, the book presents the testimony of people from the Blooming Grove area, stating that "socially, a man is what his neighbors report." (p. 34) It asserts that Harding's father considered himself a "colored man" and that Warren Harding had accepted such a designation until he rose in politics. [36] Moreover, the book says that some of Harding's nine siblings appeared noticeably Negroid. Harding, it claims, had slightly detectable black physical traits, especially darker skin, which it alleges he used cosmetics to hide. (p. 112) The work provides other, nonracial revelations that were then publicly unknown but that later proved to be true: Harding's heart condition and his liaison with Carrie Phillips. [37]

Although sold surreptitiously by door-to-door salesmen, the book threatened an open scandal that might do Harding serious political harm. As soon as Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty got wind of its existence, he ordered his Bureau of Investigation to suppress it. (The agency's name was changed to Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] in 1935.) Bureau agents swept through Ohio seizing every copy of the book they could find. They destroyed the plates as well as a bulk of books stored at the Sentinel Press. Before Chancellor could be apprehended, he secretly fled to Maine and then to Canada. [38]

Few totalitarian regimes have been as effective in suppressing books than the U.S. government was in this instance; Chancellor's Harding biography has become one of the rarest works published in 20th-century America. [39] Adams aptly refers to the government's successful suppression of it as "bibliocide" and a "holocaust." Obviously, this was an exception to Harding's overall good record on civil liberties. But whereas the Wilson administration imprisoned hundreds, the oppressive apparatus of the Harding administration limited itself to one enemy. [40]

How reliable are Chancellor's findings? [41] There seems to be no doubt that the Blooming Grove community believed Harding to be of black descent. [42] Of course, community beliefs are not always true. In part the question hinges on the definition of a black (Negro, colored, African American) person. By 1920, white America, both North and South, had come to believe in the "one drop" rule, under which any black ancestor, no matter how distant, rendered a person black, and an endless mixture with pure whites could not undo that fact. As a consequence, many people could be classified as Negro without having any visible Negroid traits. Often these invisible blacks passed as whites, if the community were unaware of their racial ancestry. Many racialist whites in the early 20th century expressed great alarm about invisible blacks who could "pollute" the purity of the white race. [43] Thus, it would seem that there was no need for Harding to possess visible black traits in order to be classed as a Negro. Moreover, there were cases of individuals classified as black who had no knowledge of visibly black ancestors. [44]

Undoubtedly, a more thorough examination of Harding's genealogy, or a DNA analysis, would be necessary to solidly establish the truth about his racial background. However, that he had remote black ancestry would seem to be a definite likelihood. But given Harding's real record as president, it should be apparent to believers in constitutional government that he provides an excellent model for any future president, white or black. Unfortunately, Harding's record is one that today's leading presidential candidates of whatever race will surely fall far short of matching.

August 9, 2008

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