One Hundred years ago, President Warren Harding died unexpectedly.
Occupying the White House for a little more than two-and-a-half years, he was a popular President, having been elected with the largest margin of victory of any presidential candidate before or since.
Following his death, several scandals, both public and private, tarnished his reputation and obscured several significant accomplishments.
Though he had been involved in Ohio state politics, the highest state office Harding ever held was lieutenant governor; he had been defeated in his lone attempt for governor. He later ran successfully for the US Senate.
At the 1920 Republican convention, several regional factions deadlocked the balloting and no consensus candidate materialized. When party leaders met in the proverbial smoke-filled room, Harding emerged as the compromise presidential nominee.
In one of history’s coincidences, Democrats tapped Ohio Gov. James M. Cox as its nominee against Ohio Senator Harding, one of the few instances when two general election candidates from the same state opposed each other for the presidency.
Unlike his opponent, Harding did not engage in a frenetic nationwide campaign. He capitalized, for the most part, on the failures of the Woodrow Wilson administration and the dissension within the ranks of the Democratic Party.
He would win the presidency with more than 400 electoral votes.
The economy Harding inherited was in shambles. The country was just getting settled after the dislocations of World War I, income tax rates exceeded 70 percent, government regulations of industry were significant, and unemployment was on the rise.
To address the challenges of a sluggish national economy, Harding appointed Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary. Mellon was a banker and technocrat who understood finance and economics better than anyone. With Harding’s approval he proposed an economic policy that created the “Roaring ‘20s.”
Given such high rates of confiscatory income taxation, capital was not properly employed as high wage earners saw no incentive to work hard and pay more than 70 percent of their earnings in taxes. The wealthy kept their money in safe investments like low yielding government bonds that shielded interest income from taxation.
Fifty years ahead of the Laffer Curve, Harding advocated legislation that eventually reduced the highest tax rate to 25 percent, and completely exempted many lower income earners from taxes. On the expense side of the ledger, he significantly reduced government spending and established a separate budget office to apply business principles to government administration. The result was record growth and low unemployment.
The Harding administration was not in favor of an engaging foreign policy, and limited any US involvement in world affairs. One critical exception was hosting a disarmament conference to force the major world powers to limit construction of large naval vessels. But, like most disarmament or other international treaties, unless there is an effort at monitoring compliance with an enforcement mechanism, the treaty is merely a cordial agreement that over time is observed in the breach.
Given Harding’s overwhelming popularity, he was invited to visit the Deep South and help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the City of Birmingham. Presidential visits on such occasions are usually non-controversial and entirely celebratory in nature. No one would have faulted President Harding for the standard congratulatory remarks, but he had a different idea.
To an assembled crowd that totaled more than 100,000, Harding addressed the issue of race relations head on. This should not have been too much of a surprise, as Harding strongly supported anti-lynching legislation that levied a $10,000 fine in any county in which a lynching occurred and gave federal courts jurisdiction to prosecute local officials for failing to act and indict perpetrators for murder.
When he mounted the rostrum in Capitol Park, Harding saw the clearly segregated audience. And while he used the occasion to congratulate Birmingham on its industrial growth and contributions to economic development, he pivoted and personalized his remarks to advocate for racial equality.
In words that still resonate today, Harding said, “I believe in absolute equality in the paths of knowledge and culture, equality of opportunity for those who strive, equal admiration for those who achieve. I want to see the time come when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship.”
Otherwise, he said, “Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for that equality.”
As these remarks were spoken, loud applause came from the segregated black side of the park while stony silence emanated from the white side. This was the first time that any national Republican so directly challenged the reigning segregation orthodoxy in the South. While southern leaders dismissed these remarks, others saw this as the beginning of a national sea change in dealing with racial politics.
In speaking truth to power, Harding’s courage would be attacked by the enemies of justice and fundamental fairness. Though his administration tried to move forward on some of his initiatives, he was unable to muster the votes in the senate to pass civil rights legislation.
Even President Franklin Roosevelt, who had significant majorities in both houses, later refused to champion Harding’s anti-lynching initiatives during his own administration for fear of losing southern votes.
Less than three years into his term, Harding died suddenly from what most historians attribute to a heart attack prompted by long-term cardiac issues.
His untimely death resulted in a large outpouring of grief, especially among those who had heard his speech and witnessed his sincerity, but Harding’s courage in addressing the issue of race in Birmingham is largely forgotten today.
When several scandals came to light after his death, Harding’s popularity waned. While he was never personally implicated nor accused of profiting from his position, many of the friends Harding had placed in positions of authority were.
Even though several cabinet members suffered the consequences of their greed, Harding’s reputation has not recovered from the corruption of his vainglorious friends.
Notwithstanding the scandals, Harding’s legacy for electoral success, economic achievements, and national wealth remain unsurpassed.