The most disparaged, defamed, and denigrated American President was, without doubt, Warren G. Harding, who served as the 29th President from 1921-1923. Leftwing historians and journalists have tarnished his reputation for a century, making it one of the great tragedies of American history.
Liberals have called him the worst president ever, dead last, unfit, corrupt, immoral, incompetent, inept, lazy, indecisive, shallow, an amiable fool, and a notorious womanizer. Sadly, such judgments of Harding are not exceptions; they are the rule.
Historian Nathan Miller, author of Star-Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents, wrote that Harding was “a prime example of incompetence, sloth, and feeble good nature in the White House.” According to West Virginia Professor Robert E. DiClerico, “Warren Harding proved to be the most inept president in this century.” Harding was the “most disgraced president,” write William J. Ridings and Stuart B. McIver in their 1997 book Rating the Presidents. He was “in far over his head.”
But most of these assaults on Harding, which are still being perpetuated today by leftwing historians and reporters, originated as political attacks by his enemies. Rumors like the “Ohio Gang,” wild parties in the White House, and Harding’s laziness and incompetence were all hurled his way by those who hated him. Today these insults are simply regurgitated, often without any source attribution, by those who know very little about Warren Harding and his 882-day presidency.
Nor do they really care to know. Liberals want activist government and what amounts to an imperial presidency modeled on FDR. They want cradle-to-grave care. But Harding did not view the office of presidency in that fashion, nor did he believe the government should be a caretaker. “The world needs to be reminded,” he said during his 1920 campaign, “that all human ills are not curable by legislation.” Therefore, leftists hate him and consistently slander both his name and reputation.
But when the real record is thoroughly examined, utilizing primary sources, Harding’s accomplishments were very impressive, even though liberal scholars deny him even a tiny bit of credit. Professor DiClerico stated that “the judgement of history might have been more charitable” to Harding if there “had been some overriding achievement” in his administration. David C. Whitney, who compiled a volume on the American presidents, wrote that Harding’s presidency “stands as a black mark in American history.” Yet the truth is far different.
Harding came into office with a country in the throes of real problems: the end of World War I, the fight over the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, the terrible and violent events of 1919, the severe economic downturn of 1920. The tribulations were serious yet he returned the country to normalcy in short order:
– His program of laissez faire conservatism revived the American economy from the “forgotten depression,” leading to the most prosperous decade in US history, an era with average annual growth rates of 7 percent. He slashed taxes, regulations, and government spending, and created the Budget Bureau, which gave the federal government a comprehensive budget for the first time. The country ran a budget surplus every year and one-third of the national debt was paid off. Statistics also reveal that every class of citizen benefited throughout the “Roaring Twenties.”
– After several years of unrest, Harding restored domestic tranquility, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity. He pardoned war resisters, pushed for anti-lynching legislation, and urged equal rights for black Americans, the first 20th century president to do so. He created the Veterans Bureau to help the hundreds of thousands of wounded American servicemen returning from the war in France.
– In foreign affairs, his record has been overlooked but was superb: He called the Washington Disarmament Conference to reduce the world’s deadliest weapons, formally ended World War One, withdrew US troops from the Caribbean and from the Rhineland in Germany, improved relations with Mexico and Latin America, called the World War Foreign Debt Commission to hammer out an agreement on war debt, and provided aid to millions of famine victims in Russia. For his achievements in foreign policy, Harding was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
All of these accomplishments, in less time than Jack Kennedy was in office, is a “failure” and a “black mark” upon our history?
Calling Harding’s “normalcy” a failure in Smithsonian magazine in May 2020, USC professor William Deverell continued the liberal storyline in the midst of COVID and the presidential election, writing, “As we think ahead, we can do better. Let’s put normalcy at least off to the side, as we try to find our way out of all this.”
But outside the ivory tower of the universities, as well as the hallowed halls of journalism, the people, just as they did in 1920, might want a large dose of the unprecedented peace and prosperity brought on by Warren Harding’s return to normalcy. It is a record worthy of respect and emulation.
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History.