I have understood since I was a child that President Harding was the most unpopular president in American history. He must have done some terrible things to deserve this honor over Andrew Jackson, who was instrumental in forcing Native Americans from their homelands. The Watergate scandal led President Richard Nixon to resign from office. In the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, Herbert Hoover did nothing to help citizens. President William H. Harrison served only 31 days. And due to George W. Bush’s presidency, our country suffered economic, military, and cultural setbacks.
Please don’t be mad at the messenger – this is not a personal attack, just facts.
And yet, President Harding is continuously voted at the bottom of the list. Let’s examine some of the reasons why Harding has worn this crown of shame for so long.
Warren G. Harding was born on Nov. 2, 1865, in Ohio. As a child, despite getting the nickname ‘Winnie’ from his parents, who were both doctors, he enjoyed a pleasant childhood. At 14, he attended Ohio Central College and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1882. After graduating, Harding taught in a country schoolhouse outside Marion, Ohio, for one term. The job didn’t suit him, so he tried law, insurance sales, and journalism at a local paper. In 1884, he and his friends bought the Marion Star Newspaper, which was quite successful.
Now, this is when things get exciting.
A divorcee named Florence Mabel King DeWolf, who was five years his senior and had a 10-year-old son, married Harding in 1891. Despite her father’s threats to kill him, Warren ‘gave’ into her even after the threats. What was the reason for such violence? According to rumors, Harding had black ancestry, which was forbidden among prominent white families.
Florence had a keen sense of business, and Harding’s loyalty and personality won him the love of his employees, which was one of the reasons for the marriage’s success. Politicians respected his paper because of its impartiality and fairness.
In 1899, Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate and served as majority leader before taking office as Lieutenant Governor in 1903.
In 1914, he won Ohio’s Republican Senate primary because his supporters claimed his opponent, Attorney General Timothy Hogan, was a Catholic and would deliver the state to the Pope.
During Harding’s tenure in the Senate, he was virtually indistinguishable. He had few enemies and many friends; he was considered the ‘good fellow,’ perhaps because he missed more sessions than he attended. That’s not a big deal; it’s what our current politicians do…but it’s what Harding avoided- the amendments to prohibition and suffrage to the Constitution that made him an ineffective leader from the start. In fact, he opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s introduction of the League of Nations.
Harding’s selection for the party’s presidential nomination shocked the nation since he was unknown to the public. However, as Queen Elizabeth II is known to say, ‘doing nothing is exactly what we are supposed to do.’
Harding ran a front porch campaign in which he urged a “return to normalcy” after the hardships of World War I, the struggle for the League of Nations, and he promised higher tariffs and revised immigration requirements. What is the point of politicians always talking about ‘normalcy’? There is nothing normal about this country. But wouldn’t you agree that that spoke to the American population who also needed stability in their lives?
Interestingly, the ‘worst president’ election remains the most significant popular vote of all time.
Why is he considered the ‘worst’ president if he was so popular? Great question!
President Harding wasn’t decisive despite his progressive views on civil rights and race. In many ways, he was like Colonel Sanders of KFC. He was a ceremonial official, not a leader. The presidency served as a way for him to pass time on a boring day, just as he did while he served in the Senate. Additionally, he could not control his cabinet since he avoided issues at all costs, even when rumors of illegal activity within his walls reached the press. Harding himself was at no time implicated in any misconduct, but his cabinet was entangled in controversy.
Teapot Dome Scandal, for example, revealed that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased public lands to oil companies for gifts. Consequently, he was sentenced to one year in prison. Additionally, Attorney General Harry Daugherty and several other officials were suspected of taking bribes during Prohibition.
As Harding is quoted as saying:
I have no trouble with my enemies, But my damn friends … they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.President Harding
Amid all the attention on the President and his officials, Harding gets caught up in yet another scandal…this time a personal one.
It is discovered that he was cheating on his wife with the wife of his good friend, James Phillips.
Not the kind of ‘caught’ we’re used to nowadays…iPhone videos or secret Facebook accounts. No! Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, on official Senate stationery, between 1910 and 1920. As a precaution, he even used the code ‘Jerry’ for his penis to protect himself from getting discovered.
Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all.Harding- letters to Carrie Fulton Phillips
Carrie Philips threatened to expose the letters if she wasn’t paid before Harding launched his presidential campaign. Even more damaging is that the Republican party was aware of this and decided she would be compensated $20,000 in hush money and a monthly stipend. Carrie and her husband were also sent on an all-expense paid overseas vacation until the election was over.
You are unlikely to be familiar with Nan Britton if you believe that the Clinton/Lewinsky oval office extracurricular activities were the only noteworthy sexual scandals from the White House.
At the same time that Harding was involved with Carrie Phillips, he was also seeing Nan Britton, a pretty blond woman who was 30 years younger than him. Harding was influential in getting her a job with the U.S. Steel Corporation in Washington D.C., so the two were able to see each other frequently at the White House. Out of this relationship, a daughter, Elizabeth A. Christian, was born on 22 October 1919. Harding never officially recognized the child as he believed he was infertile; however, he did pay monthly child support delivered by the secret service.
