Warren G. Harding is generally remembered in a negative light, as one of the least effective Presidents in American History… but was he really so awful?
Warren G. Harding, who was only President for a brief two years, is often ranked as one of the worst Presidents that America has ever seen. Often cited as the reasons for his poor ranking are the corruption of his administration and an utter ineffectiveness.
Are these accusations true, or are they mere exaggerations of these couple years, during which Harding retained immense public popularity?
On the surface, there is much about the Presidency of Warren G. Harding which makes it look similar to another controversial President who had come before him – Ulysses S. Grant.
Like Grant, Harding himself did not seem prone to corruption. Though the arrows aimed in his direction accuse him of all sorts of things, it seems rather clear that he himself did not benefit from any corruption which may have existed around him. Also like Grant, however, Harding made the mistake early on of filling his administration with friends and political allies – those who had helped him to get elected.
It was this group of Harding’s closest circle which caused the President so many posthumous problems. They took bribes, they did political favors, they abused their power. Harding himself is said to have remarked: “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my g–d—ed friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights.”
The Teapot Dome Scandal
Chief among the scandals which were later credited to Harding’s administration (though it would not be entirely revealed until after his death) was the so-called “Teapot Dome Scandal,” which revolved around government-owned oil fields in Wyoming and California.
Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, was accused (and later convicted, making him the first cabinet member to serve time in prison) of leasing this land to private oil companies in exchange for bribes and no-interest personal loans.
The scandal would not become a political issue until the 1924 election, well after Harding’s death, and would still not effect his successor, Calvin Coolidge’s, reelection. The true aftermath of the scandal can be found in Harding’s dismal rankings even today.
It is rare that one hears about any successes of the Harding administration. For the most part, his time in office was uneventful (apart from the scandals, of course), but he did manage to accomplish a few things that made him somewhat noteworthy.
He fought for government support of agriculture and supported President Wilson’s Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 which for the first time allowed the President to submit his own budget to congress.
In addition, Harding fought (though without much fervor, not wanting to alienate people from either party) for increased civil rights, even proposing an anti-lynching law and speaking out against unfair treatment of minorities.
He fought for quotas on immigration, lower taxes on both personal and corporate incomes, and a decrease in the tariffs, all in hopes of increasing confidence in the American economy (which was achieved with partial, and temporary, success).
Death on the Road
In the summer of 1923, two years after taking office, Warren and Florence Harding embarked on a massive tour of the western states, making him the first President to have visited Alaska. It was during this tour that the President is said to have been infected with food poisoning, and after a sickness of two weeks, he died of what was most likely a heart attack.
Harding thus became the fifth President to succomb to the deadly “Curse of Tecumseh,” which was said to befall Presidents elected every twentieth year.
In the end, Warren G. Harding surely deserves a certain amount of harsh criticism for his willingness to allow the corruption to prevail around him while doing nothing to stop it.
After his death, it was realized that there were aspects of Harding’s life – including extramarital affairs which were covered up by his party, which he had kept from the public, which certainly did not help his popularity at all.
In addition, he deserves to be remembered as a mostly ineffective President, not passing much legislation or doing much to make the country stronger.
Perhaps he is not the worst President of all time (for while ineffective, he did not do, as did many others, much to make the country worse), but he deserves mixed reviews at best. Perhaps this would have changed had he lived longer, but this is impossible to say at this point.