Now on to the death- Harding was by all accounts a popular president. He loved alcohol (even though he voted for Prohibition) and his mistresses.
Harding died suddenly from a heart attack in the middle of his third year in office. He had been shaken by the corruption scandal that was hitting the newspapers, and he and his wife decided it was the right time to explain his policies and assure the American population of his devotion to the nation. They agreed that the trip should focus on the West Coast and Alaska (which was not yet a state at the time).
Harding becomes ill on the train back home from Alaska, initially diagnosed with food poisoning. His doctors were concerned enough about his health that they diverted his train to San Francisco. As soon as Harding stepped off the train, he boarded a limousine and was driven to the Palace Hotel.
Doctors crowded around the President for several days. On August 2, Harding seemed to be on the mend. However, he slumped over in his bed sometime after 7 pm while his wife read to him, passing away almost immediately.
According to published accounts, Harding died after suffering a stroke. Following his wife’s request, no autopsy was conducted on the President’s body. A Stanford University president, Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, was at the hotel when Harding arrived for treatment, and he recounted the events that occurred:
Dr. R. L. Wilbur
We shall never know exactly the immediate cause of President Harding’s death since every effort to secure an autopsy met with complete and final refusal.
The community, upset by the unexpected death of a popular president, took out its irritation on the doctors
Dr. R.L. Wilbur
We were belabored and attacked by newspapers antagonistic to Harding, and by cranks, quacks, antivivisectionists, nature healers, the Dr. Albert Abrams electronic-diagnosis group, and many others. We were accused of starving the President to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives. We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice.
However, there are many conflicting theories.
“It was a heart attack,” said historian Robert Ferrell in a 1996 interview with C-SPAN, discussing his book, ‘The Strange Deaths of President Harding, The suddenness of his passing ruled out a stroke, he said.
Another theory, according to presidential biographer Carl Anthony, is that Sawyer gave Harding purgatives to speed his recovery. According to him, Sawyer, who was not a licensed physician, may have exacerbated Harding’s condition. “The evidence makes plausible that (Sawyer) accidentally provoked the death of the president with a final, fatal overdose of his mysterious purgatives,” Anthony said in a 1998 interview promoting a book on Florence Harding, “pushing the man’s already weakened heart into cardiac arrest.”
The fact that Florence Harding skipped an autopsy for her husband and embalmed his body one hour after he passed away in 1923 fueled the rumor mill.
Later in 1930, a former Harding administration member published a book alleging that Florence Harding poisoned her husband.
There was rapid speculation that his last companion, Mrs. Harding, poisoned him to prevent him from being brought up on corruption charges that soon engulfed his administration. A scandalous book published in 1930 detailed the accusations against her.
Harding left the bulk of his estate, valued at $850,000, to his wife.
What happened to Harding’s love child? Glad you asked.
Following Harding’s death, Nan Britton wrote what is considered to be the first kiss-and-tell book. In The President’s Daughter, published in 1927. One famous passage told of them having sex in a coat closet in the executive office of the White House.
Despite Harding’s promise to financially support their daughter, Florence, Harding’s wife, refused to do so after his sudden death. According to Nan, she wrote her book to earn money for her daughter and to raise awareness of the rights of illegitimate children.
She later filed a lawsuit (Britton v. Klunk) for $50,000 against Charles Kunk, who responded negatively to Nan’s book, calling her a degenerate. Despite her best efforts, she could not provide concrete evidence and was shaken by Congressman Grant Mouser’s vicious personal attacks during cross-examination. She eventually lost the case.
Her last years were spent in Sandy, Oregon, where she died in 1991. Nan insisted that Harding was her daughter’s father to the end of her life.
In 2015, Ancestry.com confirmed Elizabeth was indeed Harding’s daughter through DNA testing of descendants of Harding’s brother and Britton’s grandchildren.
There were also scandals involving other government agencies after Harding’s death. But the numerous stories about Harding’s illness and sudden death stimulated discussion for decades. He had not been in good health when he embarked on a West Coast tour that some saw as a way to prepare for a 1924 re-election campaign. It was the first tour made by a U.S. President to Alaska.
There you have it- corruption, affairs, an inactive president who lets his members go amok, a wife pissed off, food poisoning, and a weak heart. I am still unsure how this ensnares President Harding as the worst President ever, but he keeps drawing the short stick by Historians.
It has been reported that the rumor of his wife poisoning him has been debunked, but what do you think of that?
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on your own. There is no way I could fit almost 25 years of historical moments into a single blog- but I had fun researching the Harding Sandal. I’ve included some fantastic books below if you’d like to learn more about Harding’s life and legacy beyond being the ‘worst’ president.
And remember- be Great at something you are Good at!
For further research or reading I have included a link to some books that you might enjoy…. Click here!